Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Hijack Prevention and Survival

Posted by BrianJ on September 1, 2007

Any teacher (or blogger, for that matter) who leads discussions knows what it’s like to have a lesson get hijacked (defined as taking over a discussion by changing the subject to something unrelated to the original subject). On this thread, we’ll talk about what to do about it.

There are probably several reasons why class members do this sort of thing:

  1. Disinterest: “This is topic is old news, but I have something far more interesting that we could talk about.”
  2. Malicious Intent: “I can ruin this class and there’s nothing the teacher can do about it; he has to be ‘nice’ and let everyone comment.”
  3. Pride: “This class would be so much better if I were the teacher—oh, I’ll just lead from the pew!”
  4. Honest Mistake: “I’m sorry, I thought my question was on topic. Every time someone says, ‘tithing’ I immediately think of chastity—doesn’t everyone?”
  5. Genuine Question: “I know we’re not talking about this right now, but verse 5 has always bothered me and I really want to discuss it before moving on.”
  6. Plea for Help: “I could really use a discussion on ‘love’ right now, not a talk about repentance.”
  7. Pet Project: “I’ve been studying the Greek word for ‘faith’ for the last 12 years and that’s all I want to talk about.”
  8. Overshooting: “I know that we’re talking about tithing, but in order to really understand the importance of tithing, I think we need to understand consecration.”
  9. Show-and-Tell: “I had the most amazing spiritual experience this week and I know it’s not on topic, but I just have to share.”
  10. Corrective: “This teacher always focuses on the wrong thing; someone needs to speak up and keep him in line.”

Are all of the reasons “bad”? Well, clearly not (e.g. #5). Admitting that as teachers means being willing to “let go” of our lesson plans sometimes. But some of the reasons are always inappropriate, while others are impossible to classify as “always” anything—#s 8 and 9, for example, depend on the situation, the topic being hijacked, etc. So it seems that the first challenge for the teacher is to judge whether the hijack is helpful or hurtful.

But before we do that as teachers, shouldn’t we first ask why we care about the hijack? We also could have several reasons to be bothered:

  1. Disinterest: “I really don’t care what Sister Jones has to say.”
  2. Wrench in the Plan: “My lesson is so carefully crafted and calculated that we just don’t have time for Sister Jones’ tangent.”
  3. Pride: “This class is so lucky to have me as the teacher—it’s really sad when precious time is wasted by Sister Jones’ comments.”
  4. Honest Mistake: “I’m sorry, I had no idea that ‘tithing’ and ‘chastity’ were related—am I the only one who missed that?”
  5. Genuine Disappointment: “I really wanted to discuss verse 5 with the class, so I wish Sister Jones hadn’t changed the subject.”
  6. Unprepared: “I’m not prepared to discuss chastity today; Sister Jones always makes me look like a fool when she changes the subject.”
  7. Pet Project: “I’ve been studying the Greek word for ‘faith’ for the last 12 years and that’s all I want to talk about.”
  8. Narrow-mindedness: “We’re talking about tithing, and consecration has nothing to do with it.”
  9. Line upon Line: “Sister Jones is moving to fast; we could spend three months talking about verse 5 alone.”
  10. Protective: “Sister Jones means well (or not), but her topics are not what the class needs to discuss.”

Obviously, our motives are also suspect, and before we deal with a hijacker, we should “cleanse the inner vessel.” How do you know whether you or the hijacker is in the wrong? Maybe you both are, then what? What if you’re both “right”?

I don’t have the answers, but I thought I’d share some stories about how I dealt with hijackers:

A. The first hijacker was a #5, Genuine Questioner. We were talking about the post-exile temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritans, and a man asked about the Masons. That put me in a #6, Unprepared. So I simply said, “That’s a good question, but I don’t know enough to answer it. I also don’t even know enough to moderate a discussion about it, and since as the teacher I think it’s my responsibility to moderate, will not discuss that question in class.”

B. This hijacker was a mix of #8 and #9, Overshooting Show-and-Tell. He was very excited about the topic we were discussing, but in trying to emphasize his point, he said something that was only remotely related (and was a bit out of line). I could tell that most of the class missed his point entirely, focusing instead on his bold, unrelated statement. I made a follow-up comment that highlighted his contribution to the discussion, leaving the other issue unaddressed. Another class member, however, made a comment that was a rebuttal to the hijacker. What was I to do now? I gave the first student a chance to clarify his comment, then told the class that we would be moving the discussion back to the original topic. What I neglected to do is to tell them why: I felt that the Spirit didn’t want us to talk about the tangent, but wanted us to stay with the original topic. I should have told the class this.

C. This hijacker was often a #6, Plea for Help. The problem is that I was always responding with a #1 and #3, Disinterest and Pride. The solution came when I repented, exercised a bit of charity toward my brother, and tried to see the discussion from his view. The result is that now I see his comments as very helpful.

