Teaching by Discussion
By Kenneth O. Gangel
Discussion teaching differs from question and answer teaching primarily by the kind of questions used. In discussion it is our purpose to get students to think through the issues rather than verbalize memorized data or repeat right answers. Most often discussion will center on the solution to a problem or perhaps the interpretation of a verse of Scripture. Discussion can also be thought of as an attempt to interact with others toward arriving at a solution based on thoughts and ideas expressed by members of the group.
In the Christian classroom, thoughts and ideas are not merely opinions based on personal experience or perhaps prejudice. Rather, they are understandings of the meaning of those portions of Scripture which have a bearing on the problem at hand. AU those meanings are made clearer to the discussants by the ministry of the Holy Spirit (“He will guide you into all truth,” John 16:13).
Basic to a good discussion is a problem which is clearly defined. The problem must be limited in scope so that it can be understood by members of the group and satisfactorily dealt with in the allotted time. When used as a teaching method, discussion is not conducted for the sake of therapy but rather for the sake of pinpointing answers and solutions.
As the group approaches the problem (s) at hand, the members seek to analyze the issues involved in the light of biblical evidence. Possible solutions may be presented by the members of the group as they weigh and consider ideas and viewpoints. Through this process a line of reasoning or logical thought should emerge and lead to one or more solutions to the problem.
These solutions are then examined to determine their validity and implications. Remember that discussion is not debate. It is not the purpose of the class to “win” an argument or to establish one way of thinking. Teacher and students are engaged in a cooperative effort to seek for truth, knowing in advance that truth and its application to life can be found in God’s Word.
Values of the Discussion Method
Teaching by discussion utilizes one of the best principles of the learning process, namely, the involvement of students in active participation in the learning experience. A good discussion will help students express themselves verbally, crystalize their thinking in conjunction with the thinking of their peers, and develop a tolerance for those with whom they may disagree.
Management research teaches us that people change most rapidly and completely in proportion to the amount of interaction which they have with other people. People who tend to isolate themselves physically or mentally will become set in their ways and resist innovation in their lives or thought patterns. On the other hand, people who engage in open exchange of ideas with others will learn both the existence and validity of other points of view and will more readily moderate, or perhaps even drastically change, their own ideas.
Teaching by discussion is a motivational technique which encourages a student to think through concepts which have been hazy. Wrong conclusions may be corrected through the influence of the group rather than the unilateral actions of the teacher. Problem-solving techniques are learned which can be applied not only in the search for knowledge, but in all aspects of life. Creative thinking may also be stimulated.
A discussion setting also provides an atmosphere which can enhance group rapport and camaraderie. The informality of the situation (when properly conducted) allows group members to sense how other people feel, and identification with the group begins to emerge. In a good discussion session, one soon learns that the questions which have been bothering him are not unique but are problems faced by many of his friends. The humanness and concern of the teacher comes through much more clearly in a discussion than it can in a lecture.
One of the essential factors in the communication process is the securing of feedback. In lecturing or storytelling the teacher is dependent upon nonverbal feedback (unless he can combine those methods with supportive dialogical techniques). In discussion, however, if the teacher is asking the right questions and soliciting genuine thought and honest expression on the part of the class, he will soon learn whether they understand the subject matter or further clarification is necessary. Good discussion questions will capture a mind that might wander to more attractive mental pastures during a monological form of teaching.
Problems of the Discussion Method
Small group study is very popular in the church today. Yet it detracts from our purposes when it becomes a substitute for rather than a supplement to the proclamation of the Word of God. Some want to avoid such a dangerous tendency by steering away from dialogical teaching altogether. But such a reactionary swing of the pendulum is also unfortunate. Discussion teaching does not have to degenerate to a pooling of ignorance. Only two things are necessary to avoid this problem: a teacher-guide who genuinely knows how to use the Bible; and a commitment on the part of the group members to search for biblical answers rather than experiential opinions to problems.
