Talk to Me: Facilitating Discussion in Adult Groups

chairs-358404 640The difference between a good class and a great one often is determined by one feature: discussion. We know students learn most effectively when they are actively involved. We know quality interaction draws students together, making their class a home rather than just a house.

Why, then, does it seem so challenging to implement effective discussion? I think there are two main reasons:

Inertia. Groups that have subsisted for many years on a diet of one teaching method may find it difficult to change. The teacher may be mired in a comfort zone–called lecturing–and it is tough to break out.

Fear. Two bad things can happen when discussion starts. One is that people do not talk, and the other is that they do. Silence can seem both deafening and eternal. On the other hand, students may use discussion time to air gripes, opinions, and trite personal stories. Both possible outcomes can scare teachers out of trying interactive methods.

So how does the teacher who is committed to providing quality learning break out of inertia and/or fear?

Start with the heart

The leader must be committed to interactive learning on the level of values. Discussion requires a faith in the students that lecturing does not. Becoming a first-rate discussion facilitator requires genuine appreciation for student contributions. This attitude will show through every thought and word you express. The group will sense your feelings, and begin to respond in kind.

When you are trying new methods, don't be afraid to share your concerns with the class. They will respect your honesty. If discussion is not in your heart, don't try to fake it. Students can tell. The best way to get started is to find someone who is good at facilitating discussion and sit in with them until you get it.

Revise definitions

All the techniques may be fruitless if the leader has the wrong notion of what discussion is. The lecture-only instructor has the luxury of setting a goal defined as conveying information that, if absorbed, will benefit the student–somehow. The adept discussion leader understands the task differently. Leadership is not about telling people what they need to know. It is about structuring a learning experience. We change most readily when we are actively involved in the learning process. Billie Davis puts it this way: "The leader provides a climate in which group members develop enthusiasm, are motivated to exert energy, and find individual as well as group satisfactions." (The Dynamic Classroom, pp. 82-83.)

In other words, I have not taught until someone's life changes.

Look from the student's perspective

No amount of good intention can overcome a failure to use the right methods at the right time. Understand your students as a group of persons. Interaction requires a leader who is sensitive to the culture of the class. Let's think in terms of three generations:

Builders are senior students who tend to appreciate discussion as a way of digesting and reflecting on Bible content. They have a more traditional view of teaching and may be most comfortable in discussion that is strongly directed from the podium.

Boomers are middle-aged adults who are likely to prefer smaller groups with an emphasis on life application and "felt needs." Feeling that they are the teacher's peers, they frequently wish to take roles of facilitating interaction among themselves.

Busters are young adults who tend to be looking for "what is real." They are less concerned about the technical skills of the instructor than about the authenticity of the experience. They will resist cookie-cutter methods and are much more comfortable with an unstructured environment. Sometimes they exhibit an unnerving low need for consensus in the group. They will open up if the facilitator goes first.

Use smart methods

Most lists of strategies contain little that is new. So here are a few old ideas that work well with careful planning:


* Inductive questions: What does it say? What does it mean? How does it apply? What should I do now?
* Brainstorming: Open forum conversation started by an open-ended question.
* Agree/disagree: Elicit views using low-impact controversy sparked by a statement that forces a choice.
* Film/video talk back: Show the clip and get the students' reactions.


* Buzz groups: Have small units discuss an assigned question and report to the class.
* Dyads: Let students discuss two by two.
* Panel discussion: Assign students to present views on a question or present research to elicit class comments.

All of these methods assume that certain basics are in place. For example, the seating arrangement must be conducive to discussion (round tables are ideal). Applying liberal doses of food and fellowship lubricates relationships. Most important, all discussion methods must be tied to specific learning objectives defined in advance.

Without good connection to a specific purpose, walking through mechanical discussion "methods" may accomplish little. Leaders who are willing to get training and take the chance will find their primary activity changed. They will move from preparing to teach lessons to preparing students for learning and growth.


Earl Creps III, Ph.D., director of the doctor of ministry program at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary Springfield, Missouri, is the author of several books on Christian education, including "Investigating Commitment to Membership" (GPH).Promotion and Training Department .Sunday School. All rights reserved. Used with permission.