Running Learning Circles

Everyone attends Learning Circles for different reasons. Some people want to build social relationships in a quasi-academic setting, others are there because they want to learn the skills they need to get a new job, and others attend purely for the sake of learning something new. As a facilitator, it is your job to understand each individual’s motivation for joining and cultivate an environment in which learners can clearly see how the Learning Circle will help them achieve their desired goals.

To help you accomplish this, we’ve included some handy tips from past facilitators, followed by an outline of the general flow that your Learning Circle will follow.

Facilitation tips

Good facilitation includes a number of different tasks:

  • Listen to learners
  • Ask clarifying statements
  • Provide good feedback
  • Keep discussions on task
  • Probe assumptions and evidence
  • Elicit viewpoints and perspectives
  • Mediate conflicts
  • Summarize and present findings

That’s a lot, but don’t worry, nobody is expecting you to be perfect from day one, and it will become much easier with practice. Below you'll find a number of tips (and a few video links) on how to become a star facilitator.

Model peer learning

For most people, learning has been a passive experience of “receiving” instruction. They may be unaccustomed to taking responsibility for their own and the group’s learning. This is not what Learning Circles are about, and it is important to be clear about this, especially in the first few weeks. As a facilitator, you can be a role model for the group by engaging learners in problem-solving and actively reaching out to help when possible.

Maintain awareness

Be observant, and learn to read the energy of the room. Who seems really motivated today? Who is particularly quiet? Once you have an understanding of each learner’s goals, you’ll be able to respond to this energy productively. Is one learner quiet because they are struggling with a basic concept? Ask somebody who is a few steps ahead if they don’t mind helping out.

Strive to help learners self-identify as members of the group

This is called social cohesion. Social cohesion begins to develop within an hour of people being together. Some examples for encouraging social cohesion include:

  • Agreeing on a group name
  • Using non-verbal symbols (mascot, logo, colors)
  • Establishing rituals (traditions, habits, weekly activities)
  • Using plural pronouns (“we” instead of “I”)
  • Invoking group metaphors (referring to group as family, team, etc.)
  • Making verbal pledges (commitments to future action)
  • Establishing group narrative (saying things like “Remember when we…”)
  • Developing groupspeak (inside jokes, jargon)

Ask probing questions

Learners will ask you many content related questions, since you are the closest thing to the traditional teacher in the room. When a learner asks, your response should demonstrate that their peers are a valuable resource, and that most questions are answerable if you know where to look. Examples of responses you might give are: I’m not sure, did you ask anyone else if they ran up against the same problem? Hmmm, where would you start looking to figure that out?

Encourage meaningful, frequent interactions between learners.

Shared emotional connections serve the dual purpose of helping individuals learn and reinforcing community. Watch out for questions or conversations that de-focus the group, and get comfortable steering conversations back on track. Other participants will greatly appreciate this.

Manage expectations

When learning something new, there is a fine line between being optimistic and discouraged. To navigate this, express confidence that learners can achieve their goals, while also being realistic and aware of what is possible in six weeks. For instance, it's unlikely that somebody with no programming background will get a programming job after one HTML/CSS Learning Circle. However, they will gain a better understanding of how to build a website, get a sense as to whether this is a subject they’d like to continue in, and have a peer group of like-minded individuals they’ve gotten to know.

Encourage growth mindsets

A growth mindset is the belief that one’s skills and abilities can be continually developed through hard work, rather than stay fixed at a certain level. As a facilitator, try praising a learner’s processes (effort, strategies, choices) rather than their innate intelligence (e.g. saying "you’re so smart!").

Turn frustrations around

Try to flip frustrations into positive statements and involve the group. For example, when one learner felt that the interview tips in a Job Training course were too basic, the facilitator asked the group if they could come up with better tips. This re-framed the frustration in a positive way and served as an opportunity for learners to work together.

Delegate responsibilities

A good facilitator empowers learners to take charge of their own learning, making the role of the facilitator smaller and smaller over time. As the Learning Circle progresses, the facilitator can start asking learners to take on some extra responsibility, such as:

  • Send a wrap-up email afterwards reflecting on the day’s class
  • Summarize the week’s material at the beginning of each class
  • Set up/clean up the space
  • Share a resource or article that relates to the course content
  • Help a learner who is struggling
  • Bring snacks

Be reflective

As a facilitator, you have a great deal of influence over the atmosphere in your Circle. Ask yourself the following questions as you work through the six weeks:

  • How might my cultural assumptions influence my interactions with learners?
  • How might the backgrounds and experiences of learners influence their motivation, engagement, and learning?
  • How can I modify course materials, activities, facilitation techniques, and expectations to be more accessible to all the learners in my Learning Circle?

Beforehand

There are three things to do each week about two days before your Learning Circle.
  • Send confirmation email to all participants.

“Hi everyone, this is a reminder that we have our Learning Circle in two days on ______(date)______ at ______(time)______ in ______(location)______. Please let me know if you can’t make it. I look forward to seeing you all!

If you are using our software, these messages will be sent out automatically 48 hours before each Learning Circle. You will receive an email beforehand giving you the option to edit the text before it is sent on to learners.

  • Review the supplies checklist to make sure you have everything you need.
  • Familiarize yourself with the week’s learning materials.
  • What is the main subject matter learners will be covering this week?
  • How does this tie in to the major goals of the course?
  • Are there any activities this week that could easily be done as a group?
  • How can the weekly recipe card activities support the course content?

During

Each Learning Circle has four components, documented weekly on the recipe cards. You can decide to follow the format of the recipe cards as much or as little as you’d like, as you are in the best position to understand the goals and backgrounds of the learners. In general the four components are:

  • Check-in: The first ten minutes are spent reviewing the past week and sharing goals for the day.
  • Activity: Each recipe card has a 10-15 minute activity that you can facilitate before or after the coursework. These are designed to foster community, build learner confidence, and help to bridge the course content and real life. We recommend you explain the activity to learners and then decide as a group if you’d like to do it. Feel free to come up with your own!
  • Coursework: The majority of each Learning Circle is devoted to working through the online course.
  • Plus/delta: The last five minutes are spent sharing one thing that went well and one thing that learners hope to improve next week.
James' list

Afterwards

Once the learners leave, spend about ten minutes wrapping up all the week’s work.

  • Clean up
  • Return anything you borrowed
  • Send a short summary email to all the learners (a template is included at the bottom of each recipe card).

If you are using our software, you can capture your feedback for the meeting on the facilitator dashboard. This feedback will be automatically shared with learners 48 hours before the next meeting.

“What was the best thing about your Learning Circle?”
“The Facilitators continually made me feel comfortable. which I really appreciated this, the informal atmosphere was great!” “Interactions with others. Constructive feedback and practicing with people.”
image of people in a learning circle