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Exploring Learning Differently

Participatory Approaches

Learning Circles

Learning circles are community learning groups in which knowledge is negotiated, around a circle, rather than taught. In these circles, everyone’s knowledge is respected. The idea is not to learn from a single expert/teacher, but to explore what everyone knows and what that knowledge can contribute to “group intelligence,” the collective ability of the group for intellectual growth.

Learning circles have a long history in Aboriginal communities in Canada, where they often focus on the reclamation of Aboriginal cultures and languages, but they have also sprung up in other communities. These learning circles are often formed to negotiate knowledge that is important to particular community. For example, a group of fishermen in Digby, Nova Scotia, formed a learning circle to explore the effects of Federal fisheries policy on their fisheries. In Toronto, a group of immigrant women formed a learning circle to explore social values and practices in their new country.

Negotiating knowledge in a learning circle is fundamentally non-violent. It works against the imposition of knowledge by one person or group of people. It asks participants to respect the knowledge of each person around the circle, which entails respect of each person. This fundamental non-violence may create a sense of security that makes it easier for people who have experienced violence to open themselves up to learning.

In 2004 and 2006, a group of literacy workers visited informal learning circles to explore how these circles work and what we can learn from them: