(This is one of the eight handouts from my teachwell session on facilitating excellent discussions in Bible classes. I couldn’t stop making handouts. Let’s be honest, we never talk about how to do this. So, I had a lot to say.)
If you want to facilitate a worthwhile discussion, keep the following things in mind:
• Discussions must be instigated and led. They take preparation and cultivation. The best discussions result from significant effort on the part of the teacher to engineer an environment and craft interesting questions.
• Questions should be purposeful, carefully-worded, and open-ended.
• Discussion questions should NOT have one definitive answer. Those kinds of questions lead to a guessing game—the class hesitant to answer just in case what they assume is obvious isn’t. The best discussion questions allow for many possible, acceptable answers.
• Your students are not as prepared as you are. Do your best to make sure they’re equipped to answer your questions. I’ll often have my students read a paragraph or watch a clip or listen to me summarize commentaries before I ask them to participate. Unprepared students have nothing to discuss. This is a great reason to give homework, even if it’s just a question to be thinking over for the week. Questions about personal experience allow a teacher to jump this hurdle because students don’t need preparation to answer questions about their lives.
• Your job is to facilitate discussion, not dominate it. You may need to establish an ideal ratio of student to teacher comments to keep yourself from talking too much. I strive for 3 to 1 and settle for 2 to 1.
• As facilitator, you should listen to responses and be able to quickly summarize the point for others. Listening is CRUCIAL.
• You must show less concern for getting through the material than for student growth and engagement. If healthy conversations are occurring, students are being challenged, and everyone’s learning, you’re doing a good job.
• Consider your environment. Moving some chairs can go a long way in encouraging discussion. If your environment is fixed, notify students that you’ll be including discussion and encourage them to sit within earshot of each other. If you’re in the auditorium class, circulate microphones. I almost always teach from a circle (if possible) to encourage equality and sharing.
• Don’t be judgmental or abrasive. Remember that you’re asking your audience to be vulnerable. Be a good custodian of their words, and they’ll be much more likely to speak again.
• Don’t allow the discussion to disintegrate into a gossip session or a bash-other-people session. Classes are relevant when they’re about US.
I can’t believe I forgot to put this on the list, but the number one thing you do to encourage discussion is to ask interesting questions. When the topic is interesting, debatable, and relevant discussion will come easily. When your topic is lame, straight-forward or irrelevant, people won’t talk about it.