How does one organize a study group?
A study group is a small group of people who systematically ask basic questions about the workings of our society and choose effective ways to bring about positive change. Social problems that we encounter do not exist in isolation — they were profoundly inter-connected and are part of a larger system of global injustice. A study group seek to get to the roots of social and economic problems by looking at “the big picture.”
A group of people (typically 8–12) agrees to meet regularly — once a week or every two weeks for a couple of hours. At the meeting, they discuss some of the issues raised in the Democracy Charter. They also engage in a variety of exercises to develop ideas and plans for positive change.
A study group has a particular group process designed to be democratic and encouraging of real sharing. This process also helps a group to focus its attention on and successfully grapple with the topic at hand. Since equalitarian, open, relationships are a part of our vision of a good society, it makes sense to develop these kinds of relationships with each other.
While focused on study, analysis, and discussion, the primary goal of a study group is to foster concrete action that will lead to a more just world society.
Typically, groups meet once a week to help the group maintain focus and momentum, or at least twice a month so that the group maintains cohesion and members do not lose track of ideas from earlier discussions.
Convening a Group
To recruit participants, talk with your friends, neighbors, work colleagues, congregation, or fellow members of organizations to which you belong. Give them a copy of the Democracy Charter and pass along the ASEJ.net web address.
Reaching Out and Bringing People Together
If you are already in a group concerned with changing society in some way — such as a peace, environmental, or religious group, a liberation group, or a community action project — try to interest the members of the group in conducting a study group. Stress the ways in which a study group could be relevant and helpful: to give them a broader perspective; to help them decide exactly what they want to do and/or how to go about it; to overcome problems of feeling isolated, ineffective, or insignificant; and/or to help them develop their own analysis of society and their part in it.
If the group is reluctant to commit the time necessary for a study group, you might try building up interest gradually by using some of the process ideas suggested in this study guide in your regular meetings. The democratic group process ideas are easily applied to many situations and can do much to relieve frustration and increase effectiveness. Also, many of the exercises can be helpful in developing and clarifying program ideas while building a “big picture” perspective.
If you are not in such a group, or if your group is too small or not interested, you will have to find enough people yourself. There are numerous ways of doing this:
- Approach people in local groups, such as religious congregations, support groups, peace groups, environmental groups, and groups concerned with community issues like housing, childcare, education, etc.
- Write to your local newspaper or your congregation or community paper, explaining what the study group is and asking anyone interested to get in touch with you. A local radio station might also be willing to help.
- Leaflet and/or put up posters in community centers, grocery stores, coffee shops, local schools, churches, libraries and other likely places that have bulletin boards.
- Talk to your friends and other people you know: at work, in your neighborhood, those you meet socially, and anyone else you come across who might be interested.
By the time you have tried some or all of these ideas, you are likely to have discovered enough interest to get started. A study group works best with eight to twelve participants, though six or seven is sufficient if people attend regularly. It is usually best to aim for ten to fourteen people at the beginning and expect a few dropouts. If the group is much larger than that you should consider dividing into two groups to give everybody a greater opportunity for participation.
Group Size and Composition
Generally, the optimal size for a study group is about 10. With 10 participants, there are enough people to take on assignments without anyone being overly burdened. Furthermore, there is likely to be enough diversity to have good discussions. A group with fewer than 8 members places a much larger burden on each participant and can be challenging — especially if some people drop out over time. At the other end of the size range, it is very difficult to have a discussion in a large group. If there are more than 17 people who want to join the group, it is usually best to split into two completely independent groups.
Participants do not necessarily need to know each other beforehand but the group usually works best if participants share some common interests or have some organizational connection.
September is perhaps the best time to start a START group since this is when people often make yearlong time commitments. Since people often go away for the summer, the optimal time to recruit people for a September start is either late the previous May or the first week in September. January is another good starting time. Keep in mind that many peace organizations, women’s groups, and religious groups plan their programs six months to a year in advance.
Establishing Common Expectations
Everyone should be clear in advance about the commitments involved in conducting a study group: regular attendance for the duration (irregular attendance can be an even more serious problem for group morale than dropping out); extra reading and preparation time between meetings when presenting a report; and shared leadership responsibilities. It is particularly important for everyone to come to the first several meetings since latecomers will find it difficult to become properly integrated into the group.
You should also consider carefully the advantages and drawbacks of different length study group sessions and make a conscious decision about how long yours will last. A study group with fewer sessions, if conscientiously carried out by all participants, can give a fairly clear global and local perspective on current political, environmental, and economic problems and can help you consider engaging in action for change. A 24-week study group provides more time to hear more different viewpoints, more time to think through your own perspective, and more time to develop personal trust and loving concern in your group. The additional time and closeness will likely increase your ability to work out a meaningful change program and to consider and begin implementing ways to change your own life.
Requirements of Participants
For a study group to work well, participants must make a sincere commitment to the process and to the other members of the group. In particular, each participant should agree to:
- Participate honestly in discussions and exercises
- Work with others cooperatively
- Take on an additional role periodically as a facilitator, timekeeper, etc.
