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The Learning Circles Project

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One implication of this work is the need to be aware that literacy is a potential barrier. This is more of a problem for participants than for practitioners. It works two ways:

1.  Participants in projects who are struggling with non-literacy issues (poverty, addiction, mental health, etc) may not have awareness of or sympathy for those who have literacy as a barrier.

2.  Where I work, at a Vancouver drop in for women in the sex trade, a lot of women use the drop-in but do not come into the learning centre. Many of them struggle with literacy and are afraid if they come in they will be asked to read. They associate “learning” with “print” and are either not interested or afraid. 

Betsy Alkenbrack, British Columbia

In Manitoba, less than 1% of the 40% (IALSS results) who are at levels 1 and 2 literacy competency, actually attend literacy programs.  That’s a lot of Manitobans who don’t have the literacy skills to cope with the challenges of the knowledge/technology based society in which we live.  I have been thinking for some time that, if society and government are going to have any influence at all in helping these unreached Manitobans to embark on intentional learning, it will have to be in other ways than through literacy programs.

I have been advocating that literacy practitioners work with facilitators of any groups in the community that are already gathering for some purpose – e.g., diabetes support groups, family first groups, information dispensing groups (living wills) – so that the way the groups are facilitated will result in participants improving their skills and strategies for learning whatever it is that they want/need to learn.  Literacy development would be embedded into the activities that constituted the group’s reason for being.  This is a situational task-based approach to enhancing literacy skills.

As I was reading the report on the Learning Circles project, I said to myself, “Aha!  Here is another way of engaging Canadians in intentional learning that will have a spin-off result of increased literacy skills and strategies.”

I also remembered how important the coffee time was at literacy programs.  In effect, they were tiny learning circles.  The conversation around the table ran the gamut of many topics, but it was always relevant to the participants and there was a great deal of learning by individuals and collectively as a group.  All the criteria of a learning group as described on page 3 existed in these gatherings around a common table.  And the impacts were just as they are described on page 3.  The rest of the learning in the class was what learners thought they should be learning, but the learning around the coffee table had the biggest impact on their thinking and on the way they lived their lives.

When I was teaching, I liked to begin every class, whether it was adult literacy or EAL, with a sharing time about what new things we had learned through the course of daily living and/or how we had applied what we had been learning in class – what we had read or written, what oral language connections we had made, how and where we had applied thinking and problem solving strategies.  I can see how these were the beginnings of the learning circles described in the report.  I think we need to stress more the importance of these ways of learning when we train new adult literacy practitioners.

Margaret Chambers, Manitoba

Using the learning circles approach enables a community-based adult literacy program to break down barriers and address long standing socially constructed pillars that could appear threatening and intimidating to various groups of adult learners. Such barriers have effectively silenced Aboriginal peoples and placed them on the margins of society.

With a learning circles approach many Aboriginal adult learners have an opportunity to voice their ideas and thoughts and re-establish an alternative form of knowing and learning. When the traditional barriers are removed and an environment of safety and acceptance is established then individuals will feel free to speak. They will develop their own language and become able to name and talk about the problems that they face in their day-to-day lives. They may even be able to add their voice to others and move from the margins into the socially valued. 

Nida Doherty, Ontario

Learning circles support my own belief that we need to see literacy learning much more broadly than having classes. Many of the folks who could profit from classes don’t see themselves in those classes. They aren’t exactly beating down the doors for entry and if we are to believe the IALSS reports, many don’t believe they have a problem as we see it. The other fact the field must come to grips with is that our culture doesn’t highly respect literacy learning. We don’t get very excited by the idea of a learning culture either. So, less formal learning is something to look at. 

