Hardly a month goes by without some article appearing somewhere bemoaning the deficiencies of our traditional educational system. Even in the business pages you will find articles about how contemporary education is failing to produce students ready to work in a 21st century world where creativity, problem-solving, and independent thinking have become more important than at any time in our history.
One of the most efficient and cost-effective means of promoting these skills in educational settings is the group discussion. Content of all types previously reserved for lecture notes is being turned into group discussion instructions.
With some learners, the transition from a teacher-centered lecture approach to a student-centered group discussion approach comes easily. Students are thrilled with the opportunity to get actively involved and teachers are equally thrilled with the level of motivation and enthusiasm effective group discussions can generate.
However, some learners struggle to make that transition. The fact is not everyone is comfortable talking in a group setting. In addition, some learners simply don’t want to get involved and do all they can to “hide in plain sight.” Experienced teachers are well aware of this phenomenon from dealing with students who never raise their hands to answer a question in traditional settings and display discomfort when called upon.
Placing such individuals in a group setting is not going to lead to a change in behavior over night. However, as the old saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. It takes time to develop some of the skills needed for effective group discussions.
Even in situations where every member of the group is more than willing to speak up, there can be problems in the early stages of introducing group discussion into your educational setting.
For one thing, a free-for all discussion, where learners are talking over each other and interrupting can be disruptive. It takes time to develop the skill of participating in a group discussion without dominating it.
Tasks that call for a group decision require conflict resolution skills to work through differences of opinion. There are other kinds of conflicts that can come up in group discussions as sell, most notably having to do with control issues. In some cases, dominant individuals need to develop the skills needed to allow others to participate. Reticent individuals need to develop skills for contributing to the discussion.
Developing the requisite skills sometimes takes time. Ideally, instructors have some idea of the skill level of their learners prior to developing group discussion tasks. Groups with lower skill levels often require more detailed instructions and a well-defined structure for the discussion.
Finally, it is the responsibility of the teacher to observe group discussion sessions to ensure the needed skills are present and to make adjustments when necessary. In theory, group discussion is an ideal way to promote active involvement. However, in practice, the discussion serves to enhance the learning of those who choose to be active, while the passive members are no better off. However, skills can be learned with practice. It just takes time.