Of course, none of my experiences get at BobW’s question:

“In New Testament lesson 30 on Peter’s vision of unclean beasts, Barnabus, and taking the gospel to the gentiles I focused in “circumcision” as a metaphor for the ways in which we each try to live the gospel and how we ought not to insist that others adhere to non-core gospel living in the same way we do. I.e., our definition of the Word or Wisdom or our definition of proper sabbath observance. Sister Jones had a related comment which she followed with “oh, and I have a comment on Simon the Tanner.” We weren’t talking about the personalities of the people in the scriptures or their vocations or their residences, all of which were well within the expected scope of her comment given the history of comments in the class. I could see this as derailing a discussion which was right on track and which ended up right where it was intended.

“How would you have responded to this proposed comment which was, functionally, ‘here let me hijack your lesson for a few minutes?'”

How would you help BobW?

____________________________

I don’t mean to offend anyone with the term “hijacker” or by seeming to categorize my class members. I don’t think that way in class (i.e. assigning numbers to people) and only do so here as a shorthand. Obviously, every student is an individual and so defies categorization.

36 Responses to “Hijack Prevention and Survival”

  1. Julie M. Smith said

    BobW, I’m a control freak, but I think an observation about Simon is completely appropriate (the way that a story of, say, her neighbor’s grandson’s botched circumcision is not) even if it isn’t related to where I want to go with the lesson. I don’t think the teacher has the right to exercise that close a level of control over the class. I’d let her go, and while she was speaking, I’d be thinking of how to reel in her comment to my theme.

    However, if she is a weekly highjacker, I’d practice not looking in her direction so I wouldn’t have to call on her very often. No joke.

  2. Bob said

    Julie;
    She is a weekly hijacker with a semi-related topic which she has obviously prepared in advance. I do avoid looking towards her corner, she does sit in the back right corner, but since her hand is up at least half a dozen times each lesson I try to call on her once every other week or so as a matter of courtesy. This inquiry is generated by the fact that my most stringent critic, my wife, thought my response in lesson 30 was less than courteous.

  3. Robert C. said

    Although sometimes I’ve had luck ignoring or not calling on a weekly hijacker, I’ve actually had better luck addressing such a problem more directly:

    “OK, I know that Sister Jones has some good ideas to share on this topic, but I really want to hear from others—who else has something to share?”

    “Hmmm, Sister Jones has made 5 good comments in the last two weeks, which is more than the rest of the class combined—come on, now, let’s not let Sister Jones show us up….”

    If it continues to be a problem, I think talking with her before or after class might be called for. Another idea might be to ask students ahead of time to prepare some comments or thoughts, and sort of make for more structured class discussion.

  4. Julie M. Smith said

    In that case, I like Robert C’s suggestions.

    Another possibility: call her and ask her to prepare 30 seconds on something *you* want her to talk about. That may address her need to prepare and contribute to class without annoying you.

  5. brianj said

    I’ve found that every time I try to be subtle, I end up being backhanded. So I go for complete openness. In this particular case, I might simply explain to her why her comments “throw me off” sometimes and what I think she could do differently to help me. I would also ask if there is something I could do differently for her.

    Last year I had to talk with someone who kept making multiple lengthy comments in every class, monopolizing all of the discussion. She realized what she was doing and we both had laugh about how excited she gets by the Gospel.

    (By the way, if she just really wants to share her ideas, you could always encourage her to start a blog….)

  6. NathanG said

    I have not been a teacher for years, but I have been a student in many classes. Brianj’s second list regarding the teacher’s attitude also applies to other students (at least some of the points). The danger is getting annoyed/disinterested when someone else makes a comment and losing the Spirit and missing anything else useful from the lesson. I have had times when I was ready to make a comment, but someone else answered the question from such a different perspective (although not really hijacking anything), that for me to share my comment would have essentially hijacked the lesson.

    Personally, I feel that if a teacher is encouraging their students to read and come prepared to class, they need to be very careful of #2, #3, and possibly #5. Just a few weeks ago some people in my class tried starting a discussion that was centered on the actual title of the lesson (#30 God is No Respecter of Persons), but after about one minute of good discussion my teacher said she appreciated that we were interested in the scriptures and encouraged us to study it on our own. She definitely has a lesson that she has to get through and no discussion can derail it.

    I know I personally have to keep my own comments in check to ensure that I don’t hijack a lesson myself, but I don’t take offense when others “hijack” a lesson with something that is either sincere or useful (although habitual hijackers should be talked with as some of the above comments suggest).

  7. mjberkey said

    I wonder why it’s so important that a lesson “stay on track”. What is this track and where does it lead? Are we sure that it won’t lead us steadily down to Hell? I’m very suspicious of the attitude that demands a pre-structured lesson, almost inadaptable to change. First of all, I think it’s uncharitable. I also believe it cuts the spirit out. Christ commands his disciples “But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.” The Holy Ghosts acts in the moment. We are commanded to teach with the Spirit. The decision to remain focused on a particular lesson plan versus deviating, then, should be made in the moment, under the direction of the Spirit.

    As for the hijacker (derailer being a more PC term for this, but I’ve never been known to be PC anyway), is he actually wanting to engage in a group discussion or is he perhaps just trying to draw attention to himself? If the latter, then he is a soul in need of saving. A sidetrack oriented for him is probably in order actually, although he should not be given control the sidetrack itself. At that point (in that moment) the teacher should, under the close guidance of the Spirit, determine how best to teach the hijacker. I would guess that this will almost always involve deviation from the lesson plan.