Anne Marie Downie, Nova Scotia

Institutions like Caledon have proven that substantial literacy gains can be had when participants are engaged in endeavor together which has value to the community e.g., building a well in rural India.  They will naturally reach for the documents and other skills which support them in this endeavor.  It becomes the way into literacy-related learning.  I would argue that this methodology holds the key for “inclusive” strategies for groups in particular who continue to fall outside the system from any perspective.  It is the place to start.  The outcomes for individuals will typically lead them to reach for other learning opportunities and will assist them in starting to break the cycles of failure and poverty.  In my opinion, if we are to redress the considerable exclusion that our society has created, it must involve long-term strategies which see people through fairly predictable cycles of learning and growth which will lead them to a place of dignity and self-worth however the individual chooses to define that.  In many cases, it will lead them as adults to work-related choices.  This would be the moment in time where they would be involved in programs/training/education which is narrower and more traditional by the demands of requiring accreditation for things like nursing or electrical work.  Time enough then for very specific and targeted Essential Skills instruction if you will.  Circles are an earlier point in the path . . .

There are certain principles of PLAR in its purest philosophical sense which cause me to soldier on for its cause:  asset building, focusing on learning irrespective of source, flexible means of proof, communication device to display what an individual knows and can do and who they are, recognizing someone.  There are certain variants of PLAR called models which trouble me greatly as they are exclusionary and thus contradict the fundamental principle of recognition and flexibility.  Circles in my mind embody the very philosophies which I find attractive about PLAR.  Thus, I see Circles as a means of further exploring/defining a new PLAR – one which is inclusive, possibly oral, highly visual or audible most likely, building on assets and laying the groundwork for the expression of transferable learning which can bridge into new opportunities for individuals – again as defined by their choice. 

Sandi Howell, Manitoba

  • Participants can form the process from what they put in
  • Goals can be put in place, they can also change, there is flexibility
  • People get to see that there are learning environments that are safe, comfortable and accessible
  • They can leave their worries about previous barriers behind
  • The research includes an Indigenous perspective (i.e. drumming and sewing narratives) 

Notes from an interview with Darlene King, Ontario

Recommends that we produce a four to five page summary of the study for wider distribution.  This summary could include a glossary of terms describing different kinds of learning approaches.

Feels that we have just begun to scratch the surface on issues of class, gender and race.  He found some of our ways of talking about inter-cultural understanding limited, for example, saying that learning circles promote “tolerance.”  They might go further, helping participants to “understand and embrace cultural differences.” 

Would like to see more research on how this approach works to support learning across cultural differences.  He believes that funding could be found for this kind of research. 

Believes that it would have been useful for the study to have presented a more explicit analysis of class, gender and race issues.  More clarity about what we mean by “inclusive” would be useful.

Sees supporting a learning circles approach to community learning as important work, and encouraged us to find partners to pursue this work further. 

Notes from an interview with Amanuel Melles, Ontario

Two of the most fundamental principles of community learning and learning about community learning I think important to the project:

  1. Learning has to begin with the experience of the learner (which in many political and formal forms of learning, life experience is devalued).
  1. When researching learners, the researchers learn.

A second observation is how the report highlights all the gaps in formal learning such as:

  • equity
  • oral and written or both (and various ways of learning literacy)
  • a sense of belonging (sense of community)
  • a safe place and scared place
  • self esteem
  • policy change (or alternative forms of knowing)
  • listening
  • collective decision making

While the report rightfully concentrates on learning circles in the context of learners’ experience, there are some fundamental questions that arise of which may inform future projects or not?

  1. The gap between citizens and the governance and economic structures that effect them in terms of fundamental human rights and democratic principles.
  1. Governmental and funding support. While the symposium was very cautious in terms of how to obtain governmental support, the fear was that this kind of approach might do might do more to weaken learning circles than to strengthen them. The nature of learning circles is fundamentally that they are part of civil society, therefore government should take responsibility for support but “through existing programs, with in existing policy frameworks.” The value to the public good is obvious, yet not supported which raises some questions of gaining support without being coopted.  Learning Circles will become more and more critical to basic survival of civil society and more questions need to be asked about this especially in the context of alternative or authentic ways of knowing. Why is it that learning circles are so critical to civil society yet so un-acknowledged as legitimate knowledge? 

