by Bob Cole, DLINQ Director of Exploratory Initiatives & Partnerships, & Dr. Jeni Henrickson, DLINQ Instructional Designer

The circle is a potent symbol. Its shape implies community, connection, inclusion, fairness, equality, and wholeness.
― Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel, Restorative Circles in Schools

A circle is neither a panacea nor a magic wand that makes social problems suddenly disappear. It’s more like a form of social technology that enables us to tap capacities for wisdom, collective support, creativity that lie dormant within us.
― Carolyn Boyes-Watson, Peacemaking Circles & Urban Youth 

Wherever you may be at this moment, imagine you are instead entering a well-lit meeting room where you are greeted by a circle of chairs, some of which are occupied. You find an empty chair and take a seat. You take a moment to notice the time of day, the space and sounds around you, the hum of the nearby street. As you wait for someone in the circle to call the meeting to order, you may be wondering, what does this circle have to do with digital detox or the attention economy?

As staff who support teaching and learning with digital tools, we find inspiration in the circle as a metaphor for meaningful human interaction, design, and community-building in face to face and online environments. In fact, meeting “in circle” is at the heart of restorative practices (RP), “an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities” (International Institute for Restorative Practices). RP grew out of the restorative justice movement ― an alternative approach to criminal justice that began in the 1970s with a focus on repairing harm to people and relationships when a crime occurs, rather than simply punishing the offender. 

Today RP may be found in many different fields, from counseling, social work, and organizational development, to education. RP is built on several central components: social discipline that strives for a collaborative and equalizing balance of support and control (doing things with people, rather than to or for them), fair process in decision making, affective statements and questions (relating to mood, feelings, and attitudes) to support clear communication and relationship-building, and the use of proactive and responsive circles to build community and trust. To learn more about restorative practices in total, see the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) website.

It should be noted that in order to fully understand and benefit from restorative practices, the full spectrum of RP needs to be implemented. We are only going to be delving into proactive circles in this post, which are foundational to community building. We believe using proactive dialogue circles consistently can lead to more focused, attentive, and connected communities, and help humanize the learning process (see Education Versus Learning: Restorative Practices in Higher Education for a discussion about the use of restorative practices in higher education that focuses especially on adult learners). 

What Do Proactive Circles Look Like in Real-World Settings?

Proactive circles, depending on group size, are most often part of the first five to ten minutes of a class or meeting. A group that meets multiple times during the week, might start the week with an opening circle and end the week with a brief reflective circle. If you were observing such a meeting, you would see participants standing shoulder to shoulder in the round, ideally with no furniture in between. In contrast with other formations, the circular shape affords to the group what political philosopher Hannah Arendt defines as the “space of appearance,” where everyone is visible to each other, can be heard, and is on equal footing. 

In action, a circle keeper is designated and is “responsible for emphasizing equity, setting a safe and respectful tone, keeping the flow moving, and introducing prompts and instructions” (The Five Key Components of a Restorative Circle). For in-person circles, it’s common for the keeper to identify a “talking piece” (a small symbolic object) that is handed from person to person to highlight who the speaker is. With the talking piece in hand, the speaker is gifted the undivided attention of the group and is the only person allowed to speak until ready to pass to someone else. 

The circle keeper invites each person in turn to respond to a meaningful open-ended question. Proactive circle questions can also invite brief one-word answers (“In one word, describe how you’re feeling today”); questions focused on a specific topic (“Share why you’re passionate about language learning”); or questions that are focused on general life experiences (“If you could choose anywhere in the world to visit, name where and why”). 

Whether the circle is topical, social, or reflective, the circle keeper will choose who begins the responses, or can ask for a volunteer, and then allow the volunteer to determine the direction of flow (left, right, or popcorn-style, where the person who answers chooses the next person who will answer). When using popcorn-style, it’s important for the circle keeper to ensure that everyone in the group has been seen and heard. With practice, enacting circles may become even more collaborative as the role of circle keeper is modeled and shared.

