Effective small-group sharing
For many years, we have known that lecturing is not an effective means of education. Far more learning takes place when there is participation. “No expression, no impression.” Small group discussion is an oft-used exercise; but simply putting participants in small groups and asking them to discuss a topic is not always successful. Often there are one or two participants who dominate the discussion, which can result in one or two participants not having the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. The goal should be to make sure that there is an opportunity for everyone to participate and an atmosphere which is conducive, without forcing anyone.
Since coming to South Africa, I have attended workshops organized by the Catholic Bible Foundation (CBF) here and have been impressed by the quality of the small group discussions that take place. This occurs, I would suggest, because the Foundation teaches the participants some guidelines to effective communication. These have been well-honed over the years by the staff, led by Christian Brother Michael Chalmers and Mrs Teresa Wilsnagh, both master teachers whom I have observed in action.
Before the small group process begins, there is a brief prayer service, involving the reading of a scriptural passage and a commentary on this, followed by a period of quiet reflection on the reading.
Each participant is provided with a copy of the guidelines, which are explained. Participants are then assigned to groups, usually of four, to discuss a particular passage of scripture or a reading. Once people are in groups, the moderators provide a period of time for each step of the process, and discourage participants from rushing any of the steps. Based on their observations of the group, they suggest when it is time to move on to the next step. The seven steps are:
1. Firstly, groups take a minute for prayer. Each group decides how they will pray. (Many decide to observe the time in silence; others choose to recite together a familiar prayer.)
2. Next, participants are invited to observe a period of silence during which each person reflects on what they want to share with others about the assigned scripture or reading.
3. Then the discussion begins. The watchword is ‘Simply share’, and the guidelines are:
4. The groups observe silence while each person reflects on what seems to be the consensus that is developing within the group. This is called ‘Looking for the golden thread’ that links together all that has been expressed in the group.
5. After this period of silence, the moderators ask the group to simply share what each thinks to be the ‘golden thread’.
6. Next, each group is asked to agree what they want to share with the large group. Experience shows that those who have proposed controversial positions during the period of sharing will accept it if the group does not include their position in the ‘golden thread’. This method of ‘listening to the Church’ results in balanced understandings being brought forward to the larger group.
7. When the moderators sense that all the groups have arrived at a ‘golden thread’, they ask each group to choose a creative way in which they wish to present this to the larger group. It could be in the form of a TV interview, a skit, a song, or just a simple report. Each group then presents their ‘golden thread’. (I was impressed with the variety and creativity of these reports: the sharing process proved to be a very enjoyable learning experience – unlike my experience of a series of oral reports.)
After each presentation, the moderators ask the large group what they thought was the ‘golden thread’ of the presentation, and then ask the small group how they felt making this presentation.
Christian Brother Richard J. DeMaria