What makes a discussion group effective

About a month ago during our Bible study time, Michael said that kindness was making sure that no one had to sit alone.  This is a message that the church needs to hear and embrace.  Without the opportunity of the discussion group, no one would have known that our Michael had such wisdom.  The disadvantages of discussion groups are many.  But most of those problems stem from the leadership.  I’ve become convinced that under the right conditions and with firm, prepared and focused leadership, a discussion group can be a most effective learning environment.

I especially enjoy discussion groups with persons who are mentally challenged.  There are several reasons.

  1. People who are developmentally disabled are often ignored.  They may not be allowed to give their opinions or express their values.  Discussion groups give them the opportunity to tell what they are thinking about a specific subject and explore new ideas.
  2. There is a great deal of untapped wisdom in the hearts of many people with disabilities.  Through well-organized discussion groups this wisdom can be tapped for the benefit of the Kingdom of God. 
  3. People with disabilities should be given the opportunity to relate the scriptures to their individual needs and situation.  Discussion groups give them that opportunity.
  4. Discussion groups teach the more verbal members of your class the etiquette rules for polite conversation.  They must wait their turn.  They must not be allowed to answer all the questions.  Others must be allowed to speak and express their opinion.

The purpose of the discussion group should be to give the people in the class the opportunity to share what they have learned during the lesson.  Therefore, the understanding of the class is deepened by the input of many, rather than the input of one person or a few people.  Nevertheless, there must be a starting point.  There should be a time of teaching that becomes the launching pad for discussion. 

Using a somewhat modified Montessori method of teaching.  I tell the Bible story for the week two times.  Then I ask the class to retell the story but I have them do it backwards.  I do this by asking questions about the lesson.  This helps to prime their thinking pumps.  The Bible teaching time takes about a fourth to a half of the half hour class time.

After that teaching time, we begin to apply the teaching to their lives.  There are several techniques that I’ve found which enhance the discussion of a class. 

  1. Start with a concrete question.  “How can you show kindness to another person?”
  2. Expect a concrete answer.  “Love each other” is not a concrete answer.  Yet, I will write it down and then say, “Tell me some things you can do to love each other.  That will show kindness.” 
  3. Allow the people in the class to answer.  Don’t give an answer yourself.  Wait for someone to respond.  Wait.  Wait.  Wait.  Someone will speak up if you don’t.
  4. In a class of people who are mentally challenged the first few weeks or months of the class, you may have to ask an individual to answer the question. 
  5. If I succeed in getting Terri to give a concrete answer, I may erase the nebulous answer she gave earlier and put up the concrete one.  However, I only erase the vague answer if the concrete answer came from Terri.   
  6. I avoid saying that any answer is wrong, especially if I have asked for “their opinion.”  An opinion cannot be wrong.
  7. Giving each person material they can look at and refer to helps keep the class focused.  We use LifeWay Access Material.  It is specifically designed for use within a class for persons who are intellectually disabled. 
  8. Writing their thoughts on the board makes their ideas more valuable.  Each suggestion is written down. 
  9. If the idea is off the subject, I write it down and remind the class of our objective.
  10. Because people who are mentally challenged also have axes they want to sharpen, I remind the axe grinding people what our question is before they can answer.  No matter what the discussion or question, for years, my friend, Michael, would give a prayer request, “Pray for my grandmother.”  His grandmother has been dead for at least 20 years.  Tom is a bully but he attempts to cover his bullying with a pitiful attitude that everyone is picking on him.  “Make Marie stop hurting my feelings,” will be Tom’s way of showing kindness.   Before Michael or Tom speak, I remind them of the question.  At times, it even works.
  11. If an answer that is on the board is repeated, I underline the answer.  In this way, the person’s thoughts are acknowledged but the board isn’t being filled up with the same answer.
  12. Allow and expect every single person to answer at least one of your questions.
  13. For non-verbal members, you may need to phase a question especially for them.  “Tony, can you show kindness by opening the car door for your mother?”  Wait until he is able to process the question.  You might even give him positive, physical cues by shaking your head as you ask the question.  After a time, you will find that Tony will be anxious to respond and won’t need as much help giving you an answer. 
  14. The important thing is to expect Tony to give an answer.  Do not–under any circumstances–skip over Tony or ignore him.  Writing his answer on the board is vital.

Your class will be greatly enhanced and the lives of the class will be enriched by allowing and encouraging discussion.  However, sloppiness should never be allowed, especially from the discussion leader (even if the discussion leader is me or you).