Publish at February 22 2023 Updated February 22 2023

The pedagogy of human circles

Open circles on the different realities of the world

Students in a circle

An individual is an individual because of other individuals, in other words my humanity is inextricably linked to what yours is

Nelson Mandela

Human Circles, Pedagogy, and Facilitation

Human Circles can be used as a pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. In this approach, the circle is a space for discussion and sharing where learners explore ideas and knowledge in a collaborative and reflective manner.

Human Circles pedagogy promotes active learner participation and group collaboration. It encourages learner self-direction and autonomy. It aims to create a space of mutual respect and attentive listening.

The facilitation is a key practice in human circles pedagogy. The facilitator helps create a framework of trust and mutual respect. He or she strives to maintain fairness and balance in discussions and to guide the group toward shared decisions and actions. The facilitator must be able to ask open-ended questions and create a space for discussion where the ideas and opinions of all participants are respected and considered.

Learning together

Collective learning occurs in a circle when circle members work together to explore and understand a topic or theme in a collaborative and respectful manner. This can be done in a variety of ways, depending on the purpose of the learning and the dynamics of the group.

Circle members can share their knowledge and experiences on a topic and discuss their perspectives and questions, they can work together to explore learning resources and materials, such as books, articles, films, etc., or to solve problems or create solutions to common challenges or issues. Circle members can also practice and apply new skills and knowledge gained through learning

The Expansion of Circles

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an 18th century French philosopher, developed an approach to education based on freedom and autonomy. He used discussion circles to help students reflect on their own learning and take part in decisions about their education.

The emergence of popular education and libertarian education in the 19th century also emphasized autonomy and individual responsibility in learning by encouraging students to take part in decisions about their own education. These movements used circles to facilitate learning and collective participation.

Then in the 1970s, in concomitance with social protest movements carried initially by students, many educators and pedagogues began to use circle training approaches to teach adults. Circle practice in adult education is also influenced by the ideas of pedagogues such as Paulo Freire, who placed an emphasis on the importance of learner emancipation and freedom in learning.

Examples: from Alcoholics Anonymous to Norwegian study circles

One of the most iconic examples is Alcoholics Anonymous, which has been able to serve as a model for many practices. The circle of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, two men who had struggled with their own alcohol addiction. They developed the concept of group meetings to help others suffering from addiction find help and maintain their sobriety. Their practices would have been inspired by religion as both Bill Wilson and Bob Smith were deeply religious and would have seen their struggle with alcoholism as a spiritual quest. Bill Wilson was particularly influenced by the writings of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist, on the collective unconscious. A.A. meetings are based on sharing experience, strength and hope among members who are struggling with alcoholism. Meetings are held in a circle to promote an atmosphere of respect, equality and group participation. A.A. members are encouraged to share their stories and difficulties openly and honestly, and to listen to and support other members of the group. The circle of Alcoholics Anonymous has become a worldwide movement, with support groups in many countries.

A second source providing a model of inspiration is in Norway. The Norwegian study circles were developed in the 1930s in response to the emergence of fascist and Nazi movements in Europe. Progressive and activist groups wanted to provide a safe and inclusive space to discuss important political and social issues. They drew on the traditions of popular education and libertarian education, which emphasize autonomy and individual responsibility in learning and encourage students to take part in decisions about their own education.

Norwegian study circles developed as a space of support and solidarity for marginalized people. They became a popular movement in Norway and were adopted in other countries in Europe and North America.

Circle practices were also promoted by the development of coaching

Coaching already has a long history, it will particularly develop in the 60s in the USA 80 in Europe. Here are some examples of coaching practices that use circles:

  • Personal development circles help clients discover their potential and achieve their life goals.
  • Leadership circles help clients develop their leadership skills and make important decisions.
  • Creativity circles help clients unleash their creativity and come up with new ideas.
  • Reflection Circles help clients reflect on their lives and find new perspectives.
  • Compassion Circles help clients develop their ability to be compassionate and open to the emotions of others.
  • Vision Circles help clients define their long-term goals and find ways to achieve them.
  • Healing Circles help clients overcome emotional wounds and find healing.
  • Peace Circles help clients find harmony and inner peace.
  • Transformation Circles help clients make profound changes in their lives.
  • Courage Circles help clients develop self-confidence and overcome fears and find harmony and inner peace.
  • Legacy Circles help future retirees pass on records, values, skills before they leave the company.
  • Circles of dialogue and listening allow one to strengthen oneself internally from the mere presence of others.

Today making a circle is a marker not only of a pedagogy physically drawing the transformation of the relationship to knowledge by a physical redistribution of places and its roles, but also it is the signal of an implicit project of emancipation from traditional school forms.

By the equidistance of each to the center, the circle returns the geometric and symbolic image of the equality of speech and the dignity of each to take his place in the group and knowledge.

Illustration: DepositPhotos -


Jonathan Kaplan's dissertation- Self-direction in cooperative learning: the case of Study Circles

Association of Alcoholics Anonymous -

Cristol Denis - Learning to Learn Together. Esf Paris

Sybil Persson, Baptiste Rappin (2013 - Once upon a time, coaching... In Humanisme et Entreprise 2013/1 (n° 311), pages 41-60

Cristol and Joly (2019). The art of facilitation, an energetic relational art, a hope for democracy. Paris esf.

Paulo Freire (1968) "La Pedagogie des Opprimés"

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