Article 6: Challenges and problems for study circle leaders.

Study circle leaders  

What are expected from a study circle leader? The leader shall set the rules – and on the other hand let the participants decide. The leader shall follow the study plan – and on the other hand be open for improvisations. The leader shall encourage the participants to be active – and on the other hand damp down those who are too active. The leader shall encourage the participants to share their personal experiences – and on the other hand make sure that they do not get caught in just sharing…

The Swedish study circle tradition is more than a hundred years old. During that period the Swedish study associations have gathered quite a lot of experiences about study circles. What expectations would you meet, if you happened to be a new study circle leader in Sweden?
First of all, there would be three main and crucial expectations or demands on you as a study circle leader:
1. You would have to share the basic values of the ”folkbildning” (民众共修) philosophy.
2. You would need sufficient knowledge and engagement in the subject which is studied.
3. You would also need practical skills to handle challenges within the study circle, and also to handle some problems that might occur.

1. Basic values
The first main demand is to share the basic values of the ”folkbildning” philosophy with its outlook on people and learning. That means for example that the leader has to share the conviction that all citizens have the right to participate in all aspects of a democratic society. It also means that the leader must believe in a free and open exchange of ideas, experiences and knowledge between the participants. And it means that he or she need to comprehend the belief that every participant – irrespective of school background – has something valuable to contribute in the study circle.
When you as a leader share these values, then it should become natural to choose appropriate pedagogical methods. Above all, to choose methods which suit your personality, your values and which you feel comfortable with. When your participants feel that you know what you are doing and why, when they feel that your behaviour is in accordance with yourself, then you will get an authentic and natural authority in the group.
As a leader you also need a basic understanding of the participants you will meet. For example, if the participants are manual labourers with low education, the study circle leader have to realize how he or she can have a good and equal communication in the group.
In Sweden, the study associations are supposed to make sure that their leaders share these values by talkning with them before they start with their first study circles. The study associations are also supposed to have a good printed information about ”folkbildning” philosophy and about study circles.
Sometimes there will be people who are not suitable to be study circle leaders. They might have excellent knowledge about the subject and they might have a lot of practical experiences from teaching. However, that is not enough if they for exampel regard themselves as too superiour to other people, if they believe that a teacher must keep a formal distance towards the participants, if they believe that some people lack the ability to study and learn, if they believe that women should not study certain subjects etc…

2. Knowledge and engagement
The second main demand is to have sufficient knowledge and engagement in the subject or issue which is studied. In most cases, the study circle leader does not need to be an expert at an academic level. It depends on the subject and on the level of the participants.
However, a strong commitment for the subject is almost a must in study circles. It is for example difficult to imagine a leader trying to stimulate curiosity among the participants if he himself has lost the gift of being curious.
In Sweden, the study associations recruit those leaders who already have necessary knowledge and a strong engagement for the subject or the issue in question. For example, if there is a need for a study circle leader in a particular art handicraft the study association might make enquiries among other study circle leaders in art, among students and teachers at art schools etc.
Most study circle leaders in Sweden become leaders because of a deep interest in their subjects. Many of them don’t even get paid or demand any payment. Most leaders have ordinary jobs during daytime and in the evenings, maybe once or twice a week, they work as study circle leaders. There are leaders who work more or less full time, particularly in art and foreign languages. However, they are few compared to all those who have only one or two study circles.

