Learning circles – a reflection

Learning circles, in their purest form, are a way of working with people that draws on what they already know.

The original blog was posted here. The version below adds an extra paragraph for context.

Let’s get the big news out of the way: my work with P2PU is wrapping up. I have spent the past three and a half years with P2PU developing learning circle programs with hundreds of public librarians and educators around the world. What a journey it has been! It has truly been one of the most memorable roles in my career so far. Before I go, let me share a few thoughts and musings.

A decade ago I found myself researching study circles as part of a graduate degree at OISE. There, I ran into Stian Haklev, one of the founders of P2PU, who spoke about how study circles might work online. It sounded like a novel idea, but at the time I wasn’t convinced that online education could work for most people and especially not for those without internet access. Much later, I heard P2PU had changed their approach and were introducing ‘learning circles’ to the Chicago Public Library using free online courses. The perfect combination at last! The potential for using free online courses, the availability of accessible and networked spaces like libraries, and the peer learning practices that I valued so much, connected in one delightful ‘circle’. This was the work I wanted to do!

Throughout my work, one motto guided me: “relationships produce results”. My strategy was to create constant, quality, and fun opportunities for like-minded folks to meet and connect online and, when possible, face-to-face. I also had to embody this motto, too! I took a beginner’s mindset of being interested and curious in every single person I met. This approach was fruitful; we hosted more than thirty virtual ‘community calls’ as well as P2PU’s first in-person event with Kansas City Public Library, and then again with Boston Public Library. Speaking with some of our partners recently, they said our community of practice was what they valued most. Hearing that gives me the warm-fuzzies inside. I also believe this kind of approach to working with libraries will sustain learning circles far into the future. So take that motto with you! It’s yours.

One significant realization for me, that I came to only recently, is that learning circles represent something that is inherent to the human condition. Let me try to explain. I used to think that most people’s experience of formal schooling was so strong that it would be difficult for them to relate to learning circles (ie: learning without a teacher and outside of a school setting). This was wrong. Even though the people I worked with, from Los Angeles to Nairobi, had different ways of explaining a learning circle, they all intuitively related to the values and feelings behind it right away. Asking someone a simple question like ‘tell me about a meaningful learning experience’ will, surprisingly, get you pretty close to understanding what learning circles are all about. With that in mind, I probably spent too much time explaining learning circles as a turn-key program with guidebooks, presentations, infographics, and frequently asked questions. Instead, I should have spent my time communicating that learning circles, in their purest form, are a way of working with people that draws on what they already know. 

I have now worked with libraries in some shape or form for a decade, but it was only with P2PU did I realize their vast interpretations. To start, there are dozens of different types of libraries, including research, school, and academic libraries. Then, within public libraries, there is a smorgasbord of configurations fitting somewhere in between book repository and community centre. Public libraries aren’t even necessarily buildings, anymore. Libraries can ‘pop-up’, are delivered to your door, and are entirely digital. To add to that, every library is placed within its own unique political and cultural environment, which shifts what the public library does, what is expected of them, and even what they are called. All to say, I learned a ton about public libraries, and I want more. Public libraries are evolving into something spectacular and monumental! They are becoming true champions of community development and social change and I want to join them toward this glorious path. So, look out for me + public libraries to be besties for a long time.  🥰

Speaking of evolution, public libraries are emerging as the rightful leaders of education and learning. I have been convinced by what public libraries can accomplish in this field, especially through their work initiating learning circles, and have reflected back on what I have seen in many presentations and interviews. If you want a deeper dive into this perspective, I highly recommend exploring the inspirational and positively contagious work of EIFLDokk1Next LibraryPLIXNDIA, and, of course, P2PU. It has been an honour to work with so many visionary leaders of the public library. Thank you for your courage and commitment!

Alas, there is still a lot more work to be done. As much as learning circles may be ‘inherent’, education systems around the world still reproduce racist, colonial, environmentally destructive attitudes, furthers digital and social inequalities, and teach in ways that remain disempowering and out of reach to so many people, not to mention the 5 billion adult learners who will never enroll in school. But, things are changing. Cultures are changing. People are learning in new ways. It is inspiring that a group of people who don’t know each other can come together at a library to learn about social justice and anti-racist practices. Libraries are doing their part by hosting a lot of these kinds of events and using learning circles to help, too. My hope is that public libraries, as they take the lead in learning and education, continue to emphasize their role as a forum to engage with power and politics. Step up! Don’t be shy! The world (and your local library cardholder) needs you more than ever!

Moving forward, I plan to continue to work and support community development and education initiatives in both local and global capacities. P2PU is moving ahead with new plans and initiatives at an exciting pace! I recommend staying in touch with P2PU, especially as their work supporting virtual programs expands into the new year.