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Trust the Circle

Many years ago, back in the late 80s, I had a wonderful teacher named Mr Van Wyck. He was a quirky, softly spoken man in his sixties who always wore a black suit, bearing a striking resemblance to The Penguin from the Batman movies. Though small in physical stature, his influence was immense. Former students frequently returned to visit him, often crediting him as the key reason they ventured into higher education, travelled the world, or moved abroad to pursue their chosen career.


The secret to his influence? TRUST.


I vividly remember my first time walking into his classroom. There was something distinctly different about it: No rows of desks.


In his room, all the desks were arranged in a large circle and Mr Van Wyck sat at the same level as the rest of us.


What was the power of this circular arrangement? Discussion flowed easily, and no one could zone out; everyone was accountable. We shared stories, connected with the texts we studied, and worked as a learning community. While Mr Van Wyck was undoubtedly the expert in the room, he didn’t monopolise the conversation. He masterfully used questions to get us to connect ideas, leveraging the collective knowledge of the group to build our understanding.


He TRUSTED us, and it was clear.


I find it fascinating that the circle architecture model isn’t a key instructional tool deployed in every classroom. It is so simple.


Get the students to face each other, remove power struggles by sitting at the same level, and ask questions that get everyone thinking, speaking, listening, or doing. Techniques like turn-and-talk or think-pair-share ensure everyone stays actively engaged, keeping circle time short and sharp.


Engagement goes up, power struggles go down, and we foster a team mentality in our classrooms. Most importantly, it shows we TRUST our students to learn WITH us rather than making teaching something we do TO them.


So, why isn’t this instructional tool more commonly used in schools? Is it a matter of trust? Is it about control? Are teachers reluctant to let go of the power they’ve traditionally held over class discussions?


Many schools aim to enhance student agency as a key goal in their strategic improvement plans. They formalise this by creating student voice groups and revising policies. Yet, their classrooms are still set up using an outdated 1950s instructional model. What if, instead, they adopted informal methods to amplify student voices? What if they shifted occasionally from the ‘Sage on the Stage’ approach to a collaborative circle model?


Agency is about TRUSTING students to be key contributors in the learning process.


When I recently asked students in a Year 5 classroom how working in a circle felt different from sitting in clusters on the floor or at desks, these were some of their responses:


“I like it because I can see everyone’s face and hear their ideas.”


“I feel like it’s more equal.”


“I actually understand what my classmates are talking about when I can look at their faces and not the backs of their heads.”


“I get to hear how everybody thinks, and I’m exposed to more ideas.”


So, what steps can we take to reshape our classrooms into spaces that truly support student agency and active engagement? How would your classroom change if you trusted your students enough to work in circles?