    If the hijacker is of the former distinction, then the teacher should ask herself why he doesn’t take interest in the discussion already at hand. Is it because the discussion is not edifying? For example, a teacher teaching about tithing who doesn’t understand the profound relevance that consecration has on the law of tithing (in my ever so humble opinion) but is rather trying to determine what exactly constitutes a full tithe (net income? gross income? do scholarships count as income? etc.) is probably not leading an edifying discussion. Whereas, a discussion of consecration would probably subsume the original question of “what is a proper tithe?” and be a lot more edifying. If the original discussion is edifying, however, then the duty of the teacher is not to shut down the hijacker in favor of the all-important lesson plan, but to call him into the discussion at hand.

  8. brianj said

    NathanG: Thanks for pointing out the challenge for “innocent bystanders” (the students who are witnessing the hijack).

    mjberkey: “I wonder why it’s so important that a lesson “stay on track”…almost unadaptable to change. [It] cuts the spirit out. The Holy Ghosts acts in the moment. We are commanded to teach with the Spirit.”

    We’ve discussed this before on this blog, and it’s always worth discussing. My basic feeling is that there are times when it is appropriate to “stay on track”, downplaying tangential comments (however sincere) and even lecturing without taking any comments at all. Whether one sticks to the lesson plan, or even makes a plan at all, should be decided by the Spirit. In other words, I agree with what you said, “The decision to remain focused on a particular lesson plan…should be made…under the direction of the Spirit.”

    “As for the hijacker… he [may be] a soul in need of saving. A sidetrack oriented for him is probably in order actually….”

    Of course, every soul in my class is in need of saving (but I know what you meant). I think the problem is not going after the “lost sheep,” but worrying that the deviation from the topic will be detrimental to the class as a whole. Do you go after the lost sheep if seven more sheep will get lost in your absence? It’s not easy for me as a teacher to always know (in the moment) whether to throw aside my lesson plan (that the Spirit helped me to create and urged me to follow) in order to help the “sincere hijacker in need.”

    “…the duty of the teacher is…to call him into the discussion at hand.”

    Well said. Now, how?

  9. m&m said

    One of the things that came to mind is to pray for and about that commenter who regularly (weekly?) seems to derail a lesson. Perhaps there is some inspiration that could come on how to respond or if there is anything specific that can or should be done. Sounds trite, but I am not sure that there is a one-size-fits-all response to someone like this in a class.

    I had a person who would make lengthy comments and I found that it was hard for me to feel the Spirit if I was deliberately avoiding calling this person. But by the same token, I could tell that the Spirit could leave when the comments got too long. So it’s a difficult conundrum. I wish I’d thought to pray specifically about that particular situation and how to respond best for the sake of the class and for this individual.

    I also wonder sometimes if I’m an annoying commenter who frustrates teachers…. :) I try not to derail, but I love discussion and tend to make comments regularly.

  10. Kim M. said

    Well, I KNOW that I am a derailer. I purposely try to disrupt the lessons if there is no discussion, if we’re entirely off topic, etc. Perhaps I have a more unique situation, attending BYU wards and being taught Gospel Doctrine lessons by freshmen, but I often feel that THEY are the derailer. I’ve had entire lessons where we never once opened the scriptures. We listened to the teacher preach her doctrine on Christ for an hour. I purposely attempt to disrupt lessons like these and get everyone involved, bring in the text, etc.

    I feel that if the rest of the class is dozing in their chairs and even those of us who are alert aren’t learning anything, it’s my responsibility to turn to a course of discussion that involves everyone and creates a learning environment. Now, is that a response to the Spirit, or is that Pride?

    This entire response falls under Pride and Corrective, I realize. Often I do have a genuine question that I address to the class in order to get them involved. Is this wrong? Should I sit back and hope the Spirit will magically appear sometime in the next half hour? Should I watch the souls around me fall asleep in the middle of the Lord’s house?

    So. There’s my personal case study that entirely reiterates Brian J.’s question: How do we know who’s wrong?

  11. Robert C. said

    I really like the points mjberkey and Kim M. raise, though I took it for granted that “hijacking” meant “driving away the Spirit.” I esp. like Kim’s notion of trying to disrupt a lesson that does not seem to be inviting the Spirit. In fact, I have left unedifying lessons feeling guilty myself in realizing that I could’ve done more to invite the Spirit into the classroom. More particularly, I have felt chastised by the Spirit for not asking particular lessons that would disrupt the teacher’s (rather than the Spirit’s) agenda (esp. when I’ve left such a class with thoughts that are critical of the teacher or the classroom experience—“thou hypocrite,” I hear whispered in my ear, since I wasn’t actively engaged in trying to improve the situation…).

  12. BobW said

    Thank you all for your thoughtful consideration of my post and your suggestions. Having taught in virtually every organization in the Church over the years I have had my share of instances where the spirit has whispered “thou hypocrite” but none of them have been associated with Sister Jones’ involvement in this gospel doctrine class. A close study of Teaching No Greater Call and observing the Michael Wilcox approach to study has caused me to change my teaching approach, generally for the better.

