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Focus On Basics

Volume 5, Issue D ::: June 2002

Study Circles Challenge the Intellect and Strengthen the Professional Community

by Tom Smith
As winter dragged into "mud season," a half dozen adult basic education (ABE) personnel huddled in the warmth of the literacy center, engaged in a debate over student˝teacher boundaries. Unlike the tedious discussions of reorganization, impending state mandates, and updates on assessment requirements, teachers were hotly debating the work they care about most - teaching, - and how to best reach their students.

This discussion, held at the Vermont Adult Learning (VAL) offices in Burlington, was the second of three in a study circle focused on goal setting. Seven of us, a mix of teachers, administrators, and volunteers, participated in two study circles, each comprised of three sessions. NCSALL's Practitioner Dissemination Research Network (PDRN) had introduced the concept of a peer-led study circle. As a 15-year veteran teacher of ABE and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), I had been selected by VAL to participate in PDRN's training.

The training brought teachers from throughout New England together to do their own research and to share professional literature with their colleagues back home. To get the most from the professional literature, PDRN promoted the use of the study circle, providing us with a package of documents around a theme, including academic studies and published articles, and suggested activities to stimulate discussion. As a study circle leader, I chose to select my own topics rather than use the PDRN-developed themes. PDRN staff identified a variety of relevant readings and gave friendly critiques of my discussion plans. This level of professional support not only inspired confidence, it also expanded my range of teaching techniques and in itself was a form of individualized staff development.

In our first study circle, we at VAL examined goal setting, a topic introduced to us by a study by John Comings and colleagues (1999). Their research addressed the chronic problem of student turnover and "stopping out," concluding that students' sense of goals was a key component of their active participation (persistence) in ABE programs. After reading this, we read articles highlighting the obstacles to goal setting related to race, class, and family violence.

How Personal?

One of our more exciting discussions - judging from the animation and tension it provoked - revolved around how personal we get with our students. Do we simply interview them and try to deepen their understanding of their goals and possible avenues to achieving those goals? Or do we invite students to discuss what they see as barriers to their progress: past learning experiences or troublesome personal relationships, for example?

About half the teachers who use the more personal approach found that many students want to share stories from earlier educational experiences, or talk about their relationships and how these block their progress. Those advocating this approach found that the personal is educational and believe that this model is crucial to unlocking student potential. Conversely, those who thought that this type of inquiry is intrusive and beyond our training were concerned that in uncovering pain we open a Pandora's Box that we cannot control. They worry that this approach has the potential to hurt students more than help them.

Ideal Components 
of a Study Circle 
for ABE Practitioners

  • Five to eight participants

  • Three or four sessions exploring a given topic of interest to participants

  • Sessions lasting two to three hours

  • Participants attend each session having read materials handed out previously

  • Materials represent the most current thinking on a topic 

  • Participants agree on an agenda and specific discussion questions, leaving time for evaluation of the session

  • Any member of the agency can lead the sessions

In the third session of the study circle, we examined an approach used in Florida that asks students to integrate their past experiences with their current thinking. The group then developed a list of goal-setting recommendations (see box) with the aim of creating a uniform approach for our agency. We started from the perspective that many, if not most, students desire structure, approve of a mechanism that helps them focus, and welcome the opportunity to monitor their successes. Furthermore, these factors point to the efficacy of goal setting. We emphasized that goal setting is a process; it is an evolving skill best learned through practice, and publicized our work in VAL's statewide newsletter.

In reviewing our discussions, we agreed that teachers should be conscious of not imposing their expectations on or making judgments of students. It might be helpful if teachers share their goals, either personal or for the group, during the process. Finally, we voiced a need for more discussion about the relationship between creating group goals and the progress of individual learning.

Second Circle

The second study circle, comprised of a slightly different group of people, examined the "youthification" of ABE: the growing number of younger learners in ABE classes and the impact they have on programs and older students. This circle had a different tenor and outcome from the first. We read about the physiological and developmental issues of adolescence and looked at how race and class at this age play out in the ABE classroom. After discussing develop mental issues, we assessed the positive and negative aspects of having adolescents in our classes. Taking the time to list the strengths that youth bring to the classroom moved us from stereotypical to more balanced thinking about our younger students.

In our second discussion we sought to understand our younger learners better by remembering what those years had been like for us. What was scheduled as a half-hour discussion took most of two hours, as participants shared their past - and, in a sense, current - vulnerabilities with surprising openness. Not only were we able to reach back to those volatile years individually, but we also discovered unknown sides of each other. One participant spoke of herself as a confident 14-year-old lesbian who, by her senior year in high school, had lost almost all positive sense of self. I shared my experiences as a physically immature boy who was humiliated in the gym showers and further undercut by a sense of class (i.e., economic) inferiority.

From this eye-opening exercise, we went on to study what being in the classroom might be like for people who had experienced oppression related to class, race, sexual orientation, substance abuse, or backgrounds, and how teachers' or other students' stereotypes could undermine an individual's participation. Out of this discussion emerged a desire on our parts for more training to allow us to serve these student populations better.

Goal Setting

We developed these guidelines on goal setting as a product of our study circle.

  • Individualized.

