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You might wonder if discussion has a place in christian discipleship – is it just a pooling of ignorance, the blind leading the blind? It turns out that psychologists, neuroscientists and educators have found that discussion is an important part of learning and applying new information.
It is now known that to take in information and then act on it, we need to process what we are hearing as we receive it, link the information to what we already know and resolve any tensions. This requires time, mental energy, active involvement and motivation. Just listening doesn’t provide all these necessary elements, but discussion can help in them all.
Jesus left us a mission of making disciples, that is, people who are disciplined in following him in their lives. Since he gave us this task, it’s clear we have some definite part to play in the process – communicating the good news, helping people to understand it and to commit to following Jesus themselves, helping them understand his teachings and learn how to live them out in the real world.
This process will require us to impart information, model christian behaviour, mentor and encourage. Our goal (and theirs) is to change and develop attitudes, behaviours and commitments, so that “we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
I have written elsewhere (Sermons – not how we learn best?) on how sermons are not an effective teaching or communication method, and are not very effective in helping people change, because:
- Our brains need to process what we are hearing as we receive it, to decide what information to keep or to forget, to link the information to what we already know and to resolve any tensions. This requires time, mental energy, active involvement and motivation. Just listening doesn’t provide all these necessary elements.
- One-way lectures where people are passive listeners are far less effective in teaching than approaches where people participate actively.
- Most people cannot retain information if it comes to them too fast, or for more than about 15 minutes.
- If people are passive, unfocused or unengaged, as happens in one-way communication, they are unlikely to remember or put into practice what they have heard. To move from knowledge to practice requires opportunities to try things out as soon as possible – hence learning “on the job” is much more likely to result in change and growth.
This page focuses on how discussion in smaller groups can facilitate teaching via talks, sermons or lectures, and thus facilitate growth, behavioural change and learning new skills.
How the brain remembers and learns
Our brains are receiving an enormous amount of sensory input whenever we are awake, and have to make decisions “on the fly” about what to retain in memory, and what to filter out. Four processes are involved (for more detail plus references, see How the brain remembers):
- Irrelevant sensory information is filtered out as it is received. For example, if we are focused on driving a car, most of the visual information away from the road isn’t noticed because the brain has filtered it out.
- The sensory input is then stored in short term memory, where our brains store information we are currently thinking about. Short term memory can only hold 4-9 separate items of information for about 30 seconds at most before they are replaced by new input. If we want to retain that information, it must be processed immediately.
- Our brains process the new information by grouping it together to form memories and connecting it to and integrating it with existing knowledge and memories. Priority is given to information that has strong emotional content, or has been repeated and used in short term memory, or is personally meaningful, or can readily be associated with existing memories. This processing begins immediately, but can continue for some time if the information is difficult or challenges existing perceptions. After about 10-20 minutes of constant processing, our brains can become fatigued, information is not processed efficiently, and some of it is lost.
- The memories created in this way are then stored in long term memory, where they will be available for recall.
Communication will be more effective if ….
Thus we can see that good communication that is likely to be remembered will have the following characteristics:
- information is given slowly, so short term memory isn’t overloaded;
- communication is not longer than about 15 minutes so information can be processed;
- the information is of interest to those receiving it;
- it has high emotional value;
- it builds on existing knowledge;
- it has been repeated in short term memory (e.g. by being repeated out loud, or by being received via more than one of the senses).
Helping the brain remember and learn
If we want to communicate well, to help people learn and grow, we need to work with, and facilitate, these brain processes.
There are many techniques we can use to facilitate learning and action, and discussion is an important one of these.
How discussion can work
If we have the right aims in mind, discussion can achieve a lot of the above components of effective communication, either on its own or in partnership with a (short) sermon or talk.
Motivation and focus
Watching audiences in sermons and lectures (and thinking about our own experience) shows that many people are not focused and are hardly listening – they may be day-dreaming, or pondering some problem they are facing, interacting with others or even texting.
Discussion is much more likely to engage people, get and keep their attention, and help them focus on the topic, for a time at least.
Slowing the rate of information
As we have seen, too much information too quickly can overload short term memory, and some input is simply lost. Discussion slows the rate of new information input as the topic is discussed by several people and questions asked and answered. As a result, important information is less likely to be lost as new input is received.
Discussion can also be used to break a long lecture or sermon into 10-15 minute segments, giving a rest to the brain’s processing of information.
Helping the brain to process information
This is possibly the most important, and unrecognised, factor. Discussion helps the brain process information in a number of ways:
- Repetition of ideas helps information stay in short term memory longer and makes it more likely that information will be given priority for processing into long term memory (see the components of effective communication, above).
- People learn better if more than one sense is involved. It is well known that speaking out information as well as hearing it strengthens our retention.
- Surprisingly (perhaps), some new information is better learnt from recent learners, who remember how hard it was to first understand, than when taught by experts, who find it easy to understand the subject and thus are likely to find it hard to appreciate the difficulties new learners face. Discussion can allow more knowledgable laypeople to assist those with less understanding.
- Adults learn best via self-discovery, which is more likely to occur in discussion than in a sermon or lecture.
- Discussion strengthens the memories of the things discussed, and helps relate the new ideas to existing knowledge, which are important aspects of the brain’s information processing.