    Having contemplated this since BrianJ’s response [#1] I believe Sister Jones is an amalgamation of his point four Honest Mistake and an unlisted point eleven, “Here I am Look at Me.” Her comments are not spontaneous and show that she has read at least the scriptures listed in the student materials and probably the instructor’s manual. They are tangential to the theme of the lesson and tend to focus on temporal rather than spiritual aspects of an obscure scripture associated with the lesson. They concern me because they are, as RobertC describes [#11] detrimental to the spirit. That view is supported by the fact that many other class members look askance at each other when Sister Jones talks.

    I had already tried a number approaches which were suggestions made here and will consider others. Thanks again for your thoughts and suggestions.

  13. mjberkey said

    brianj: “Well said. Now, how?

    I don’t really know of any strategies for this other than to listen to the Spirit. I think that in each individual case, the answer will be much clearer than us trying to answer it hypothetically. I would guess that it would be good to address the issue raised by the hijacker while also showing him the greater importance of the subject of the original discussion.

    What do you think?

  14. I fear it is all too obvious how much time Herr mjberkey and Madame Kim M have spent in my living room! As my proteges, I suppose I should come to their defense…

    I think Mike has said the most helpful thing of all for the teacher: the person who “derails” or “hijacks” a lesson is most likely the one lost sheep that needs direct attention now. I’m imagining Alma trying not to look in the direction of the spokesman of the Zoramite poor, or trying to brush off his question so that he can focus on the prepared sermon he was delivering to the Zoramite rich. Or, perhaps more to the point, I’m imagining Alma trying to avoid dealing with Antionah’s derailing question in Alma 12 (notice that Alma even tries to make Antionah feel all the more welcome in raising his question by saying: I was just about to explain that!). But instead of avoiding, ALma lays before, of all people, the Ammonihahites the most explicitly sacred discourse in the Book of Mormon (Alma 12-13)! Isn’t there something to learn here?

    That is, I really think Sr. Berkey is right. (Do I dare tell the story of a certain Mssr. Berkey who derailed my seminary lessons for three or four days running while I figured out how to respond to him in charity rather than with annoyance? That is, do I dare mention that a certain Mr. Berkey once sat in the front row of my own classroom causing just this kind of trouble, and it was because I finally gave in to his perhaps obscure plea that I was able to help be part of the shaping of a rather amazing individual—not to mention that I was able to gain a lifelong friend? In a word, do I dare drop a hint that there are those in our midst who put quite on display that the derailers and hijackers are perhaps the only students we really have?)

    Kim, on the other hand, has perhaps said the most helpful thing of all for the student: we ought to derail lessons when the Spirit is not present. It is necessary here to make a couple of important comments: first, one should notice that the presupposition behind mjberkey’s comment was that the class is being taught by the Spirit; second, one should notice that the presupposition behind Kim M.’s comment was that the class is not being taught by the Spirit. That said, where the Spirit lacks, ought we not to derail? Now let me also agree with Nathan (and if Nathan is the Nathan I think he is, I’m surprised you have not had a teaching calling in a long time… too bad) that we should be reluctant to derail or hijack a lesson. Now, let me clarify my self-contradiction: we should look for ways to derail a lesson by being more faithful to the lesson than the teacher him/herself is, to derail without derailing. But how?

    A couple of examples to put the spirit of this approach on display. (1) From this last Sunday: after reading lightly through several brief stories in Acts, the teacher asks, “How can we learn to recognize the Spirit in our own lives?” I actually turn back to the verses in question and start thinking them, allowing them to question my own presuppositions. Something in them usually calls the very question asked into question. I raise my hand, comment on those verses, and point out that the scriptures themselves suggest that we perhaps think about things backwards, that we look at the Spirit incorrectly when we are trying just to “recognize” it all the time. (2) We’re having the same lesson about David being in the wrong place at the wrong time (he should have been at war!?!?!?!?), which inevitably leads to his seeing a girl wash her arms. Here we go again with the lesson on thoughts, pornography, etc. When the teacher finally asks a question like “Do we see these kinds of problems today?” I raise my hand and point out a few interesting facts (the meaning of Bath-sheba, the political situation, the meaning of the covenant, David’s warlike nature, etc.) and then suggest that there is more at work here than mere sexual promiscuity. Do we see something like David’s trying to overpower God’s will by doing things our own way? Certainly. (3) Now I’m sitting in a class with a teacher who is very much involved intellectually with the scriptures. The teacher brings up all sorts of details but never seems to get anywhere near the Spirit. When the timing is right, I raise my hand and ask if I can just make a brief comment. “I really like the way your interpreting this passage, and I wonder what it suggests about the meaning of Paul’s injunction that….”

    I don’t think this is very hard. I suppose we’ve simply got to be studenting by the Spirit as much as the teacher ought to be teaching by the Spirit.

    Marvelous discussion. Thanks for the question, Bob.

