Creating a Safe Zone for Discussion in Sunday School/Small Groups, Part 2

Wednesday 1st October, 2008

I mentioned in Part 1 that many Sunday School teachers begin serving without training. That means that they can only build off of what they have experienced. Most witnessed their Sunday School teachers lecturing each week. And we should not be surprised if they don't know the best ways to facilitate discussion which can be a great method. It involves more people than lecture and can bring more collective intelligence and experiences to bear.

What can be done to create a safe environment which results in healthy, productive discussion in Sunday School/small groups? In Part 1, I shared a helpful blog post by Grahame Knox entitled 10 Ways to Encourage Discussion in Your Small Group. While Knox applies his post to teenagers, his simple points apply to adults as well. In Part 1, I shared the first five ways to create a safe environment which encourages discussion: a positive environment, icebreakers, it's okay to talk, open-ended questions, and listening. In Part 2, we will look at Knox's final five ways which are in all capitals followed by my commentary:

  • BE INCLUSIVE. Without embarrassing anyone, try to include everyone. Discussion in a large group can make this difficult. You may find it helpful to break the group into smaller groups. In groups of 3-6 almost everyone can participate. And almost everyone will feel safe doing so. I like Knox's admonitions, "Don't allow one person to monopolize the conversation. Don't be content with one answer." Discussion that is inclusive is much richer and leads to greater learning.
  • BE CREATIVE. Planning is key here. Look for unique ways to start the discussion. I like Knox's suggestions, "Instead of starting with a question, use a role play or case study to bring about a response. Use a group survey to provide a platform for further discussion." Read an article from the newpaper. Change up the time you use discussion. Instead of discussion in the large group, move to small groups. Involve a panel of "experts." Lead them to listen, think, and participate because variety added interest.
  • BE AFFIRMING. This does not mean you have to affirm wrong answers. But you can affirm the effort to respond. Don't force responses. In Knox's words, "Acknowledge all contributions. Avoid any put-downs....Allow young people the right to pass and not share." Thank responders. Encourage participation in the discussion. Get ideas on the table.
  • THE SOUND OF SILENCE. Give them time to think. Some need time to process before responding. Others enjoy "thinking out loud." You may even give them permission not to respond for 15 seconds. Don't fill in the blanks for them. If necessary, ask the question or situation in another way. They may not understand. When a positive environment has been established that encourages participation in discussion, silence is very healthy.
  • SUMMARIZE. Catch the group up on what has been said to that point. Or better yet, ask someone in the group to summarize the discussion. This can serve as a launching point for the next discussion direction. As Knox said, "This helps draw various ideas together, gives continuity to the study and keeps the discussion on track." At minimum, summarizing is a great way of strengthening memory and learning. But it also says to the group that you have been listening. And that in turn encourages future participation in discussion.
Discussion is an important tool in the teacher's arsenal. Used well, it produces amazing results in group interaction as it advances knowledge and commitment to obedience of God's Word. For more information about discussion, check out Effective Discussion in Your Sunday School Class, Part 1, Effective Discussion in Your Sunday School Class, Part 2, and Effective Discussion in Your Sunday School Class, Part 3. Create a safe place for discussion. Ues icebreakers. Tell them that it's okay to talk. Ask open-ended questions. Listen. be inclusive, creative, and affirming. Use silence. Summarize. Discuss effectively. Be revolutionary!

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