Study Circles: Schools For Life

Cooperative learning, democratic participation, respect for individual views, and learning from the collective wisdom of the group

One of the articles in We Can Do It! (IC#33)
Originally published in Fall 1992 on page 22
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

Study Circles are blossoming. All over the US, people are rediscovering what the Swedes borrowed from us a century ago – an engaging way to learn while socializing.

Cecile Andrews, director of continuing education for North Seattle Community College, has built the program around the concepts of caring, creativity, and community, and offers classes in personal growth, professional development, and public involvement.

Through the college, Cecile is pioneering new methods for getting study circles started. Among them is a series on voluntary simplicity which she organized in collaboration with IN CONTEXT.

It is time we had uncommon schools,
that we did not leave off our education
when we begin to be men and women.

– Henry David Thoreau

Imagine this: Sitting around a dining room table littered with cups and the remains of banana bread are seven or eight people. A burst of laughter dies down as a woman continues her story about trying to persuade her 16 year-old son to wear a helmet when he rides his bike. A man wipes tears of laughter from his eyes and nods vigorously – "Yes, I know just what you mean. My son did that, too. But I read an article the other day that said …."

These people are engaged in one of the most fulfilling human pastimes – conversation. But they’re not at a dinner party. They’re part of a study circle – a way of learning that is springing up across the country, a method of study that has been referred to as "education by the people." In our thrill-seeking, high-tech, hectic times, people are turning to a relaxed, simple, low-tech form of fulfillment – educating themselves in an informal, egalitarian setting.

Members of community groups, churches, business groups, and unions have used this small-group discussion format to seek understanding and common ground when they faced difficult issues or hard choices. And formal adult education offerings are starting to include study circles on a variety of issues and topics.

This growing interest in study circles is part of a larger movement. People are discovering their own authority in education just as they are in medicine and religion. This reflects a growing conviction that there is a collective wisdom in groups, that education and understanding go hand in hand, and that learning can truly be available for all.


When people take responsibility for their own education they are, in part, saying that they want to come up with their own ideas – to examine their experience and discover their own truths. In study circles, participants learn to listen to each other’s ideas, not as points to debate, but as different experiences of reality. They may not agree, but they learn to accept that – just like blind men feeling different parts of the elephant – each person may be limited by his or her own perspective.

In the study circle, each participant feels empowered to think for themselves. Anxiety about appearing foolish is lost. Since there is no one "right" answer, all are free to say what they think, to sit back and relax, and enjoy learning and thinking. Participants are encouraged to speak their minds freely and to engage in friendly disagreement.

Often, written materials are used as a basis for discussion, and these are sometimes chosen to reflect diversity of opinion. Study circle participants have a special opportunity to investigate their own capacities to communicate with and affect others, to improve their listening skills, and to use their critical faculties.


Unlike the traditional classroom – where inequality affects not only the student/teacher relationship, but the relationships between students – in a study circle, a person with a doctorate has no more status than a person with a high school diploma. Value is placed not on having mastered someone else’s ideas, but on generating and communicating ideas of one’s own.

Most often, there is a facilitator whose job is not to have mastery over the subject the group is discussing, but to keep the discussion going. Facilitators need be "expert" only in managing the group so that all are heard and the conversation stays lively and on topic.


By managing the process themselves, participants practice democracy. What is democracy? It’s a system of shared power, a system in which individuals feel they can affect the outcome of political decisions. In the study circle environment – where there is equality, respect for others, and excitement about the exchange of ideas – people are engaged in the most fundamental aspects of democracy. They will come to conclusions or make decisions through talking, listening, and understanding.

Study circles – the open exchange of ideas, the give and take of discussion – could be (as they are in Sweden) at the heart of our democratic society. In fact, study circles have been used very successfully here in the US to focus on political issues. Many participants – having learned to go in and out of leadership roles, to solve problems and to resolve conflicts – go on to become active in more strictly political forums.


In study circles, "connection" is central. Participants are not required to separate feelings from thoughts concerning a topic. Their roles – as teachers, students, leaders, and followers – fluctuate within and across study circle sessions.

Participants seldom take part just to learn objective facts. The importance of what they learn lies in its connection to their lives, their own experiences, and the real problems and issues they face. A study circle is "education for life."

And, of course, the participants themselves are connected. When people talk about their lives, share their feelings, and listen to each other with respect, there is connection and a sense of community. When there is no need to compete or wear a mask, people begin to discover and present their authentic selves.


Today, conventional education focuses more and more on careerism, seeing education in the narrow role of helping people get jobs. Study circles focus on self-realization and social transformation by encouraging participants to blossom as individuals and to bring about change in society.

Study circles bring people together to talk, to feel part of a community, and to practice acceptance of diversity, equality, democracy, and connectedness. Imagine what could happen if more and more people were engaged in these "uncommon schools." Perhaps it would become clear that Americans’ supposed apathy toward education and political participation is really a disguise for a deep hunger to learn and become involved.


The following tips for successful study circles, excerpted from materials supplied by the Study Circles Resource Center, show that the communications skills used and honed in the study circle environment are pertinent in almost any other situation.

See below for more on what the Resource Center has to offer to assist those running their own study circles.

* Maintain an open mind. You don’t score points by rigidly sticking to your early statements. Feel free to explore ideas that you have rejected or failed to consider in the past.

* Strive to understand the position of those who disagree with you. Your own knowledge is not complete until you understand other participants’ points of view and why they feel the way they do. It’s important to respect people who disagree with you; they have reasons for their beliefs. You should be able to make a good case for positions you disagree with. This level of comprehension and empathy will make you a much better advocate for whatever position you come to.

* Value your own experience and opinions. Everyone in the group, including you, has unique knowledge and experience; this variety makes the discussion an interesting learning experience for all. Don’t feel pressured to speak, but realize that failing to speak means robbing the group of your wisdom.


Americans discovered study circles in Sweden, a country which has been characterized as a "study circle democracy." At any one time, one-third of Swedish adults are engaged in some form of adult education – most often it is a study circle. The government has subsidized this form of education since 1947, and uses it not only to educate people about government policies, but to receive feedback from the public.

Ironically, the Swedes imported the study circle idea from the US where it was used in the early Chautauqua movement, an adult education system of lectures and study groups popular in the late nineteenth century. The Swedish people saw it as an answer to their problems of poverty and illiteracy – to educate the broadest possible spectrum of society in the arts of democracy.

Today, following a period of decreased awareness and a lack of involvement in community affairs, many in the US are re-adopting study circles. Linked to a broader educational movement called "folk education" – again brought over from Scandinavia – study circles are designed to encourage both personal growth and social responsibility.

This emphasis on the responsibility to work for the common good fits well with the growing realization that we cannot deal with the tremendous social and environmental problems we face unless everyone is part of developing the solutions.

Good examples of how well this can work come from one of America’s best known folk education efforts – Highlander Center, founded by Myles Horton in the thirties. In the depths of the Depression, Horton established a school in Tennessee which brought people together to figure out how to solve their problems themselves. In the early years he worked with labor unions, and later, with the civil rights movement.

Highlander’s role affected all our lives. A few months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, she attended classes at Highlander. So did Martin Luther King and Eleanor Roosevelt. As Myles Horton expressed it, "The fact is that people have within themselves the seeds of greatness, if they’re developed. It’s not a matter of trying to fill up people, but to fulfill people."

Study circles hold great promise for both personal and social transformation, and several organizations are working enthusiastically to help people engage in them. For more information, call or write the following:

Study Circles Resource Center
Route 169 PO Box 203
Pomfret CT 06258
This organization is a veritable gold mine of information on study circles. They have materials describing the nuts and bolts, i.e., the ideal group size (five to 20), usual number of meetings (three to six), etc. They also have an extensive annotated bibliography on study circles, a clearinghouse list of study circle material developed by a variety of organizations, training materials for study circle organizers and facilitators, and a newsletter – Focus On Study Circles. Some publications are free of charge; others are low cost ($2-$5) and come with permission to photocopy for your study circle group.

Folk Education Association of America
107 Vernon St.
Northampton MA 01060
FEAA is an organization of people and institutions interested in the history and concepts of folk education as exemplified by study circles and Scandinavian folk high schools. It has strong links with European folk educators, a valuable newsletter, exciting conferences, and enthusiastic members.

National Issues Forums
100 Commons Road
Dayton OH 45459-2777
National Issues Forums are nationwide programs that bring citizens together to discuss national policy issues such as racial inequality, abortion, the environment, and free speech. Forums range from small study circles to large town meetings. Call them for more information.

Utne Reader
Neighborhood Salon Association
1624 Harmon Place
Minneapolis MN 55403
Salons are neighborhood discussion groups started by Utne Reader (the Reader’s Digest of the alternative press). Send them $12 and you will receive a list of 15-30 people in your neighborhood (or closest proximate area) who are interested in participating in a salon group. (By now, their master list includes some 10,000 names.) They’ll also send you information on getting started, and four issues of a newsletter.