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Using Buzz Groups in Your Teaching

Apparently the method known as “buzz groups” was first used by Dr. Donald Phillips at Michigan State University. He would divide his large classes into six-member clusters asking them to discuss a certain problem for six minutes. As you might guess, it was not long until the new approach became known on campus as the “Phillips 66” technique. Now the use of buzz groups is quite popular, and varying formats and arrangements have been introduced to add a great deal of flexibility to this type of discussion teaching.

Because, of the flexibility, buzz groups cannot be narrowly defined. The name certainly can be applied whenever a large assembly of people is divided into small groups (usually of no less than three and no more than eight) which for a limited time simultaneously discuss separate problems or various phases of a given problem. If possible, recorders from each of the groups report their findings to the reassembled large group. This technique can be effectively used as early as the Junior Department and increases in significance up to young and middle adulthood.

Frequently buzz groups will follow a lecture, panel, or some other teaching form which has been used to transmit certain basic information about a given subject. The groups can be assigned questions raised by the speaker, or unresolved issues which emerge from the first part of the teaching period.

I’ll never forget a situation in which I used buzz groups with a young adult class. As I explained what we would be doing that morning their eyes filled with terror. This new approach seemed threatening to them, and they would much rather have had me take care of all of the performance. The plan was to have them study certain verses of Scripture for about 20 minutes in their buzz groups and then report to the wider group.

Things started slowly, but at the end of the 20 minutes when I informed them that they should “wrap up their findings” and prepare for reports, I had a mini-rebellion on my hands. “Quit? Wind up? Ready to report? Why, we just got started.” The thrill of learning had set in. They were hooked. Some of those folks had entered into group Bible studies seriously for the first time in their adult lives.

Herbert A. Thelen, in his book Dynamics of Groups at Work (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Ill.), suggests, “the buzz group offers a natural and useful transition from the listening situation to the decision of each individual to act. It is an intermediate step in the movement of responsibility from the officials (leaders) to the small groups to the individual.” He also suggests four other valuable uses for this approach in teaching and group work:

1. To get a meeting started on significant problems with the members assuming considerable responsibility

2. To set up an agenda for a meaningful learning experience

3. To overcome a feeling of helplessness or apathy and to redirect the group toward action

4. To test a set of ideas, and to increase communication between speaker and audience

Flexibility and variation are important factors in the use of buzz groups. Let us look at a Sunday School teacher who exemplifies these qualities.

Jim T. is the teacher of a young adult class. After coming back from a Sunday School convention last month, he decided to put into practice the things he learned in a workshop on buzz groups. His class numbers about 30 and meets in a little prayer chapel. His lesson for Sunday focuses on the personal witnessing techniques of Christ as seen in John 4:1-38. Jim plans to approach his teaching hour this way:

9:45—9:50 Welcome, announcements, and opening prayer.

9:50—10:10 Give a brief explanation of the setting of John 4. This will include showing something of the geographical setting of Samaria in relation to Judea and Galilee. To do this Jim intends to use an overhead projector with prepared maps. He will also briefly touch on the nature of the Samaritans: who they were, where they came from, and what they believed.

10:10—10:15 Explain the following six questions for discussion:

1. What specifically did Christ mean by his reference to “living water?”

2. Why did Jesus bring up the subject of this woman’s husbands?

3. What kind of diversion does the woman raise in verse 20, and how does our Lord handle it?

4. What is the meaning of verse 24, and what implications does it have for our worship today?

5. What did Christ mean by His statement, “Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest” (v. 35)?

6. According to verse 38, how were the disciples involved in this ministry?

10:15—10:30 Chairs will be rearranged into six circles of approximately five people each. A group leader will be appointed whose task it is to keep the discussion on target and involve au the members of the group. He is not to teach or to dominate discussion. Each group will immediately select its own recorder or secretary, who will be responsible for the report.

10:30—10:45 The groups will reassemble, and each reporter will have approximately two minutes to share the findings of his group in answer to the question assigned. Jim may make one or two closing remarks at the end of the hour and then dismiss the class with prayer.

Several things are assumed in Jim s lesson plans. First of all, the Adult Department in his Sunday School has wisely given up its old system of “opening exercises.” Each class goes immediately to its classroom, and any preliminaries are taken care of there. Jim does not have to worry about passing around any kind of attendance lists since the class secretary sits in the back of the room and checks the attendance during the first few minutes.

Jim also has the advantage of a room with some privacy and folding chairs which can be moved anywhere he wants to put them. In addition, he has a small enough class so that division into smaller groups is quite workable.

