Using Talking Circles in the Classroom


Talking circles have become a well known method of healing in American Indian populations. The typical format involves the participants sitting in a circle; each individual will be able to make eye contact with everyone. There is an object of some sort passed around and whoever has the object gets to speak. Only one participant speaks at a time and no one is expected to have any answers or offer any advice. The notion of speaking while everyone listens respectfully is a powerful modality. As human beings’, having someone listen to us, is many times the only help we need and often, the only one we will accept.

Many indigenous students have had negative experiences within the dominant educational systems. It is the instructor’s professional responsibility to promote a safe learning environment in the classroom setting. Incorporating a talking circle format in the classroom is an effective way of creating a safe environment while allowing students to engage more fully. The circle of students also requires them to get involved/interact with each other. Staring at the back of their heads – the typical class setting – does not foster any connections. This format will also promote the collaborative approach, in essence creating a community of learners.

Research shows that American Indian students learn more effectively when there is a reflective process built into the class structure. A talking circle will promote the reflection – especially when students are encouraged to speak up. Furthermore, many American Indian students are mature students and have had significant life experiences. Talking circle classrooms will allow for their experiences to be acknowledged and encouraged to share and teach their peers, as well as the instructor.

The lecture format of instruction is the least effective, yet continues to be the most common method using in post-secondary institutions. A motivated instructor will continue to look for new ways of transmitting information to the student. A motivated student will constantly look for new ways of incorporating the new knowledge into their world view. The talking circle requires the instructor to ‘share’ the floor with all the students, while at the same time promoting the oral tradition of learning. The circle is one of the most powerful and common metaphors among many Indigenous knowledge systems. Thus the method incorporates Indigenous learning systems and helps to create the bridge between Western and Indigenous ways of knowing.

Tools and Strategies

How to Run a Talking Circle


* moveable tables and chairs, tables are to be pushed aside and chairs placed in a circle,

* a small object such as a rock or stick with some meaningful significance (sacred objects such as eagle feathers are not recommended due to ceremonial restrictions for women),

* teaching format will be oral, therefore powerpoint notes – if being used – would need to be handed out beforehand, instructor would need to rely on speaking notes

Protocol and Guidelines

*Establish circle protocol at the beginning of the class, as well as reiterating in the subsequent several classes;

* Creating a safe environment through confidentiality is a critical component of a successful talking circle therefore, place extra emphasis on ‘what is said in this circle stays in this circle’ by stating this at the beginning of each class;

* Whoever has the talking object has the floor, all other participants are to listen respectfully, no interruptions, no talking to their neighbor, no cell phones or working on something else, as well as reminding everyone that 3 to 10 minutes is usually long enough for a person to speak, so that everyone has an opportunity;

* No one ‘picks up’ what someone else has said, so no one offers any advice to anyone else – students can talk about the same issue if the topic has raised something within them;

* Everyone has the option of passing the talking object, if they don’t want to speak. As time goes on, if the required trust and comfort level has been established, there will be fewer ‘passes’ during the circle;

* Establish a signal so that one person doesn’t speak ‘overlong’, such as a gentle cough;

* No one leaves the circle until it is closed, which is the role of the instructor.

Teaching Suggestions

* Have a check-in at the beginning of each class, ask a question that everyone answers, can be a standard one such as ‘how are you’ or ‘what is one thing you remember from last class’ or else something fun or random such as ‘what is your favourite colour’ – without the use of the talking stone/stick so that no one can ‘pass’ on the question. The purpose of this question is to get all the students centered and present in the class.

* Devote the last part of the class to the talking circle, asking a general question such as ‘what had the most impact on what you heard today’, you can also ask their input on what other topics would they like to spend more time on, thus encouraging them and inviting them to have a say in their educational experience. The time you will need will depend on the size of your class, as mentioned previously, 3 to 10 minutes per person is usually the norm, the shorter time is more appropriate for a classroom setting whereas the longer timeframe is more for healing circles.

*Creating a sense of equality with students is critical to their feeling safe and valued so as an instructor, you should be willing to participate fully in the talking circle – keeping in mind that you as the instructor has other roles and responsibilities.

This teaching modality will usually be more profound in courses relating to the human health field, such as psychology, sociology, and chemical dependency courses. However, any course that involves diverse sources of knowledge that primarily uses lecture format, without the extensive use of computer/blackboard could be a successful talking circle classroom. Working together will create a learning experience that is rich, interesting and life changing. And isn’t that what educational institutions are all about?


Submitted by Rose Roberts, March 2010

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