The Learning Circle: U of Calgary provides a new model for social work education

Volume 15, No. 2 - Winter 2003
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The Learning Circle is a new model of outreach social work education developed in the province of Alberta in western Canada. Working in collaboration with First Nations, Metis, and rural stakeholder groups across the province, a cross-cultural team from the University of Calgary is offering weekend courses through tribal and community colleges in outlying regions. Local elders and healers connect core course material with regional history, issues, and traditional healing practices. Students can maintain employment in their home communities while working towards an accredited Bachelor of Social Work (B.S.W.) degree. This research paper examines the vision, knowledge base, design, and implementation of the new Learning Circle model.

Note on terminology: In Canada, the term “First Nations” is used instead of “tribe,” and “reserve” is used instead of “reservation.” Alberta is home to a number of First Nations communities and Metis settlements. This article uses the broad term “aboriginal” to include both of these groups.

For over 30 years, the University of Calgary in western Canada has offered social work education through courses based on its urban campuses in Calgary, Lethbridge, and Edmonton. Aboriginal students relocating from rural and remote communities for their B.S.W. education have voiced concerns about the accessibility and relevance of coursework grounded in urban Western, European assumptions, which did not fit well with their world views and helping practices back home. Recognizing the importance of access to relevant social work education on reserves and in rural communities across Alberta, a consortium of interest groups came together to develop a proposal for Access funding from the provincial government. (Access is a program that allocates funds to increase rural people’s access to university education.)

The province of Alberta approved the B.S.W. Access Proposal in early 1999. It reflects the collaborative work of First Nations Adult & Higher Education Consortium (FNAHEC), the Northern B.S.W. Stakeholders’ Council, the University of Calgary Faculty of Social Work, and the Alberta College of Social Workers. (FNAHEC includes tribal colleges and education boards primarily in Alberta and the North Peace Tribal Council. The Northern B.S.W. Stakeholders’ Council includes representatives from Children’s Services Regions, Metis settlements, Metis zones, northern First Nations and tribal organizations, northern regions of Family & Social Services, private northern service agencies, and post-secondary institutions under the Alberta North umbrella.)

The original proposal declared several principles (Rogers, 1998). It called for innovative courses that would be culturally and geographically relevant, sensitive to First Nations and Metis peoples, and aligned with traditional philosophies and knowledge systems. Overall, the proposal was dedicated to “increasing accessibility, responsiveness, and affordability of University of Calgary accredited social work degrees.”

Recognizing the unique needs of potential students in rural, remote, aboriginal communities, the new model also proposed changes in delivery methods to make them flexible in time, place, and mode. It was clear at the outset that the new model had to be the same quality as the existing, accredited degree programs.

Literature Review

The literature over the past decade reveals a developing knowledge base relevant to aboriginal social work that utilizes traditional visions and healing practices (Borg, Delaney, & Sellick, 1997; Bruyere, 1999; Hart, 2001; Meawasige, 1995; Morrissette, McKenzie, & Morrissette, 1993; Proulx & Perrault, 2000; Stevenson, 1999). The literature also includes aboriginal approaches that emphasize coming-to-know rather than an end state of knowledge-as-product (Ambler, 1995; Assembly of Alaska Native Educators, 2000; Barden & Boyer, 1993; Carriere-Laboucan, 1997; Crazy Bull, 1997; Gilchrist, 1997; Nabigon, Hagey, Webster, & MacKay, 1999; Smith, 1999; Webster & Reyno, 1999).

At the program level, it is not a simple task to integrate core, generic social work content with aboriginal perspectives. Colorado (1993) observed, “There is no established infrastructure for teaching social work from the perspective of both Native and Western world views” (p. 75). Ambler (1997) concurred that “it is easier to adopt a dual mission than to implement it” (p. 9). Willeto (1997) describes the volatile nature of such integration attempts as “a continuing process. At times it is harmony, while other times it is chaos. Stability and instability go hand in hand” (p. 15).

Aboriginal social work students themselves have reported overwhelming pressures related to family demands, parenting responsibilities, finances, personal healing, fears of returning to school after many years away, and the tremendous importance of staying in the home community (Beaulieu, 1993; Grieves, 1992; Lalonde, 1993; Peacock, 1993).

