I really enjoy leading group discussions on philosophy, religion, theology, culture, technology and world views. I've taught classes like these and more traditional "Bible classes" for over 25 years to groups ranging from a dozen to over several hundred. The topics have varied from the mundane to the fantastic to the downright odd. And undoubtedly I've learned more from the preparation and conduct of these sessions than I've been able to pass on to others. I've found it entertaining, challenging and rewarding. And on more than a few occasions, I've been told that these discussion have been meaningful and rewarding to others, too.
My techniques and style have evolved - and, I hope, improved - over time. But there are a few things that seem to be consistent. First, I always start with my own questions. I am not interested in leading a discussion on matters that are comfortably "in my rear-view mirror". I have little enough time as it is to merely pass on information that someone can read for themselves. So my conversations always begin at the edge of my own understanding and knowledge. They begin where my certainty and comfort end. This ensures that I will be engaged in the preparation of the content because I am excited about the learning and the growth I am experiencing. And a large part of this excitement comes from honestly not knowing what I will find.
While I do generally have an "endpoint" in mind when I begin a discussion, that endpoint is definitely not (a) a class outline, or, (b) an "answer". The endpoint is something much more ephemeral. For example, I recently led a 3 month long, once-per-week discussion class with about 80-100 folks on the topics of the soul & neuroscience and life-after-life. When I started that discussion (my 10-point font, 1" margin notes ended up at well over 100 pages), I honestly had little idea how the class would "flow" - what the specific topics of conversation would be week after week. Looking back on it now, I can trace a very coherent, logical thread of dialogue, discussion and debate. But I had no idea what that would look like as I began. That uncertainty and exploration made the class interesting and engaging for me as I prepared it - and, according to the feedback I've received, intriguing and meaningful to the participants as well.
In addition to this "uncertainty" and "open-endedness", or, more correctly perhaps, because of it, the second feature of my discussion is that I have no hard allegiance to outline or an outcome which allows me to "chase rabbits". This may seem counterproductive. But only if you are assuming I'm starting toward a fixed outcome that much be reached along a specified path. By removing those "anchors", the class is, with adequate guidance, allowed to seek, search and explore "for itself" as the topic is developed and unfolds. Clearly you don't want to advocate this kind of approach if you, as a leader, aren't comfortable with a fairly wide range of material around your primary subject.
And you have to actively manage and facilitate the process itself or you can diffuse your focus to the point that you've lost your audience. This is a matter of "feel" in the group - you have to be sensitive to what the group is telling you: "Am I getting my point across?" "Are there folks who are resisting the conversation?" "Are there people who simply don't understand what's happening in the dialogue?" This sensitivity is something I really focus on in my classes - lots of eye contact, moving around the space, calling people by name, looking for body language, seeking questions and feedback. But while this takes real energy to do, I think it results in ensuring that the largest possible group of people in the discussion are engaged and "along for the ride".
If you can accomplish these things in the practice of the conversation, then "chasing rabbits" is an incredibly powerful way to let the class not only "hear", but participate and even direct the class with you - thereby driving up their engagement with the conversation and, ostensibly, their acquisition of the content. There are risks in this and it eats up a fairly sizeable portion of time - which, again, is primarily only important if you'd mapped out where you wanted to go before hand and have a limited amount of time to "get there".
An important and subtle subtext to this approach is that when a discussion is open to new paths of conversation - new streams of thought - it is empowering to the participants. It also communicates respect to the participants. One of the things I find frustrating with so many "classes" is that innate assumption that the leader/speaker has all the information/opinions/facts that matter and the class is there entirely to receive these pearls of wisdom. Fine for freshman English; no thanks otherwise.
The third point is related to that question I mentioned above, "Are there people who simply don't understand what's happening in the dialogue?" With this kind of discussion style, it can be very frustrating for folks who join the dialogue late, who haven't been in this kind of discussion before, or who miss one or more sessions. Because the discussion is somewhat "free-flowing", folks (especially those in churches used to traditional "Bible classes" that follow a specific text verse-by-verse or that are based on pre-prepared material from a book or outline) need to be "reminded" of where you've been. So another feature of my classes is that I usually spend 5-10 minutes at the beginning of each "recapping" what we've said and "agreed on" in the series of conversations up to that point.
Now, this can be very off-putting to folks schooled in traditional practices. I was once teaching a six month long weekly session on the New Testament letter to the Romans to a group of about sixty people. Each week, as is my practice, I spent that 5-10 minutes summarizing what we'd said and concluded so far. Clearly, several months in, this becomes a pretty "high level" summary and at times it may have stretched into a 15 discussion if we were grappling with a particularly difficult or troublesome concept (Romans 7, anyone?). I had one of the participants - a highly educated leader (PhD college instructor) in that church "coach" me on how much time I was "wasting" in those minutes of summary at the beginning of each class. Here was a man who'd taught at the collegiate level, was highly educated, familiar with the material we were discussing giving advice. I take such advice seriously. But I have to say that I never once reconsidered the value of those moments of recapitulation. I have no doubt that it is this small practice that adds incredibly clarity, engagement and acquisition to the discussions for a majority of the participants: summarizing, clarifying, solidifying.
This "free form" style should not be interpreted as any kind of lack of preparation. Quite the opposite, in fact. For each class has to be built on where you left off before and you have to prepare yourself to lead a discussion not only on the specific topic, but all the potential "rabbit trails" the class may choose to run down. Because I spend time preparing this way, I am able to treat the majority of questions (and questioners) with respect and take the time to provide real responses. And this kind of preparation results in a pretty voluminous set of discussion notes. Each of my multi-month discussion series has a set of teaching notes (and, usually, in-class presentation material and/or handouts) that runs north of 80 pages (again, 10-point-font, 1" margins).
Two of the downsides to this approach to teaching (if you think of them as a downsides - which I don't) are that I don't teach the same topic/material twice (see my first point above - not that each series ends with all my questions answered, but I'm usually just "done" with that topic by that time) and that I essentially next start with pre-prepared material (DVD series, etc.). Regarding the latter, I do occasionally teach on the topic of a book (e.g., I led a four month series on The Shack), but I'm not "teaching" the book. Rather, I'm critiquing, deconstructing or expounding on it - not using it as a source of material per se. I simply don't use material with an outline, agenda or plan - I find it too boring, too confining.
I remember moments before speaking to a large college group, a dear friend pulled me aside and asked, "What are you going to tell them?" And I replied honestly, "I don't know. We'll see where it goes." A look of panic and shock lit his face, "What? You can't do that! You've got to figure it out fast!" His concern was legitimate being as it was "baked" in the traditional model where speakers, teachers and preachers are supposed to present with certainty, authority and clarity what it is they want their audience to know, believe, do or accept. This open-ended, dialogical approach is disconcerting to the Modernist. But in my own life and experience, it much more rewarding, authentic and conducive of personal growth.