One Learner’s Experience

Looking ahead to 2018, here’s how we envision the experience unfolding for a guided peer group participant on his path to self-driven learning.


Paul, 26, completed Galvanize’s data science course. He was elated that he’d just landed a $100,000/year job. Previously, he’d made $20,000/year as a waiter. Galvanize’s 21-week course woke him up. He felt alive and on track.

Paul’s college had set his expectations for what being an alum meant. His alma mater sent him two postcards a year asking for money, a quarterly email highlighting arcane faculty research, and an occasional cocktail party invitation. After a few years, the intensity of college had faded. So did most of the knowledge, and his loyalty. His math degree never got him a job.

But Galvanize offered a different alumni experience. Paul applied to be placed in a “Circle” of peers that would stay connected as they journeyed into work. The idea was that they would continue to support each other, and keep learning together. Paul had doubts – could he afford the time once he started work? Would he be stuck with bozos?  Would the cost be worth it?

A couple of Galvanize alumni had proactively reached out to email him about Circles, saying good things. Moreover, Jim, the CEO of Galvanize, said the program was one reason why Galvanize’s 3,200 alumni continued to be a vibrant and successful community. The Circles program kept Galvanize in touch with their alumni, enabling them to track progress, keep tabs on relevant skills, and learn which of their teachings stuck with students years later. Alumni stayed connected to the larger community because they stayed connected to a few friends in their circles. In partnership with Circles, Galvanize had some great events. Grads hired grads – and grads referred new students.

By 2019, every accelerated learning program like Galvanize had or was exploring a Circles program. Circles data showed that graduates in a peer group were four times more likely to sustain an active relationship with the school, such as referring new students, taking another course, participating in online discussions, etc. General Assembly, a flagship example of this new type of school that had risen to fill in the gap where college left off, had more living alumni than Harvard College, and believed that keeping this community engaged was essential to its success. Circles was also beginning to partner with Accelerated Learning Programs (ALPs) that were focused on lifting people out of poverty, like McKinsey’s global Generation initiative, Year-Up and WIBO.

Matching Groups of 6-8 Peers

Paul had applied a few weeks before the end of the Galvanize course. The “Sorting App” was fun. He completed the five parts of the match process on his iPhone in twenty-five minutes. He took two minutes to confirm background, demographic and contact information scraped from Galvanize’s records and LinkedIn. Second, Paul was invited into a simulated “circle” and told a few rules, played a few simple games and answered some seemingly strange questions. He wasn’t sure what was being checked. The third part asked for possible times for 90-minute meetings twice a month. The next part asked him to prioritize a bunch of learning objectives that he thought would be most relevant to his first year at work. Paul thought many of the learning objectives were sort of soft: managing up, presenting, estimating, work/life balance – and he gravitated towards some of the more concrete skills like agile development methodology and advanced spreadsheets and presentation skills. Finally, Paul was asked to record a 30-second selfie video answering the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” At the end, Paul actually got a few teaser points about himself, “You seem to be 12% more impatient than most data scientists and 17% more social…”

Then, he waited. He was looking forward to hearing if he’d been placed into a group. Not everyone was matched right away.

A week before graduation, an email asked Paul to rank the videos of twenty of his classmates. The next day, he received a placement.

One was his friend Savannah. Great! He vaguely knew the other seven. Paul noticed that about half of them had worked in restaurants like him. They all were starting new jobs at startups in San Francisco. Nine different companies, nine different data science jobs. Paul watched their video clips and checked everyone out online. Even though one or two might be douchebags, he was glad to get in. Only six Circles were kicking off from the Galvanize class of 80.

The time was set for them to meet the Saturday afternoon after graduation. Paul felt it was a pain in the ass, but he’d make the time. He received another email from the same Circles alumni that had encouraged him to join, offering to answer questions. The email contained a great story about how his peer circle helped him with a tough boss. Paul also asked questions over chat on the Circles website. Then he received an email asking for his credit card information – $68/month, $10/month off at any time if he bought a year in advance. Seemed like a lot, but Paul had heard that most employers reimburse this expense. He’d just invested in Galvanize and it got him a huge job. Still, the process seemed kind of harsh.f he didn’t sign up before the meeting date, he’d be put back in the waiting pool. So he signed up.

