Learning about learning circles

Last month we spoke with eleven public libraries who started running learning circles in 2017. For most of them, this was a brand new library pilot initiative and we wanted to know what was working, what needed to be tweaked and if libraries were, in fact, planning to run learning circles in the future.

At the same time, we gained a lot of insight about learning circles through a summary report of our learner survey data, compliments of Technology and Social Change group from the University of Washington.

We learned a ton through these interviews and the report. We found out that almost all of the public libraries we spoke with are continuing to run learning circles into 2018! We learned that learning circles help learners achieve their goals. We also learned that we could be doing a better job at documenting and sharing “what was happening” to everyone else. With that in mind, here are some major takeaways from these conversations and survey data that have implications for how P2PU works and the future of learning circles.

Model peer learning, don’t teach peer learning

Through work with the Chicago Public Library in 2016, P2PU created a learning circle Facilitator Handbook to serve as a guide for librarians to start and facilitate their first learning circle. Along with the Handbook, P2PU trained new facilitators across ten states through virtual training workshops, our online community forum, community calls and individual support from P2PU staff.

This approach worked for some as many librarians connected with the overarching values of peer learning right away. However, for others, the concept of peer learning remained challenging to enact. Some librarians found it difficult to separate their new role as facilitators from their previous role as instructors. Some were uneasy with the thought of running a program without a deep understanding of the online content. Others, too, worried about the time and logistics needed to organize a new program and the unpredictability of a learner-directed peer-group.

Following our debrief discussions with library managers and facilitators, it was clear that the most successful approach to onboarding and encouraging new librarians was, not surprisingly, through peer learning itself. As the values of learning circles emphasize peer-learning and in-person support, the training process, too, should mirror these same values. For example, Richland County Library introduced learning circles first by using the learning circle model as a way of discussing professional development goals. Others co-facilitated their colleagues’ first learning circle and offered extra one-on-one debrief meetings. This also has implications for onboarding new libraries wherein, instead of large virtual training workshops, experienced facilitators could offer individual check-ins with new librarians within in-person environments as much as possible. Additionally, future training support could include facilitator-created material such as short video clips or one-page resources.

Similarly, as one librarian from Providence Public Library put it, “learning circles should be defined by values, not logistics”. Although the training and Handbook were useful as an introduction to the learning circle model, the values that are the foundation of what a learning circle represents should be emphasized and well-understood. These values include participation, cooperation,  facilitation and community engagement. These values also support librarians to consider how learning circles form part of a larger vision for lifelong learning and community integration at their library.

Kenya National Library Service uses the “Q Method” a participatory bulletin to document community learning interests

Understand community needs and interests first

Again, the facilitation handbook and training provided described steps for surfacing community needs; however, it is now clear that ascertaining community needs is essential to the success of learning circles. Often, perhaps because of the lack of additional time and capacity of individual librarians or because of the eagerness of the librarians to start a new program, some new facilitators would organize a learning circle based solely on their own interest or anecdotal patron interest. Without understanding community needs and interest, attendance was likely to be low. Also, learners with only a vague interest in the topic were far less likely to return every week, compared to those who had a specific need which the learning circle aimed to address.

A variety of community feedback strategies emerged from the libraries as they prepared for learning circles. Some libraries used periodic online surveys while Detroit Public Library created large community feedback boards for patrons to manually check online course titles that were of highest interest to them (shown above as used by librarians in Kenya). Others partnered with community-based agencies who could advertise to existing learners with specific needs like an English language learning group. Focusing simply on “what patrons want to see and what they need” was mentioned as key to success for Boston Public Library’s learning circles.

Along with emphasizing the need for research into community interests, we also learned that libraries have different levels of expertise and types of constraints when performing patron and community research. When supporting libraries in the future, it will be important to gain a better understanding of how they currently community-based perform research and to develop and articulate strategies that best align with their capacity and data gathering tools.

Entrepreneurship learning circle at Detroit Public Library

Learning circles thrive through facilitation, peer support and peer exchange

Through the learning circle survey, learners attributed their successes to both internal and external factors. Roughly one-third of respondents credited themselves for their success, citing a personal drive to succeed. The remaining comments from respondents were fairly equally divided into three success factors themes: the facilitator, social support from peers, and the exchange of ideas during group discussion. Only a small proportion of people (less than ten percent) attributed their success to their interest in the MOOCs’ subject matter.

  • The facilitators credited with supporting learner achievement were described as being friendly, accommodating, helpful, knowledgeable, and committed. E.g.: “Being able to share and receive feedback under the guidance of an engaged instructor-leader was a blessing!”
  • Frequently respondents spoke about how much they valued and benefited from receiving social and emotional support from other learning circle participants. Peers helped to encourage, motivate and uplift each other. E.g.: “Knowing that others face similar experiences, it’s not just me”
  • Another critical factor for success was how peers exchanged ideas and information during learning circle discussions and group work. E.g.: “The peer interaction. Being able to practice aloud and exchange knowledge with peers.”

And now, of course, we can’t simply reflect all day, we have to act on what we have learned! We’re working together with these same libraries and others educators to improve the model, create better resources and support for new facilitators,  and host more in-person and online gatherings.

If you would like to get more involved with learning circles, start your own today or join our community to connect with other educators and facilitators committed to creating alternatives to higher education.

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