Group discussions – always more than “add-ons”; photo published under CC/ Pixabay

Last spring someone involved in the preparatory group of a learning event told me in earnest: “Group discussions are an add-on.” I couldn’t believe my ears. “What, an add-on?” I thought. This person gave expert presentations more value than group discussions, and would rather have 100 people listening to one person than inviting them to talk to each other. These are past times, I thought. We have advanced in how we organise stimulating learning events.

The beauty of group discussions making a learning process active and engaging:

People at the centre

Group discussions give everyone a voice. Participants are at the centre of the thinking and sharing process; they engage actively with the topic and each other. There is no shortcut to learning.

David Gurteen just mentioned in his blog post, that “meetings serve two purposes and interests”. And right he is. Meetings are about content and going deeper into an issue for the sake of learning, innovation and change. At the same time, meetings are always also about people, connections and relationships.

No matter how much content I design, it is the discourse amongst participants that is the most powerful accelerator of learning.
Harold Jarche

There are many methodologies to stimulate group work, from buzz groups to World Cafés to flipchart chats; and many more. The choice of methodology always depends on the purpose of the discussion and is linked to the overall design of the event.

Diversity of experiences, perspectives and ideas

By engaging in conversation, participants activate their knowledge, know-how and stories. Through joint deliberation and with a mix of experiences and ideas on the table, a group is much more likely to learn together.

If organizations are going to thrive in these turbulent times, they must surrender many longstanding assumptions about expertise and quickly start leveraging the power of collaborative knowledge.
David Holzmer

The purpose of an expert presentation must always be more than information delivery, it should inspire reflection and discussion and stimulate forming own thoughts. At the same time, we should be careful to avoid the “teacher trance” when we give the expert talking status over others. How we work with experts, and how we value different kind of expertise, like lived experience, local and contextual knowledge, has an impact. We might not only give wrong messages, we could also hamper the learning process (read the reflection by Curtis Ogden: Complexity, Equity and the Place of “Expertise”).

Deepen understanding and creating new ideas and solutions

With a variety of perspectives expressed and discussed, participants not only deepen their understanding of the issue, they also build on each other’s ideas. Generating new ideas and creating novel solutions needs diverse teams.

It is only through conversation that human beings discover shared meaning.
Margaret Wheatley


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