But remember the flexibility angle. Suppose Jim had 60 students instead of 30. If the chairs were still movable and the room large enough, he could have retained his lesson plan with one exception: be would have assigned two groups to each question rather than one.

But let us assume for the moment that Jim bad to meet his class in the sanctuary, where they sit in pews rather than folding chairs. Could he have used buzz groups?

Yes, assuming he has had the foresight to bring all of the class members together in one comer of the auditorium rather than letting them spread out. He will still use his same lesson format and the same questions. But now he will go to a variation of buzz groups called either “neighbor nudging,” “triads,” or “diads.” This is a technique which involves two or three people sitting together and discussing a question among themselves. There is no appointed leader, and the teacher may select any one of the two or three to give the informal report.

If his class numbers 60 and Jim wants to keep his original six questions, he might decide to use triads, thus giving him 20 small discussion groups. He would have at least three groups on each question and four groups on two of the questions. The major deficiency here is that he will surely not have time for all of the reports so he will have to select a representative sample. The advantage is that he can use diads or triads with almost any type of room furniture and arrangement in a class of almost any size. Perhaps the diagram on page 47 will more clearly establish the buzz group arrangements discussed above.

Values of Buzz Group Teaching

Buzz group teaching, like other forms of discussion, takes advantage of that significant teaching principle, interaction. The class confronts the subject matter firsthand rather than passively receiving what a teacher has to say. Jim could have answered any of

his questions in a lecture, but the answers will be much more meaningful if the class members can find them in the text. Some of the class members would never participate in a discussion if the whole class were listening to their contribution. In the small group, however, the threat is minimized, and people find it easier to express themselves and share their understanding of scriptural issues.

Adaptability is a plus factor for this teaching method. We saw how Jim could adapt if the Sunday School superintendent suddenly moved him into the auditorium. The subject matter is also a flexible item. Buzz groups can deal with interpretation of Scripture, discussion of topical matters, controversial questions raised by a guest speaker, implementation of ideas by the members of the group, and many other types of learning. Sometimes patience and tolerance develop as group members are forced into a situation of listening to what someone else has to say on the subject.

Do not forget the factor of leadership development. Although the roles of group leader and recorder-reporter may not seem very significant at the time, this exposure to the sharing of responsibility for the effectiveness of the class is an important ingredient in the process of training classmembers to be leaders themselves.

Problems in Using Buzz Groups

Sometimes the use of buzz groups will threaten a class. As a matter of fact, the first time you use the technique you should expect your class members to be somewhat afraid of the group interaction. But soon they will discover that learning is enjoyable when the learner is directly involved.

Sometimes the groups will not arrive at the conclusions which the leader might have desired. If he has left himself some time to “pull together” the issues, he may be able to solve this problem. But an honest discussion should not predetermine what conclusions the group is to reach. The process should be as inductive as possible.

Sometimes a weakness shows up in the selection of the group leader. If the leader fails to take the responsibility to keep his group on the subject and to catalytically draw out each member, then the effectiveness of the technique will be in danger.

Buzz groups also take time. Just as in any other kind of discussion teaching, the teacher must plan to invest more time to cover the same amount of material than if he were teaching monologically. But again, the emphasis should be on creating learning in the minds and lives of the students, not necessarily in covering the greatest amount of material in the shortest time.

Principles for Effective Buzz Groups

Some pitfalls can be avoided if the teacher will carefully observe some basic principles which facilitate the effectiveness of buzz group teaching.

Plan the classtime to allow for moving chairs, explaining the technique, and hearing reports. These items will usually take longer than you anticipate.

Make clear to the class what the roles of group leader and recorder should be. This is done before the entire group so that everyone will know how he is to react to the leader and recorder in his group.

Set a definite time limit for discussion. The general tendency is to think that groups will be able to do more in a certain amount of time than they can actually handle effectively. If five group members have 15 minutes to deal with their question, each member of the group can speak to the question only three minutes.

The teacher should “float” from group to group to motivate better involvement, help them over any hurdles, and generally spread enthusiasm around the room.

Gather the notes from the reporters, and prepare a mimeographed sheet of the total findings of the class. The recorders will probably be speaking so fast that no one can take notes. Furthermore, this sheet will give the class a symbol of their own effectiveness in discussion and Bible study. The leader can also add his own comments at the end so that such a report sheet will be helpful as a reference item long after the class is over.

Related Topics: Teaching the Bible