6 Super Practical Tricks for Getting Students to Talk

What do you do when students just won’t talk? You know the feeling–you’re leading a small group, or teaching youth group, or speaking at a camp, and you ask a question . . . and get . . . nothing. Nada. No cigar. Total silence. Some fidget, some look down, others stare at you defiantly, but no one will answer.

youth ministry, student ministry, small groups, disciple-making, discipleship, Christian, teaching

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What to do? You know that Jesus spoke His most important truths using discussion. You’re committed to teaching students to think and helping them wrestle with new questions and new truths. But they simply won’t talk.

When I started in youth ministry, the entire youth group refused to talk. In fact, one of the adults told me to forget about it: “This group just won’t do discussion.” Hmm, I thought, that’s a problem. Because for me, discussion isn’t a ‘style’ choice–it’s a core value. We’ll have to change that.

But it proved much harder than I expected. Each Sunday and Wednesday, 60 High School students would sit and stare at me. A token few would engage, but that quickly grew awkward for everyone. How to get the rest of the group to talk?

Here’s what I did:

  • Trick them. Yep, that’s right, I tricked them. Like most young people, they were happy to talk when it wasn’t ‘official.’ They’d talk to their friends, laugh with the person sitting next to them, and then clam up when I’d ask a question. They were programmed to quit thinking when we opened in prayer. So, for 6 months or so, we didn’t. I’d get them talking to their neighbor about something (“Tell the person next to you the best thing that happened this week”), then get them sharing with me (“Whose neighbor told you a good story?”). Then, I’d get them talking to me about the lesson. We’d get about 10 minutes in before they realized we hadn’t stopped to pray, and by then, it was too late.
  • Reward good behavior with attention–set a culture. It’s always important praise a good answer (click here to see how Jesus did it), but it’s vital when you’re teaching a group to think and discuss. When someone says something good (or even semi-good!), draw everyone’s attention to it. Praise it. Get excited about it. This sets the tone for your entire group.
  • Create a safe environment. Often, students won’t speak up because of pure insecurity. They’re afraid that others will laugh at them. They’re afraid that you have a specific answer in your head, and they’ll be wrong. They’re afraid to say something stupid. This is why, when possible, I figure out a way to draw an answer in, even if it’s a little ‘off.’ And, it’s why I take every answer seriously, even if the student is trying to be funny. It shows students that this is a safe place to be real, to be serious, and to try new thoughts. It takes a few months (or longer) before they feel safe, but it’s worth it.
  • Make them argue. This was my wife’s brilliant idea. One week, we split the room in half and set up the chairs facing each other. We had a debate! I assigned one side the controversial topic (ex: There is no way the Bible is true. It’s just a bunch of manmade legends) and the other side the job of responding. They had 10 minutes to prepare their ‘case’ and then 5 minutes to present, followed by 5 minutes to prepare a counter argument, and then present. After that, I let them argue! At the end, I drew everyone together for some final discussion, and they were buzzing with conversation.
  • Model good questions. “Ask the questions they want to ask, but are afraid to. And ask the questions that they should be asking, but don’t know it yet.” This was the advice my dad gave me when I asked him how to get the group to talk. Brilliant! (By the way, I write a lot more about how to ask good questions in my series on small groups.)
  • Call on them. Yes, it is ok to call on students and ask them to answer. Just be sure to do it kindly, consistently, and graciously. In fact, I find it is easiest to call on people when I know that they should have an answer–like when I’ve just had them take a couple of minutes and talk to their neighbor about something. In those moments, I’ll often call on someone who hasn’t shared yet, because I know they should have something to say. If I call on someone and they say, “I don’t have any thoughts,” I’ll reply, “Ok, I understand. Keep thinking, and I’ll come back to you.” This creates the expectation of participation–part of forming your group culture. Of course, this isn’t drill camp–I’m sensitive to those who are new or who have some other reason not to take part.

I remember when that group started learning to think and discuss. It was contagious! In fact, by the end of the first summer, some of them started complaining that they didn’t get to talk enough. Eventually, on camps and retreats, I had to make ‘rules’ about how many times you could share, so that everyone could talk. In fact, they got so good at thinking and discussing that I grew lazy as a teacher! But when I’m with a new group–teaching at a camp, leading at a conference, or engaging a youth group, I come back to these ‘tricks’ for teaching a group how to talk.

How about you? What tips or tricks do you have for getting a group to talk? Leave a comment below, or by clicking here.

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