Another restorative practice that can help with building community and trust is using a fishbowl approach to problem solving and brainstorming. In fishbowls, you have a smaller circle of participants in the middle with one empty chair, surrounded by a larger circle of participants. The conversation begins in the smaller inner circle, but participants in the outer circle move in and out of that smaller circle (filling the empty chair) as they choose to contribute ideas to the smaller circle. Along with using fishbowls to tackle problem solving and decision making, you can also use them to share experience and knowledge

This kind of intentional community-focused practice can work in online settings too! Online communities can be lacking in human connection, and members may feel siloed and alone there. It can be a special challenge for instructors to cultivate learner attention and engagement online. Circles can help with such challenges. 

Circles in Online Settings

There’s something important that the moment of stopping to listen has in common with the labyrinthine quality of attention-holding architecture: in their own ways, each enacts some kind of interruption, a removal from the sphere of familiarity.
Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

As in face-to-face circles, the opportunity in online or hybrid settings is to prioritize participant attention on relationship building by getting to know each other beyond the “work” of the classroom or meeting. Proactive circles can influence how we think about interaction and attention in online settings. For example, in synchronous (real-time) online meetings, video, audio, and chat-room features like those in Zoom or Skype can support circle dialogue of a geographically distributed group. 

In hybrid gatherings, where some group members are participating online, while others may be located together in a physical room, visibility can be a real challenge. We have had success with emerging web conferencing tools like the Owl (a 360 degree webcam and conference mic) to balance the social presence of participants in such environments. Circle interaction can also work with audio-only tools like a teleconference, but the group would need to agree on a verbal signal to represent the “talking piece.” 

A class at MIIS recently used an Owl (located in the middle of the circle) to welcome online participants into their physical circle

A class at MIIS recently used an Owl (located in the middle of the circle) to welcome online participants into their physical circle

In asynchronous (time-shifted) online settings, circles look a little different. Online circles can be in discussion-forum format, where, for example, at the beginning of each new meeting, participants are asked to respond to a question akin to those noted earlier, that draw on emotive, personal reflections that allow participants to build relationships and trust. Or, better yet, you could use a tool like Flipgrid where participants post responses to circle questions using video. With video, participants are able to hear and see each other, get a sense of each other’s personalities, and are better able to interpret tone. Read about MIIS faculty member Dr. Katherine Punteney’s experiences using Flipgrid in an online International Education Management course last year in “Humanizing the Online Discussion Forum with Social Video Practices.” 

Flipgrid Example

Example of what video grids look like in Flipgrid. Student faces have been blurred for privacy. When you click on a person, their video opens in the middle of the screen and plays.

What Might the Future of Circles Look Like Online?

When we envision how proactive circles might influence digital environments in the future of online communication, we envision a tool that literally puts participants’ images/videos in a circle, whether they’re connecting synchronously or asynchronously. As each person speaks, that person’s image or video moves to the center of the circle. If it’s a synchronous video chat, that person can toss a virtual talking piece to the person they want to hear from next. 

This virtual circle tool could perhaps be developed into an app that could be integrated into other platforms, like Canvas or Zoom. When installed, it would place participant images and videos into circles on the screen, rather than square blocks in a line.

Mockup of what circles might look like in a program like Zoom

Mockup of what circles might look like in a program like Zoom

Takeaways

We encourage you to consider introducing proactive circles into your classrooms and meeting rooms, committing some learning time to community- and relationship-building. Here are some tips to consider:

  • To cultivate new connections and community, start small during face-to-face or online meetings with a proactive-circle-inspired question (see pg 42-43) focused on feelings, mood, and attitude.
  • Build in time for trust- and team-building activities in your work and learning groups
  • If you have some group members in the physical room along with others joining via video, consider using the Owl to allow online members to better see and hear each person in the physical room. If you’re on the Monterey or Vermont campuses, you can email DLINQ (dlinq at middlebury.edu) to inquire about checking one out. 
  • Try using Flipgrid and inviting your group members to participate in a weekly proactive circle there
  • Use the fishbowl approach described earlier in this post for a group brainstorming or problem-solving activity 
  • Check out the resources below for further exploration of restorative practices and proactive circles

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Featured image photo by Shihao Mei on Unsplash