  15. Michele Mitchell said

    After Joe speaks, I feel both shallow and superfluous. Nevertheless, when I read “Here, let me hijack your lesson for a minute,” I wondered how I could stop thinking about “my” lesson. Fresh from BYU Education Week, I’m hoping to use pair discussion and small group discussion to move toward everyone’s lesson. In the time allotted, the entire class can never hear all those who have something to say and all those who long to say something. But some Ed Week teachers used pair-share effectively to draw out the reluctant and permit utterance for the eager.

    I’m working on questions for Gospel Doctrine Lesson #34 in that spirit. For example,to lead into 1 Cor 11:27-34, I’m thinking I’ll ask if they know a commandment, obedience to which involves all the senses. Class members could briefly discuss in pairs (to avoid 1 person pronouncing immediately and squelching further thought), then share some responses. Hopefully someone offers “partaking of the Sacrament,” and then pairs can discuss whether repetition has dulled the appeal to all the senses, how concentrating the senses could facilitate Paul’s 3 Sacramental directives in verses 24-28, etc.

    Are you doing small group discussion in your classes? Results?

  16. Robert C. said

    I’m also curious about small group discussions. My very limited experience with small group discussions is mixed, though I’ve probably seen it “fail” more than I’ve seen it be “successful.” When it’s failed, I think it’s for a variety of reasons, but the students end up sort of talking among themselves about something off topic, or the group sort of spends most of the time feeling each other out, sort of establishing a group dynamic, leaving little time for substantive discussion. When it’s been successful, I think that, as Michelle describes, it allows more students in the class to participate, and develops more meaningful relationships (though that sounds a bit too grand of a term in this case) between class members. Also, I think I’ve heard that they’re pushing for more of these small discussion groups in CES, seminar[y], and at BYU-Idaho—can anyone confirm or deny that alleged rumor?

  17. As I’m sure everyone can guess, I have major reservations about small discussion groups. Perhaps that has a great deal to do with the present emphasis on that model in the seminary classroom. Hmmm. More some other time on that.

  18. adrienne said

    Hey, I know I’m really late to this topic, but I had a major hijacker in my class during the “no respecter of persons” discussion, which somehow, and in a really ugly way, went down a path over how we should teach our young men & women to date and marry within the church. A couple of sisters married to non-members became emotional & defensive of their good and loving husbands & with others chiming in their own very strong opinions on the subject. I was a deer in the headlights, when out of the darkness a beloved friend caught my eye & winked as she raised her hand. She then made a somewhat related comment & then asked a question which put the entire discussion back on track. After class, I thanked her for bailing me out & she said that she’s always got my back. Believe me, my new plan is to call on her whenever the discussion runs amok. You all need a friend like that!

  19. brianj said

    adrienne,

    I’m happy to hear that you had a friend who could help you. Never be afraid, however, to be honest with the class and say, “I’m not comfortable leading (or prepared to lead) a discussion on that topic, so I’m going to ask that we come back to this other topic.”

    Michele,

    I have never (not even once) had a good experience in small group discussions, so I am very reluctant to use them. I am skeptical that they only work in teaching workshops, where all of the “students” present are actually teachers (and therefore, eager participants). Granted, what I just said is based on my very limited experience. There are many practical aspects of them that I dislike, which probably aren’t worth mentioning, but I will mention one philosophical aspect: If we set up discussions as a means to get class participation, we run the risk of teaching students that when they speak they are participating (which is not necessarily true) and that the only way to participate is to speak (which is absolutely false).

  20. NathanG said

    Michele,
    I think for the small groups to be successful you have to really think carefully what the students will be doing. I think I have seen it work (as participant and as teacher…a long time ago) when each group has a different topic or assignment, often working through a decent chunk of scriptures/stories etc. and then being prepared to briefly summarize to the class and hopefully with the purpose of setting up a full class discussion after all groups have shared their part.
    I have as a participant seen it fail when a good discussion question is asked and we break into small groups to pre-discuss it and then come back and discuss it as a class. What I find is 1) the other people in my group usually don’t like the small groups (I try to be a little positive, but it’s work)so they don’t talk 2) I end up doing all the talking in my small, reluctant group and 3) I keep wishing I could hear a good class discussion on it because I think it is already a good discussion, but I know this small group portion is actually taking up too much time.
    When it’s a good challenging subject I wonder if teachers try small groups to avoid the dreaded period of silence when nobody answers because they actually have to think about it, but the teacher is left wondering if people are thinking or being bored. Chances are at least a few people are really thinking about it and just need a minute to think through a response before they are ready to answer. I would rather have teachers give periods of awkward silence for thinking than go into prediscussion small group mode. I know I can pop off answers when I already have thoughts about the subject, or I can at least see where the lesson is being led, but sometimes a completely new thought has been suggested and I need a minute to digest.

    So in summary, I think small group activities can be an effective teaching tool, but it is an extremely challenging tool to master and use in a way that the students (particularly adult students) feel adds to the lesson. If used, it should be carefully planned, and not over-used and you should always know your audience.

  21. Robert C. said

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit more, and I think small groups have potential of being effective particularly in very large classes. One idea for trying to get around the many potential problems (that I’ve witnessed…) is to ask several key (read: based on prayer and inspiration!) people in class ahead of time to be group leaders.

