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9. The Panel Discussion

The panel is another approach to discussion teaching. Differing from general discussion, question and answer, and buzz groups, the panel is almost always used with a large group, and generally utilizes panel members who have either differing points of view on the subject or special training and experience which equip them to speak authoritatively about the matter. Properly planned, the panel is a small discussion group performing its discussion before an audience with the objective of giving that audience a better understanding of the matter at issue.

Usually there are no prepared speeches and, in the best panels, interaction between the panel members will make up at least half of the time allotted to the panel’s presentation. During that interaction there may be agreement, disagreement, qualification of points, and defense of various positions.

Although the immediate goal is to gain information from a group of experts, if time allows the audience should be encouraged to interact with the panel members. In this way the panel itself becomes more than just a purveyor of information and acts also as a catalyst to get the group to thinking about the issues.

In a one-hour class period you would probably have to allot 10 minutes for introduction of the subject and panel members and 30 minutes for the presentation and discussion by the panel. The remaining 20 minutes can be given to audience reaction. Most of the time a panel discussion is a carefully programmed event built around the expertise of the panel members. Sometimes, however, it is effective to use an “impromptu panel.” In this situation panelists chosen from the class speak “off the cuff” on the subject presented to them.

This type of panel can draw out certain opinions and ideas on the subject under consideration rather than offering authoritative information. In any kind of panel the room should be properly arranged so that the panel participants can look at one another while they interact and yet can easily be seen and heard by all members of the audience. Three or four panelists is probably an ideal number. Any more than five would tend to make interaction an elusive goal.

Several variations to the planned panel lend flexibility to its use. Here are three different approaches:

1. The Guided Panel. The moderator addresses previously prepared questions to the panel. Obviously this is a very structured approach, but it may be desirable when the panel members do not know each other or if their points of view are so diverse as to cause open hostility if free interaction were allowed.

2. The Expanding Panel. In this arrangement a preliminary and explanatory discussion of a topic is given by a restricted panel. Then the entire group forms a circle to continue the discussion. In this open discussion time, questions may be addressed to the panel, but discussion might take place also among the group members with panel members serving primarily as resources.

3. The Reaction Panel. In this setting the first thing on the program is a speech, a film, or some other presentation of a point of view. Preselected panel members then offer a critique of the presentation either by speaking briefly to the issue, interacting with the speaker, or both. Sometimes it is helpful if the panel members have the manuscript of the speech in advance or have had opportunity to preview the film. This. way their carefully prepared reactions will give birth to some audience thinking which might not have occurred without airing of the issues by the panel. Reaction panels of newsmen often discuss presidential speeches, for example.

A reaction panel can become an expanding panel if time allows. These classifications are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but rather represent an attempt to clarify different approaches to the use of the panel for education.

Values of Panel Discussions

A good panel discussion can focus attention of the class on what certain experts have to say about the subject at hand. It is considerably more personal then reading books about the subject and contains that important educational ingredient—interest. If the topic is well selected, it is relevant, problematic, controversial, and therefore attracts attention immediately. Wise selection of the panel members will offer the audience more than one viewpoint and thereby heighten interest.

Because of the multiplicity of input, the panel discussion offers a breadth and depth of information which usually exceeds research presented by one speaker. The class can realize that well-informed people may hold different points of view and yet maintain respect for one another. The freedom and informality of the panel discussion removes the pressure of having to prepare a structured speech. Panel members literally think aloud in front of the class and collectively move toward a solving of the problem placed before them.

The input of the panel at the beginning of the period gives the audience some foundational information upon which their discussion can proceed. Without the panel, or at least some kind of formal presentation of material, the discussion might degenerate into a pooling of ignorance. With the presence of the panel, however, the discussion period becomes a forum for new ideas and experiences in the lives of the group.

Problems in the Panel Method

Perhaps the biggest weakness in the use of panel discussions is securing competent panelists who will do the job well. Even if a man is an expert in his field, when placed on a panel he may have the tendency to monopolize the time, ramble from the subject, or ride his hobbyhorse. He might ignore the audience and speak in technical jargon to the other panel members or even “lose his cool” in the interaction time, displaying antagonism toward those who disagree with him. Unless he knows his panel members well, the teacher takes some risks in setting up a panel discussion.

Another problem is that panel members may not always do justice to a particular point of view. What happens then is that the class tends to think that position A is better than position B simply because A was defended more competently. They will invariably gravitate toward the effective presentation rather than the position that makes the most sense logically or biblically.

Closely connected with this problem is the possibility of disorganization in the panel. Since ideas and viewpoints are flowing informally, the information often lacks logical sequence and arguments are hard to follow. Sometimes students find it more difficult to listen to a panel than to an individual speaker because of this collage of ideas thrown at them in a short period of time.

Principles for the Effective Use of Panels

Obviously the values of panel discussion as a teaching technique are going to be dependent upon several critical factors. If those factors are not handled positively, the difficulties of the panel may outweigh the benefits. This of course does not have to be the case. The following items are crucial in making the system work. If they can be controlled and positively utilized, the panel discussion will be a very useful teaching method.

The moderator must be a highly qualified and competent individual. Without doubt the moderator is more strategic in the effective use of the panel discussion than the panel members themselves. He sets the stage with the initial remarks and keeps the discussion on target during the interaction time. He has the difficult responsibility of calling time on the panel members if a brief period of presentation is afforded each of them.

During the open discussion time, he clarifies questions given by the audience and may also find it necessary to explain answers offered in return by the panel members. If necessary, he may have to break up verbal conflicts before they actually get underway. He prods panel members for reactions to something which another has said, structures questions to keep the flow of information moving, and summarizes the conclusions at the end. All of this is a very difficult task and can mean the success or failure of the panel experience.

The subject for discussion should be of importance to the group and worded in the form of a specific question. It is futile, for example, to get a group of experts together for 30 minutes to discuss sex education. One might talk about sex education in the school, another in the home, still another may pull out some biblical aspects of sex. The end result would be a hodgepodge of nothingness because no specific direction was indicated for the panel. The question should rather construct something like this: “Should formal sex education be taught here at First Church?” Even then it will be necessary to define words such as formal and sex education. The more specific the question, the closer the panel will get toward the goal of problem-solving on the issue.

Try to load the panel with different points of view. It will be of no value to the group if every panel member says the same thing, and the time is spent watching them pat each other on their ideological backs. One of the major purposes of a panel is to air different positions. For this reason, it is necessary to bring together persons of similar competence so that those positions will have fair and equal hearings.

Always allow time for a summary of the discussion. The summary might take place at two points: immediately after the panel finishes, to pull together ideas which they have presented; and at the end of the expanded session, to crystalize any conclusions which have emerged from the total experience.

Remember that the panel has a much wider use than in the Sunday School class itself. A Sunday evening service, for example, could be very profitably scheduled around a panel of three or four guests who discuss such issues as “Is there a biblical position on abortion?” “What is the distinctive role of the church in the 1970s?” “How can our congregation reach this community for Christ?” A creative Christian leader will use the panel discussion whenever basic information is needed to expose and discuss varying points of view on a contemporary issue.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible