Teachers shape the learning experience for children. It matters what we say and how we say.
But it also matters what shape we arrange for learning to take place. As a classroom management tool, the circle is one option.
You’d imagine that learning in a circle is something we use a lot in maths lessons although we don’t. It tends to be a shape we use for PSHE, drama and English.
Learning in a circle has lots of things going for it.
A circle can be a a highly interactive, participatory shape for learning because it allows children to to build, share, and express knowledge, ideas and experiences through open dialogue. It naturally brings children together and it prompts conversation as everyone is facing in and on the same eye level.
Sitting or standing in a circle can improve focus and listening and so there is less room for disruptive behaviour.
Circles encourage interaction and build connections among children setting up a self-reinforcing loop.
It is the inwards nature of sitting in a circle that brings learners together and it almost feels like a community even though the learners might not have much in common. It feels democratic, equal and fair. There is a wisdom and truth to it. That big space in the middle even feels sacred.
In a circle, children are centre stage rather than the teacher. Everyone is a learner in a circle and responsibility is shared. It’s a shape where the individual is valued within the context of the group and everyone has a responsibility for and to the circle.
So on the surface of things it seems as is the circle is the perfect shape because it is learner-centred, open and inviting. It is naturally inclusive and feels like it is a group.
It might very well suit confident children who are full of beans and bravado but for children that are self-conscious and under-confident then the circle is a nightmare. Not only is it intimidating but it can be a painful and humiliating experience because it is not a private space. It is intimate, oppressive and overwhelming. Stephen Brookfield articulates this well in his book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher saying,
“So beneath the circle’s democratic veneer, there may exist a much more troubling and uncertain reality. Students in a circle may feel implicit or explicit pressure from peers and teachers to say something, anything…The circle can be experienced as a mechanism for mandated disclosure, just as much as it can be a chance for people to speak in an authentic voice.”
Learning in a circle can profoundly impact a child’s experience. They clearly don’t suit everyone and they have to be used with a knowledge and understanding of children and their worldviews.
Positive and comfortable learning environments are linked to improving engagement and participation but don’t assume that the circle is the perfect fit.