3. Practical skills
The third main demand is to have practical skills to handle challenges within the study circle and also to handle certain problems that might occur. This is to a great extent a matter of personal experience and learning from other leaders – and it makes up a considerable part of most courses for study circle leaders in Sweden.
Some of the exciting challenges for study circle leaders are:
• How to create a relaxed atmosphere in the study circle? A relaxed atmosphere is a necessary condition for each participant to share his or her experiences, knowledge, thoughts and idéas with other participants. It is also a necessary condition for the participants to dare to ask all kinds of questions, even those which often are regarded as ”stupid”. Besides, a relaxed atmosphere boosts the ability to learn.
• How to choose good study materials (books etc), which are instructive, stimulating and challenging? Remember, those books that are written for schools and universities might not necessarily be the best.
• How to stimulate curiosity, critical thinking and a contemplating spirit among the participants?  
• How to make every singel participant actively contribute during each meeting?
• How to be a strong leader and in the same time assign tasks and responsibilities among the participants?
• How to restart and give more energy to the participants if the group seems to have lost heart?
• Etc…
There are also certain problems that might occur in study circles. They are not common, but if they occur the leader need to handle them, because they will affect the processes and the climate within the study circle. If the leader does not act, then he or she will not show respect for the other participants.
For example, what to do if one of the participants:
• is too talkative and dominate too much?
• is too silent and never contribute to the study?
• always or often complains in a destructive way?
• tries to take over the leadership of the study circle?
• behaves disrespectful towards other participants?
• always or often arrives too late to the meetings?
• have a noticeable conflict with another participant?
• etc…
In a school class, with 30 to 40 students, who mainly are listening to the teacher, a disrespectful attitude from one of the students might not become a major problem for the group. However, in a study circle with 6 to 15 participants, who are expected to cooperate and be much more active and also be responsible for the work, a disrespectful behaviour will easily disturb or even destroy the group climate.
On the other hand, the small size of a study circle also makes it possible to develop an intensive and at the same time relaxed and creative learning atmosphere which seldom will happen in larger groups.

Laughing study circles
It is mainly depending on the leader if the participants will study in an atmosphere of cooperation and respect for each other. In a couple of research studies in Sweden, a number of study circle leaders and participants were asked about the most characteristic features of their study circles. They gave very various answers, but all agreed that they often or very often laughted during their meetings. That finding is much more serious than it first might appear to be. Above all, it shows that a positive and relaxed atmosphere is the most typical quality in study circles.
A relaxed atmosphere is a necessary condition for a true dialogue to develop in the group. That is dialogues where every person, including the leader, engage in an exchange of thoughts in order to reach a deeper knowledge and understanding. One of the characteristics of such a true dialogue is that you never beforehand can predict the outcome. For example, one of the participants might have such ideas or experiences that will change the whole world view of the leader.
However, there are some risks which the leader must be aware of.

The main responsibility for the leader is to make sure that the study circle functions according to the basic values of ”folkbildning”.  As a leader you need to have faith in the ”folkbildning” philosophy and to be able to explain and defend that view for the participants. Because they might want the study circle to be something else than a study circle.
The participants, or some of them, might want the study circle to become a ”school class”, a ”coffee party”, a ”therapeutic group” or a ”production unit”.
• A study circle degenerating into a ”school class” means that the participants become recipient pupils only and the leaders lecturing teachers.
• Degeneration into a ”coffee party” means that the conversations have very little to do with what should be the focus of the study circles.
• Degeneration into a ”therapeutic group” means that the participants become too occupied with sharing their personal experiences only and do not manage to relate those experiences to the society or to general and more abstract knowledge.
• Degeneration into a ”production unit” means that the participants only repeatedly produce paintings or other pieces of art without reflecting, questioning or being creative.
It is particularly easy for study circles to develop into ”school classes”, because that is what participants quite often expect. After all, we all have experiences from school and we all ”know” how ”teachers” should behave…
One particular pattern to be aware of for a study circle leader is how he or she asks questions during the study circle meetings: Do you ask questions because you are curious and because there are a lot of things you want to learn more about? Or do you only ask questions you already know the answers for?
Knowing about these risks for deviation, it will be easier for you as a leader to prevent them from developing. For example, if you do not want your participants to regard you as a traditional school teacher, be careful not to behave in such a way.

Open and flexible planning
In most cases the study circle leader has a provisional plan for the studies at the first meeting. Sometimes the plan is a simple draft or a suggestion for a plan, especially if the group consists of people who already know each other and who are very conscious about what they want to study. Sometimes it is a detailed plan, particularly when the participants know very little about the subject in question.
However, even a detailed plan needs to be open and flexible. For example, it is important to listen carefully when the participants present themselves and explain why they decided to join this particular study circle. Maybe it is first after a few meetings that it becomes clear which questions or issues are the most engaging, exciting or burning for this particular group.
For example, let us assume there is a study circle about Tanzania for beginners, who want to get an overview about that country during ten meeetings. Then the leader can make a quite detailed plan, choose a good book, which covers the most important parts, complementary articles, videos etc. When the participants present themselves during the first meeting, it might be that some of them have a particular interest for traditional Tanzanian art. That might not be something the leader think that the study circle have time to get deep into. However, those participants who share that interest might want to have some extra meetings about Tanzanian art. Anyhow, the study circle leader can make a short introduction and should be able to suggest some good readings for them (books or articles).
Another way of planning the study circle is to let the participants together set the goals during the first meeting, after they have presented themselves for each other:
1. Each participant writes on small pieces of papers what he or she wants to achieve with the study circle. Each wish on one piece of paper. One of the participants might for example write: ”I would like to know a little about the language spoken in Tanzania”.
2. Then you together put all pieces of paper on a board and group them, while each participant can motivate their wishes and make clarifications or modifications. Maybe there is only one participant who wrote that she is interested in the language. However, when she explaines why, then the other participants might also get interested and want to make her wish into theirs. Then you all will easily see which goals you have in common and which other interests there might be among the participants.  
3. Now you can set up the goals for the study circle, based on the common wishes from the participants. Maybe there also will be time for dealing with some of the other individual interests?
4. Finally, after this work you choose the book or books and other material you need.
This process might take an hour, but it will be worth it. The process will result in more motivated and engaged participants, who know and understand each other better.

