Increasingly, adult education in churches has depended upon discussion formats and less on lecture formats. An increasing number of students expect there to be some level of discussion, whether that takes place in smaller discussion groups or with a larger class as a whole. This shift has some very positive qualities to it, as it enables perspectives to be heard that otherwise would not, asks students to contribute from their own experiences, and think on an application level. It also can help produce a warm, casual, and comfortable environment.
The shift has negatives as well, though, which often go unnoticed in the rush to adopt the new style of teaching. It’s easy to imagine that because of the time used by discussion, then the teacher needs less time to prepare for the class. As a result, sometimes discussion times are used as a crutch to cover over poor class preparation. This robs the class! It’s important to make sure that we are using discussion as a tool for the right reason. As a teacher, I have to ask, am I doing this just to take some of the pressure off of myself, or because it’s what everybody expects, or is it the best way to accomplish the goals of the class? Starting off with the right reasons for using discussion as a mode of teaching goes a long way towards making sure I’m using it the right way, because done properly, managing and encouraging effective discussions is a lot of work! It takes thinking ahead, using the right balance of active energy and passive receptivity to elicit the right responses, and using the right kinds of questions.
But what are the right kinds of questions? It takes some skill and practice to realize what will work and what won’t when preparing to lead discussions, and even master teachers sometimes ask a dud. Here are some things to keep in mind as you develop the skill of leading discussions and grow into a master teacher!
What’s the purpose of this question? Is it to discover new perspectives or to just get everybody talking? Am I trying to get people to provide information or express feelings? Think through what you want to accomplish with each question you ask. How does it fit into the overall plan for your class? Does it contribute to what you are wanting to accomplish, or does it just fill space?
How many different answers to this question are possible? A question that has only one right answer is a dead end discussion. Most people won’t even give that answer, because they sense the dead air that’s going to follow it. A good discussion question has not only the possibility, but the probability of many different answers.
Who can reasonably respond to this question? In a related sense, there are some questions that only invite certain members of the class to respond. Does the question require extensive pre-knowledge to answer, or a certain type of job or life experience? This isn’t a deal-killer for a discussion question, but it can help you think through what is likely to happen and what is not likely to result from a particular discussion question.
What can I follow the discussion with in order to enrich the discussion and validate it? This is both a question of preparation and one that is ongoing in the mind of the teacher in the middle of the discussion. This does not only mean validating the responses given, but demonstrating that the whole discussion moves the class closer to a desired goal.
How does the Word respond to the discussion? In completing the process, what are some ways that scripture might respond to the discussion, or add to it?