Institute for Christian Teaching

Education Department of Seventh-day Adventists

















Galina 1. Stele, DMin


Zaokski Theological Seminary

Zoakski, Russia









344-98 Institute for Christian Teaching

12501 Old Columbia Pike

Silver Spring, MD 20904 USA





Prepared for the

22nd International Faith and Learning Seminar

held at Seminar Schloss Bogenhofen

Austria - August 1998


"I believe it is a professional crime if I did not do it!"

Prema Gaikwad




Three factors made me interested in the implementation of the small-group approach to the classroom situation.

The first of them presents relevantly big amount of time in my life, namely six years, devoted to the study of the New Testament home churches and also small groups of more recent time. My doctoral dissertation as well as MA thesis dealt with the same issue. The main goal of my research was to find the answers for the following questions: does the small-group approach have something to suggest for the church today? And why does it work? The result was that I have found not only answers for my questions but also gained a deep conviction that this approach can bring real blessings to the church when rightly applied. The teaching experience at Zaokski Theological Seminary and my work in the church even more proved it.

The second factor grew out of my work with children in Sabbath School. This very energetic group of children with ages ranging from nine to eleven made me try almost all, if not all, possible devices. I noted that they best respond when they are actively involved in group activities. However, I had to admit that the small groups for children are quite unique even if they are in the church setting. I needed more information how these groups function when they need to accomplish an educational function.

The third factor is my recent attempt to use learning groups during classes I taught at Zaokski Theological Seminary. Although starting well, very soon I understood that I urgently need more knowledge on what to do to make the learning process more meaningful for both, my students and me. Not having the answers (since my previous experience dealt with small groups in the church setting) I realized that to implement the small-group approach at the college level, I needed to study more in this area.

The main purpose of this work is to investigate the efficiency of the small-group approach in the teaching process and share some details on how to make it work. To fulfill this purpose the following steps have been chosen:

First of all, the lecture approach will be compared with the small-group approach. The advantages and disadvantages of both methods will be presented. Then, it will be shortly reviewed for what kind of setting it can be applied. After this, the main problems and helpful insights will be shared. In conclusion, the relevance of this approach to the integration of faith and learning will be addressed.

There is one term that should be defined in the beginning of this work. It is cooperative learning. It is interesting to note that cooperative learning is called by some as "one of the most researched educational innovations to come on the educational scene in recent years"[1] or, "one of the biggest, if not the biggest, educational innovations of our time.[2]

There are several basic definitions of cooperative learning. One of the most common definitions describes it as "many different ways to organize classroom instructions so that students work and learn in small groups of two to five.[3] The definition for a small group in this process will be the following: "a collection of individuals who influence each other. Individuals are not a group unless they are affecting and being affected by each other; therefore, the primary defining characteristic of a group is interpersonal influence."[4]

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Lecture

and Small-group Approaches

Advantages of the Lecture Approach

There are several advantages of the lecture approach, which probably made it so common and long-lasting in education. Although there can be more, we win look at five of advantages which are more obvious. Some of them are based on the observations of Ausubel (1963), Hoover (1968) and others and described by Thomas L. Good and Jere E. Brophy:

1.         Saving of time, especially when needed information is complex and not easily accessible for students or if it will take them long hours to collect it;[5]

2.         Presentation of the material by an expert, which may include:

a)         Clarity of the issue especially on complex or contradictive data and topics;[6]

b)         Personal experience in that field that usually makes the presentation more meaningful;[7]

c)         Logical organization of material that provides a structure and thus often results in greater understanding and long-term memory;

d)         More objective and wise division of time and given attention for more complex, important or hardly understandable issues based on the fact that experienced teacher knows both: the material and abilities of the students;

3.         Possibility to demonstrate necessary points by illustrations, figures or other visual teaching aids and thus making it more understandable.[8] This can be called demonstration "along the road," meaning that whenever a teacher needs to clarify the point he/she may use the demonstration;