Other considerations
There are a  number of other aspects for a study circle leader to take into consideration, such as:
Group size: As a general rule the size of the study circle should be small enough so that each participant can be active during each meeting, by giving his or her personal views on the theme etc. A suitable size depends on the subject, the participants and on how experienced the leader is. A study circle in Chinese language for beginners should for example have at the most ten participants. Otherwise there will not be enough time for each participant to practice pronunciation etc.
In Sweden 20 participants is regarded as the maximum size for a study circle, but few reach that size. If the group is too big to keep together, then it should be split into two study circles. Never let a study circle become split into permanent sub groups. Of course, some times it will be good to let the participants for a while work in smaller groups – but those periods should be short.
On the other hand, the group should not be too small, not smaller than five or six. Otherwise it could be difficult to develop a dynamic atmosphere.  
Information: Should the participants know a little about the way of learning and sharing responsibilities in study circles before they arrive for the first meeting?
Arrangements: How does the room look like where the meetings are supposed to take part? Is it an inspiring place to stay in? Will the participants feel good when they enter the room? Is it possible to arrange the chairs in a circle, so that all participants – including the leader – can see each other face to face?  
Care about the details! For example, a leader for a study circle about China could probably get a bunch of posters from a travel agency to bring to the meetings and put up on the walls before the participants arrive.
The first meeting: 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. How to do it?
Between the meetings: What to advise and recommend the participants to do between the meetings? How should they prepare themselves for the next meeting? Read a book, discuss some of the issues in the study circle with others or…?  
Assignments: Participants should be encouraged to take on assignments, for example by introducing the theme of the day. However, if they are unused to assignments, give them smaller tasks in the beginning.
Coffee breaks: It is almost impossible to imagine a Swedish study circle without a coffee break. However, the break can be more or less used as a pedagogical tool. Some coffee breaks are not more than opportunities to drink coffee or tea. Other coffee breaks are opportunities for the participants to know each other better and are being used by the leader to know more about for example the participant’s motives for joning that particular study circle. Having a coffee break also makes it easier to keep to the subject in question during the discussions.
Provocing: As a study circle leader it is easy to be kind, to agree and generally to behave according to what the participants expect the leader to behave. However, that might not be the ultimate way of deep learning. Sometimes the leader need to be critical, provocative and to question preconceived ideas. If the group for example is studying a historical period which they all have the same opinion about, then the study circle leader might have to act as the constant sceptic.
Sharing: Sharing personal experiences are of great value in study circles. However, sometimes the participants becomes so involved in each other’s experiences that they get stuck in sharing without developing. Remember, experiences tell us something about the world as it is; they seldom tell us anything about what the world could be.
Surprising: Let the participants get astonished by some exciting insight about the subject in question, at least once every meeting… If you for example is the leader of the study circle about Tanzania you could tell about Zheng He’s visit to East Africa six hundred years ago with ships that were much bigger than any other ship at that time.
Stimulating: Look out for exhibitions, open lectures, debates etc which could be of interest for the group. A leader for a study circle about China in Stockholm should recommend a visit the the East Asian Museum – or even better arrange for such a visit with the whole group.
Fantasy: Sometimes a study circle might need a short brake to stimulate the fantasy. For example, the leader could divide the study circle into smaller groups of three persons and let the groups use a few minutes to list all possible and impossible ways of using a paper clip. The most wild and crazy ideas will win.
Last but not least, the study circle leader should always set a good example, always arrive to the meetings in time, never let the mobile phone disturb a meeting, always be willing to share his or her own ideas and experiences etc…

You also need to evaluate the study circle, especially for your own needs so that you can develop as a study circle leader.
In Sweden, evaluations are often done with forms with standard questions which each participant fill in and hand in to the local study association office. That is better than nothing, but there are other and better ways without being too complicated.
For example, the leader makes a simple form with questions, not too many, such as: Did the study circle meet your expectations? What was the best parts? Were you disappointed and why? What do you think about the plan, the extent of the studies, the study material etc? How did you experience the atmosphere in the group? How would you like to describe your experiences of the entire study circle in a few words? Do you have any suggestions for future study circles?
The participants should be encouraged to give comments and suggestions in connection to each singel question.
After each participant have filled in the form you collect them, shuffle them and then distribute them back to the participants. Then you go through each question, by letting the participants read the comments from the evaluation forms in front of them and writing down the comments on the board. After that, you talk about each question and from all comments it will probably be easier to make a more rich evaluation to hand in to the office – and for yourself to learn from.
This process takes longer time than just filling in a standard form. However, it will not only help you as a leader but also the participants to make a summary of the whole study circle process and to understand how much they actually have learned.

Example of training courses for leaders
In Sweden, the study associations offer courses for their study circle leaders. Those courses are quite short, normally two days each, and are in most cases not compulsory for the leaders. However, many leaders do join the courses.
For example, one of the biggest study associations in Sweden, Study Promotion Association, has a leader development programme in four stages (one introduction and three courses):
• Whenever there is a new study circle leader, he or she is supposed to get a short introduction before the study circle starts by one of the staff members at the study association. During that introduction they talk about ”folkbildning” and what it means to be a study circle leader. They also talk about the study association and what it means to represent the association.
• The first basic course includes more about ”folkbildning” (the characteristics, history etc) and the study circle (characteristics, how to make a study plan etc). It focuses on learning and motivation, on group dynamics and on leadership. The course also includes information about this particular study association (history, member organizations, profile etc). The course consists both of theoretical introductions, discussions and practical exercises.
• The second course focuses more on learning, group dynamics and leadership. Another question is how to inspire people.
• The third course goes deeper into leadership, group dynamics, communication and learning.
This study association also offer a special course for those who plan to be leaders for study circles at a distance. However, such study circles are so far quite few.

Study guides
Sometimes the leaders, and the participants, also get a printed study guide.  It could consist of special guidelines or recommendations regarding the subject in question. It could also consist of pedagogical methods and suggested processes. If you for example are studying a political issue, you might find books, articles and web sites with conspicuous and controversial content. How then to judge the relevance, the accuracy and the credibility of such sources?
Study guides may also give some advices regarding techniques of studying. Such advices might be of great value, especially for those participants who have not studied and maybe not even read anything since they finished school.

To reflect upon as a study circle leader…
It is obvious that the leader plays an important and crucial role in study circles. The leader acts as a guide for the participants, inspires and encourages, prepares the meetings, suggests books to read etc. The leader also decides the pedagogical climate by his or her way of behaving.
Think about how you, as a study circle leader, should act in certain situations, such as:
• How to open the first meeting? How to welcome the participants? What to do during the first minutes to create a positive and relaxed atmosphere, full of  expectation?
• What to do if one or several of the participants expect you to behave as a traditional school teacher?
• What to do if you have a participant who constantly complains? Or when you have participants who never say anything?
• How to make sure that you know if every singel participant can keep up with the rest of the group, without them noticing that you are ”checking” them?
• How do you react if one of the participants have opinions that goes against your basic values about humans and society?
• What do you do if you get a question you don’t know anything about?
• How would you react if one of the participants happens to know more than you about the subject?
• How to do if the discussions around the coffee-table happens to be much more lively than during the talks about the subject?
• What do you say if anyone eagerly wants to talk about something that is far from the study circle subject?
• What do you do if one of the participoants just disappear from the study circle and don’t turn up at the meetings any longer?
• What do you say if one of the participants want to quit because he thinks the study circle is too difficult? Or if another participant wants to quit because she finds the study circle to be too easy?
• How do you normally ask questions?
It can also be suitable to reflect about your own motives and why you want to become a study circle leader? Which are your inner motives? Can you explain if one of your participants is asking?


© Tore Persson