The Power of Small Group Conversations

Because of our experience with A Small Group, Elaine and I have been extolling the virtues of breaking people into small groups and using powerful questions to prompt conversations that matter for several years now.  

Last summer, we started offering monthly teleconfereneces (which we call In The Clouds with A Small Group), using MaestroConference in order to give people from around the country the opportunity to experience A Small Group conversations over the telephone.

What we quickly learned is that breaking people into small groups with a powerful question as their prompt always works — even over the telephone. After a minute or two of small group conversation, distance and technology were no longer barriers. We were able to experience intense, meaningful conversations.  

Recently, we found another compelling argument for breaking people into small groups in the words of Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor who has given up lecturing and instead is using small group conversations to teach physics to his students.

[Mazur] says that listening to someone talk is not an effective way to learn any subject.

“Students have to be active in developing their knowledge,” he says. “They can’t passively assimilate it.”

This is something many people have known intuitively for a long time — the physicists just came up with the hard data. Their work, along with research by cognitive scientists, provides a compelling case against lecturing. But with budgets shrinking and enrollments booming, large classes aren’t going away. You don’t have to lecture in a lecture hall though.

Mazur’s physics class is now different. Rather than lecturing, he makes his students do most of the talking.

At a recent class, the students — nearly 100 of them — are in small groups discussing a question. Three possible answers to the question are projected on a screen. Before the students start talking with one another, they use a mobile device to vote for their answer. Only 29 percent got it right. After talking for a few minutes, Mazur tells them to answer the question again.

This time, 62 percent of the students get the question right. Next, Mazur leads a discussion about the reasoning behind the answer. The process then begins again with a new question. This is a method Mazur calls “peer Instruction.” He now teaches all of his classes this way.

“What we found over now close to 20 years of using this approach is that the learning gains at the end of the semester nearly triple,” he says.

“Students have to be active in developing their knowledge,” he says. “They can’t passively assimilate it.” 

Your can read the whole story here

And here’s a video in which Mazur discusses the reasons he moved from lectures to small group conversations for teaching.

To learn even more about the power of small groups, conduct a search for “Eric Mazur”. You will find plenty of links.

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