Why Discussion Groups are Typically Ineffective

Perhaps one of the hardest teaching tools within our equipment belt for a class of people who are mentally challenged is the discussion group.  No matter what the cognitive level or achievement level of a class, I am biased against discussions as a typical teaching method for several reasons.

  1. Without effective and strong leadership, you never know where the discussion will lead you.  Almost without exception, you begin at the cross and end up in hell.
  2. Most leaders who desire to incorporate discussions are not willing to put into the meeting the effort that is demanded to make it effective. 
  3. Discussion groups are too often seen by the leader as a super-easy, slick way to waste an hour or two.
  4. There are always one or two people who are allowed to monopolize the discussion time.  These people spout their opinions week after week. 
  5. There is always someone who has an axe to sharpen.  No matter what the topic, this person takes the discussion into areas that are either ineffective or–worse–inappropriate.

While this isn’t often taught or even whispered, weak leadership in a discussion group spells d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r.  Unfortunately, it is often the weaker leaders who feel the need to hold discussion groups.  Perhaps it is a practical application of the physics law that dictates that  water always seeks the lowest level.  

The strength of the leader does not mean dictatorship but a true leader encapsulates the ability to inspire people to follow where you are going.  Jesus taught that we are sheep.  One sheep farmer told me, “This was not a compliment.”  Sheep are the ultimate herding animal and probably the first animal to be domesticated.  They will follow anything that seems to know where it is going–even over a cliff.  Sheep aren’t particularly concerned about their leader.  They will simply follow the first sheep that moves.

Therefore, the shepherd must be a strong leader of a flock of sheep.   If that leadership strength is not consistent and firm, the sheep will begin to follow other sheep into disaster.  The same is particularly true when it comes to leading a discussion group.

I’ve only been in one teaching session that showed you how to lead a discussion group and this teaching did not even touch preparation.  Nevertheless,  leading a discussion group takes a great deal of preparation.

  • First, you must decide what is your goal in this discussion group. 
  • Second,  you should decide what your question (or questions) will be. 
  • Third, you must decide on the parameters of your discussion.  This third step may be the most crucial part of your discussion preparation. 
  • Fourth, I suggest that you put on paper (or as part of your PowerPoint presentation) these concrete parameters so the group understands where they are going and why they are going there. 
  • Fifth, use visual cues that keep your discussion participants on track.  At Special Gathering of Indian River, we are still pretty low tech in our groups.  I put the discussion topical on a blackboard. 
  • Sixth, be prepared to continually refer to the topic.  After each answer is given, I refer back to the discussion topic. I point to the topic as well as repeat the topic.  This means that you must have your discussion goals firmly fixed in your mind and spirit.

After attending a myriad of conferences, I’ve learned why people repeatedly skip sessions.  I love one pastor who is a renowned expert in the field of specialized ministries.  However, I dread ever attending another one of his conference workshops.  He always uses what I’ve labeled, “The I-Didn’t-Get-Paid-Enough-To-Do-Any-Real-Work-For-This-Session Technique.”  He begins each session by asking every person to give his/her name, her ministry and something about himself.  The answers are usually longer than they should be because somewhere down the line one or two people get off track and everyone begins to give their testimony.  This takes 15 to 37 minutes depending on the number of people in his class.

Next, he asks, “Why are you attending this class? What do you want to learn?”  He tells us,  “My reason for this question is to find out what you want to hear from me during this session.”  This is an excellent stalling tactic for two reason.  First, it says to the audience, I know everything about this subject; and I can answer any question you throw at me.  I am the leading expert on this topic, and you can’t stump this chump.  Second, it takes at least 43 more minutes. 

Depending on the amount of time he has been allotted, he has used up most of the workshop time allowance and he hasn’t had to do one thing.  Everyone is feeling good about themselves by this time.  Only a few people have realized that absolutely nothing has been accomplished.

The last question of his workshop  is “What would you like to share about the things you’ve heard?  I know that you have lots of answers to the problems that have been presented to us today.”  Brilliant time waster.  By the time SusieMae Brownbag and Dudley Smithstone finish their argument about the fine minuta of inclusion and entitlement, all the time has elapsed and people file out of the workshop dazzled by what they didn’t learn.  My colleague walks away.  No prep.  No answers.  No sweat.  Lousy discussion.

The Wordy Wonder (WW) and the Axe Sharpener (AS) are people who must be tactfully and politely deterred from monopolizing the discussion.  They are your best friend and your greatest enemy.  They will start the discussions and keep them going but they cannot be allowed to take over.  Only a person who exerts strong leadership skills can help them overcome their weakness of becoming the only person who can enter into the discussion.

There is much more.  Guess I’ve proven myself to be WW and AS but more is coming.  In the meantime, do you agree?  What are some other reasons why discussions can be a disaster.  We will deal with the benefits, especially for our population, in later posts.