German (1997) described moving to a non-aboriginal academic setting as a “spiritual challenge” (p. 34) where the student has to deal with the education itself plus related social, physical, emotional, and spiritual transitions. Using stronger terms such as “spiritual dislocation” and “emotional desolation” to describe a move to the urban centre for educational purposes, Griffin-Pierce (1997) explained, “Far from mere homesickness, such feelings are based on an unconscious sense of having violated the natural and moral order in a culture which reifies order. Such stress is profound and unrelenting” (p. 5).

Developing the Learning Circle

For the first time in the University of Calgary’s history, the Academic Selection Committee for the new B.S.W. Access positions included aboriginal persons from community stakeholder groups as full voting members.

The original team recruited for the new B.S.W. Access Division included women and men of diverse cultural backgrounds: First Nations, Metis, and non-Native. This diversity has meant that curriculum design has always been challenging and intense, requiring a great deal of trust, respect, and shared commitment to the overall Access vision. Access division members work constantly to be open and accepting of each other’s cultural perspective, at the same time acknowledging the constraints imposed by core curriculum requirements. The division functions as a cross-cultural team, which models for their students such values as inclusiveness and mutual respect. Conflict inevitably occurs because of differing worldviews and perspectives on issues. Where possible, these differences have been incorporated into the curriculum to expose students to alternative methods and ways of knowing.

Access Division faculty members began with the vision from the B.S.W. Access Proposal and the existing, accredited on-campus B.S.W. program. Core B.S.W. academic content was grouped into four theme areas considered crucial for social work in rural, remote, and aboriginal communities: Generalist Practice in Context; Communication & Information; Diversity & Oppression; and Social Work Methods.

In consultation with the communities, these general theme areas were then transformed into theme courses with core curriculum material specifically adapted for application in the aboriginal contexts. Each theme course features at least one module devoted to “Local Applications.” This allows for local healers, elders, agency workers, and other community resource persons to present information and lead discussions with students. Thus they can connect course content with the history, current practices, and policy issues in the local region. Readings from aboriginal academics and social workers are considered within each theme course.

The basic structure of this B.S.W. curriculum variation is represented in circular form, the Learning Circle:


The basic structure of this B.S.W. curriculum variation is represented in circular form, the Learning Circle.

With the circle framework, the four theme areas do not have to be sequential with a fixed starting point. Students can register to begin theme courses in fall or winter session, entering the Learning Circle with the theme that is being delivered at that time. Accompanying each theme course is a related “portfolio project” course that challenges the student to integrate his or her professional and lived experience (including learning from the theme course) into a reflective project involving supported independent study. Elective courses within the Learning Circle curriculum are numbered the same as the on-campus option courses. Access students then have the option to take spring/summer electives at any Access location or on-campus if they wish.

Once the theme course areas and related portfolio projects are completed, B.S.W. Access students can take a practicum placement in their own region with a flexible schedule negotiated between student, agency, and faculty. In response to the often-limited number of agencies and qualified supervisors available in many remote communities, the Access Division offers students the option of one practicum placement (rather than the conventional two). Of course, that one placement must still meet the requirements specified by the faculty and the accreditation standards related to supervision and the total prescribed number of hours. Accompanying this practicum is an Integrative Practice Seminar that promotes both theory and practice within the local field placement.

The extensive, community consultation process determined that the new Learning Circle model could not require full-time study because most students in rural areas would be employed throughout their Access course experience. Potential Access students actually form the backbone of the local service network in many of the communities. Agencies and the community could not afford to have all these people leave their jobs to attend school full-time even if classes were available locally. In response, the program delivers nine-hour course modules every second week (typically three hours on Friday night followed by six hours on Saturday).

Faculty, Staff, and Community Resources

Formal contracts have been negotiated between the university and host institutions in the various Access delivery sites. (Some are tribal colleges; some are community colleges.) The local colleges provide classroom space, audiovisual resources, library privileges, and/or computing services. The university pays the colleges a lump sum per academic term plus a per student amount specific to the number of students who register and complete the course at that location. While the quality of facilities and services offered at the colleges varies, overall they have proven adequate.

