Note: This essay has been edited from its original version. A previous version of the essay contained some factual errors about the UNESCO Story Circle methodology.

Storytelling has been an integral part of human culture for centuries, serving as a means of passing down traditions, beliefs, and experiences. Recently, Story Circles, a methodology developed by Darla Deardorff for UNESCO, has gained attention in the field. The UNESCO Story Circle methodology is “open source” and has been conducted across numerous international education projects and initiatives, leading to wider adoption. Research shows that it can be a powerful tool for fostering intercultural communication and competence. The methodology is not the only one that uses a “story circle” concept, though, and Deardorff acknowledges drawing inspiration from other story circle methodologies. This essay will delve into three distinct approaches that could be utilized or even combined together for effective training and programming: UNESCO Story Circles, Paulo Freire’s Cultural Circles, and John O’Neal’s Story Circles. Each tool has benefits and addresses different aspects of intercultural communication and learning.

Indeed, these methods share a common lineage as well. Rachel Davis DuBois, one of the pioneers of Intercultural Communication in the Western world, was a Quaker educator, human rights activist, and author. In the 1920s, she pioneered the “Woodbury Plan” of anti-racist and intercultural curricula at Woodbury High School in New Jersey. Although she was attacked for her leftist/progressive views, the Woodbury Plan became in high demand throughout the U.S., attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Education in the 1930s, and even became part of a CBS radio broadcast (Hight, 2020). The Woodbury Plan included the “Group Conversation” method, a circle model similar to Story Circles. Martin Luther King, Jr. tapped DuBois to help bring this model to the South during the Civil Rights movement, perhaps leading to the development of Story Circles by John O’Neal.

UNESCO Story Circles

See this Elspeth Jones interview with Darla Deardorff on UNESCO Story Circles:

UNESCO Story Circles are structured gatherings that bring together individuals from different cultural backgrounds to share and listen to personal narratives and to practice intercultural competencies. These circles create a safe space for participants to exchange stories, perspectives, and emotions. Developed by Deardorff for UNESCO, Story Circles have a number of suggested components: setting group guidelines, a set of prompts, a “flashback” round, and a conclusion. They are ideally organized in groups of 4-6 with a trained facilitator overseeing the circles.

Key Features:

a. Inclusivity: UNESCO Story Circles emphasize inclusivity and diversity, aiming to bridge the gap between various cultures and communities. They encourage active participation from individuals with diverse experiences and backgrounds.

b. Empathy Building: By sharing personal stories, participants develop a deeper understanding of the experiences and struggles of others. This leads to increased empathy and compassion. Facilitators usually ask participants to actively practice “listening for understanding” or active listening, rather than seeking to respond or think of a response.

Potential Impact:

UNESCO Story Circles have the potential to break down stereotypes, challenge biases, and build strong intercultural relationships. They contribute to a more inclusive society where individuals appreciate and celebrate diversity.

Freirean Cultural Circles

Cultural Circles, also known as affinity groups or identity circles, focus on bringing together individuals who share a common cultural background or identity. These circles serve as spaces for people to connect, reflect, and celebrate their shared experiences or fight injustice. The Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire developed Cultural Circles in the 1960s based on his seminal ideas in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire himself taught and created Cultural Circles throughout Brazil. They were used to enact his pedagogy and spread it widely in Latin American and beyond. Cultural Circles are now commonly used, especially in literacy education and teaching as a second language.

Cultural Circles differ from UNESCO Story Circles in a few key ways. Freire’s Cultural Circles are meant to focus on the ability for marginalized or oppressed individuals to name the problems and structures of oppression they experience, rather than a mixture of people and backgrounds sharing stories as is typical in UNESCO Story Circles. As Mariana Souto-Manning (2007) explains, “Culture circles exist to enable people to promote change in oppressive situations” (p. 125). Although the Cultural Circle methodology can be used for intercultural communication, the original intention was for groups to build affinity and identity amongst each other, by identifying common problems and sources of oppression.

Cultural Circles have evolved into a group of methodologies instead of a single methodological approach. Freire did not put specifications on the approach. Generally speaking, most Cultural Circles involve four stages: 1) “Problem Posing”, 2) “Dialogue”, 3) “Problem Solving,” and 4) “Action”. Interestingly, these four stages correspond well to the Intercultural Praxis Model independently developed by Kathryn Sorrells.

