Article 1: The Swedish study circle – and efficient method for learning and social change.

The Swedish study circle

In old times it was enough for a nation to have a well-educated elite. Today you need a well-educated population. You need a population that takes part in continuous and lifelong education to keep up with a changing society. You also need well-educated citizens to thoroughly deal with the most serious threats to society today, such as water shortage. Another ”threat” that every modern nation will face, sooner or later, is an ageing population; it will be more and more necessary for senior people both to stay healthy longer and to work longer.

Besides universities and colleges Sweden has an extensive adult education system, open for all citizens. It consist of two major parts. One part is formal adult education, which has existed since 1968. It covers basic education, upper secondary education and post-secondary education for adults.
The other part is non-formal adult education and has existed for more than a hundred years. It is called non-formal because it normally does not lead to any formal examination or degree. Instead it is based on the participants’ personal interests and needs to learn more and therefore includes all kinds of subjects. One of the aims is that it should increase tha participants’ opportunities to influence their own situation and to influence and alter their conditions in society.
The philosophy of the non-formal adult education assumes that all citizens have the right to participate in all aspects of a democratic society. That also means that each citizen has a responsibility for and an obligation towards the society. The activities should provide a comprehensive approach, stimulate curiosity, critical thinking and transformative learning – as well as being a part of lifelong learning.
A certain culture of dialogue has developed within non-formal adult education. This means tolerance towards different opinions and respect for arguments based on facts and for decisions taken. It also means free and open exchange of ideas, experiences and knowledge between the participants.
Government-supported non-formal adult education is offered by folk high schools and study associations. While folk high schools mainly arrange full time courses, study associations arrange lectures, various cultural activities and – most important – study circles.

Study circles
The study circle is the most common form of all adult education in Sweden. Every year almost 300.000 study circles are organized, with almost two million participants. Since many people participate in more than one study circle per year the real number of individual participants is about 800 000 a year – of a total population of 9 million.
The Swedish study circle is a small group, normally with five to twelve participants. The constructive-minded discussions and dialogues between the participants is the essence of the study circle method. In study circles the participants are expected to take part in discussions with an open mind, being prepared to listen and to learn from others and to change themselves. And each participant is expected to contribute with his or her knowledge, experiences and ideas.
For study circle leaders, learning and knowledge building is process-based, a continuous ongoing questioning, an everlasting testing of thoughts and ideas in a social and cultural context. The meeting and the discussions between the participants is the most characteristic quality of the study circle.
Another fundamental value behind the idea of study circles is that every individual has the ability to be wise. People just need, as Confucius declared, guidance. Unfortunately, that is not always something that characterizes the school systems, where many of the students instead ”learn” to look upon themselves as more or less stupid. That is a devastating side effect of immature school systems, which create huge problems not only for a lot of citizens but also for the nation. Many adults therefore have to free themselves of such prejudices before they can start learning again; often the study circle functions well as a correction against such self-images.

The ideals…
The ideal features of the study circle are:
• Participation is voluntary. No one may be forced to take part and no one may be excluded.
• They are small group studies with normally 5-10 participants; the size shall allow every single participant to be an active participant.
• Most study circles meet once a week for two to three hours and continue during one, two or three months. Usually the study circles meet in the evenings, when most people can join.
• Most study circle leaders are ”experts” in one way or other; for example, he or she might be a teacher in Chinese or an experienced ornithologist. The leader could also be one in the group who has no special qualification but volunteer to take a special responsibility to keep the group focused on their target etc.
• The work during the study circle meetings is based more on dialogues than on lectures.  
• The participants are equal, with the leader as one in the group (that is the reason we call it a ”study circle” because you are supposed to sit in a circle where each participant can see all others).
• The individual participants’ own knowledge, experience and ideas are of outmost importance for the end result. You always try to apply what you read and discuss to the participants’ everyday situation.
• The group decides together the goal for the studies, the content of the studies, which books to read, how to co-operate in the group etc. The whole group is responsible for the outcome of the studies.
• No grades or exames are given in study circles, but for some participants the study circle become the first step on their way to further formal education.  
• There are certain topics that are popular and common, but there are no formal limits and any subject could be studied in study circles.

The reality…
Ideals do not always meet reality and a number of study circles are less than ideal when it comes to the features mentioned. There are for example study circles where there are more lectures by the expert leader than discussions among all participants.
The participants volunteer to join a special study circle, but in most cases the topic is already decided and the leader already chosen when the participants arrive for the first session.