  • Contains well-defined steps that create a visual image of the process.

  • Short-term goals are packaged in small bits that reinforce early successes; long-term goals speak to "dreams."

  • Contracts work for some students.

  • Goals should expand beyond the academic to include other roles the student has: spouse, parent, worker, etc.

  • Goals should be re-evaluated periodically with the student: goals change as the student's self-assessment changes. This is especially helpful when done in a group context to broaden individual lessons and increase mutual support.

  • "Guesstimate" the impact of meeting goals will be on family and friends - both positive and negative as students begin to make progress.

  • Try to deepen an understanding about the roots of potential backlash: when a student's friends, relatives, and/or spouse attempt to sabotage the student's motivation.

  • Groups have the strength to offer opportunities to confirm and validate as well as expand horizons and suggest new directions.

  • A sense of personal safety is a prerequisite in initiating a group goal-setting process. This is especially true in light of students' experiences with trauma / violence.

  • One-on-one is good for those students who don't work well in groups: those feeling vulnerable or not up to others' standards.

  • Students welcome praise, celebration, and awards at certain steps along the way.

The storytelling left the most lasting impression on me. Our task had been to focus on the teens in our classrooms, but we found that examining our own experiences growing up helped us to understand more fully the issues facing our younger students. That sharing of personal stories was more powerful than any of us could have imagined. It helped to build new levels of trust among the participants, including the county coordinator, who had been on the job for only a few months and was unknown to other staff members.


At the end of both study circles, participants' comments stressed how good it felt to be challenged intellectually. The process had made them feel more professional, and the discussions provided participants with valuable insights. Unlike staff meetings, where subject matter too often seems imposed, this process affirmed our work, enhanced our self-respect, and built our sense of functioning as a team.

Two different county coordinators experienced the power of the study circles. Both spoke of these forums' value as a form of staff development and of the need to use this and perhaps other forms of study circles. As a result of their observation and participation, study circles are being implemented statewide within Vermont Adult Learning programs.


In looking at this model, a few points need to be highlighted. Study circles must focus on topics that teachers have determined are priorities. The reading selections need to be relatively brief but represent quality research or expert opinion. If staff are responsible for organizing the material, time to do that must be budgeted into their schedules. Besides collecting valuable information, the exercise of organizing and leading a discussion is an effective form of leadership development. Diverting from the planned syllabus allowed for unintended discussions, which were most rewarding. Well-organized but free-flowing conversation focused on a particular topic can have positive effects on team building.

When teachers and staff choose the subject matter for study circles, it meets a direct and perhaps an immediate need. Instead of relying on outside experts, this peer-led form of staff development builds on a staff's strengths, integrating the knowledge they have collectively developed. In this sense, it is respectful of educators' experience and yet still intellectually challenging.

Although the primary purpose of these study circles was to increase VAL staffs' professional knowledge, I cannot overstate the importance in them of the personal dimension. In the personal storytelling session, participants commented on how "exposing ourselves" had created greater bonds of trust. This made it easier for me to share some of the personal problems I was to face later. Since this experience, I have introduced more "storytelling" opportunities in my ESOL classes, which has strengthened our sense of community in the classroom.

We cannot always know where a reading will take us. If content goals are clear, however, and participants are willing to pursue topics in which they are truly engaged, study circles can meet a wide variety of needs. Whether it is to increase pedagogical expertise or enhancing team building, our experience demonstrates that this kind of forum can be extremely productive.

Setting Up a Study Circle?

Interested in running study circles on the same topics we explored? Here are our resource lists.

Goal Setting

Comings, J., Parrella, A., & Soricone, L. (1999). Persistence Among Adult Basic Education Students in Pre-GED Classes. NCSALL Reports #12. Boston: National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy.

Florida Human Resources Development, Inc. (1999). Florida Works: Career Building Skills for Adult Basic Education. Tallahassee, FL: Adult Education Division of Workforce Development.

Horsman, J. (1998). "'But I'm Not a Therapist' The Challenge of Creating Effective Literacy Learning for Survivors of Trauma." In S. Shore, (ed.) Australian Council for Adult Literacy 21st National Conference: Literacy on the Line. Conference Proceedings. Adelaide: University of South Australia. 

Rockhill, K. (1987). "Literacy as threat/desire: Longing to be SOMEBODY." In J. Gaskell, & A. Mclaren (eds.). Women and Education. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises. 


Anderson, M., & Megyesi, A. (1999) "Youth in A.B.E: Going Beyond the Stereotypes." The Change Agent. Issue 9.

Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 261-262.

Begley, S. (2000) "Getting inside a teen brain." Newsweek 28 Feb 58-59.

Hayes, E. (2000) "Youth in adult literacy education programs." In J. Comings, B. Garner, & C. Smith, (eds.) The Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass,  74-110.

Shor, I. (1996) When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 12-19.

Tatum, B. (1999). Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? New York, NY: Basic Books. 

About the Author

Tom O. Smith teaches for Vermont Adult Learning at the Community College of Vermont in Burlington. He has been teaching adult literacy and English for speakers of other languages for 16 years. He has been active in Vermont's third party politics, holding elective office for 12 years.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL