Learning to Talk; Talking to Learn

I have visited more than one Sabbath School class where the unwritten rule appeared to be: “I’m the facilitator. I’ll do the talking.”

Of course, the class members might have preferred it that way. But, frankly, my boredom soon turned to frustration, then to despair. In my opinion—which obviously the facilitators in those classes didn’t care to hear—Sabbath School should be more like community than church. That means more conversation, less preaching.

But, then, that’s just me.

George S. Patton once said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking” (Alan Axelrod, Patton on Leadership, p. 81).

Shouldn’t a Sabbath School class be a safe place to think? And if one is thinking, shouldn’t he or she be allowed to express those thoughts?

It takes a talented leader to get people talking. First, the facilitator needs to understand how to phrase questions that invite discussion. “What do you think?” usually works to stimulate sharing of ideas. Yes/No questions do not. Questions out of the quarterly can be a bit “pat-answer” sometimes, but still key points should be reviewed.

And, of course, class members, who tend to go off on “rabbit trails” need to be reigned in by the facilitator so the discussion can get back on track. It can be a tough balance.

But this is why discussion is important. Each person in the class comes to the lesson study with different prior knowledge and experiences. Each brings varying viewpoints and biases, unique insights, and blind spots. As such, disagreement and doubt should be welcomed—even celebrated!

Not long ago I was rereading Mitch Albom’s best-selling biography, Tuesdays With Morrie. On page 151 Mitch asked Morrie Schwartz, who was dying from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), what he thought of Job’s experience. “I think,” he said, smiling, “God overdid it.”

How refreshing! I want to be in a Sabbath School class where someone could safely say that—without getting a finger-wagging response.

The “Best Idea” Concept
This concept works to spark conversation. A colleague shared that many years ago she took a religion class at Union College from Elder Floyd Bresee. The semester course involved studying the parallel Gospels. Professor Bresee had his students keep a writing journal with a “best idea” conclusion for each chapter.

  • Over-used idea—0 points
  • An OK idea—1 point
  • A refreshing idea or creative idea—2 points

My friend said, “I was always so thrilled when I came up with a 2-point idea!”

Why not try that concept in your class? Toward the end of class, divide folks into groups, assigning different days from the quarterly. Then have each group come up with the “best idea(s)” for that section. For points? Sure, why not! It’s all in fun, of course. Everyone’s ideas are applauded and enjoyed.

Such collaboration could foster not only creativity but incredible insight. The best ideas could be written on butcher paper and hung in the Sabbath School room to be reviewed the following week. Pretty soon you could have people coming to class with their “best ideas” written out ahead of time. That means that they studied!

Confrontation of Confusions
Giving class members time for discussion prompts them to confront their confusions about biblical principles or theologies. Kelly Gallagher writes in his book Deeper Reading: “This creates a paradox: the more skilled the teacher is in setting up these [intellectually motivating and challenging] conditions, the less the students will need the teacher to spoon-feed them the answers.”

In other words, a skilled facilitator creates an environment in which the class learns on its own. But, guess what? The facilitator will get the credit.

In each quarterly I’d venture to say that members will find things they agree with 100 percent, other concepts that they are not so sure about, and still others where they need convincing.

An open-to-discussion class would provide that timely, safe, and healthy environment for all these issues to be faced.

So here’s a rule to consider: “I’m the facilitator. And I, too, am here to learn.”

Eugene Brewer
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists