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Discussion exercises form a significant part of the exercises in the Resource Packs. They come in many forms. The value of discussion – between pairs, in small groups, or as part of a plenary discussion – is that it engages the participants in the learning process. By contributing to the discussion, participants are either relating and applying the material to their own situation or questioning and disagreeing with it because they cannot see the connection to their own experience. Either way, discussion forms an important part of testing, refining, and ultimately internalising the course material by the participants.

Discussion may be unstructured or structured.

Unstructured discussion involves a group of people discussing a very loosely defined topic. No control is taken as to what direction the discussion will take. This type of discussion is often used by mutual support groups and is useful for situations where participants are invited to share experiences or reflections about certain issues.

Structured discussions involve the facilitator in presenting the theme and suggesting questions or issues for the participants’ consideration. The facilitator will try to ensure that the discussion does not stray too far from the original subject. Structured discussion is most often used within the exercises, particularly in terms of problem solving, action planning, and case study exercises (see descriptions in this section).

Under structured discussions, a number of techniques may be considered:

Debates: This method is useful when there are strongly held and differing views amongst participants on a given topic. The facilitator usually provides a stimulus statement or question and asks participants to argue the case or answer the question from differing standpoints. Time is usually allowed for the different groups to develop their case, and then there is a plenary session where the cases or arguments are debated. At the end of the debate, participants are often asked to indicate whether they have changed their position as a result of the debate.

Triads: This is a method of setting up three- way discussions. It is particularly useful if groups are exploring personal issues or problems. Participants are divided into groups of three, where one member of the group is the speaker, the second person is the listener, and the third person is the observer. Having established and agreed on the topic that the triads will discuss, the role of the speaker is to present the issue or example on which s/he wishes to focus; the role of the listener is to listen to the speaker and to respond with support, counsel, or advice; the observer’s role is to take no part in the exchange between the speaker and the listener but to record what occurs and provide either a summary or direct feedback to either party at the end. At the end of the exercise, there should be a short debriefing before roles are swapped and the process is repeated in order to give each participant an opportunity to experience each role.

Fishbowl Exercise: This technique is used in situations where participants listen, initially without comment, to the viewpoints or arguments that another group may hold on a given topic. In such an exercise, a small group of participants is asked to sit in an inner circle whilst the remainder of the group is asked to form a larger circle around the outside of the small group. The members of the small group are

“the fish in the bowl”, and the members of the larger group are the observers of the fishbowl. The small group is asked to discuss a topic or an issue. The role of the observers is to listen to that discussion. In some cases, observers may be asked, in the next stage of the exercise, to join the fishbowl group and contribute to the discussion. In other cases, the next stage may be a plenary where the observers discuss their reactions to what they have heard. Participants may then be invited to come together for a plenary session. This technique can also be used in role-play situations where, for example, the small group is asked to play the roles of a group of children discussing how they feel about the way their parents are treating them, and the larger group plays the roles of the parents listening to the children.

Plenaries: This technique is used at the end of the majority of exercises described within the Resource Packs, generally during feedback sessions when work done by smaller groups is shared with the whole group. The benefits of using this technique are that plenaries enable experience and ideas to be shared across the whole group of participants and that they generate a sense of group cohesion, when the small-group discussions or exercises have come to an end.

When several small groups are engaged in giving feedback to a larger group, it can be interesting and stimulating to invite them to use more-creative forms of feedback than just a verbal report.

Creative feedback techniques for small groups include:

• Using mime rather than words;

• Making a dramatic presentation of the conclusions;

• Reporting the key points in the form of a debate between two or more members of the small group;

• Writing key points on large poster sheets attached to the wall and inviting people to walk around and read the ideas before asking questions.

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