The program is served by an advisory group, the Northern BSW Distance Planning Circle, which has a minimum of five aboriginal members. This group provides a forum for identifying critical issues facing social workers and communities in northern Alberta.

A great deal of student support is necessary for the program. Many Access students and potential students have had negative experiences dealing with large bureaucracies in the past. Often English is not their first language. The B.S.W. Access Division has a student services staff that spends a lot of time on the telephone with students and potential students advising them on program requirements and details and helping them assess their own situations. Student services staff members also travel to Access delivery sites at crucial times of the year to provide information workshops and to assist with application and registration forms, etc.

Teaching assignments for Learning Circle delivery differ significantly from the conventional on-campus workload. Learning Circle course outlines are developed collaboratively and are common across delivery sites (although there can be considerable variation in the Local Applications modules). Coordinated by an assigned Access faculty member at any given site, a theme course is delivered using faculty members and community resource persons appropriate for each module content area. Thus students at a delivery site are exposed to a combination of community- and university-based instructors offering specific modules in their areas of interest and expertise.

Rather than being tied into conventional course assignment assumptions, faculty members have the opportunity to teach from their areas of interest and passion. For example, consider the Generalist Practice in Context theme course. An aboriginal faculty member may deliver the nine-hour aboriginal Context Considerations module in four or five different sites. Similarly, a faculty member with northern practice experience can deliver the Northern Context Considerations module across a number of sites. In this way, instructors travel to various sites rather than delivering a full course at any one site. Community resource persons can also make significant contributions to local course delivery without having to assume overall administrative course responsibility.

Adapting and Evaluating the Model

In response to the need for specific Metis services, a new Metis initiative is currently underway. Metis worldview, traditions, and healing practices are often assumed under the general label “aboriginal,” but there are distinct differences that affect services in those communities. They envision a funded cohort of Metis B.S.W. students following the Learning Circle curriculum and delivery model except they will have Metis instruction and materials relevant to Metis history and healing practices. This will be a first in Canadian social work education.

Three full years after the first Access course offerings, a comprehensive formal evaluation is now in progress. Data now being collected from students, graduates, stakeholders, instructors, and community leaders will form the basis for program revisions and adaptations. In the meantime, there is some empirical and anecdotal material from the communities that provides initial evidence of the Learning Circle’s impact.

One of the new program’s major objectives was to increase accessibility of the University of Calgary accredited undergraduate social work degree for persons in rural, remote, and aboriginal communities across Alberta. In January 2000, some 73 students began taking Learning Circle courses at six community college and tribal college sites across the province located from 200 to 1000 kilometers from Calgary.

At this point, over 230 students have completed Learning Circle course offerings in their home regions, including 78 who have completed the full degree requirements and have convocated with their B.S.W. degrees from the University of Calgary. All of the Access graduates so far have secured or maintained employment in the social work field following degree completion.

On student registration forms, approximately one-half of the B.S.W. Access students have identified themselves as aboriginal. The Learning Circle approach has thus far provided an opportunity for more than 115 new aboriginal social work students to work towards their accredited Bachelor of Social Work degrees in their home communities across rural Alberta.

Another major objective was to develop relevant curriculum featuring flexible delivery methods, class scheduling, and entry points. The Learning Circle, with its circular curriculum approach, modular weekend delivery, and close ties to regional issues and practices, appears to be meeting those needs.

Upon examination of the Access curriculum, Donna Lajeunesse, a Metis elder from Grande Prairie, AB, wrote, “An institution where people go to … gain wisdom should be sharing the knowledge of the world. The place of learning should never be restricted to ‘Western/Eastern.’ Knowledge should be attainable through our learning institutions without the biases of where the knowledge comes from. This concept, it is my belief, has not existed in Canada since colonization.”

In her 1999 letter, she said, “I equate your introduction of the rural, remote, and aboriginal B.S.W. with the discovery that the world is not flat.” She embraced the new curriculum, saying, “With open minds and open hearts perhaps we, as Canadians, can welcome and respect the values and beliefs of all people.”

For more information, contact Michael Kim Zapf, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary AB, Canada T2N 1N4, phone (403) 220-6947, or email


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