In the modern world, even the popular press is jumping on the bandwagon of active learning. Traditional methods of education all over the world are under attack for their perceived inability to prepare learners for life in the 21st century.
As the world increasingly goes digital and new opportunities for active involvement in an endless array of tasks appear on the Internet daily, the traditional lecture hall is viewed as a dinosaur.
The fact is that incorporating digital technology in the educational setting is expensive and beyond the resources of both some businesses and schools. Group discussions, however, are a way to get students actively involved in their own learning in any educational setting and without the need for expensive, high-tech equipment.
What role should a teacher or industrial instructor play in group discussions? Should the teacher determine the content of the discussion task? Or should the teacher simply be responsible for structuring the discussion, allowing the students to select their own discussion topics? Should the teacher monitor the group’s discussion and get involved if necessary, or leave the group to fend for itself?
To a large extent, the answers to these questions depend on your own beliefs about what constitutes effective education, if you work in a school or industrial setting where you have the freedom to structure learning environment.
Some teachers believe some content is too important to be left up to student discovery and will therefore use group discussions in limited applications. Others turn over the majority of class time to group work of different kinds.
Those who believe teachers are still responsible for structure and control in the classroom, as did father of progressive education John Dewey, will provide the basic content for the discussion as well as a structure to follow.
Good teachers know it takes time to develop group discussion skills, and consider the experiences and backgrounds of their students when designing a group activity.
Once the instructions are given and the groups proceed with the task, what role should teachers now play?
If you believe in the old adage that says you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, you might take advantage of the group discussion period to sit by and work on some other tasks. Teachers with this viewpoint feel their involvement in the group’s discussion in any way robs the learners of the opportunity for self-discovery learning.
However, teachers who feel they are still ultimately responsible for doing everything within their power to facilitate learning will wander around the room and monitor the group’s discussion. In the best of circumstances this monitoring involves nothing more than being present as a potential resource for the group to consult, if necessary.
However, in circumstances where the group is experiencing difficulty for any reason, teachers do not hesitate to get directly involved to get the group back to a productive discussion. Good teachers know these are less than ideal circumstances, and will work to withdraw from the group discussion at the earliest opportunity.