4.         A ready product for students to remember. Usually the goal of the lecturing is to give the material and data that should be remembered. Although students may gain additional knowledge from home reading, the information received during the classes is considered of primary importance. Thus, through lectures students are provided with "what" to remember;

5.         Lecturing leads to evaluation of students according to their personal achievements.

Disadvantages of the Lecture Approach

It must be mentioned that the advantages described above are presented in view of the ideal lecturer and, thus, do not deal with the fact that often teachers fail to use lectures appropriately. However, even when the lecture approach is used with all scope of its potential, it also has some disadvantages. In this paper we list only those that are presented by the same source:[9]

1.         Lectures deny students the opportunity to practice social skiffs;

2.         Lectures make the implicit assumption that all learners need the same information, and this usually is incorrect-,

3.         Lectures are often longer than the attention span of the students, so that they begin to "tune out";

4.         Lectures only convey information; they do not affect attitudes or promote skill development;

5.         Students can read facts on their own - why waste their time with lectures?

Parker J. Palmer expresses interesting observation on this issue:

Some say that lecturing, assigning readings, and giving tests is simply the easiest way to teach, and that teachers (like everyone else) will take the line of least resistance. Others argue that mass education has forced this method upon us.... Still others blame educational economics, pointing out that our underfunded schools are unable to buy the time or staff necessary for more personal and interactive models of teaching and learning.[10]

Although admitting that these arguments are "factual and reasonable," the author, however, concludes: "Laziness, conceptions of efficiency, and budgets are not forced upon us by cosmic superpowers. They are all matters of choice, and we are always have the freedom to choose otherwise. Why do we not choose otherwise? Why does this pedagogy persist?"[11]

One can agree that these shortcomings of the lecture method cannot be ignored by a teacher fully devoted to his or her subject. We are not suggesting abandoning this approach rather we consider another way that can make the teaching process more meaningful.

Advantages of the Small-group Approach

As was mentioned above, the small-group approach is basic for cooperative learning. That is while speaking of its advantages here we will reflect on the main benefits of this particular type of learning. It is interesting to note that the results of this study will show that there is a close connection between advantages of this approach and shortcomings of the previous one. To demonstrate this the same number of issues are used. In contrast to the lecture method, it is:

1.         A good devise to develop social skills, such as "listening, taking the view point of others, communicating effectively, solving conflicts, and working together to achieve a common goal."[12]

With this approach the value of communication is practiced and the atmosphere of community in the classroom is build where everyone can experience the sense of belonging and have a chance to know each other better and care about one another. No wonder, that there is an observation that this very method results in reduction of conflicts and becomes a good alternative to handicapped or to students who belong to racial or ethnic minorities. One teacher reports that in two months after implementation of this approach in class where there was a lot of enmity between students of different ethnic background, it worked out and racial conflicts were overcome.[13]

Taking into consideration the individualization of our society, it should be mentioned that development of social skills helps a person to change the orientation for competition to the responsible concern for the progress of his or her neighbor.[14]

It must be noted that this approach also serves as a great preparation for the future work. As Shirley Ann Freed says: "our students will graduate and enter a work force where teamwork is the norm."[15]

However, the development of social skills does take time. One teacher from kindergarten reports: "In the beginning, dominant children tended to boss others, while less confident children hung back. Gradually, however, leaders became less important, shy children began to contribute more, and decision-making became a shared responsibility."[16]

2.         Meets different needs of students based on their different types of learning. Four different learning styles: innovative learner, analytical learner, common sense learner, dynamic learner[17] should be considered.

3.         Helps students to hold their attention focus (for adults about 10-15 minutes) on the task. One of the suggested strategies is to break the lecture into blocks for 10- 12 minutes and after every such block let the students to reflect on the issue, answer some questions, compare notes in pairs for 3 -4 minutes.[18]

4.         It is a great means to form students' attitudes and helps them to develop important academic skiffs in the process of learning that usually results in better academic achievements.[19]

One of the main task of education is to teach students to use the received knowledge meaningfully. This is exactly what happens in cooperative learning.[20]

5.         Makes students co-investigators with teachers of the received knowledge and thus, active participants in this process.[21]

Interestingly enough, there is an indication that all this leads to better motivation for learning, better attitude to school and teachers, improvement of self-esteem and bigger retention in college.[22]

Thus, it is obvious that this approach has much to suggest to educators.

