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The Forum/Symposium as a Teaching Technique

Jim Murkhardt’s class debate on, Christian colleges was so successful that he is following it up with an open forum next week. Jim’s denomination is having a Saturday evening youth fellowship hosted by his church, and one of the major features on the program is the presentation of the debate on Christian colleges, this time followed by a half hour debate-forum. When asked to handle this part of the program Jim was not sure whether he wanted to use a forum, a colloquy, or a symposium. Actually, he was not sure he understood the difference between those three techniques.

His pastor recommended that he check Martha Leypoldt’s book, 40 Ways to Teach in Groups (Judson, Valley Forge, Pa.), and there he found the following definitions:

Colloquy:

Three or four persons selected from a group present various aspects of a problem to three or four resource persons who respond to them.

Debate Forum:

Speakers who have opposing views on a controversial subject are given equal time to present their reasons for their beliefs, followed by a free and open discussion of the issue by the entire group.

Symposium:

A series of speeches is given by as many speakers as there are aspects of a problem or issue.

Only the latter part of the second definition above applies to forum since the open discussion time which the term describes may follow any kind of presentation such as a debate, a sermon, a lecture, or even a story. All three approaches are much alike with the minor differences noted in the definitions above. The symposium differs from the panel in that the speakers do not discuss the subject among themselves. They make separate but related speeches (generally about 5 to 10 minutes in length). In order to have a genuine symposium, you must utilize both the formal speeches and the subsequent audience participation.

The colloquy (sometimes called “colloquium”) differs from both the symposium and the forum in that there are two levels of participation: the one or two (usually not more than three) experts interact with other small groups of people. This might be the entire group if the class is small. On the other hand, this interaction may take place before a much larger audience so that really we have two groups of participants, the experts and the interacters.

Since Jim’s objective for the presentation is to offer as much information as possible in a limited time, and to air two diverse points of view on an important subject, he could use standard debate, a symposium, a colloquy, or even a panel. Any of these could be followed by a forum to include questions and discussion from the larger group. Jim has chosen the debate-forum since his students already have the first part of that presentation prepared from their experience in class.

Values of the Forum Method

Since it is rarely used by itself, the forum should be viewed as a supplementary method which enhances and extends the benefits of other information—transmitting approaches to learning. It offers the additional dimension of allowing the audience to ask questions about points which were not clear during the previous presentation. The forum also provides an opportunity for the correcting of misimpressions given by the speakers. The forum is also a form of review in which the audience can again think through the issues, thereby providing additional order and design to the learning experience.

Good interest is usually maintained in a forum situation. When people hear controversial points of view presented by speakers or debaters, they tend to be drawn into the subject at hand and subsequently want to interact with the viewpoints of the speakers. Jim’s major problem is limiting the questions and discussions to one half hour in view of the fact that the church expects over 100 young people to attend the youth fellowship.

The most significant person in the presentation will not be one of the experts. More important to the success of a forum is the chairman, who will keep the question on target, sort out key questions for discussion, prod the special speakers if necessary, and summarize the significant findings at the end of the session.

Jim is taking a chance in letting one of his teenagers handle the chairman’s role. Larry is a sharp young fellow who is able to speak clearly and think alertly even while his attention is focused on another speaker. Without Larry, Jim would probably have chaired the forum himself. His choice is probably a wise one. If you have a young person who can handle the job, the value of involvement is worth the risk. If you seriously question the abilities of any potential chairman, play it safe and use an adult. The chairman’s ability can. be the difference between success and failure in a forum.

Problems in Using the Forum

The biggest danger in this teaching approach is failure to find an attractive subject. Sometimes a subject may be of interest to the speakers who live with its implications day by day but of little concern to the audience. If so, when time for questions is offered, everyone will sit silently looking at the chairman. Such an experience is embarrassing to the speakers, and deadly in terms of creating a vital learning experience. In thinking about using a forum for your class, make sure they all agree that the subject matter for discussion is relevant and meaningful to them.

Another problem is the danger of being overwhelmed by one particular position. This is particularly dangerous when using a lecture-forum. It can also become a problem in debate, symposium, or colloquy if one side of the argument is weak. It is always difficult for a group to be objective on a controversial issue. But once a speaker has delineated an opinion and only one side of that issue has been adequately presented, it is almost impossible for an audience to consider the other side honestly and openly.

It is only fair to say also that using any teaching method of this kind takes time. The teacher who uses various forms of discussion will invariably be a teacher who is committed to quality rather than quantity. In other words, he is more interested that his students learn well the things which he presents than that they skim over a lot of material during the classtime.

Principles for Effective Use of the Forum

Remember the primary objective is to stimulate thought and offer information, not to solve problems.

Make sure the chairman is competent for his role, which includes introducing the speaker or speakers, reminding the audience to be ready to participate after the presentations are made, soliciting response from the larger group, clarifying questions and answers when necessary, avoiding awkward pauses of silence by posing questions himself, and keeping the discussion on the sharp edge of controversy. He must do all of this while refraining from a lengthy or prominent speaking role himself.

Make sure that the original presentations are as objective and accurate as possible. If misinformation is given during this stage of the method, the discussion will be an exploration in error and meaninglessness rather than truth.

Always include a summary at the conclusion which will attempt to clarify what issues have been presented, how they relate to one another, and what course of action should follow on the part of the group members.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible