In the Developmental Designs approach, we see the circle as an
ideal architecture for much teaching and learning. But that isn’t all: I
have come to think of it as a medium for equity.
In the mid-twentieth century, Marshall McLuhan arrestingly declared that
“the medium is the message”-that is, the way information is
communicated is at least as important as the information itself. He used
the light bulb as an example of a medium that has a social effect: it
enables us to use the hours of night as never before. In Understanding Media, he wrote, “A light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.” And so it is with the circle: students experience and learn equity just by assembling in it-it is equity; it does equity!
Think about that moment before the Circle of Power and Respect meeting
has begun: everyone circled together, seeing, maybe feeling each other’s
presence, all equidistant from the center, everyone in, no one out.
The shy kid and the one who tends to dominate are equal. The kids from
privilege and those from poverty, too, are equal. All are equally
accountable to each other. As the teacher joins the circle, she, too, is
a learner, a partner in the great process of education.
The circle experience stands in sharp contrast to what most students
have for the rest of the school day: rows or table groupings that
facilitate independent or small-group agendas focused on learning
targets. In the circle, everyone experiences the dimensions of our
humanity, cultures, and personalities that powerfully enhance or inhibit
Equity is the essence of the circle (note its
invariable and relentless symmetry). It symbolically and literally
brings the individual parts of our classroom (students and teacher) into
a whole, balancing our individual agendas with a shared one aimed at
our common good.
The circle contains all other configurations within it:
today I share with two peers across the circle; tomorrow I am a
teammate with three others. It affords and then reabsorbs all groupings,
like an organism or an ecosystem that responds to particular needs and
then re-balances itself.
The Circle of Power and Respect honors, respects, and connects its members through the experiences they share. The stories that come to the circle from beyond the school are shared in the light of the circle’s equity, which sometimes surpasses the fairness and respect some students experience outside the circle.
As diverse students grow to understand and take ownership for the equity
of the circle, they appreciate each other and their differences more
and more. They begin to see that their individual actions and contributions make a difference to the wellbeing of the whole. They see that their differences are not the last word, because community
is the circle’s priority. In this way, the circle mirrors our
privileges and responsibilities as citizens. It inspires and teaches us
to help build the world we all want to live in.
Todd Bartholomay is the Programs and Special Projects Director for The Origins Program. A long-time practitioner of the Developmental Designs
approach, he taught at the middle level for fourteen years. He also served as a principal in the St. Paul
Public Schools, where he was in school adminstration for ten years.
Posted October 2013