Disadvantages of the Small-group Approach

Although it looks very prominent, there are some disadvantages that very often become the reasons why this approach is neglected, given up or not believed. We will look at them from the point of advantages of the lectures and summarize them as follows:

1.         Demands more time;

2.         Investigation and presentation by learners rather than by an expert with all possible consequences;

3.         The process of the work in the group can be called a demonstration in this case especially if the stated goal was achieved;

4.         Students do not have a ready product to remember, they may have it or may not at the end. In any case, the focus is more on the process, it should be emembered, because it serves as a key whether it was right or wrong. Thus, students learn through "how;"

5.         Evaluation of an individual on the basis of the group achievement.

There are also some accusations of this method. More common of them are: some students (usually the brightest) in a group do everything while others do nothing but all Of them receive equal grades; teachers' involvement is limited or they do almost nothing while students do the job a teacher is paid for; why the good students should suffer because of the those who are not doing well? "One of the most difficult things to tackle is the initial reaction of parents. Parents of high achievers especially tend to think that their children are penalized by working with others.

Studies have found that high-achievers continue to do well or better in cooperative learning."[23]

The following table summarizes our findings and gives a visual picture of the fact that benefits of one approach can solve shortcomings of another:


It can be concluded that both approaches have something important to suggest. Thus, the best is to use them in complimentary way rather than to exclude one or the other. It can be easily noted that disadvantages of the first approach can be met by the advantages of the second one and the opposite. The important thing for a teacher is to decide what material will be best presented and learned by what method.

Where to Use the Small-group Approach?

The working hypothesis is that this approach can be successfully used first of all, for children in different settings: public, Christian, Sabbath schools and, second, for adults as well.

The following table demonstrates that children in every stage of their development have some needs and abilities that can be best addressed by the small-group approach.[24]

Kindergarten    1 .        First of all, these children are very active and it is impossible to teach

(3-5)                            them by long monologues. They have short attention span (3 -5 min.) and thus, their listening is limited. These characteristics show the importance of different individual and group activities during the class period.

2.         Second, children of this age learn best by experience and active participation. They just begin to reason from cause to effect. Thus, to provide the best education for them means to use a lot of exercises and activities where they should draw conclusions by themselves.

3.         Social abilities are limited at this period. From one side, children prefer to play alone, are egocentric and are ready to express negative emotions with the first sign of failure, from another side, they Re to make friends and be with them and they just begin to learn how to control negative emotion or express them in the right way. Small-group activities can greatly help them to develop social skills and ability to work together in a group.

4.         At this age children also learn how to respect themselves, how to respect God and others, and how to make right decisions. Imitation of good example is very attractive for them. Thus, they can learn a lot from each other in a group, if the right behavior is underlined by a teacher.

Primary            1.         Children of this age are doers - "thinking and action cannot be separated.

(6-9)                            cannot be separated.[25] They have desire and ability to practice new skills and have their own hand-on experience.

2.         Another important characteristic is that these children begin to apply logic and receive knowledge to concrete situation. They like to discuss their experiences, new ideas and their own opinions.  In addition, they are learning academic skills, and are in a need to develop a sense of accomplishment, which surely will influence their self-esteem.

3.                  They begin to have best friends. They like to belong to groups or clubs, to be with their peers and to enjoy group activities. They continue to learn how to express negative emotions in a socially acceptable way. Group practices help to exercise needed skills in communication and relationships.

4.                  They also begin to learn new spiritual and moral values. Thus, rules become very important for them, they want to know them and to apply them to others and to different situations. They want to be told what to believe but it is very important for them to see the models of Christian behavior and imitate it. Because they fail very often, they are in a great need of acceptance with God and people and thus, the importance of small groups at this stage of development cannot be overestimated.

Juniors              1.         Juniors are action-oriented, energetic and talkative, and if there is no

(10-11)                        if there is no chance to use these abilities in a good way in a class children will use them in a destructive way.

2.         They are great investigators, like to discover by themselves cause and effect, and different alternatives. They are very quickly bored if they do not see why they should do something.

3.         In addition, these children are success-oriented and like to do something for their peers and teachers in order to gain the affirmation.

4.         They begin to develop their conscience and are in quest for values. Bible teaching is' valued by them if it is practical and they see how to apply it to their own life and problems.

Earliteens          1.         Earliteens have abstract thinking and like engagement in discussions very

(12-13)                        much. They are able not only to express and prove their opinions but to reject illogical reasoning as well.

2.         They also seek acceptance and friendship in a group and fear to be isolated from it. This is why they prefer to do something with a group rather than individually. Acceptance with a group and respect from it bring them self-confidence and self-respect so needed at this age.

3.         At this age many of them begin to question truth but they are open to stories describing experiences of other people. They want to test certain values and to choose the important ones by themselves. Religion has value for them only if it is practical.

Thus, it can be concluded that not to use cooperative learning for children is to ignore their needs and abilities. We see that the small-group approach can be effectively used on every stage of children development although with different objectives in view. This approach can be a good devise for improvement of academic and social skills. It can be a great menace for spiritual development. It can be used in public and religious schools and in Sabbath schools as well. An interesting observation was made by Joel Thorley: "If there's a single bet we've missed over the years, it's making kids to sit quietly at their desks instead of letting them work with each other."[26] Larry Burton, a principle and teacher of a K-8 one-room school in Slidell, Lousiana tried to apply cooperative learning strategies to his students gathering them in mixed groups. The result was so good that he gives the following advise for teachers in small schools: "Group students across grade levels for as many lessons as possible. While this is easy to do with the Bible, science, and social studies, it is possible in other subject areas as well."[27] However, many doubt that this approach should be applied to science teaching. Pearl Astrid Nelson strongly advocates multi-sensory methods in science teaching:

It is difficult for most adults to allow children to think for themselves. It is easier to tell things and to relate facts that boys and girls should know.... In science teaching particularly, but not exclusively, it is admittedly both easier and faster to give the answers; but since effective science educating depends upon encouraging problem-solving and promoting discovery, telling all of the answers represent poor instruction indeed.

In the teaching science at any level, efforts should be made to encourage the pupil to observe carefully, to draw certain conclusions from his observation, and to use reference materials to ascertain if his answers are correct.[28]

If the small-group approach should work for children, what about adults? It is interesting that this method works for adults as well. Research shows that adults in groups "generally learn faster, make fewer errors, recall better, make better decisions, and are more productive with a higher quality product than individuals."[29] The possible explanation for this phenomena are also suggested: in a group there are "more ideas, insights, and strategies that no one member had previously thought of," there "incorrect solutions are more likely to be recognized and rejected;" and in addition to this "groups have a more accurate memory of facts and events than do individuals."[30]

Another possible reasons are "group facilitate higher motivation to achieve-" "makes riskier decisions;" "increases members' commitment to implement decision;" "facilitates the changes in behavior and attitudes required to implement the decision."[31]

Interestingly enough, the results of such research as Valuegenesis surprisingly showed that Adventist students are doing well in vertical items - relationship with God but have a lot to improve on the horizontal level - relationships with others.[32] As commented by Shirley Ann Freed it indicates that, "prosocial behavior and valuing of service to others actually decreased with the number of years of Adventist education."[33] This shows that there is a need for special strategy for developing social skills and concern for others in our academies, colleges and universities.

