Study circles have been a staple of adult education in Sweden for over 100 years, and in the US they have been growing in popularity in tackling difficult issues such as race relations, youth issues, student achievement etc. since 1989.
“Change is more lasting and effective when it happens at many levels—individual, group, institutional, and policy”
This statement from the Study Circles Resource Centre makes a lot of sense today.
The discussion – in Melbourne last week – was about how not given enough credence is given to adult ed. here and how inspirational study circles are. When PWF last talked about the lack of a career pathway for adult educators, Gregg Brown posted the comment:
“As an educator of adults I find all of these (Helen Sheil’s nine strategies for collaborative adult ed.) very real, by showing that human side of education… real examples, real stories and experiences (applied learning).”
It’s this reality, and the knowledge diverse community people have about local challenges, that study circles tap into. It’s not about ‘them’ and ‘us’…it’s not about entrenched positions and screaming matches.
Mark has been fascinated by the topic for ten years and to get his message across he showed us this ‘Americans finding their voices’ YouTube video.
While investigating the program in the US he heard Matt Leighninger speak about his new book The Next Form of Democracy: How expert rule is giving way to shared governance… and why politics will never be the same.As a guest of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium and the Study Circles Resource Centre, Matt discussed the emergence of a ‘new form of democracy’, which he believes will turn on four principles:
Mark believes passionately that community-wide ‘creative conversations’ would have many applications here – clearly now in Aboriginal communities – and that new relationships between citizens, citizens and their local communities, and their government, are occurring. He says:
“I cannot but feel that the world is moving forward with study circles while Australia remains static.”
In line with this thinking, at the Aboriginal community of Santa Teresa, 75km southeast of Alice Springs, when an advance party of bureaucrats and soldiers arrived in town this week, elder Bessie Oliver said:
“We have got nothing to hide in this community, so they can come and do what they’ve got to do. But a better way would have been to do it properly. I would have called a community meeting and it could have been discussed there.”
Apparently there are only sporadic study circle facilitator training opportunities here. The organisational aspect of coordinating community-wide dialogue is hugely important. No single organisation or person can create an effective program without help. To ensure diverse, large-scale participation, the program organising must be driven by a group of community leaders and organisations who mirror the diversity of the whole community.
How do Australian community building/strengthening organisations/departments fit in here? Might they achieve more if they were more inclusive – through study circles – of the community itself?
A small group of members, with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints, agree to meet ‘face to face’ and investigate a particular issue over several sessions in a democratic and collaborative manner. Being in a small circle automatically allows everyone to have an equal voice. In a circle you get to know the real person. The dialogue begins with personal experiences and progresses to sessions that examine a range of views on the issue. The final sessions consider strategies for action and change.
To help communities develop their own ability to solve problems by exploring ways for all kinds of people to think, talk and work together to create change.
Members deliberate; cooperatively investigate, explore and clarify different views, use critical thinking, evaluate ideas and decide on solutions.
The dialogue is constructive, all types of discourses are accepted, stereotypes are dispelled, members are honest, and they listen and try to understand each other.
No instructor teaches or controls the circle; members abide by a simple set of adult learning principles and ground rules, which they agree upon themselves. The members themselves ‘own’ the process and make the all the decisions.
A facilitator, trained in group dynamics and study circle concepts, helps the group keep focused on different opinions and ensures the discussion progresses.
The process is unique as personal experiences are used as a starting point. Learning begins to develop through the contributions from everyone. As members consider and discuss the issue, they learn from each other.
Horizons are expanded as all views are considered.
You may be interested in Mark’s fledgling Study Circles Australia…his American colleagues are really keen to see him make progress out here! You can email him firstname.lastname@example.org