    My concern is that in large classes it’s too easy for members to disengage. Only so many people can actively participate in a large class, and small groups allow more individuals to participate–not that participation is the goal, but partly in an effort to think why professors won’t become obsolete in the future (in favor of on-line, pre-recorded lectures by the single “best” professor on a topic, available to the masses), I’ve thought a lot about the virtues of being able to ask questions and have others respond to them (this is largely the same motivation for the blog). This procedure becomes very limited in large classes, and small groups seem like a nice cure for the problem. Perhaps I’m simply thinking of a scenario where the class really should be split and a new teacher called. On the other hand, I think it could be very valuable and interesting to hear a summary of what other small groups (or mini-classes, as we might think of them) discussed. Also, there’s a lot more flexibility in terms of choosing different discussion leaders each week, allowing them to participate.

  22. Kim M. said

    Nathan (#20): “When it’s a good challenging subject I wonder if teachers try small groups to avoid the dreaded period of silence when nobody answers because they actually have to think about it, but the teacher is left wondering if people are thinking or being bored. Chances are at least a few people are really thinking about it and just need a minute to think through a response before they are ready to answer. I would rather have teachers give periods of awkward silence for thinking than go into prediscussion small group mode.”

    I am quite familiar with this situation. Often a Sunday School teacher will ask a question that I actually need time to think about. They, expecting something off a list of prepared “pad” answers grow nervous when hands don’t shoot up within 15 seconds. The poor teacher feels awkward and tries to diffuse the tension with “come on, guys, I need help here.” Unfortunately, for me, I’m pulled out of my thinking to respond to the teacher, to say “give us a few more seconds; we need time to think.”

    I’m glad that someone else has noticed the problem of “awkward silences,” namely that the teacher feels all of the “awkward,” while the students desire all of the “silence.” Perhaps this introduces the situation of a teacher derailing/hijacking her OWN lesson?

  23. mjberkey said

    I haaaaate small group discussions. I’ve only used one once when my teaching partner decided to use it. But I’ve been in plenty of small group experiences (especially in my last two years in seminary) and they have never been good.

    That being said, I can conceive of a situation as mentioned by Robert, where each group is led by a group leader, working well. I feel like one of the big problems with small group discussions that I’ve been in, is that I always turn into the leader of the discussion. Nobody understands the purpose to be a chance for “small group discussion”. This is a problem because the group is never really interested in doing more than coming up with the pat answer that the teacher is looking for. So I can’t actually lead a discussion. I think that if a leader were appointed in each group and given 5 minutes for discussion (at least) then people would catch on that they are actually supposed to engage inside of this small group.

  24. JakeW said

    I don’t like small group discussions, and I don’t like teachers asking questions. I like lecture style teaching, with the students being able to interject when they’ve got a thought or comment or question. In fact, I think the teacher ought to encourage the students to impose themselves as much as they like (so long as they have the spirit of learning. As for kids who just want to disrupt, I think they should be kicked out). All too often I see in seminary nobody paying attenion until they’re called on, and then of course they shut down directly after the spotlight is removed. Not that I blame students for not paying attention to seminary lessons. I think the problem is it’s hard for some teachers to actually come up with an hour’s worth of material to talk on.

  25. BobW said

    I agree with BrianJ. I have never seen small discussion groups enhance a class. I have used them at the suggestion of the manual but find they degenerate in to off topic chats and that the results which the discussion leader describes to the class are superficial.

    On silence in response to a question: My observation is that silence comes in at least two categories which you can usually discern from the faces of the students, a) we are completely confused and have no idea what you are asking, teacher, and b) “wow, that is a very interesting thought which I need to process and which I may or may not raise my hand for a response but I will consider how it applies in my life. If I am in category a) it is time for me to reformulate the question. If I am in category b) I should give them time to work it through even if it is uncomfortable standing at the front of the classroom in the silence.

  26. Robert C. said

    I still think the failure of small group discussions is primarily a failure of the students (and, or including, the teacher…). And like every failure, I think there is a real opportunity lurking behind this failure. In Sunday school, as well as in Institute and Seminary, my experience is that most people don’t really study or prepare much for the class, and I think this is related to the fact that there is little expected of them. Teachers, on the other hand, seem to prepare significantly more than students (even if, as JakeW notes, that preparation still might be lacking…)—so the idea of small group discussions, it seems to me, is take call more directly on students’ responsibility in the classroom to contribute, and to prepare to contribute. I think that what occurs outside of the classroom as a result of a class is much more important (or at least potentially so…) than what occurs in the classroom. In this sense, I think one of the responsibilities of a good teacher is to call the class into question, which is just another way of saying the teacher should be crying repentance. If this doesn’t occur, it seems students run the risk of simply floating through these classes (“at ease” in the Zion of the classroom). If students were expected to participate meaningfully, or perhaps knew they would be sort of put on the spot in a small group setting, week and week out, might not this serve as an incentive to study more outside of class? In this spoon-feed culture, with a sit-back-and-entertain-me attitude so prevalent, I see this suggestion of small group discussion as a possibly very important step in the opposite direction.

    It’s not that I think small group discussions are THE answer, after all, I don’t think I’ve ever used them as a teacher (and as I said before, I’ve mostly witnessed them used to rather poor effect…). But I think the failure of these small group endeavors are a failure of the teacher and the students, not a failure of the structure per se….

  27. NathanG said

    I have to agree with BobW #25 that there is more than one kind of awkward silence, it’s not always because of deep thinking. Another kind of silence I see is: My goodness I think my 6-year-old-child was asked exactly the same question in her primary class, and I think the teacher really expects the exact same answer that she is going to give, I don’t want to answer. It seems like a similar “warm-up” or “loosen your tongue” exercise (that may prompt the use of small groups) with a hope of preparing the class for a discussion later in the lesson.

  28. I think Robert is moving in the right direction with the idea of trying to find a way to have students come to class far more prepared. And this makes me want to move into a rather long tirade, so I’ll try to say this in two or three setences.

    The teacher ought not to be preparing a lesson, but herself; that is, the teacher ought to be studying like mad, but not preparing anything. The students ought to be doing exactly the same thing, that is, studying like mad. When this happens and they come together, any method should work just as well as any other: everyone explores and thinks together by the Spirit.

    In a word: methods are not the key, but the Spirit and what that means.

  29. BrianJ said

    Joe, I know that we’ve been over this before—whether or not to come to class with a lesson plan—and now I think I finally see why we disagree: Your belief is that if the students would just read and study their scriptures and the teacher would do the same, then the class could come together and follow the Spirit without the need for a lesson plan. Let me first say that I agree. The problem I see with that, however, and the reason we disagree in practice, is that most teachers are working with students who do not read and study as needed for this to take place. If only the students prepare, it is a disaster; if only the teacher prepares, then there is no one to help him out and the teacher is left with too great a burden. Only the most incredible teachers can be prepared enough for this type of classroom.

    I think that all teachers have to recognize their own weakness and the weakness of their students and respond/adapt to it; in many cases the appropriate response is a lesson plan. Again, I know we’ve been over this, but I remain absolutely convinced that the Spirit helps me to prepare and follow my lesson plans (not every time, mind you). The result has been that many more students are reading and studying the material. Interestingly, I don’t get much more “participation” in the raise-your-hand-and-comment sense, but I can see on my students faces that they are participating on a much higher level.

    In other words: This isn’t the most exalted classroom form, but teachers must humbly ask God to condescend.

  30. Robert C. said

    I think there’s something interesting buried in Joe’s comment about the teacher “preparing herself” that might cast BrianJ’s response in an interesting light. That is, the teacher should be preparing herself for what? Surely not a solipsistic or autonomous preparation, but a preparation directed toward others, and her future class in particular. In this sense, doesn’t Joe’s comment deconstruct itself? That is, can’t preparing a lesson be a means of preparing oneself, perhaps a most exalted and other-focused undertaking?

    Of I think I’m likely misconstruing the intent of Joe’s comment, since I think his beef is with preparing a fixed text that might hinder the Spirit in the classroom event. But I think this is worth thinking about more: can we ever read the scriptures without preparing a lesson for others, in the sense that we are reading the scriptures with ourselves vis-a-vis others in mind?

    I find this distance between preparing ourselves and preparing a lesson very interesting to think about….

  31. brianj said

    I think it’s interesting to think about what an economist is doing using words like “solipsistic.” {smile}

    (I had to look it up)

  32. mjberkey said

    Brian, I have to disagree entirely with you assumption that teaching with the Spirit (without a lesson plan) can only work in the ideal (mythical) classroom where both the students and the teacher have already studied the text. I’ve seen Joe teach seminary (as a sub), where 99% of the class hasn’t even looked at the text and half of them don’t even want to be there. But when he teaches, he has the whole class’s attention fixed and he’s one of the best teachers I know. Brother Nelson (who taught seminary my first two years before he was transferred) taught the same way, and he was another one of the best teachers I’ve known.

  33. BrianJ said

    mjberkey, #32: You do not disagree with me on that point at all. Note what I said (#29) in the last sentence of my first paragraph:

    “Only the most incredible teachers can be prepared enough for this type of classroom.”

    The fact that you’ve seen it work is evidence of Joe’s incredible (i.e. rare) knowledge of the scriptures. Everyone (even Joe, unless he’s showing false humility) recognizes that Joe is exceptional. I teach using numerous different methods, including the study-like-mad-and-make-no-plan approach; it can require considerably more time than other approaches and sometimes that’s more time than I have; i.e. every hour spent studying the scriptures is an hour spent not doing something else—and sometimes that something else must take precedence.

    But I may disagree on another point: You say, “…teaching with the Spirit (without a lesson plan)…” Perhaps it is not what you meant, but there are two ways of interpreting your parenthetical comment, and both of them are incorrect in my opinion:

    1) That teaching without a lesson plan equals teaching with the Spirit.
    2) That teaching with the Spirit equals teaching without a lesson plan.

    I think it is obvious that #1 is false: many of us have witnessed a teacher who simply didn’t prepare for Sunday and came into the classroom saying, “I dropped the ball so let’s just follow the Spirit.”

