Article 3: The dynamics of study circles – the meeting and the exchange of views are the core.

The dynamics of study circles   

The core of the study circle are the purposeful exchanges of views and discussions between equals. There can be many various activities in a study circle, but the dialogues give the energy and the meaning to the studies.

What are the characteristics of a study circle? There are probably many ideas among study circle leaders and other people working within folkbildning in Sweden. For example, in a dissertation Petros Gougoulakis at Stockholm University found three characteristics as particular essential in order to understand the popularity of the study circle:
1. the collaborative learning environment – that you are studying together with others with whom you all the time communicate,
2. the informal character in the study situation – the easy-going atmosphere, the absence of stress, the free working methods,  
3. the mutual and genuine interest for the study circle topic – there are neither scrambling for higher marks nor any need to improve one's formal qualifications.

The good study circle
Certainly, these qualities are characteristic of more or less all study circles. However, we would like to add some special qualities which we believe should characterize the good study circle, a study circle of high quality:
• If someone happens to visit a study circle during one of the meetings, he or she would have to ask who the leader is even after listening to the discussions for half an hour or so. In the ideal study circle it is natural for all participants to be as active as the leader.
• The study circle should not only meet the expectations of the participants, but also give them something else, something extra. In many cases that even means something they maybe did not want to get, such as knowledge that contradicts their prejudices. The study circle need to be supportive, very supportive, but also provocative, questioning… The study circle should always endeavour to widen the participant’s intellectual horizons.
• The participants, including the leader, should be amazed at the knowledge, experiences and ideas that their fellow participants show and at how much they learn from each other.
• The participants should feel that they are part of the study circle all the time, not only during the meetings. The time between the meetings are for readings, discussions with family members and friends, for their own contemplation… The periods for these inner processes are essential for the studies. That is why study circles continue with one or two meetings a week for a number of weeks, instead of being for example a full-time weekend course.
• No participant should ever feel that his or her opinions are not wanted or not respected. You don’t necessarily agree with the others, but it should always be worthwhile to listen to and understand other opinions.
• Every singel participant should feel that he or she has a chance to influence the planning of the studies. Certainly, in most cases the study circle leader has a preliminary plan already at the first meeting, which he or she presents for the participants. However, the leader has to be sensitive to the needs of the participants – especially when they present each other – and be prepared to adjust the plan accordingly.
• After they have completed the study circle, each participant should be eager to join another one…

Does this mean that all study circles in Sweden come up to these expectations? Not at all. Some of them do, but too many study circles are less than ideal. There also exist study circles which do not reach any of the qualities above.
Too many study circles have leaders which are too dominant. In some study circles it is naturally so, for example in study circles in foreign languages for beginners. In other study circles the leader might dominate because of his or her personality. The participants might also expect a dominant leader. Especially if they take part in a study circle for the first time they might expect the study circle leader to behave in the same manner as the teachers when they went to school.
Too many study circle leaders are happy with letting their participants get confirmations of their old opinions only and don’t challenge their preconceived ideas. Instead, the leader should always try to give contrasting pictures.  
Too many study circles do not critically question the textbooks they are studying. For example, many study circles are arranged in cooperation with various popular non-governmental organizations and some of those organizations often publish biased books, reports etc.
Too many study circles avoid controversial questions, maybe because they believe these are too unpleasant to discuss. However, avoiding controversial issues means that the participants miss a chance to learn something new.
Too many times the participants are too afraid, timid or reserved to show what they really know and think – and then they don’t fully participate. It is a challenge for the leader to encourage the bashful to contribute more to the process in the circle.
The Swedish study associations are regularly evaluated as a request from the government and the parliament. Each time a number of indivuduals are asked about their experiences as participants in study circles. And each time a large majority report that they are very content with the studies. However, that might not always mean that their study circles had the qualities listed above. For example, if the participants are not challenged by controversial questions, opposing ideas etc, then they might feel very pleased.  

What to watch out for
According to our experiences and also to research done in Sweden (Bystrom) there are three main deviations that threat study circles. They might develop into ”school classes”, ”coffee parties” or ”therapeutic groups”.
1. Developing into ”school classes” means that the participants become recipient pupils only and the leaders lecturing teachers. Certainly, the study circle leader in many cases need to lecture, especially when the books and articles used are not sufficient. However, there must be enough time for discussions and questionings. And the study circle leader need to regard every contradictionary or alternative opinion as a welcome opportunity to question his or her own understanding and learn from the participants.
2. Developing into ”coffee parties” means that the conversations have very little to do with what should be the focus of the study circles. Certainly, relaxed conversations about your other interests, your children, about society, love etc are essential for developing a strong spirit of trust in the group – and are therefore also essential for the ongoing learning process. However, such social conversations must not be allowed to take over the focus of the group. Therefore there are almost always a coffee break during the meetings of study circles in Sweden – and during these breaks the participants can devote the time to such social interplay.
3. Developing into ”therapeutic groups” means that the participants become too occupied with sharing their personal experiences only or with their individual mental or social problems. Certainly, sharing personal knowledge, experiences, ideas, problems etc belong to the very core of the study circle. However, the participants should not be allowed to get caught into only sharing between each other. Therefore, the study circle leader need to be sensitive to what is going on in the group and when necessary guide the group back to the books and to more general and theoretical knowledge and discussions.

