How to Lead a Discussion

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tradition tells us again and again that the best way to learn (and teach) is to sit with a small group and thoughtfully converse about a specific subject. If you find yourself needing to lead a class in college or high school, or if you are simply interested in alternative ways of learning, you can use these steps to start learning how to lead a great discussion.

Decide the topic and scope of your discussion. Are you discussing a book, a movie, a shared experience? What main theme do you want to discuss? This topic is based on your weekly instructional goal and terminal objective.
Narrow it down. Once you know the broad topic, decide a smaller scope. If you are reading Romeo & Juliet, for instance, do you want to discuss the benefits/detriments of young love? The theme of haste vs. moderation? The older man/younger man mentoring relationship as seen in Romeo & Juliet?

A small group discussion
A small group discussion
Pick a starting question. The best questions are neither too open-ended nor too limited. "Yes or No" questions halt discussion, and broad "What do you think about young people getting married?" questions are also big demotivaters. The best questions are open enough to have a few possible right answers, yet closed enough that people know to approach it, and feel motivated to start talking. A great question might be, "In what ways does the Friar err in his advice to Romeo? In what ways does he succeed?"
Be prepared. As the discussion leader, come into the meeting with several "big" questions. Be prepared to ask the next one when discussion dies down, when people need more food for thought. In a 2 hour discussion, 2-5 good questions should suffice. It is also good to have 2 or 3 smaller sub-questions for each main question.
Make arguments. Don't just share your feelings. Nor just share your opinions without backing them up. If someone asserts "The Friar shouldn't have given Romeo any advice!" ask them why that is so, and discuss possible support or objections to their claim. Use the "Pros and Cons" model; argue for a position, and then argue against it. Which conclusion would hold up better in a court of law?
Move from the known to the unknown. Good discussions depend on the ignorance of the participants. If you already know, how can you learn? If you feel you have answered a question, press deeper, to find another puzzle you don't yet understand, or move to the next area of interest. For instance, you might say, "We know that the Friar gives advice to Romeo, and we agree that this is a bad idea. We also know he gives advice to Juliet as well... Is this a bad idea too, or is there something different with her that changes things?
Manage personalities. Specifically ask the quieter members what they think of the topic; and, as kindly as possible, rein in the unrelentingly verbal members who don't let others speak. Make sure every participant has an opportunity to be heard.
Summarize as you go. After discussing, for instance, the ways in which the Friar messed up as a mentor for 20 minutes, stop and ask the group, "OK, what have we said so far?" Recap and allow time to breathe, to regather thoughts, and start thinking again.
Tie it all together. When the alloted time for the discussion is up (or when people are tired or ready to go), do a full summary of what you covered. "We said the Friar erred in giving advice to Romeo that wasn't for Romeo's sake, but had the good of the whole city in mind. We agreed that his advice to Juliet, which isn't as politically motivated, is acceptable. We said that advice should be given on a person-by-person basis and people shouldn't exercise their political schemes through individuals. But some of us disagreed with this and said that the good of the city was more important than just Romeo's good, so they said..." etc. etc. If you can't remember everything, that's OK.
Leave 'em hungry. Close with a related question, a "suggestion for further research." This will give all involved something to think about for next time.

Good group conversations don't normally happen in less than an hour, even for pros. Give yourself at least 1 hour.
Great discussions take 3 hours or so to develop and mature. Be patient!
Many people feel that open discussions between willing participants become vague, high-falootin' nonsense. If you or the group begins to feel this, a good question to ask yourselves is, "Why does this matter?" Spend some time deciding which projects are worth pursuing, which aren't, then dive back in.
Keep a positive attitude. If discussing becomes difficult, remember anybody who can speak can learn in discussion and enjoy doing it. There are many classical middle schools, and even kindergartens, as well as discussion-based special education programs! Questions are motivating, and conversing is as natural as breathing, so if it gets hard, keep going!
Socrates was the master discussion leader. Learn from those who have gone before you.
The great discussions are not necessarily conclusive. They may not end in agreement. They may end in clarity of differences and hence agreement to differ!
The excellant discussions often generate new questions, thus opening new vistas of knowledge.
Many people become emotional when their assumptions are questioned or their beliefs are refuted. You can expect some people to become angry, others to become hurt and withdrawn. Others, however, will see that the benefits of learning are worth the costs.
Discussions tend to be wide-ranging, and feel like we're all wandering around. This is normal. Tradition, experience, and the latest research tells us that a lecture, which appears to be more organized, is a neither as lasting nor as effective a way to learn. Stay with the process!
o There are roughly two kinds of discussion: Theoretical and Practical. Distinguish between dialogue that leads to discovery of truth, and dialogue that leads to consensus and action, and be clear with everyone about which one this is!
Is theoretical conversation practical? That's a tough question. Sometimes the most important question is the one that is the hardest to answer. "What is a human being?" Though there is no satisfactory, end-all scientific answer to the question. I may not know the answer, but I know it's relevant -- I am one! Let yourself and the group explore issues that captivate your interest, even if you can't yet articulate the "practical value." Trust your gut.

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