Effective Discussion in Your Sunday School Class, Part 3

Saturday 4th August, 2007

In part 1 of this series, I shared values of discussions that Kenneth Gangel has written in a great article entitled Teaching by Discussion. In the article, Dr. Gangel says, "Basic to a good discussion is a problem which is clearly defined...[and] limited in scope so it can be understood by members of the group and satisfactorily dealt with in the allotted time." I encourage you to read the entire article.

In part 2, I addressed problems with discussion that he identifies: lack of a teacher who knows how to use the Bible, lack of commitment by the group to pursue biblical answers, amount of time required, bashful students, wandering from the subject, teacher with shallow understanding or inadequate preparation, and classes that are too large. Then in part 3 of this series, I will address principles Dr. Gangel shared that will strengthen discussion in our classes. Dr. Gangels points are in all capitals, and my comments follow:

FRAMING THE PROBLEM OR QUESTION. This is key. It is important that the discussion problem or question flow out of the truth you are driving home. It should be seen as applying to life today and to your group. Dr. Gangel says, "Just getting people to talk does not guarantee that a genuine learning-by-discussion situation is in effect. Application of biblical truth is essential." The discussion should be thought-provoking and interactive. Questions should seek more than yes or no or one-word answers.

ARRANGEMENT OF THE ROOM. An open room arrangement (like a circle or semi-circle) does not guarantee that discussion will take place. I have seen people who lecture in a circle, and I have seen discussion take place in the sanctuary. But there is more of an invitation to participate when the group is facing each other and when the teacher is sitting with the group rather than standing behind a lecturn.

ATTITUDES. This begins with the teacher/group leader. Dr. Gangels says, "The teacher must have the disposition of a co-learner rather than that of a lecturer or a scholar. He must be a goad and guide rather than a teller and transmitter." When the teacher is a fellow pilgrim on the path toward learning and applying God's Word, the group is more likely to participate in discussion. Group members must also have open attitudes toward learning and the possibility of change. They should be willing to risk sharing their ideas and be able to trust the group to be open. Dr. Gangel says group members should be "confident that no one will laugh at their contributions or harshly criticize their conclusions."

DEALING WITH PROBLEMS THAT ARISE DURING DISCUSSION. It is important to invite participation of those who have not contributed to the discussion without embarrassing those who prefer to remain silent. It is also vital to address individuals who tend to talk too much. This may require setting up rules like no one responds twice until at least 3 other people have contributed first or even a private conversation with the person who talks to much. When introducing discussion for the first time to a group, it will be necessary to be patient and to wait for longer periods of time for responses. Dealing with tension and conflict will likely be necessary, but as Dr. Gangel noted, doing so "may not always be bad. Sometimes these elements help stimulate thinking."

EVALUATION. Discussion is a natural method for leading the group to evaluate themselves and pro gress. It can be beneficial to stop at the end of a period of discussion to reflect on changes that have occurred i n thinking. This can be done privately, but asking the group to "talk about how they felt when certain ideas were introduced or certain conclusions drawn" can help individuals benefit from realizing they were not the only ones who had certain thoughts. It can also helpful for the teacher/guide to reflect at the end of the lesson on how the group responded and what could be done better next time discussion is used.

Like I said in part 2, as you prepare for Sunday, think about how you could use discussion to lead your class to address a problem. Watch what happens. Stretch yourself and group members through using discussion effectively. Make discussion a regular part of your teaching repertoire. Be revolutionary!

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