Souto-Manning, a professor of Early Childhood and Teacher Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, is one of the foremost progenitors of the Freirean Culture Circle approach. Her books and articles have articulated an updated framework for the facilitation of Culture Circles in education, as represented here in what she calls the “Critical Cycle.”

While Cultural Circles have not often been used in international education, there are several possible advantages of using them. Done well, Cultural Circles could be utilized for addressing power imbalances in intercultural situations and communication more generally, since they directly address power and marginalization in a way that UNESCO Story Circles may not.

Key Features:

a. Identity-Centered: Cultural Circles are often centered around specific cultural or identity groups, such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

b. Affirmation and Empowerment: Participants find validation and empowerment by sharing their experiences with others who can relate. This fosters a sense of belonging and solidarity within the community.

c. Skill Building: Cultural Circles may also serve as platforms for skill-building, providing opportunities for members to develop leadership, communication, and advocacy skills.

d. Supportive Environment: These circles offer a safe and supportive environment where members can openly discuss issues related to their cultural or identity group.

Potential Impact:

Cultural Circles play a crucial role in building a sense of community and empowerment among marginalized groups. They offer a platform for individuals to advocate for change and contribute to a more inclusive society.

John O’Neal’s Story Circles

John O’Neal, a prominent civil rights activist and theater artist, developed Story Circles as a means of using personal narratives to explore complex societal issues. His approach combines storytelling, performance, and dialogue to provoke thought and inspire action.

O’Neal’s Story Circles are sometimes more performative and expressive in nature than the two aforementioned models. Improv and experimentation, as well as whole body movements, are often used. O’Neal’s Story Circles share parallels with techniques developed by Augusto Boal in his Theater of the Oppressed movement, which itself built off of the work by Freire.

See this conversation with the late John O’Neal:

However, today’s practitioners of O’Neal Story Circles do not necessarily involve theater. You can watch this excellent resource by PBS on Story Circles being utilized in the classroom. Like UNESCO Story Circles, O’Neal’s Story Circles can have an established set of stages, including introduction/guideline setting, one to two prompts, active listening, and a “crosstalk” round that is similar to the “Flashback” round in UNESCO Story Circles. Unlike the latter, O’Neal’s Story Circles are more focused on synthesizing learning from the circle and creating themes or take-aways from the experience.

Key Features:

a. Theatrical Element: John O’Neal’s Story Circles incorporate theatrical techniques to bring stories to life, engaging participants in a dynamic and immersive experience.

b. Transformational Learning: Participants are encouraged to reflect on their stories and experiences in a way that can lead to personal growth and a deeper understanding of social issues.

c. Dialogue and Action: O’Neal’s approach emphasizes not only sharing stories but also using them as a catalyst for meaningful dialogue and collective action.

d. Artistic Expression: Through performance and creative expression, participants are empowered to communicate their experiences in a powerful and impactful manner.

Potential Impact:

John O’Neal’s Story Circles serve as a powerful tool for social change, inspiring individuals to critically examine societal issues and take action towards positive transformation.

Comparing “Circle” Approaches

UNESCO Story Circles, Cultural Circles, and John O’Neal’s Story Circles each offer unique approaches to storytelling and dialogue. While UNESCO Story Circles focus on practicing intercultural competencies, Cultural Circles provide spaces for identity-based affirmation and empowerment. John O’Neal’s approach combines storytelling with theatrical elements to provoke thought and inspire social change. Each of these approaches plays a vital role in fostering empathy, understanding, and positive societal transformation. Further, there are many “circle” type tools and methodologies out there. Restorative Justice Circles, Peace Circles, and other tools are similarly powerful for fostering understanding.

How have you used “circle” methodologies in your work or research? We welcome contributions in the comments, below. Our new GlobalEd online course, Global and Intercultural Communication (coming in October), will also cover the different methodologies in more depth.



Souto-Manning, M. (2007). Education for democracy: The text and context of Freirean culture circles in Brazil. Reimagining civic education: How diverse nations and cultures form democratic citizens, 121-146.


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