Non-Governmental organizations
In Sweden study circles are organized by study associations, which are deeply rooted in a number of non-governmental organizations (NGO) and which get government subsidies. For more than a hundred years, Swedes have had a strong tradition of forming such popular organizations. Sometimes Sweden has been called ”an organization democracy”. It has also been called ”a study circle democracy”, for example by our former prime minister Olof Palme.
There are thousands of local organizations in Sweden. Sometimes the same kind of  local organizations are established in many places around the country and then they often unite in one national organization (federation or association) with local branches.
There are hundreds of different national organizations and around 250 of them are member organizations in one of the study associations. Many other organizations have a close cooperation with study associations at the local level.

Study Associations
Today there are ten different study associations. The first one that was established, 1912, ”Workers’ Educational Association”, still exists and is the biggest of them. Other study associations are rooted in liberal or conservative political parties, in Christian societies, in nature and environmental organizations… There are two new ones: a Muslim study association and a culture study association.
Each study association has a number of member organizations as their owners (except for one study association, which is owned by the Swedish universities). That means that each study association has a more or less defined profile depending on which popular movements or organizations are members in the association. Each study association has a national office and then local branches all over Sweden.
The national offices are responsible for supporting their local branches with the overall leadership, with different kinds of policies and guidelines, with administrative and economical tools and routines, with study guidance, and with conferences, seminars and training courses for the employees and for the study circle leaders. If needed the study associations also have produced books in fields where there have been a lack of good books.
Training-courses for study circle leaders are essential, specially in order to get leaders who can encourage and stimulate each participant to be an active participant, who asks questions, express his or her opinions, who shares his or her experiences with the others etc. Each study association forms their own traning-courses, but normally they are quite short, for example a weekend course.

Local branches
It is the local branches that actually organize the study circles, recruit study circle leaders, give them introductions and offer them special traning-courses. The local branches get their shares of the state subsidies. They also get subsidies from most of the municipalities and part of their income consists of fees paid by study circle participants.
The local branches have a more or less close co-operation with the local units of those organizations that own the study association, the ”member organizations”. Often they also co-operate with local organizations or societies. The local branches of the study associations arrange study circles that are specially designed for the members of those organizations. For example studies about how to protect the nature for members in nature organizations and studies about the European Union for members in political parties.
Beside all the study circles within organizations the local branches also offer study circles to people in general: in music and arts, in many different languages, in computer training, history, philosophy etc… Study circles play an important role in preserving traditional arts and handicrafts and in promoting cultural interest and knowledge among large groups of people. Another important task is to contribute to the protection of the environment, mainly by encouraging people to learn more about nature.
Some study circles are organized by the participants. In those cases, they choose a study circle leader among themselves, but they might borrow a place where to meet at one of the study associations.
Overall you can say that the study circle contributes to a more profound understanding of what democracy is and should be. That is maybe a reason why Swedish people, compared to most other people, seems to be less concerned with high taxation – in spite of the fact that Sweden has one of the highest tax burdens in the world.

State support
The Swedish government supports the ten national study associations, with their local branches, with about 1,6 billion SEK during 2005 (about the same in Chinese yuan). That is approximately one third of the total income for the study associations. Participants’ fees are also about one third of the total income. And one third consist of subsidies from municipalities and county councils and other incomes.
The basic motivation for the government to support the study circles through study associations is that the study associations are presumably more efficient in reaching all kinds of citizens, to be more flexible and more cost-efficient than the state itself. Most importantly, each study association has its own ideology or profile depending on its member organizations. For example, it is supposed to be easier for religious study associations to attract participants from religious groups and for the workers unions study association to get participants among industrial workers.

The conditions for getting the government support are regulated in a special governmental decree that states that the government subsidies shall aim at:
1. Support activities that contribute to the strengthening and developing of the democracy.
2. Contribute to making it possible for people to influence their life situations and creating engagement to take part in the development of the society.
3. Contribute to compensate for education gaps and to raise the level of enlightenment and education in society.
4. Contribute to broadening of the interest for and the participation in the cultural life of Sweden.
The governmental decree also points out seven areas as a special motives for the state support: 1. The common value-system; equal value for all people and sex equality. 2. The challenges of the multicultural society. 3. The demographic challenge. 4. Lifelong learning. 5. The culture. 6. The accessibility and possibilities for people with functional disorder. 7. Public health, sustainable development and global justice.

An Infrastructure for learning communities
The study circles have also been – and are being – used by both the central government and the local authorities to engage citizens in important issues of various kinds. When the government for example wanted to stimulate studies about the European monetary union they gave some extra money to the study associations for each study circle in that topic. Thanks to the decentralisation of the study associations they can easily offer study circles all over the country.
The same applies to the municipalities and the member organizations of the study associations. Whenever there is a need for a broad study campaign, it will be much easier if you can convince the study associations to join the campaign.
The infrastructure – power supplies, railways, road systems and so on – is essential for all economic development. You could say that the study associations constitute a kind of infrastructure for the non-formal community learning in Sweden.

© Tore Persson