Sherry Pictou, Nova Scotia

Il est certain que la langue écrite n’est pas toujours ni nécessairement le meilleure moyen d’apprentissage. Les formatrices et formateurs en alphabétisation en sont très conscients. Or leur rôle explicite est d’aider les personnes apprenantes à développer une facilité avec la langue écrite, afin qu’elles puissent participer pleinement à la société civile. Cela ne nie pas l’existence d’autres moyens d’apprentissage. Par exemple, l’apprentissage oral joue un rôle important dans le développement de l’écrit chez les personnes apprenantes adultes. Les activités d’apprentissage liées à la découverte de soi-même, de sa culture et de sa communauté prouvent régulièrement leur efficacité dans l’apprentissage dans les centres d’alphabétisation. Ici, on voit l’importance d’une complémentarité possible entre les cercles d’apprentissage et les centres d’alphabétisation. Les cercles d’apprentissage, en éliminant l’alphabétisme comme barrière à l’apprentissage, créent un environnement où l’alphabétisation peut avoir lieu. Certains cercles d’apprentissages offrent des occasions précises pour l’alphabétisation, sans pour autant la privilégier. C’est à cette jonction qu’un partenariat avec un centre d’alphabétisation pourrait intervenir efficacement. 

Célinie Russell, Ontario

Learning in a learning circle is different from formal learning – how are the learning processes different?  These differences have not been determined yet. 

Notes from an interview with Maurice Taylor, Ontario

Because the learning circles approach begins with the interests and concerns of adults, it is grounded in a context of importance to them. It demands confidence and special skills on the part of adult educators in order to act as facilitators of learning rather than “instructors.” There also has to be a way to reimburse adult educators/facilitators for work that likely will not lead to credentials for circle participants. The benefits of learning in this way will have to be strategically documented. The time, effort and resources currently spent on trying to convince adults to improve their literacy skills can be reallocated to incorporating literacy into activities that already taking place in many communities . . .

This is a natural blend of community development and literacy. Literacy and learning therefore result THROUGH community development activities such as those undertaken in learning circles, as communities address their local concerns and interests rather than literacy FOR community development or other ends. Evaluating the “outcomes” in terms of community and civic engagement would help to validate community development work and strengthen communities while building confidence and capacity of the participants . . .

Formal adult education requires much greater public cost than informal learning circles. We must be careful that governments do not see this as a way to abdicate responsibility for adult education, leaving it up to individuals and their communities.  As the 2006 Canadian Policy Research Network report “Too Many Left Behind” states, we must work to ensure that there are enough formal learning opportunities for those who want a second chance, something adults might realize after participating in a learning circle. 

Nayda Veeman, Saskatchewan

The biggest implication that I can see for a learning circle approach to community development work is that it is an economical model. The supports required are not expensive, a facilitator, a safe place to meet, funding to remove barriers such as childcare and transportation and money for food and other supplies. This should be a doable model forany community group in the country. The fact that learning circles are not widely known or discussed is disheartening, but that can be remedied.

Communities can provide a safe place to meet, funding so that facilitators can improve their skills, funding for things like food, childcare and transportation. In supporting a learning circle, a community will expose the many layers that are present and yet sometimes invisible or ignored. This can be an enriching experience or a threatening one. A learning circle can provide a network for community development that leads to the management of community resources, concern for families, concern for livelihoods and above all else, concern for the community itself.

When a community understands that the right to participate in the work force is an integral part of the learning process, will it open doors to allow young people, persons with physical challenges and different ways of knowing to enrich their community? Will it become a more vibrant community because it values all its members? I would hope so . . .     

I like that the original group formed a working group to keep exploring the issues surrounding inclusive lifelong learning. The statement that you eventually saw yourselves as “a learning circle, a place of discussion and discovery” is an indicator of the growth process you went through. The researchers becoming an inner circle within the working group is also interesting, you replicated the model you were studying which, I believe added an extra dimension to your research. You added layers to your work at every opportunity, from working group and researchers becoming learning circles and then hosting a symposium that was also a learning circle. In labour circles, we call this the learning spiral, an action-reflection model that leads to change and growth; it is present in your report. 

Linda Wentzel, Nova Scotia

  • I would like to do a community portfolio based on the culture, drawing out the rich history of the community
  • Demonstrates reverence for all people in the community and validates people as members of the community
  • Learning circles fit the prior learning assessment context perfectly, they are like hand and glove
  • The circle concept is very powerful and is designed to protect the integrity of all individuals  

Notes from an interview with Paul Zakos, Ontario