Study circles and lifelong learning


When I wrote about my teaching philosophy in 2007 (see university pedagogic portfolio) I focused on the teacher-student relationship, and I cited one of Americas most quoted writers on this subject, William Arthur Ward (1921-1994):

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

I also wrote the following checklist:

  1. Engage, be structured and well prepared
  2. Define the purpose of the teaching/education to the students, and to myself
  3. Remember that the student is a resource and that you can learn from him/her
  4. Be clear, encourage, and be careful when giving constructive critique
  5. Always have a solution in case the students do not figure out how to solve the problem

I have so far largely managed to follow these principles; the exception might be that I’m not always as well prepared as I would wish to. This has mainly been due to other working obligations, and not due to lack of interest or laziness.

During the last ten years I have developed my teaching philosophy towards an approach of lifelong learning. I have consciously engaged in teaching and supervision at all levels at the University of Tromsø. This includes recruitment activities with secondary school and high school students, and lecturing, colloquia, seminars and supervision with bachelor, master and PhD students. I have also worked on enhancing the PhD education and the performance of the PhD students at the faculty, and I have developed lectures, workshops and templates for career development for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows as well as for scientists at the faculty and experienced researchers at UiT. I observe that students and peers experience learning as a lifelong process where we utilize all our dimensions (cognitive, emotional, social) and abilities as individuals, and this process has the same effect on me. The process includes deep learning over time, combined with broad learning across subject fields. Here constructivism, social constructivism and connectivism are central concepts and the principle of constructive alignment provide a practical approach to teaching and mentoring in this environment.


The study circle

The concept of lifelong learning is considered to have its foundation in the study circles that developed in Sweden and Finland more than 100 years ago (Ellström 1996), and are still important in the education of the adult population. The initiator was the social democratic parliamentarian Oscar Olsson and the first circle was established in Lund in 1902, but it took some time before the concept became popular among the public. This happened in the 1930s when there were numerous study circles based on regularly produced radio lessons.  In the 60s and 70s the study circle was a common approach for young politically interested people to seek knowledge about e.g. Karl Marx, the Vietnam war or eco-philosophy. As a student politician in the 70s I took part in study circles, and I learned about nuclear power and the food production and distribution in the world.

This collaborative study method facilitates discussion and enhances thinking as well as overall academic skills. This is the most democratic way of learning as the participants in the circle are ‘agents’ of their learning, they define the learning goals, schedule, curriculum etc., and the focus is more on the process than the product. The group is more powerful than the individuals as each members’ work benefit all, and allows for critical learning and understanding in a more ‘real’ life like learning situation. There are four phases in a study circle:  1) form a group, preferably 4-6 people, 2) study through reading or listening, 3) analyse, present and discuss, and 4) evaluate (Brophy 2001).

Lifelong learning

Traditionally lifelong learning refers to post-compulsory education that falls outside of the higher education system – further education, community education, work-based learning and similar learning in voluntary, public sector or commercial settings. In addition, lifelong learning is an essential component in the Bologna process for strengthening the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). The Prague Communiqué (2001) states that lifelong learning is necessary when applying new technologies, and when improving social cohesion, equal opportunities and quality of life.  The goals are to widen access to higher education, create more flexible, student-centred modes of delivery, improve the recognition of prior learning, including non-formal and informal learning, and improve cooperation with employers, especially in the development of educational programmes.

Lifelong learning is the “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated acquisition of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons. Thereby it enhances social inclusion, active citizenship, and personal development, as well as self-sustainability, competitiveness and employability” (EU 2006).  Learning takes place on an ongoing basis from our daily interactions with others and with the world around us. It can take the form of formal learning or informal learning, or self-directed learning.

The concept of lifelong learning is divided into two branches (Rubenson 1996; Larsson 2002):

1) Learning through the whole lifetime “from the cradle to the grave”. The individual will and should continue to learn through the whole life also after the primary education has finished.

2) Life broad learning, learning across subject fields. Learning does not only happen in educational institutions, but also trough life at work places, in social connections etc. This is sometimes called informal learning.

In the book on training for change Engestrøm (1994), describes six steps of learning according to Davydov: 1) Motivation, get a conscious interest in wanting to learn about a subject, a field or a process; identify a problem and search for a solution. 2) Orientation, definition of a hypothesis based on the cognitive challenges and analysis. 3) Develop a model as a discrete part of something bigger. 4) Test how the model works, revisit and thereby re-internalise. 5) Critique, identify weaknesses. 6) Control, the evaluation of the process. This is in line with a constructivist approach.