For the process to be educational and satisfying, members of the group should make a sincere effort, doing their best to make the group work well.
Each participant should have a copy of the “the Democracy Charter” so that she/he can be familiar with the document.
Each participant should have access to a computer with connection to the internet so she/he can read/view the materials on the ASEJ.net website.
A good meeting place:
- Is easy to find and travel to
- Is large enough to accommodate everyone easily
- Has enough chairs for everyone (unless the group has people who are willing and able to sit on the floor)
- Has moveable chairs that can be arranged in a rough circle so everyone can see each other
- Is private and quiet, so participants can speak freely and not be distracted
- Has a large easel (or a chair and a piece of fiberboard set up as an easel), writable whiteboard, blackboard, or a blank wall (free of pictures, light switches, and other obstructions) where the group can record notes on large pieces of paper (“wall charts”)
Your own living room is often the best gathering place. Meeting rooms at a library, church, or union hall may also be suitable. Restaurants, bars, and social clubs are usually too noisy or distracting. If you meet at participants’ homes, you may want to rotate to a different home for each session so that no one person is burdened by hosting the group repeatedly.
Recording materials that consist simply of large (i.e., 24” x 36” or larger) pieces of paper that can be used for wall charts and large crayons or felt marking pens (non-toxic water-based pens that do not soak through the paper are best). Wall charts play a central role for recording the decisions and thoughts of the group — brainstormed questions and ideas, lists of change goals and projects, important facts or issues, and the tentative agenda for the next week.
Typically, these sheets are hung on a wall during each session with masking tape, are added to during each session, and serve as a memory bank for the group. Although a whiteboard or blackboard is more ecological and the group might want to use one at times, wall chart sheets have the big advantage of permanence. Typically, all the used wall chart sheets are kept throughout the study group sessions so they can be referred to later.
It is possible to use a computer and lcd projector for recording instead of paper. This saves paper and has the advantage that all the notes can be emailed to each person at the end of the meeting. However, it may be difficult to draw boxes, lines, arrows, and other graphics to visually show the connections between items.
Preparation for the First Meeting
For the first meeting, the convener should arrange a meeting place, pick a time to meet, and ask prospective participants to attend. It really helps the sessions to go well if you can meet somewhere congenial, where people can feel relaxed, and with facilities for hot drinks during the break. If possible, it is helpful to have someone who is familiar with the study group process in attendance to facilitate the first several meetings and help the group overcome the initial strangeness of the process and/or to break out of bad meeting habits. This person might be someone who has been in a study group before. Though useful, this is not essential.
The First Meeting
Be sure to bring wall chart paper and marking pens. If any of the participants are parents, offer to help arrange childcare.
At least at the first meeting, it is usually good to provide food and drinks to establish an inviting and homey atmosphere. As each person arrives, you should greet them enthusiastically and introduce them to others, mentioning something about each person so they all have topics about which they can begin to chat and inquire more about one another.
To facilitate an egalitarian discussion, it is best for participants to arrange their chairs so that they sit in a rough semi-circle facing the wall chart. This ensures that participants can all see and hear each other and also that they are all facing forward towards their collective work as displayed on the wall chart.
With no leader in charge of running the study group, its success is the responsibility of all the participants and is largely determined by the amount of participants’ collective input of time, energy, and concern. The more responsibility is shared, the more the group will be able to function democratically.
Each participant should be prepared to do the following:
- Take on the various group process roles described below on a rotating basis.
- Participate in group discussion without dominating or allowing others to dominate.
Group Process Roles and Tasks
To help the group stay on track while preventing anyone from dominating the discussion or decision-making, it is helpful to have a few members of the group take on special roles:
As described above, the convener is the person(s) who gets the study group started. That person recruits participants, arranges for the group to get together for the first meeting, takes ultimate responsibility for arranging time and place of meetings, helps arrange childcare, and provides the wall chart materials (at least for the first meeting). She/he may also take responsibility for facilitating the first few meetings (or arranging for an experienced person to facilitate). She/he may also participate in between-session planning meetings to assist the facilitator and assistant facilitator in developing agendas for meetings.
The facilitator’s task is to enable the smooth working of the group and help it achieve what it wants to achieve. The facilitator does not lead the group by telling it what to do, but serves the needs of the whole group and facilitates the process. The facilitator should:
- Plan: With the assistant facilitator, develop a meeting agenda based on the desires of the group, and feedback from the previous meeting’s evaluation. Before the beginning of the meeting, write this agenda on a large wall chart and post it on the meeting room wall.
- Initiate: Get the meeting started on time.
- Enforce Agreements: At the beginning of the meeting, review the agenda with the group (including time limits for each item), change the agenda in response to concerns and suggestions from the group, get the group to mutually consent to the amended agenda, and then, throughout the meeting, keep the group to its agreed agenda. Suggest when it is appropriate to move on to the next agenda item (usually based on time limits for items which the group has set for itself). If the group expresses a desire to change the agenda, help the group negotiate a new agreement, and then enforce this new agenda.
- Guide: Introduce each agenda item or prompt someone else to do this. Keep discussion within agreed-upon time limits.
- Encourage: Help everyone share in the discussion. Be sensitive to reserved people being cut off or intimidated by more extroverted folks. Encourage those who have not participated much to speak more and encourage those who talk a lot to listen more and speak less.
Also, encourage and help the other members of the group who have taken on roles to do their jobs.
It is also helpful if the facilitator can:
- Monitor: Be sensitive to the feelings of the group members. Note expressions of emotion, particular types of questions that indicate uneasiness, and the general mood — which may indicate that some change in process is called for.
- Reveal: Try to get important but unspoken frustrations, needs, fears, expectations, etc. out in the open so they can be dealt with directly. These “hidden agendas” are often an important source of failure and frustration in groups.
- Assist Discussions by actively using the 4 Ss:
o Summarize: Periodically, summarize briefly what has been said including any apparent disagreements, and check with the group that your summary is accurate by saying something like “Is that right?” or “Have I summarized this accurately?” This reassures people that they have been heard and their ideas are still part of the discussion.
o Sort: Suggest ways to separate disparate ideas and to place together similar ideas. Point out agreements and disagreements.
o Synthesize: Suggest ways that solutions or ideas can be melded together.
o Suggest Directions: Focus the discussion by suggesting a particular direction or order: first talk about this, then that, then the other.
- Mediate: When thorough communication is critical or when people seem unable to hear each other, ask people to repeat in their own words what they heard, and then check whether that person felt it was an accurate re-statement of what they had said. If not, the person can rephrase the idea until everyone understands. Telling the person “I think I hear you saying…” will usually obtain the desired result of clarification, and it grates a lot less than “You’re not being clear,” or “I don’t know what you are saying.”
The assistant facilitator helps the facilitator tend to group process by:
- Meeting (or talking by phone) with the facilitator beforehand to plan the meeting agenda.
- Monitoring how the meeting is going and making suggestions for change when appropriate.
- Taking over facilitation if the facilitator is unable to perform this task (because of illness, absence, or being overwhelmed during the meeting) or when the facilitator is carrying out another role.
- Taking over another task (such as keeping track of time or recording) when the person designated to do that task is carrying out another role.
- If the group breaks into two subgroups for discussion, facilitating one of the groups.
The recorder writes notes on the wall chart whenever it is useful to the group. This may include recording changes made to the agenda, important facts or ideas mentioned in reports, brainstormed ideas for action, ideas proposed in the evaluation section, etc.
Note that despite the best efforts of the recorder, it is sometimes difficult to recognize important ideas that should be recorded as they come up. So sometimes it is useful to have a separate piece of paper posted to the side that anyone can record thoughts on as she/he feels the need.
The timekeeper helps the group move through the agenda by announcing when the agreed-upon time for each item has passed. It is often helpful for the timekeeper to give people a minute or two of warning, particularly during reports, so that they can use their remaining time well. The timekeeper should be seen as a reminder, not a dictator. When time has run out, the facilitator should help the group decide whether to allocate more time to the current agenda item or move on to the next one.
The vibes watcher is especially sensitive to the dynamics of group process, the emotional climate in the room, and outside distractions (noise, room temperature, and so on). She/he monitors body language, facial expressions, side conversations, and other signs to notice upsets, boredom, etc. If the group process gets off track, she/he points this out and suggests a remedy.
The vibes watcher should be sensitive to overt or subtle putdowns. It is crucial for the functioning of the group that everyone feels safe and supported. Learning and enjoyment usually stop dead when people feel insulted.
If the tone becomes offensive, the vibes watcher should intervene, preferably right at the moment, reminding the group that such a tone doesn’t foster learning or group building. The vibes watcher must use discretion to decide what level and kind of intervention is needed depending on the circumstances and the people involved.
Note that criticism of another person’s ideas is not a putdown. The whole point of a study group is to investigate and challenge ideas to determine if they make sense and can solve problems. Wrangling with ideas should be vigorously encouraged. However, the way that ideas are challenged is critical — some ways are humiliating and make people feel stupid and ashamed while other ways are enlightening and make people feel smarter and empowered. It is best if you can set up a situation in which people feel they are working together to honestly and seriously explore ideas — and their ramifications and consequences — rather than having an adversary situation in which perspectives (and, by implication, those that hold them) are attacked or ridiculed. When people disagree, gentle questioning is best. And sometimes people just have to realize and accept that they disagree — and then move on.
So that everyone can experience these various roles and learn how to do them well, and so that the responsibility for assisting the group is shared, it is best to have a different person take on each role at each session. To expedite signing up for roles, we recommend a simple way to do this: at every session, have one new person volunteer to be the Vibes Watcher for the next meeting. At the following meeting that person becomes the Timekeeper, then at the next meeting becomes the Recorder, then Assistant Facilitator, and finally Facilitator. This gives each person the chance to get a feel for what it is like to have some special concern for group process before taking on more responsibility (and attempting the more difficult tasks). At the first meeting, of course, various people will need to sign up for all five roles for both the first and second sessions.