Obstacles to Success and Some Insights

A teacher who decided to use a cooperative learning very soon may discover that it is not so easy as he/she thought it is. And it is true, there are many difficulties, which prevents one to succeed with this approach. Some of them, the most common, are listed below:

1.         It takes time to be developed.

To address this problem we can give three advises:

a) Just go forward, remember that any group goes through four stages - forming, storming, norming and performing.[34]

b) Involve students in groups gradually. Start with the work in pairs, then go to triads, after that involve groups of four and five, and finally use jigsaw and other kind of groups.[35] Then, the process will go faster and smoother. c) Evaluate after assignment is completed - what can be done in groups differently?

2.         It is hard to develop exercises.

It is true that once a teacher decides to use cooperative learning there will be a need for new exercises and assignments on his/her subject that can be performed in a group. However, there are a lot of resources in this area and some of them are suggested at the end of this paper. To use them really saves time since one only needs to adapt an exercise to a particular topic rather than create a new one.

3.         It is hard to evaluate individuals with this method.

To face this problem the teacher can:

a) Never use group activities as the only source for grading the course.

b) Build individual accountability in groups, let all members in a group sign the worksheet with the task and gather their points.[36]

c) Use short written tests or oral quizzes on the random basis after group activity.[37]

4.         It is hard to achieve total involvement in a group.

To meet this obstacle a teacher may:

a) Assign roles in a group before the activity starts.[38]

b) Use different exercises and a variety of groups in order to stimulate participation and involvement of every student.

5.         It is possible that a group will come to a wrong conclusion.

Sometimes groups come to the wrong conclusions. To prevent this pitfall it is good:

a) To give clear instructions;

b) Carefully supervise all groups;

c) Wisely matches students with each other in a group.

6.         It does not work in my class - my students just do not like it.

The real problem in this case may be not with the students but in the wrong choice of material and assignments for the groups. Some guiding advises in such situation are:

a) Never use group-approach for easy tasks - students get bored.[39]

b) Assignments based on the development of social or academic skills or some techniques, which require much repetition (reading, math operations, memorizing some words, facts or portions of material etc.), are usually very good for work in pairs.

c) A review of facts and ideas before a quiz is very helpful if done in pairs or groups. People tend to remember an issue better and longer if they articulated it or discuss it with others.

d) Telling of stories on moral values are good for groups. A teacher may present the story but the discussion of it in groups is of great importance. The failure mainly occurs when the assignment is: "just discuss it!" The instructions should be specific and with some challenge. Good suggestions are to discuss different heroes from the story in different groups with the task of why? What can be done differently? And what if.. ? Afterwards the opinions of all groups can be shared.

e) Bible verses or a teacher in connection with a topic may present passages. However, it is best to ask students to read the Scripture by themselves, and then to apply it. The number of students in a group can be based on the number of verses or passages. Everyone reads and works with his/her portion of the Bible and then shares it with the group. At the end, the group should summarize its conclusions.

7          It does not match with my subject.

The truth is that the small-group approach may go with any subject. If the teacher is a beginner in this method, the following two suggestions are good to start with:

a) Try not to lecture comprehensible materials from textbooks, which are easily accessible for students. Assign to every student in a group a different portion of the text to read and then to relate the issue to others.

b) Every subject has some application points. Let the students make applications by themselves in any kind of groups. In this way it will become their own discovery and will hardly be forgotten.

Integration of Faith and Learning

It is also important to ask: why the small-group method should be used in Christian schools? Why not just the only traditional lecture approach?

Interestingly enough, a careful look through the Bible shows that:

1.         Both ways to teach people are biblical. In the Bible we see the lecture approach in the short and long monologues of the prophets, patriarchs and New Testament letters and sermon. In addition, we also see division on tribes and even smaller subgroups in Israel for better problem solving, living, matching, and accomplishing tasks. For example, the conquest of the land. We also see that sometimes groups were formed to accomplish special assignments such as the twelve spies, disciples sent by twos and so on. Small group interaction and discussion approach is also seen in the New Testament home churches.

