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Study Circles (general)

The study circle is a process for small-group deliberation about specific issues. Although the study circles fostered by the work of the Study Circles Resource Center are well-covered on NCDD's website, there are other types of study circles that are less well-known in the dialogue and deliberation community.

For example, the term 'study circle' has become common terminology in the Bahá'í Faith to describe a specific type of gathering for the study of the Bahá'í teachings. Study circles are also being leveraged as a change process and development activity within corporations. Some of the same ideas and concepts of community study circles can be applied to internal issues such as diversity, race relations and community focused giving.

A study circle is a small group of people who meet multiple times to discuss an issue. Study circles may be formed to discuss anything from politics to religion to hobbies. They are differentiated from clubs by their issue focus. A study circle might be formed to discover more about a specific interest, e.g. the vegetation in a particular area, or more about a process e.g. community involvement in water quality monitoring.

Study circles traditionally are a form of distance learning designed to systematically bring education about spiritual concepts to the grassroots level. Because they are intended to be sustainable and reproducible on a large scale, study circles shy away from formally taught classes, opting instead for participatory methods. They are usually led by a tutor whose role is not to act as an expert but rather to facilitate the rhythm and pace of the study circle. In this way, attendees of study circles are expected to become active participants in their own learning process.

Study circles are typically created directly by persons who discover a common interest; the Study Circles Resource Center is an organization that encourages the creation of study circles to help solve various social and political problems.

A study circle comprises 10-15 people who meet regularly over a period of weeks or months to address a critical public issue in a democratic and collaborative way. A study circle is facilitated by a person/facilitator who is there not to act as an expert on the issue, but to serve the group by keeping the discussion focused, helping the group consider a variety of views, and process difficult questions. A study circle examines many perspectives.

The way in which study circle facilitators are trained and discussion materials are written gives everyone 'a home in the conversation,' and helps the group deliberate on the various views and explore areas of common ground. A study circle progresses from a session on personal experience ('how does the issue affect me?') to sessions providing a broader perspective ('what are others saying about the issue?') to a session on action ('what can we do about the issue here?').

Study circles can take place within organizations, such as schools, unions, or government agencies. Yet, they have their greatest reach and impact when organizations across a community work together to create large-scale programs. These community-wide programs engage large numbers of citizens in a community – in some cases thousands – in study circles on a public issue such as race relations, crime and violence, or an environmental education issue. (Source: http://www.pbs.org/ampu/sc.html)

Objectives:

  • Study circles provide a venue for in-depth, regular, lengthy discussions that allow exchange of information on a particular topic or issue.

Outcomes:

  • Study circles develop better informed citizens who are then in a better position to manage their local natural resources, or to contribute to planning initiatives in relation to these resources.

Uses/strengths:

  • Allows citizens to gain ownership of the issues, discover a connection between personal experiences and public policies, and gain a deeper understanding of their own and others' perspectives and concerns.
  • Since the dialogue does not promote one particular point of view or try to persuade people to take a specific action, potential coalition partners can usually find ways to work through ownership issues, mistrust, or genuine disagreement.
  • Fosters new connections among community members that lead to new levels of community action.
  • Can create new connections between citizens and government, both at an institutional level and at the level of parents and teachers, community members and social service providers, residents and police officers.

Special considerations/weaknesses:

  • Building a coalition that represents many points of view takes time and effort.
  • This kind of coalition building for democratic participation requires leadership, a working knowledge of community dynamics, and a willingness to learn by trial and error. http://www.studycircles.org/pages/artabout/whole.htm

Resources required:

  • Venue
  • Facilitator
  • Publicity
  • Background information
  • Food (can be 'bring a plate' if not catered)

Can be used for:

  • Engage community
  • Discover community issues
  • Develop community capacity
  • Communicate an issue
  • Build alliances, consensus

Number of people required to help organize:

  • Medium (2-12 people)
  • Individual

Audience size:

  • Medium (11-30)

Time required:

  • Medium (6 weeks-6 months)
  • Short (< 6 weeks)

Skill level/support required:

  • Low (No special skills)

Cost:

  • Low (< AUD$1,000)

Participation level:

  • Medium (Opinions noted)

Innovation level:

  • Medium (Some new elements)

Method:

  • Identify an issue of broad community concern. Some of the issues communities have started with include: race relations; crime and violence; understanding environmental impact statements; or exploring the issues involving proposed developments.
  • Let people start where they are. It must be clear from the outset that the dialogue is not just for conservatives, or for liberals, or for 'the civic crowd,' or for any one group. By bringing personal stories and experiences into the discussions early on, the dialogue will naturally welcome people of all backgrounds and points of view.
  • Arrange a venue for study circles, and determine whether there will be one facilitator, or shared facilitation within the group.
  • For large, community-wide study circle programs, build a broad coalition to implement and sponsor the dialogue. Community members will get involved in the dialogue when people they know and respect make it clear that their participation is essential.
  • For small-scale study circles, an individual or group within a grassroots organization (churches, neighborhood associations, businesses, schools, and clubs) need only find a topic of community interest and invite people.
  • Aspects of the topic can be determined from one meeting to the next, depending on current issues or specific aspects of interest to the group.
  • Facilitators should try to move the group from the personal to seeing the issue within the wider systems at work within their community. (Adapted from: http://www.studycircles.org/pages/artabout/whole.html)

History (from the Co-Intelligence Institute website, http://www.co-intelligence.org/S-ctznsstudycircles.html)

Study circles were born in New York in the 1870s. By their peak in 1915, 700,000 people were participating in 15,000 study circles in the U.S. The idea was carried to Sweden by union, co-op, and temperance organizers and by the fledgeling Social Democratic Party to educate their followers. Study circles flourished in Sweden even as it died away in the U.S. Today nearly three million Swedes participate in over 300,000 study circles annually, most funded (but not controlled) by the government with a per-participant subsidy. Swedish communities have even convened study circles to work through major issues facing their towns, with study circle participants turning into activists who then have a significant impact on events.

The U.S. is now blooming with renewed interest in study circles. In 1992, for example, in the small city of Lima Ohio, the Mayor's Office, Ohio State University and a multi-racial Clergy Task Force initiated grassroots study circles on race relations involving hundreds of people. These were so successful that participants created further waves of study circles involving businesses, neighborhood associations and schools – and the next year created a conference in which 40 community leaders from around the Midwest came to learn how to create community-wide dialogues on race in their own cities, triggering a movement that has now grown nation-wide.

References:

Many of the resources in the “Participatory Practices” category originated in Coastal CRC's Citizen Science Toolbox (www.coastal.crc.org.au/toolbox/). With permission, NCDD included the resource on our wiki so practitioners could expand upon the listing.

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