In-Person Kick-off Meeting

In the days leading up to the in-person orientation, Circles sent Paul messages. There was a short podcast from the founders. There were a couple of videos of students that had come from Galvanize. Paul was invited to join a WhatsApp group with his new Circle, and there was some banter on that. He downloaded two apps. He joined the LinkedIn group for Galvanize Circles, and configured email digests every other day. He received an email asking for two sentences about how he was feeling about the upcoming Circles kickoff. And he got a link to an article about agile development, which he’d mentioned he was interested in during the ramp survey.

The meeting itself was at 2pm on a Saturday at the Galvanize training center. Eight chairs were set up in a circle, a water bottle next to each chair, some fruit in the corner. Radiohead was playing on a set of portable speakers. There was a small screen interrupting the circle, with the circles logo – a campfire – projected on it. Hazel, 24, greeted him, introducing herself as the guide. Two people from the initial email intro were not there. Another chair was empty – to be filled when Bob breezed in fifteen minutes late.

The music stopped, the screen went blank, and Hazel started. Somehow, even though she was young, she had the respect of the room from the start. She was just like them. She explained that this was the only time the group would meet face-to-face as part of the Circles basic program, although some groups did convene live every quarter or so. Hazel was in her third year of Circles, and had started after finishing a Fullbridge program that launched her into a career as a data scientist at a social media startup. She became a guide to get better at coaching and running teams, since she now supervised employees at work. She laid out the agenda and stressed that Circles meetings feel rushed, and packed. Their mission was to get the deepest possible experience out of limited time.

Hazel spent the first twenty minutes of the meeting explaining how peer groups worked. She went around the room twice, each member connecting what Hazel said to their own career plans. They shared where they were going to work, although most knew this already from the web. She called this opening “Meta” and said that was how all Circles meetings started. Learning theory would always weave into it – making great learners was Circle’s big promise.

The next 70 minutes was the beginning of what Hazel called “Timelines.” Each member graphed the highs and lows on a y-axis against the years of their life on the x-axis. They each had 7 minutes to present the most intense moments – the highs, lows, dips and peaks of the graph. The others got to ask a couple of questions at the end. Hazel started with some gripping stories about the death of her father, getting arrested, winning the high school basketball championship, landing her first job. Later, Paul would be prompted to enter his Timeline again online, review the others’ again. And there was some more discussion over WhatsApp that was pretty interesting. He would go back to his peer’s Timelines sometimes to remember key details about their lives. But at the end of a tiring 90 minutes, they took a break.

The next hour was devoted to a process Paul would come to know well: The Exploration. Hazel explained a few guidelines that made this process work: equal air time, storytelling, connecting, going deep. Whatever the topic the group chose to focus on, each meeting started withone member sharing a story about how it applied to them. Then they would move around the circle riffing off each other’s comments, perhaps referring to any related media that they’d read or seen on the topic. This time they’d do a practice share without any content to catalyze the discussion, around plans for their first day of work. It evolved into a discussion of how to deal with anxiety.

The meeting ended with a section on next steps. The next major work for the group would be to explore available learning journeys on the Circles Map, an open source curriculum tool – so they could begin to decide on what the group would focus on. For homework,the group  spent some time exploring these journeys so that they could pick a path next time.

There was a short discussion of group “norms” around attendance, confidentiality, responding to each other and handling conflict. They would start with default norms and modify later. Their first call was already scheduled, and everyone confirmed. They discussed a few tech questions. They agreed to use an option that automatically posted any of their social media updates to the Circle’s WhatsApp group.

Paul stumbled out just before 6pm feeling like he’d made seven new friends. The time had flown. He was excited to get better at learning, and to launch into his new career.

Chat and The Drip Feed

Paul found himself chattering with his seven peers a few times a day. They compared notes on their first days at work. They had already asked each other a few questions that they didn’t want to ask their new bosses. This prompted Hazel to jump in with a question about why they didn’t want to ask dumb questions. Maybe the highlight was trading pictures of what they wore on the first day.

Every other day, Paul got a drip feed on either learning or their new topic – anxiety. This was related to a few interesting short videos about “the beginners” mind as told from a pro athlete and a musician. Paul was asked to reply to the email with a couple sentences journaling his new observations about being a beginner and anxiety. Some of them just asked him to reply with definitions of what seemed like jargon that Hazel had introduced the week before. Paul was surprised that he thought he’d gotten what she said, but couldn’t quite write out a few of the terms. Paul did it on the way to work, and didn’t notice the time it took at all.

Often the between-meeting assignments involved little projects offline. The public speaking module was chock full of these – but they wove directly into work assignments he already had. The required “homework” that was expected never amounted to much more than keeping up with the drip feed. Sometimes at the end of a module there would be an assessment, and they’d get an email suggesting that the group spend another session exploring a few concepts that members were still missing. Some of the best modules started with assessments and then tailored the drip feed to the areas people missed. Actually, the drip feed often returned to material they’d covered months ago. Paul was surprised at how often he’d forgotten something when tested.

Circles Map and Curated, Open-Source Learning Journeys

When Paul finally got a free hour, he went online to explore the Circles Map. Choice of content relevant to real work challenges was a core part of the Circle’s promise. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”  The graphics were crude, basically a bunch of bubbles plastered with text, linked to each other. You could enter on four levels: specific skills, fundamental skills, character and, underneath them all, metacognition. Wherever you went to a skill you landed inside a bubble. The bubble was introduced by short video, usually of someone performing that particular skill in a work context. Inside of the bubble were learner suggestions and reviews, media links, stories, twitter feeds, assessments. other tools. Clicking on the links usually revealed some short summaries. Next to the summaries were many links to many more resources – Ted Talks, Books, Chat session transcripts, etc. Virtually every form of learning content was represented, including serious games. Some material on the map was premium content, meaning you would pay a provider to use it. The rest were “OER” – open education resources.

Paul asked for help and a small guide suggested he explore a library of possible journeys, sorted by 1-12 meetings in duration. The guide suggested the data scientist journey, based on his profile. This zoomed out to a map connecting a few of the bubbles together into six stops. Each stop would occupy one of the Circles semi-monthly meetings. The stops were at the specific skills level – communicating statistical concepts, presentations, interviewing users, and basic marketing intro 1,2 and 3. But each stop connected to some more fundamental skills on lower levels, showing the links to critical thinking and communication work. He briefly looked at other journeys. One whole section of “shortcut” journeys was curated by famous learning hacker Tim Ferris. Another featured journeys in six-month chunks that promised more slow, lasting mastery. Some had assessments that helped you tell if you were a good candidate for that journey. The guide could have spent a lot of time with him, and he could have thought about these journeys for a long time. He got lost exploring a whole bunch of stuff around mindfulness. Paul thought he’d go with the default suggestion for starters. But he could see how he would return to this tool again. He had the same elation he felt when he first read his college course catalog. Any of these things might be cool to learn. When would he have time to explore “Mindfulness”? So many possibilities.

Some of the journeys were shaded blue – meaning curated for use in Circles. That meant material was formatted to fit into a Circles meeting plus drip feed protocol at normal or more intensive levels. It meant it was always connected to some fundamental skills. But much of the material was not. Paul noticed a toolkit for Circles’ members to curate and share their own journeys, which gained you big points in the game.

The Circles “Map” was free to all and there were many people contributing and chatting that had free accounts but weren’t subscribed to Circles. Circles kept building this content, and used it as a freemium offering to attract some new paying learners.

There was also a personal dashboard view. It showed Paul’s history – empty at first glance. However, learners could load in other courses they’ve taken or keep track of books and content they’ve read. They could also keep track of questions and topics that are on their mind. Later releases might suggest content on those topics.

Virtual Meetings Every 2-3 Weeks

Three weeks after the start of his new job, Paul left work at 5pm to make it home in time for his 5:30-7pm Circle. He didn’t need to be home – the meeting would take place in the Circles app on his laptop, but still, he wanted quiet.

Most people were logged in a few minutes early, chatting a little. Their faces appeared in seven tiny video circles with a first name under them, all around a round circle. When someone spoke, their face filled the large center circle. When no one was speaking, they could show content in that space. The sound was good, as everyone used a headset. The app seemed to automatically mute out bad background noises, but the few times that happened one of the circles went red and a mute button popped up next to the head.

Hazel started the call at 5:31 even though one member would stumble in a few minutes late. They began with some material from the core learning module “Meta” again, this one about commitment. They watched a short video and had a quick discussion about how that shows up at work. This topic seemed obvious, almost heavy-handed, because almost every online course Paul had ever experienced had significant drop-off. Hazel reminded the group that they could get their money back at this point, but suggested they recommit to each other.

They then revisited the Timeline for 15 minutes, each offering a few clarifications and insights from comparing each other’s. Everyone shared where they currently were on the joy-pain axis.

The exploration was about the beginner’s mind. Hazel opened it by sending them each a passage to read from the book “Mastery” about the topic. Then Paul started, talking about how this showed up for him in his first days at work. The conversation bounced back and forth, the software tracking that everyone had spoken in a given round. They managed three exchanges each – frustratingly short. Hazel explained that this was part of the learning – getting better at making each round count. Some groups, though, had decided to extend their time as they got rolling, got better at explorations, and saw the value.

The last piece of business was choosing the path for the next few weeks. Was everyone ok with the default path for now? This was a quick yes. But they traded some ideas for what was next. Hazel shared that some groups liked to commit to long journeys and others kept things short and lose, sometimes not picking more than 1-2 meetings of content at a time, to keep things relevant to their work lives. She complemented them all on an excellent session, but Paul felt that anyway. He was left with his head spinning, eager for the next drip email. He couldn’t wait to try out his new mindset to being “new” at work.

The meetings were usually at 5:30pm, every other week. Sometimes, every 3 weeks. When a meeting was missed, they could watch the recording of the meeting. The sessions started promptly, flew by, but rarely ran over. Every meeting started with “Meta,” moved into an exploration of their chosen topic, and had a few minutes to catch up personally, and some admin – usually a discussion of where they wanted to go next on the map or how to improve the group.

Some months one of them would run into an issue at work and they’d postpone the journey to address it together. For example, Savannah got a mediocre performance review after three months – which she shared with the group, and they spent their exploration discussing it. Then they chose to work on Savannah’s main issue of understanding user requirements together for a few weeks. Sometimes, Paul found himself spending a few extra hours reading additional material on a topic, and even began to buy and skim topical books. He attended a few live expert chats.

Guides To Launch Groups

After the fourth meeting, Hazel began to attend every other, and then every third meeting, passing her facilitator responsibilities off to a rotating volunteer. She stayed in the chat and often intervened then. Sometimes she asked for a report. After a while, Circles offered $25 off each month per learner if they continued with no guide.

Some guides were retired workers from related fields. Others were former psychology majors. A few were paid employees of Circles, Inc. They were generally respected by the members of the group. They had all been in a peer group for at least two years, and had completed the Circles Training Program.

Some Live Meetings and Bigger Community Events

Paul’s forum began to jell. They decided to get a live facilitator for their quarterly in-person meeting. This was an option Circles offered for $45 per member per meeting. It was great – they had time to go much deeper into negotiations, a topic that one of the members was really excited about. There was an intensive module based on Roger Fischer’s Harvard Negotiations Project. It took a couple of hours of preparation too – they all had somereading and a few podcasts to review, which most people did. The extended share got pretty deep when one of the members brought up an issue with his live-in girlfriend. The drip feed was excellent afterwards – Paul found himself negotiating with his landlord, his cube mates, and to buy a new car, using many of the moves they’d read about. Everyone decided to do another intensive around a character assessment that they planned to all take and then discuss.