- Discussion may help people see the relevance of the topic as they hear how other people feel about it, and may increase emotional involvement in the matter being discussed.
- Psychologists say that all learning requires an active mind, which is more likely to occur in discussion than in a lecture.
- Studies show that people are more likely to challenge their existing assumptions and views, and thus change their mind and behaviour, during discussion than during a lecture. Questioning and exploring are especially important for teens to grow and mature in faith.
Thus, discussion may help people hear more useful information than a sermon provides. But more importantly, even if no new information is given, discussion is almost essential to enable processing and retention of information provided in a sermon or even from a book.
Active learning helps develop new skills
Listening to a sermon is a passive activity, whereas discussion is a more active activity. In discussion, people are exposed to alternative viewpoints and may need to think through issues and resolve problems.
Thus studies show that discussion helps people learn new communication, thinking and problem solving skills (e.g. synthesis and integration of information).
Communication and education experts are in little doubt that discussion leads to very positive and tangible outcomes:
- Discussion helps participants acquire, challenge, check and develop ideas, all of which assist understanding and growth.
- A large number of studies of university lectures show that interactive lectures provide significantly better results (often 25%-50% better), as measured by student test results (testing both knowledge and conceptual understanding), attitudes and persistence in their course.
- Discussion can promote creativity, understanding and “knowledge-seeking inquiry”.
- “Positive group experiences, moreover, have been shown to contribute to student learning, retention and overall college success” (Carnegie Mellon University)
Fitting discussions into church services and youth groups
There are several ways to use discussions in church services and youth groups.
1. No sermon, just discussion
If the discussion leaders are well enough prepared, and/or if the topic is more about understanding and response than about information and knowledge, then a well-prepared discussion in small groups may be the best approach. Trained leaders should move between groups to facilitate, but not control, and then feedback can be received at the end. The leader may comment on the feedback as it is given, but this should be brief and positive.
2. Discussion after the talk
Keep the talk short (15 minutes maximum) and giving very basic information, then rely on well prepared questions to stimulate participants in discussion groups which follow.
3. Discussion before the talk
This method has an entirely different purpose to some others because it isn’t building on information given, but preparing people to receive information. Questions are aimed at awakening an interest in the topic, and preparing the participants’ minds to receive information on that topic.
4. Discussion during the talk
This is probably the most valuable approach (though of course it can be combined with #2 and #3). The talk is stopped at a suitable point after 5-10 minutes, and the listeners gather into small groups or pairs to discuss a question related to what has been said so far, and/or to share what they have learnt or haven’t understood. Then the talk continues for another 5-10 minutes followed by another short discussion.
This approach has many advantages. It breaks the monologue input before the listeners’ brains become tired and processing becomes inefficient. It allows the participants to talk things over, thus utilising repetition and more than one sense, which improves processing and retention. It encourages self learning while still allowing significant input (if that is necessary).
5. Discussion and feedback during the talk
This approach is the same as #4, with the addition of feedback from the groups. This shares insights gained in the groups, and allows the speaker to change the content of the second half of the talk to cover important areas raised in the discussion, correct misunderstandings and answer questions.
Alternatively, the talk can be interrupted, a question asked to the whole group and answers sought immediately. This would be difficult in a larger group or where people don’t know each other well.
6. Put the talk online and come together to discuss
This is a radical one, and would only work with motivated participants who have time and discipline to do their homework. But it is a method increasingly used in universities to allow people to learn at their own pace online, look up references, consider the issues, then gain understanding via discussion when they come together as a group.
7. Mini debates
This is suitable for contentious topics where there may be no single “right” answer, or topics where unbelievers are likely to challenge christians. Divide into groups of four, and give two pairs opposite sides of the question. Get each pair to prepare a few ideas, then have the two pairs discuss/debate the question.
This approach encourages hard thinking and self learning, and prepares participants for being questioned in real life.
Ask good questions
The educational sources stress that questions must be carefully chosen for their purpose, and leaders well-prepared.
- Define the goals – what we want the participants to learn or gain from the discussion, and develop questions accordingly. (Questions for discussions before a talk will be different to questions after a talk.)
- An initial recall and comprehension question may be helful, but then questions should be more open and challenging.
- Some questions should assist participants to synthesise the information received and to form general concepts; e.g. ask questions like Why is this fact/idea important? How does this fit in with some other doctrine or teaching? Does this cause you to think differently?
- Another question could ask how the information might be applied, or whether participants can give examples of situations where this topic was relevant. This type of question is suitable for preparatory discussions (#3) as well as discussion after a talk (#2).
- Case studies, hypotheticals, or even short role plays, can help apply concepts to real life.
Time and perseverance
Christians have become very comfortable with sitting though sermons while they remain passive and often detached. These ideas will be unfamiliar to some, perhaps even threatening. But they will improve understanding and response in the long run, and challenge people more, which most christians will welcome, though some may prefer to remain more comfortable.
A different culture takes time and perseverance to develop, and requires explanation and gradual introduction. But it can be done.
If we want people we are discipling to grow to become christians who can relate and respond to God without constant input from leaders, it must be done.
- Sermons – not a good way to teach or make disciples – more detailed information and many references on why sermons and lectures are very poor at communication, imparting knowledge and encouraging change.
- Church in a circle blog – a great source of discussion ideas.
- Holy Soup blog by an American author and observer.
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