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When to Split into Small Groups

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This popular technique has been misused and abused in gospel classrooms for many years. It is rare that splitting into groups can be used effectively in the gospel classroom.  Read on to find out if you think you can use it in yours:

  • Small groups should not be created from groups larger than 20 people. It should be used only rarely in groups over 16 persons in size. Each group should be very small, no more than 4 or 5 people. You should never have more than 4 or 5 groups. 2 to 4 groups is optimal.
  • Take into account the set up of your room. Will splitting into small groups cause a lot of disruption? Can you set up the room ahead of time to make this group discussion easier?
  • Splitting into small groups is a difficult technique to use well, and when used poorly or in large groups it gets old very, very quickly.  Be certain when you choose this method that there aren't other, better ways to teach your material effectively.
  • This technique is typically used when teachers feel they have have a lot of material to cover and want to do so efficiently. Are you using this technique because there is "just too much" in your lesson -- more material than you know how to cover and you're feeling overwhelmed?  Consider whittling down the material into one or two lesson objectives instead of using small groups.  It is far better to cover one or two topics well than to rush and cover four or five, no matter how awesome they seem.  Remember, it is highly unlikely that this will be the first or only time that your students hear this material.  You don't have to cover it all every time.
  • Small group exercises should not make up the bulk of a lesson.  It takes careful time management to keep groups on task and to allow enough time for presenting at the end.  If time management is not your best skill as a teacher, you may want consider another teaching method besides small groups.

Be sure that the things you're covering in small groups are truly, truly important -- more important than the free form gospel discussion, questions, and possible interactive media use you're displacing to use small groups. If you're certain you want to use small groups, read on......

Instructions are essential, or someone will get left out

Give your groups very clear directions on what they will present and what to look for in the passage. Don't just give groups a cool quote and ask them to share what they learned about it. Groups must be small enough that each person can actively participate. If you choose one presenter, remember that if your group size is over about 4 people, some members of the group will be left out of participation because larger groups have difficulty discussing topics effectively in this format. Your passage and the question should be able to be read quickly and responded to fairly quickly.

METHOD 1 - traditional

Divide the content you wish to cover in a few very short chunks. Either on the board or on a handout, list a few questions that you'd like the group to use the passage to answer. Your questions should be very carefully written so as to encourage group members to share personal experiences and thoughts about the passage, or your question should help students learn how to apply the message to change something in their behavior. Don't ask questions that can be answered in one or two words or that have only one correct answer. Your questions may begin with words like "Why do you think..." or "Have you had an experience that ..." or "Explain to the group what we might change in our lives as a result of this teaching."

METHOD 2 - Assign tasks

Have everyone read the same passage together.  Then break into groups. Assign 3-4 questions from the material to each of your 3-4 small groups.  Each person in the group has an assignment: presenter, scribe, cross-referencer, dictionary, artist/poster designer, etc.  Groups work together to answer their questions for a short period of time (use a timer).  Leave time to present answers to questions at the end of class.

METHOD 3 - Breaking up cliques

As people enter class, hand them a pre-cut shape, like square, circle, diamond, etc.  After reading a text or watching a movie together as a group, have each of the shapes group themselves together by shape for discussion.  You could make additional assignments, like presenter, artist, etc, by color or word written on the back of each shape.

Another tip

I have found small groups work best when each group is doing a DIFFERENT type of presentation. For example, last week I had students split into three groups of varying sizes to do a presentation using light/fire, drama, and a third using photography.

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