There were also some pretty great parties. Many of them started with a live speaker, but then quickly just became a great night of connecting with each other face-to-face. It was always interesting to meet and talk to other Circles members. Often they were co-hosted by Galvanize, or another Circles partner.

“Meta:” Consistent Work on Learning to Learn

Every meeting started with “Meta” – a bit of work on getting better at learning. This was a frequent topic of Circles live chat events and speakers as well. They ranged from neuroscience, to sports performance ideas, coaching, sleep, attention management, social learning theory, and on and on. Some of the members had kids and appreciated the overlap. Sometimes they touched on how these theories related to marketing, or even just connecting with people. Everyone became better observers of their own learning skills. There was a basic canon of Ted talks and books that almost every Circles vet had been through.

Re-sorting Groups as Interests Diverge

The biggest crisis came after a year. One member started missing meetings, and often they were only six. Moreover, there was some increasing tension around topics. A couple of the budding data scientists were gravitating more towards marketing work, others towards more programming. Members rated meeting satisfaction and openness after each session, and after a steep climb up the scores had started to dip a little. They had a meeting that ran overtime talking about what to do, and Hazel returned to help them out. Sadly, in the silent poll, 4-3, they voted to go through re-sorting and break up the circle. Paul was bummed. He thought the group was gaining a real groove and that these specific work roles weren’t really that much of an issue compared to the more common things they were usually talking about. But, he was excited for the re-sorting process and to meet a new group. Still, it might mean a few weeks before he was reassigned and they could schedule a new live orientation meeting.

Paul even experimented with an ad hoc group. He had his first big presentation to give at the end of the next quarter. So he joined an ad hoc public speaking group. They did five online meetings and one in-person. When it was done, he had found three people that he wanted to work with again, so he put in that request during the re-sorting. The ad hoc group was like a MOOC on steroids.

The Result: Brand

Maybe it was that Paul had just grown-up. He couldn’t tell how much to attribute to the Galvanize and Circles experiences. But he knew something was different. He was never that driven by money, and he still wasn’t. But he’d moved steadily up in his career, faster than many of his peers. For Paul, work had become something like a game.

Paul had grown to find learning fun. This even impacted his tennis game. He loved it in high school but then burned out quickly in the grueling competitiveness of college tennis. After a year of Circles, he returned to tennis, and enjoyed challenging himself to get better. Although he played in club tournaments, he did not feel any stress in competitions. And he began to use tennis more as a way to practice focusing– something that was valuable everywhere else.

There were many, many things to learn on his wish list. He felt that anything was possible. But he had the wisdom to understand just how long it took to get good at something, and was selective about planning his next goals.

Paul became a fan of Circles. One of his most rewarding experiences had been volunteering as a Circle’s guide. His latest Circle, now mostly a concentration of marketing types, had been together for a year and a half and showed no signs of letting up. He regarded his Circles peers as some of his closest relationships. They were even talking about taking a trip together next year to attend a Circles Jamboree in Barcelona. But he was beginning to explore some other programs and areas in which he’d wanted to go deeper. He loved everything on storytelling that he worked on at Circles, and took the tip to enroll in an Improv class. And he developed productive relationships with a few senior mentors at work.

As an employer, Paul preferred to hire Circles members. He recommended the “Map” to employees, and often rated and contributed pieces to a particular area. And he’d landed almost every job he was interested in.His 3-year tenure in Circles seemed to impress almost every prospective boss he’d spoken to. The brand strongly signaled a self-directed learner.

Other forms of Circles and competitors had sprung up all over. Peer groups were exploding everywhere. Paul’s niece was in a group in her middle-school. His new girlfriend reported that her Yoga class had put students into groups of six to discuss the class. In a world where friends were increasingly a statistic on Facebook, small groups were exploding as a social structure in which people were finding deep, real, connection.

Circles as a company was getting lots of press around self-directed learning. Some of the stunts the marketing team pulled at the Association for Talent Development with hula hoopers were getting lots of attention. Thousands were displaying a circles logo on their LinkedIn page, which automatically updated the number of months in a Circle.

Circles itself was becoming a known brand.

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