Another possible drawback to teaching by discussion is the amount of time required to cover any given amount of material. It will take longer to teach the same material by the discussion method than by the lecture method. On the other hand, students will be learning technique as well as content, and both the retention and comprehension levels may be markedly increased because of participation in the interaction. But discussion does take time, and the teacher who is intent on “getting over the lesson” will not be as committed to teaching by discussion as the teacher who wants to “get the lesson over.”
Sometimes reticent or bashful students may be embarrassed in a discussion situation. This may be true of an entire class on occasion if that class has not had opportunity to experience dialogical teaching techniques. Teachers should be careful not to publicly humiliate a student by asking an unusually difficult question or forcing his involvement when he clearly does not wish to participate.
Rambling or wandering from the subject at hand is another common problem in many discussion situations. Here again the leadership of the teacher is essential. Sometimes teachable moments will arise, and the teacher will deliberately allow discussion to wander into a bypath that might seem profitable for learning. Generally, however, he will keep the group from being diverted.
Some teachers feel safer with the lecture method. If a teacher has only a shallow understanding of the subject or has prepared inadequately, he will be threatened by the possibility that students may ask questions he cannot answer. Many teachers are insecure in their classroom situations and find safety in a kind of teaching which allows them to stick strictly to “the script” and avoid having to think on their feet. Most teachers fear discussion, however, because they simply do not know how to employ the techniques.
A class should be reasonably small in order to use the discussion method. To involve the entire class with as many as possible participating in a given hour, 20 to 25 students is probably the maximum number for effectiveness. However, there are various subcategories of discussion teaching which can be used with much larger numbers. These will be discussed as separate teaching methods in this book.
Principles for Effective Discussion Teaching
Probably one of the most important factors in securing a good discussion is framing the problem or question. 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 questions themselves must be worded to produce thought rather than factual response. Many good discussion-type questions begin with the words why or how.
The arrangement of the room is a significant factor in discussion. Although it is possible to have effective discussion with participants in rows or pews, the group dynamics necessary are more likely to be achieved by the use of a circle. The teacher should be part of the circle, sitting with the students to engage in “the cooperative search for truth.”
Attitudes are very important in discussion teaching. 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. The attitude of all group members must be one of receptivity and openness to new ideas. They should not be afraid to share ideas, confident that no one will laugh at their contributions or harshly criticize their conclusions.
About 10 years ago I was conducting a Christian Education Conference in a church in downstate Illinois. At the last minute I was asked to teach a young adult Sunday School class. I decided to attempt a dialogical approach, just to see what would happen. My first question, “What have you been studying this quarter?” brought no response whatever from the 20 young adults. I then asked, “Is it in the Old Testament or the New Testament?” I still got no response. After two or three more questions a lady in the back row timidly raised her hand and volunteered a piece of information.
That class was communicating to me their ideas of what Sunday School ought to be. It was clearly a place where the students sat and listened while the teacher spoke. Classes like this do not change their attitudes easily nor quickly.
It will be essential to deal with certain problems which arise in discussion situations. The silent member must be encouraged to contribute. The overbearing monopolizer must be curtailed in his efforts to dominate the group. Solving this problem may require some personal counseling outside of the class time itself. Tension and conflict in the group may not always be bad. Sometimes these elements help stimulate thinking.
Do not forget evaluation. At the end of the discussion time, the group should collectively measure its effectiveness in reaching biblical solutions to the problems posed at the beginning.
The technique itself should be evaluated, seeking ways in which procedures could be improved the next time. Sometimes it is helpful for group members to talk about how they felt when certain ideas were introduced or certain conclusions drawn by the group.
The modern church which employs the small discussion group in its instructional organization will go far toward establishing the type of personally focused group life which gave the Gospel its start in the world. Christian education has been effective where the small group was vitalized by a Christian personality able to communicate biblical truth to others with warmth of spirit and depth of insight. Can you be that kind of teacher?
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”