Monday, July 2, 2012

8 Tips for Leading Discussions: Part 1

One of the most valuable methods of teaching and training older children is discussion. This is because discussions — which include panels, forums, interviews, brainstorming, and variations of these — give your students the ideal opportunity to talk about what they are learning and discover how to apply those concepts to their lives.

A carefully planned and directed discussion session, in whatever form, can turn a dull, lifeless group of children into an excited, enthusiastic bunch of students. But perhaps you, like many leaders, are afraid you do not have the expertise or experience to lead an exciting discussion or to teach your students to do so. Or maybe you have tried, with less than outstanding results. Either way, don’t be discouraged. The hints and suggestions here are just for you.

The setting helps

Discussion implies questioning and answering between two or more people. It is difficult to have this kind of group interaction when the seating arrangement discourages it. Therefore, the best setting for discussion is an informal circle or semi-circle, or any arrangement where the children can easily see each other’s faces and expressions. This helps create a close, friendly atmosphere in which all the students, plus the adult leaders and the discussion leader become members of the group instead of the leaders taking a dominant position. Formal rows of seats or pews may remind children of school or church and may unconsciously inhibit the students’ willingness to participate.

Sometimes, however, well-planned programs with ideal seating arrangements still fizzle. What else could be wrong?

The leader is the key

As an adult leader or helper, you have a very important role in making any discussion (and any meeting) a success. Here is a brief checklist of attitudes a discussion group leader should have:

• Do you like other people?
• Do you try to understand them?
• Do you listen attentively?
• Do you appear to be fair and impartial?
• Do you make everyone feel that he or she is valued?
• Do you listen to every point of view?
• Do you express differing opinions with tact?
• Do you have a sense of humor?
• Do you have a friendly, inquiring attitude?
• Do you show poise and self-control as you guide the discussion?
• Do you show enthusiasm and interest in the subject being discussed?
• Do you use insightful questions, re-statements, transitions, and clarifications to help apply and reinforce the conclusions of the discussion?

In this 2-part series, we'll help you effectively lead group discussions. This article is designed for those of you teaching older elementary students, but if you lead other ages you will probably also benefit.

In VBS or any group discussion, you will have a variety of students. Some may be loud or talkative, others will be quiet; some children may be highly intelligent, others may have learning difficulties. Your job is to involve all of them in the discussion. Although some may be Christians and some may not be, everyone’s contribution must be acknowledged and appreciated.

One way to do this is to use the word “we” frequently in your discussion. After all it is “we” who are talking in the discussion. Also, use the children’s names frequently; everybody likes to hear theirs.

As the leader, make your speeches short. Don’t make the mistake of launching into a sermon in the middle of a good discussion; there is no quicker way to kill group interaction.

Try to be impartial and listen to everyone’s point of view. That doesn’t mean you must condone or accept an opinion that goes against the Bible. After the speaker has finished, you could say, “Thank you, (Brad), for your thoughts, but that is not what God says in His Word. The Bible says, …”

With little or no guidance or direction in a discussion, students will sometimes pool their ignorance. Don’t let that continue for long. Interject some relevant information that will help to focus the discussion. It is also important not to take sides until you sense that the group has reached the point where a conclusion needs to be drawn or an application made.

As a group discussion leader, you have several roles:
1. To open the discussion and introduce the topic and its importance.
2. To develop the progress of that discussion toward the stated objectives.
3. To stimulate interest throughout the discussion.
4. To provoke thinking and interchange between the children in the group.
5. To gather information and encourage participation.
6. To determine the group’s knowledge on the subject.
7. To be in control of the discussion at all times.
8. To change the direction of the discussion if it is necessary, and
9. To bring the discussion to a logical conclusion and include a practical biblical application in line with the purposes and goals of your discussion.

It’s all in the questions

As the leader of the discussion, you must rely heavily on questions. In addition, you will need to do much restating and condensing of comments and ideas given in the discussion, and you will need to summarize what has been said. But the use of questions will be predominant in guiding the progress of your discussion.
“I keep six honest serving men,
They taught me all I know.
Their names are what, and why, and when,
and how, and where and who.”
— Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s six questions — what, why, when, how, where, and who — can form the basis for many different kinds of discussion questions. Here are some forms of questions you will do well to try:
• Fact-finding questions help children learn information and data.
• Ambiguous questions have several meanings to help keep the discussion moving.
• Leading questions seek or suggest answers; can be used when no one knows what to say next.
• Provocative questions are designed to incite an argument and wake up your group.
• Direct questions are aimed at a specific person.
• Relayed questions are used when someone asks you a question and you refer it back to another person or the entire group.
• Reverse questions are used when someone asks you a question and you refer it back to the questioner.
• Either/or questions force the group to make a choice.
• Multiple-choice questions help to ascertain priorities.

Learn to prime the pump

A good discussion depends on the students in your group — children who will get involved in the topic and want to talk about it. Sometimes the hardest part of a discussion is getting it started. If that is the case with your group, sometimes it is helpful to treat your group like an old-fashioned water pump. You’ll have to prime it.

Very few groups have students who will jump right in at the beginning and keep the discussion going. One way of getting started is to tell answers to some early questions to children in the group prior to the discussion. Then if things are getting off to a slow start, the children with the answers can respond.

Whether you do this or not, always have the beginning questions written out in front of you. (That means sticking pretty close to the questions and thoughts in the All-Stars for Jesus Leader’s Guide until the discussion gets going.) To begin, simple questions—some with obvious answers—are usually best. Try to use a variety of questions that do not have simple yes or no answers.

Especially as you get started (and always), give the children time to think. Respect each answer, even if it is not exactly the answer you were seeking. Soon your questions and answers will develop into real discussion, and you are on your way!

There may be times when your discussions drag and slow down. Anticipate these times and have several key questions planned to drop in when this happens. Caution: If response to your questions is slow, be careful not to answer the questions yourself. If you begin to do this, soon the children in your group will learn to just sit back and wait for you to give them all the right answers.

Remember, carefully planned questions are the key to a good discussion. In addition, be open. Be unshockable. Be willing to hear every response. Keep the goals of your discussion in mind at all times and use your carefully planned questions to work toward achieving those goals.

Involve as many children as possible in the discussion; don’t allow the discussion to be monopolized by one person or a few. Whenever possible, try to call on every child in your group. At other times, involve everyone by asking a “do you agree or disagree?” question.

Stay tuned next week for 4 more tips!

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