CitationDownload as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
One of the education and training strategies dear to educators who subscribe to the concept of adult learning principles is the notion of learning in groups. There is a considerable literature on the nature and dynamics of groups, but the focus of this Internet Editorial is on a particular sort of group: “Study circles”. These have a rich tradition in adult education, particularly in Scandinavian countries. The emphasis of such “circles” has been on encouraging personal growth and social responsibility, as well as on improving workplace practices. For example, the Study Circles Resource Center in Pomfret, Connecticut, USA, which works with communities, says that study circles:
Involve everyone. Demonstrate that the whole community is welcome and needed.
Embrace diversity. Reach out to all kinds of people.
Share knowledge, resources, power, and decision making.
Combine dialogue and deliberation. Create public talk that builds understanding and explores a range of solutions.
Connect deliberative dialogue to social, political, and policy change.
(www.studycircles.org//en/Page. WhatIsAStudy Circle.aspx)
However study circles are also well utilized in workplaces. The so-called founder of the study circle, Oscar Olsson, from Sweden, said that the “emancipation of the working class should be a task for the workers themselves” (quoted in Bjerkaker, 2003). Some companies use a variant of the study circle approach, the “quality circle”, which originated in the United States as part of human relations theories in the 1950s and was subsequently adopted and further developed by Japanese companies as a way to improve productivity and product quality (www.eurofound.eu.int/emire/NETHERLANDS/QUALITYCIRCLES-NL.html). Commonly known in Japan as “kaizen”, it is a system for improving quality by generating and implementing employee ideas. (www.tutor2u.net/business/production/quality_circles_kaizen.htm). Elsey and Fujiwara (2000) discussed the application of kaizen at Toyota in an earlier issue of the Journal of Workplace Learning. There is an ERIC discussion on quality circles in the community at www.ericdigests.org/1993/quality.htm
In the UK, the National Society of Quality Circles, founded in 1984 under the auspices of the Industrial Participation Association, changed its name in 1991 to the National Society for Quality through Teamwork to reflect its changing role, and changed again in 2000 to The European Forum for Teamwork. According to the web site, www.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/ead/342COL.htm, “the economic climate and leaner structures of the member organisations led to a decline in the society and at an EGM on 12 March 2002 a decision was made to liquidate the organisation”. On the face of it, this iterative process sounds like a success story!
In a discussion about learning circles and computer conferencing, way back in 1985 when there was not yet a PC on every desk, Kurland suggested that quality circles put the emphasis on solving specific problems, while study circles put the emphasis on learning, but subsequent practice indicates that the dichotomy is not quite as sharp as that (http://cgi.gjhost.com/∼cgi/mt/netweaverarchive/000070.html). For instance, Eriksson and Holmer (1992) undertook research into study circles in which “democratic dialogue” was found to be the basis for involving employees in organizational change.
Study circles are also sometimes called “learning circles”, as proposed by Adult Learning Australia, which saw them as having between five and 15 members meeting regularly to discuss “issues of importance to them and to society”. That model involved participants learning at their own pace, “drawing on their experiences and understandings, without a lecturer or an expert “running the show” (www.learningcircles.org.au/whatis.html). Internationally, there is a great diversity of such groups. Aksim suggested that a learning circle for school teachers (www.magma.ca∼raksim/learning_circle.htm):
makes learning more efficient, since reports, demonstrations and teaching experience are shred among members of the circle;
provides an interactive learning situation;
gives essential feedback to learners from colleagues who are working on the same body of skills and information; and
offers the opportunity to organize demonstrations and workshop for which numbers of people are necessary.
Work-based discussion groups are also used in encouraging “reflective practice”, a concept that requires an editorial of its own.
Despite the apparently democratic nature of work-based study circles, there is also criticism of them as being manipulative of workers in order to present a “human” face for companies, in the same way that the concept of the “learning organisation” has been criticised. One early criticism was by Grenier (1989) in the book, Inhuman Relations: Quality Circles and Anti-Unionism in American Industry, and a summary can be found at www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/449_reg.html
In general, however, the web sites promote a positive view of study/quality/learning circles as a way of encouraging community and worker participation and fostering democratic processes.
Darryl DymockActing Internet Editor
Bjerkaker, S. (2003), “The study circle – a method for learning, a tool for democracy”, Paper 109, FACE Conference, University of Stirling, 2-4 July, available at: www.face.stir.ac.uk/Papers.htm (accessed 30 May 2005)
Elsey, B. and Fujiwara, A. (2000), “Kaizen and technology transfer instructors as work-based learning facilitators in overseas transplants: a case study”, Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 12 No. 8, pp. 333–41
Eriksson, K. and Holmer, J. (1992), Study Circles as a Support for Changes in Working Life, Halmstadt University and Karlstad University, Sweden
Kurland, N.D. (1985), Study circles and computer conferencing, Netweaver, available at: http://cgi.gjhost. com/ ∼ cgi/mt/netweaver archive/000070.html (accessed 30 May 2005)