    As for #2, I think that it actually what you meant, and the implications are that if one prepares and follows a lesson plan then one is not teaching with the Spirit. I admantly oppose this idea based on personal experience, both as a teacher and as a student.

    Also, I think one has to consider what Robert C was saying: That planning a lesson with the class in mind is “preparation directed toward others”—I don’t think that attitude should be undervalued.

  34. Interesting developments while I’ve had no time to check in….

    As for the brief exchange between Brian and Mike, let me just ask whether we can draw a distinction between teaching by the Spirit, which would imply the lack of a “lesson plan,” and teaching with the Spirit, which I can see happening often with or without plans, etc.

    As much as Robert always supposes he’s missing my point, I think he’s got me on this one (as usual?). I might rephrase his interpretation of my own comment thus: the distinction between teaching and preparing seems to fail when the Spirit is involved, and one finds oneself doing much the same thing whether at home or in class. I don’t believe the Spirit works on any kind of study that disengages itself from the concerns of the community, from the community itself.In preparing myself to teach, I sometimes write up lesson plans (if I do, I usually write up ten or so!), but they are all written engagements of the community I am going to teach. When I come to the classroom, of course, I cast every one of those plans out so as not to hinder (“quench”) the Spirit at all.

    But let me get down to what was perhaps the most… provocative… comment: “‘Only the most incredible teachers can be prepared enough for this type of classroom.’ The fact that you’ve seen it work is evidence of Joe’s incredible (i.e. rare) knowledge of the scriptures. Everyone (even Joe, unless he’s showing false humility) recognizes that Joe is exceptional.” Let me respond to this… accusation. :)

    I do recognize that I am “exceptional.” You can’t be an exception in this church without being made, over and over again, almost painfully aware of the fact! I don’t deny that I am exceptional. But two problems speak to me in that “am”: first, it is first person, and what do I (in the Spirit, as I hope) care for me?; second, it is in the present tense, and I care still less about where things are now (as opposed to where things are headed or ought to be). In a word, I’d really like not to be exceptional, and not by my changing so as to do things as they are most commonly being done! I would like what we now call the average teacher to become exceptional, though in a negative sense.

    In short, I am absolutely convinced that I am only an exception because… well, let me quote Elder G. Perrin Walker who came to our stake conference this past weekend (he’s the area authority 70 for the Northwest). In speaking about how to speak in sacrament meeting, about how to teach, and about how to lead at the ward level, he said, after explaining the shattering (I think he actually used the word “shattering”) role of the Spirit: “It’s really that simple. We as Latter-day Saints make things harder than that because we want an excuse when we fail.” Simply amazing. Teaching by the Spirit is the simplest thing in the world! But it requires infinite faith, a faith without reserve. And perhaps that’s the hardest thing in the world.

    I think.

  35. BrianJ said

    Joe, “let me just ask whether we can draw a distinction between teaching by the Spirit, which would imply the lack of a “lesson plan,” and teaching with the Spirit, which I can see happening often with or without plans, etc.”

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think that I can agree to that distinction. There’s just too much implied in the “by the Spirit” phrase that makes the lesson plan route look lesser—and I’m not convinced that the lesson plan is always lesser. It’s as though “by the Spirit” is being used euphemistically to mean “without a lesson plan.”

    Let me try to rephrase that: What if we worded the distinction as “…between teaching in an organized fashion, which implies a lesson plan, and unorganized teaching…”? In a sense that is a good and accurate distinction, but you can see the problem right away.

    No, would prefer to keep the distinction as with/without a plan, and a separate distintion would be with/without the Spirit. (Just as we might distinguish people as tall/short or as fat/thin without any implication that tall people are more often fat than short people, etc.)

    In other words, I would rather ask myself, “Brian, did you study by the Spirit? Did you make that lesson plan by the Spirit? Did you teach by the Spirit? Did your class learn by the Spirit?” If the answer to all questions is “yes,” and it just so happens that I stuck to that lesson plan, then I’m okay with that. If I threw out the plan before or during class, but the answers were still “yes,” well then I’m still happy.

    Oh, and I agree with what you said in response to my “provactive” comment: there is the hope that all God’s children will come closer to the Spirit, so that no one is exceptional.

  36. RuthS said

    And thus we see how lessons and discussions get sidetracked.

    Groups including classes have personalities just like individuals do. Not all people learn in the same way. Of course, we all know that some people learn better auditorially and other visually. Some even learn better kinetically.Preparation and planning is necessary with those characteristics in mind. So teaching by the spirit is more than just waiting for the spirit to give the words it is also being in tune so the spirit can communicate the best way to meet the needs of each individual in the group as well as the group as a whole.

    Maybe the distractor in the example likes to talk about the things she has been studying because talking out her conclusions helps clarify things for her.

    D.& C. 50 talks about the preacher and the receiver being edified together so if it doesn’t edify it is not appropriate and not of the spirit. The important question to ask is will this person’s comment edify everyone. If the answer is yes then let them speak. If it isn’t as the teacher with the stewardship of leading the class and meeting the needs of all present then a kindly way of discouraging distracting comments is appropriate.

    Nobody can reach everybody.

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