2.         Jesus Christ used both approaches:

He tried to reach people, answer their questions and teach them through both intellectual approach and experience.

He combined lecture device and active learning.

He made people passive listeners and also active participants.

He taught people in great numbers and in small groups.

He showed that in order to educate followers one must use the small-group approach.

In His infinite wisdom He knew that there was no better way to transmit His values and make the disciples His followers.

3.         The Bible teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. It shows that God gives each of us a special gift for this service. Are not Christian schools right places to be consistent with this command and teach students to put the Bible truth into practice?

4.         The main goal of Christian education is to prepare students for real life, to make them through Christian education better Christians. How can it be accomplished if we as teachers often fail to give them the chance to form their own opinions, to discover right conclusions, and to apply Bible principles to their own life?

In conclusion, if a teacher wants for his or her teaching to result in successful learning the lecture approach and the small-group approach should be used as complementary devices. Both methods are in accord with biblical principles, both methods can be applied to children and adults, both of them help students to be developed as more mature and responsible members of human society. I encourage every one to reconsider their teaching strategies and do the best for the students.

Let us think over the following words of Frank Smith: "There is a general assumption that teaching should result in learning and that learning is the consequence of teaching. The problem with this assumption is that the students tends to be blamed for failure to learn." Is this only just students' fault?

Suggested literature


Cooperative Learning: The Magazine for Cooperation in Education. Published by the International Association of the Study of Cooperation in Education. Box 1582, Santa Cruz, CA 95061-1582.


David W. Johnson, R. Johnson, and E. Johnson Halubec. Circles of Learning: Cooperation in the Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book Co., 1990.


D. Dishon and P.W. O'Leary. A Guidebook for Cooperative Learning: A Technique for More Effective Schools. Holmes Beach, FL: Learning Publications, 1994.


Spencer Kagan. Cooperative Learning. San Juan Capistrano, CA: Resources for Teachers, 1992.

[1] Phil Bassett, "Cooperative Learning," Adventist Education, December 1994/January 1995,21. 2

[2] Shirley Ann Freed, "Cooperative Learning: an Alternative to Lecturing in College," Adventist Education, April/May 1995, 38.

[3] Bassett, 18.

[4] David W. Johnson and Frank P. Johnson, Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1994), 12.

[5] Thomas L. Good and Jere E. Brophy, Looking in Classrooms (New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978), 356.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We are Known (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1993), 38.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1992), 187. 5

[13] Ibid., 185-187.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Freed, 39.

[16] Lickona, 195.

[17] Ann Calkins, ed., Children's Ministries: Ideas and Techniques that Work (Lincoln, NE: AdvenSource, 1997), 57-64.

[18] Freed, 38-39

[19] Lickona, 187

[20] Prema Gaikwad, "Cooperative Learning: Setting the Stage for Faith and Learning in the Classroom" 'in the Christ in the Classroom (1996) 18:52.

[21] Freed, 38-39

[22] Ibid., Bassett, 18.


[23] Gaikwad, 58-59.



[24] Based on material in Calkins, 26-35 and Donna Habenicht and Anne Bell, How to Teach Children in Sabbath School (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1983), 27-68.

[25] Habenicht, 49.

[26] Cited by Lickona, 185.

[27] Larry Burton, "Bringing Powerful Teaching to the Small School," Adventist Education December 1994/January 1995, 14.

[28] Pearl Astrid Nelson, Elementary School Science Activities (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968, 36.

[29] Johnson and Johnson, 225.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 226.

[32] Roger Dudley, "Faith Maturity and Social Concern in College-Age Youth: Does Christian Education Make a Difference?" Journal of Research on Christian Education, Spring 1994, 47.

[33] Freed, 39.

[34] Johnson and Johnson, 463

[35] For different kinds of groups see Lickona, 189-196. 12


[36] Bassett, 21.

[37] Ibid., Lickona, 191-192.

[38] Ibid., 202-203.

[39] Bassett, 19.