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Volume 3, Number 2, February 2003

Teaching and Learning in Circle
(Page 2 of 9)

Circles in Formal Education: The Need for a Paradigm Shift

"He drew a circle to keep me out,
A thing of scorn, a thing to flout
But love I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in."
  - Edwin Markhamre text

I was sitting in a community circle at ROCA (ROCA is a grassroots, multicultural human development and community building organization based in Chelsea, Massachusetts) a couple of months ago. One of the women in the circle, who runs a day care center and does prison volunteer work, said "I spend half my time with kids and the rest in prison."

When the talking piece came around to me I asked her what she saw as the difference.

I recalled my five- year old daughter Michaela and her lament at the end of April vacation – "tomorrow I go back to prison". I gave her the standard talk about how much freedom she had compared to someone in prison and how she would never really want to go to prison. She responded that she doesn’t really want to go to school – even though she is very successful there socially and academically.

I also recalled the last day of school this year. My wife and I waited in front of the school to mark the transition – and to get a look at report cards. Our nine year old Zoe, came bounding out of the building, bolted past us fell to the ground and kissed it yelling "free at last, free at last. " Her report card was outstanding and noted that she is "thoroughly invested in school." What gives rise to these feelings? How can children love learning and hate school?

One answer that resonates with me is provided by Peter Senge et. al. In their groundbreaking book Schools That Learn, they note that:

Most of the rapid learning of very young children is tied to purpose and vision. Children learn to ride a bike because they want to play with their friends who have bikes….They learn new skills because they want them. The same is true for adults…Lifelong learning, then, is the fundamental means by which people engage with life and create their desired futures…
But when children enter schools, the system often presents them with new purposes unrelated to their own desires and aspirations – to please teachers, to get good marks on assignments, to receive rewards and honors and to be ranked high" [3]

This disconnect comes, Senge posits, from an outmoded paradigm. Schools are still cast in a mid-nineteenth century modeled on the assembly line – uniform speed, uniform product, uniform outcomes. These outcomes are broken into smaller parts (academic disciplines) so that the individual workers only impact on the part of the product – diploma – for which they are "responsible." [4]

What is needed is a paradigm shift:

"Paradigm shift is a word meant to convey the changing of the way we view of the world: the turning or shifting of our perceptions, our overall concept of reality. It is not so much a matter of a change in the content of our world, as it is shift in our understanding. It is not so much a change of pitch on a musical scale, as a change in tone. It is not so much a change in shape, as a change in how the shapes fit together. It is not the fact that the images in a picture change, but that the color of the entire picture changes. It is how the facts fall into a new place for us. A paradigm shift is the turning of the wheel in a kaleidoscope, where the same shapes produce an entirely new picture. [5]

Senge et al. Maintain that schools in this paradigm would share certain qualities:

  • Learner centered rather than teacher centered learning
  • Encouraging variety, not homogeneity – embracing multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles: and
  • Understanding a world of interdependency and change rather than memorizing facts and striving for right answers. [6]

These ideas don’t only impact me as a parent. This fall I will begin my 22nd year as a teacher. For fifteen years I have also worked with young people committed to the Department of Youth Services in Massachusetts. These are youth who have been ajudicated delinquent by the Commonwealth and are to receive treatment until (at least) their eighteenth birthday. I always considered myself to be very successful at both of my jobs. Then I was introduced to Circles.

For the past year and a half I have taught all of my classes in a circle format. I have taught in a high school environment at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Brighton, Massachusetts. MSJA is an all women’s Catholic High School with an enrollment of about 300 that draws from Boston and some 20 surrounding urban and suburban communities. The Academy promotes the development of the whole person by instilling spiritual values, inspiring love of learning, sharing knowledge, and practicing skills. Mount Saint Joseph Academy encourages young women to assume leadership in fostering reconciliation and community in family, neighborhood, Church, country and world.[7]

Despite what its name may connote, the Mount is an urban school, with all of the challenges and opportunities that the label implies. It is a school that celebrates its diversity–of-culture, learning styles and experiences.

For the last three years I have also taught in the Juvenile Justice Concentration at Cambridge College. Cambridge College offers a unique learning environment. Working adults bring their experience in the "real world" and build on it an academic environment. The model for teaching and for learning is refreshing and creative. Both learner and teacher need to be innovative and responsive to meet the challenges and opportunities offered by such an environment.[8]

The combination of these two experiences has given me a base of learners ranging in age from sixteen to sixty, from diverse cultures and with myriad learning styles. Circle has made teaching and learning a profound and shared experience. Circle brings both teacher and learner to new levels of responsibility, inquiry and community.

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Page last updated 11/27/2005

A project of Campus Conflict Resolution Resources.
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo project.


Correspondence to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
Department of Communication
585 Manoogian Hall
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.

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