A meeting-based learning
The study circle is above all a meeting-based learning. As Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, wrote in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed: ”At the meeting place there are neither totally ignorant people nor entirely wise; there are only people who together try to learn more than they already know.
It is in the meeting between participants that deep learning develop, new ideas and understandings are created etc.
In the meeting with others the chance to formulate questions and test ideas against the opinions, interpretations and values of others, increases. This is especially important when the goal of the course is not just to find, memorise and render the knowledge before an examiner, but also to transform and implement it in new situations and to solve problems in the real world.” (Lars-Erik Axelsson)
In the same book professor Roger Saljo, Gothenburg University, writes about the role of conversation in learning:
In a historical perspective it is reasonable to see conversation face to face as the cradle of knowledge. In conversation, personal reflections and experiences are made public and they can be transformed to common insights that are part of the collective memory. In discussions, the durability of the individual’s conclusions and interpretations are tested against experiences made by other people. In conversation there are mechanisms for the transfer of both knowledge and insights forth in society (it is a kind of infectious), but there is also a kind of inertia of critique and resistance that stops what cannot be confirmed by others from being made public (a kind of scepticism). A conversation is thus so much more than a simple reporting of simple experiences; it is here – and in a dialogue with others – where we get input to our own thoughts and enrich our perspectives of the world. What we will experience as our own knowledge is actually, to a large extent, learned in conversations with others.”

Basic conditions
For a truly meeting-based learning to function there are some basic conditions that have to be fulfilled:  
• The size of the group need to be large enough to have a dynamic atmosphere in the circle and small enough to let everyone to be active. The ideal size depends on the study circle leader, the participants and the subject. However, in most cases there should not be less than six participants or more than twelve.
• The group should if possible sit in a circle so that each participant, including the leader, can see all other participants face to face. After all, there is a reason why it in Swedish and English is called study ”circle”.
• The study circle need to go on for a number of weeks, with meetings once or twice a week. There need to be enought time between the meetings for the participants to read, to reflect and to talk with other people – and then bring new insights back to the study circle. Most study circles in Sweden meet for two or three hours in the evening, after the participants have finished their ordinary jobs. Before each meeting they are supposed to have prepared themselves at home so that they are free to discuss, share experiences and opinions etc during the meeting.
• That also means that the participants need to have access to the basic book or books used in the study circle also between the meetings.
• Books and other sources used in the study circle need to be critically scrutinized and read: What is the purpose of the author and the publisher? Is the content relevant, unbiased and does it contain various opinions about the topic? What does the book say about a certain issue – and what does it not say? And so on…
• There need to be an open atmosphere in the study circle, where each participant feel free to express his or her views. Remember, those participants in a study circle who have other and contradicting knowledge and experiences from the leader or the books are the most valuable participants.
• Finally, the study circle leader need to be aware about the double role he or she has to play. On one hand he should act like any other participant. On the other he has a key role when needed to act as the leader.

The study circle leader
The main responsibility for the study circle leader is to be a guide for the participants, to inspire and encourage, to prepare the meetings, suggest books to read etc. It is mainly depending on the leader if the study circle will get a good start, an inspiring first meeting, where the participants feel excited and from where they can go on full of expectations. It is also mainly depending on the leader if the participants will study in an atmosphere of cooperation and respect for each other, where it becomes natural for everyone to take initiatives and to share ones experiences.
About books, should the study circle use one basic book for all to read or should each participant choose a book of his or her choice within the topic? There are advantages and disadvantage with each choice. A common book might make it easier to keep the discussions more concentrated, while several books give more various input to the studies. It is up to the study circle leader to suggest and the whole group to decide what they prefer.
The study circle leader probably need to help the participants to evaluate the information sources they use. All kinds of sources could be used, not the least Internet. However, all sources are not equally good and some are plain lies. They need all to be examined. For example, who is behind a certain web page and what might the purpose be for a particular information?
Not only factual study books can be used in a study circle. For example, if you study a specific historical epoch, you need a lot of knowledge and insights about how people lived during that period etc. However, if you also read novels from that period you might get a stronger feeling – almost as if you had lived at that time yourself.
Depending on the course subject the study cicle will be more or less depending on the leader’s expert knowledge. However, the leader always has a decisive role when it comes to the interplay in the group. For example to give more input during periods when the participants seem to lack inspiration. Or to stimulate those participants who are slow or shy to express themselves and maybe also to some extent restrain those who are too eager to express themselves at the expense of others.
The leader should lead but not dominate, guide by helping the participants to find the roads themselves and not by just bringing them to the goal. And the study circle leader must regard himself or herself not only as the leader but also as one of the participants. For example, a leader who don´t believe he or she has anything to learn from the other participants is not a good study circle leader.
The study circle leader should also have a particular responsibility to show contradictionary opinions. For example, if there is a study circle about ”global warming”, and if all participants agree that global warming is a serious threat to mankind, then the leader should exert himself to present arguments and information from those people who believe that this threat is exaggerated. And vice versa…

