Inside/Outside Circles

UDL 3.3

In Inside/Outside Circles, students participate in a multiple rounds of discussion while standing in a circle facing a partner, rotating to a new partner for each segment. The teacher assigns half of the class to stand in the inside circle facing outward and the other half to stand in an outside circle facing in, so students are lined up facing one another. After ensuring each student has a partner, the teacher poses a topic/question (e.g., with a focus on analyzing texts, equations, getting to know peers). Partners share their ideas for 2-3 minutes until the teacher signals the outside circle to rotate, forming new partnerships to discuss the same topic or a new one. This process continues for several rounds, building peer relationships and deepening cognitive thinking through conversation.

Implementation Tips

Pre-plan how students will sit in the circles so that students meet with those who they rarely engage with (e.g., [[ | draft a circle template with names ]]). Also, decide how many exchanges students will have (e.g., more pairs with shorter durations for “Getting to Know You” activities, less pairs with longer durations for critical thinking activities).
Defining the Process
Define how Inside/Outside Circles helps form partnerships by creating an outline. Use a [[ | chart ]] or [[ | image ]] to demonstrate students sitting in concentric circles, indicating which students are Partner A (i.e., inside circle) and Partner B (i.e., outside circle), and highlight how only the outside circle will rotate.
Introducing Inside/Outside Circles
Introduce this strategy as an icebreaker activity first so that students can practice “flowing” from one partnership to the next. Use fun, open-ended questions similar to [[ | this sample ]] as group focus questions during each partnership round (e.g., If you could be any superhero, who would you be and why?).
Supporting Partner Transitions
Support students in transitioning from partner-to-partner using a cue or signal (e.g., “It’s time to grow our conversations. Outside Circle, get moving and grooving.”). Students can even be encouraged to “Conga Line” while switching partners.
Debriefing Discussions
Add on a class debrief discussion after using Inside/Outside Circles to help students reflect on how their thinking about the provided topic advanced or was altered based on the conversations they had with peers. Students can share their reflections openly or can write brief responses in their notebooks.
Modify this strategy by changing the discussion content focus (e.g., analyzing texts, solving math problems, generating writing ideas), by creating smaller groups of concentric circles (e.g., each group can focus on individualized topics/questions), and/or ask students to take notes using whiteboards or notebooks.
Building Routines
Use Inside/Outside Circles as an alternative to traditional discussion techniques during or after a lesson to help students process important concepts (e.g., to practice reading comprehension skills or solving problems with assistance from a partner) before applying them independently.


Building Comprehension
While reading aloud [[ | To Kill a Mockingbird ]], a teacher uses Inside/Outside Circles to build comprehension. The teacher directs students to form both circles using a pre-made seating chart. As Partner A and B face each other, the first question is posed (e.g., “What is the book’s point of view?”). Partners confer and take notes. After 1-2 minutes, the group is signaled to “move on,” and the teacher presents the next task (e.g., “Make an inference about how Scout is feeling at this point.”). In sequential rotations, new partnerships apply additional reading skills (e.g., making predictions, defining the theme). After, the class openly shares insights, noticing commonalities and differences among their thinking.
Community Building Activity
Before launching a World Communities unit, a teacher highlights the cultural diversity within the classroom using the Inside/Outside Circles discussion strategy. The teacher explains, “In our new unit, we’re going to explore and compare diverse cultural factors across the World. So, let’s start by thinking and sharing what we know about our own cultures.” With students seated in circles, the teacher lists the first question on the board (e.g., “What holidays does your family celebrate and how do you celebrate?). First, “inside” partners share, then “outside” partners. After, the outside circle rotates to the right, and the next question is posed. After sharing learnings and insights in a whole class discussion, the teacher begins the first lesson of the unit.
Debate Activity
After learning about World War II and the Manhattan Project, students are asked to engage in a debate. Once students are seated in circles, the teacher assigns the inner circle to defend the development and use of the atomic bomb while the outer circle is responsible for debating against it. The teacher poses the first of three questions that will be debated within partnerships for 3-5 minutes. At the end of the round, the teacher asks the outer circle to rotate and students debate the next question. Once all rounds have been completed, the teacher has students rotate again to complete each question once more with new partners, for a total of two rounds per question. After, the students write a one-paragraph reflection answering content and process questions (e.g. "What is something one of your partners brought up that you hadn't thought of before?", "While you were assigned a position to debate, after this debate--what is your personal belief about this topic?").

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