I’m a big believer in getting students to talk about what they are learning. For a lot of students, this verbal process is a huge help in cementing the concepts they are studying in their schoolwork. For ALL students, this social skill of group discussion is a step in equipping them for life.
* Remember that a variety of personalities are in the room, and tell the kids that before you start. Just like in a group of adults, some kids are naturally quiet and just enjoy listening more than talking, some kids love the “spotlight” that comes with sharing their ideas, some are unsure about the quality of what they have to offer in the discussion, etc. By telling them up front, “We’re going to talk about __________, and it’s important for everyone in the group to respect the personalities of everyone else here. If you know you love to talk in these situations, look around the room and notice the kids who are usually quiet. Be patient while quieter folks decide how they want to share their thoughts. I expect everyone to participate before we are finished, but for some of you this is easy and for others it’s like having your teeth drilled. That’s okay! If we all have the same goal in mind — a discussion in which EVERYONE has a chance to participate — it will be okay.”
*Lay this rule out and stick to it faithfully: THERE ARE NO WRONG ANSWERS. We are not quizzing one another to see who understands this idea the best. We are hearing from each other about the many varied ways we have, as individuals, understood the idea. We all have something to learn from each other’s peceptions.
* Resist the urge to go around the room in order. There are other ways to keep track of whether or not everyone has participated. Going around the room in order requires students to say SOMETHING when it’s their turn, whether that point in the discussion sparks them to feel that they actually HAVE something to say or not.
* Keep the tone light. Even if the subject matter is weighty, identify with the humor that can be found in almost any situation. However, be sure that the humor is NEVER directed at a student. Keep it general or aimed at yourself. If the kids see that you can chuckle at yourself, it becomes safer for them to express themselves…but if they see you tease a student (even with good intentions), they are instantly more cautious.
* When a student loves to talk just a little TOO much, curb their spotlight-time while validating their enthusiasm. Saying something like, “Hold on a second, Patti….you got SO much good stuff to share out of this assignment that I’m afraid the rest of us will start looking lame by comparison! Can you hold off and let us hear from somebody else for a bit?”
* Reflect what students say, and teach them to reflect as well. Reflective listening is saying what a student just said back to him or her before you agree or disagree with his or her opinion. For example, “So you think Sydney Carton had in mind all along to take Darnay’s place at the guillotine? That’s an interesting thought. I’m not sure I saw it that way, but now I’m going to have to think about it some more.” It validates the student’s thought process even if they reached a conclusion that no one else in the group shares. You will be amazed at how quickly your more socially mature students begin to use reflection themselves as they respond to their peers. That type of modeling then spreads the technique to the whole group.
* Give the group a framework for how the discussion will go. If they are discussing an assignment they did independently, sometimes allowing them to hold their homework is empowering. However, encourage them not to simply read the answer they wrote down. Discussion is more than reporting your answers to one another. If they don’t need to hold their homework, at least jot a simple outline of the topics you want to touch on, or verbally give them an overview of where the discussion will go. Reluctant students will be more comfortable if they know that the first two topics are ones they prefer not to address, but the third topic is one they are looking forward to discussing, and they can “get their courage up” knowing that their moment is on its way.
We need to remember that healthy participation in a group discussion is not a natural skill for most people – it is learned. (How many Sunday school classes or work meetings have you sat in that illustrate this truth?) We can be intentional and encouraging in preparing our kids for good group discussion skills no matter their personality. It will serve them the rest of their lives.
Your turn: Do you find group discussion easy or difficult? What tips can you share to help us ALL become better group discussion participants?
Talking to God is so much easier than talking to a group of peers! But even so, our prayer life can become stale and need some new ideas. Vicki Tillman wrote Prayer Journals I & II for this very purpose. Her ideas are founded in specific scriptures and practical.