How to?
The first meeting in the study circle will be especially important, because then the study circle leader present the subject and his or her suggestions for study materials and course of study. It is also important for the leader to explain how the study circle is supposed to function. Participants who join a study circle for the first time often believe that it will be like in school, with the teacher lecturing and the students listening. Therefore it is important to explain that the study circle is something else and that each single participant is expected to actively contribute with his or her knowledge and intelligence.
It is important for the study circle leader to start direct, from the very first minute, to implement the spirit of ”folkbildning” in the group. The democratic attitude must permeate the studies from the first meeting. Otherwise it might be difficult to change the pattern later.
This is the time when the participants tell about their special interests. Often you start the first meeting with everyone telling about why he or she has joined the study circle. You talk about what you already know about the subject, if you have any special experiences that could be valuable for everyone to share and what you want to learn or obtain.  
A warning should be made against talking about occupations. At least in Sweden it is easy for people to start talking about what they are working with, especially if they have a job that is regarded as good. However, such information could easily inhibit those who don’t have such occupations or are unemployed. Therefore, do not focus on the occupation and profession, rather don’t mention it at all. The leader sets the tone by telling about his or her experiences of the present subject and also tell something else about his or her interests. The occupation or profession is unnecessary to mention unless someone asks.
Of course there are differences depending on what subject you are studying. If it is a study circle in Chinese for beginners the participants naturally have almost no knowledge beforehand and therefore become more depending on the leader. On the other hand, if it is a study circle about how to write short stories, the participants mostly have tried to write by themselves before the study circle and therefore probably have quite a lot of experiences to share with the others and probably also more or less clear ideas about what they need to learn.
It is also important for the study circle to decide how much time you can spend on reading the study materials between the meetings. When you meet, maybe during three hours once a week, you should not waste time reading. That has to be done between the meetings, while during the meetings you discuss what you have read, get help from each others to understand the difficulties you found in the book and try together to reach some conclusions. The participants´ different backgrounds, living conditions, earlier experiences, values and opinions become precious resources for the group in reaching a deeper knowledge and understanding of the subject.
During the study period you maybe also decide if you want to make a study visit, for example to the local government if you are studying municipal politics. Or you want to invite an expert or specialist to one of your meetings to learn about the latest development in nature protection or about a special style of art. Those studying visits and those lectures you have to plan for so you will be able to learn as much as possible.  
In order to get all participants more involved, the study circle leader can suggest each participant to be responsible for one of the meetings. For example to start the meeting with an interesting summary or outlook, to check the Internet for alternative information, to pick some special questions and issues to discuss etc.
The study circle leader also has a special responsibility to make sure that no question is forgotten. Participants will probably come up with a lot of questions during the study circle. Some of those questions might be too difficult to answer direct, but they should be answered before the end of the studies. By the way, there are no such things as ”stupid questions”.
At the last meeting the participants together make an simple evaluation of what they have learned and achieved. Maybe they agree on continuing to learn more in the same subject, which is especially common in language study circles. And remember, the participants will put more effort in their evaluations if they know that those responsible for the study circles will take their opinions seriously.

To reflect upon…
To summarize, here are some questions for study centers and study circle leaders to reflect upon:
• How to create a good learning environment, where curiosity and creativity can flourish? What can the study center do? What can the study circle leader do?
• How to make it possible for the participants in a study circle to influence the process, and doing it as a group and not as a number of individuals?
• How to evaluate a study circle, so the evaluation will be a help for both the study center and the leader to improve and make next study circle even better?
• What could the study circle leader do if the participants are reluctant to play a more active role in the study circle?
• What to do if one of the participants show that he or she is not interested in learning from the others but only in winning debates?
• What to do if one of the participants hardly say anything during a meeting, and what to do if another one want to talk all the time himself?

• Lars-Erik Axelsson and others (eds.): – an anthology about folkbildning and flexible learning. The Swedish National Clouncil of Adult Education & The Swedish Agency for Flexible Learning. Second edition (2004).
• Jan Bystrom: Alla studiecirklar blir inte studiecirklar (1976).
• Paulo Freire: Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970).
• Petros Gougoulakis: Studiecirkeln – Livslangt larande … pa svenska! (2001).

© Tore Persson