Strand groups are a key part of the AFES annual conference, National Training Event. Spending 12 hours looking at a few Bible verses probably sounds boring, right? But strand groups should be engaging, encouraging, and inspiring. After we ran a strand group in 2010, here are some reflections followed by four tips.
1. Forming the group
Strand groups are about people. Strand groups are the primary small group setting for NTE, so they’re vital to each student’s conference experience. As artificial and temporary as they might be, strand groups have a strong pastoral dimension. Before anything else, strand groups are about caring for students in the midst of a busy conference.
As strand group leaders, our primary aim is to form the group. Of course, we want to end up growing students’ understanding of and confidence in the Bible, but this all hinges on the group experience.
Group formation is what drives content. Bible understanding might be the goal, but this flows from a coherent group in which students are supported and engaged. The better a group’s formation, the more comfortable the students and the better their learning. Putting the students at ease is simply part of caring for them. You’ll see this reflected in our tips below. This also showed up in some feedback from our group members:
Open, safe environment to talk (Coralie)
The insights of the group (Jo)
Getting to know the group and feeling comfortable sharing (Lisa)
Really enjoyed getting to know people in a smaller setting compared to meal times when you meet someone and not again (Kelly)
2. Working with content
Be flexible with the booklet. The material provided in the strand booklets is extensive, and a group that tries to cover every detail can become unhelpfully task-focused: the leader gets stressed out about falling behind, which leads to stressed students, which means less learning and growing.
The key to a strand group’s content is the leaders. Regardless of what’s going on in the booklet, the leaders must be sensitive and adaptive, able to work dynamically with the material. Leaders need to know when to zoom in and spend more time, and when to step back and move on. The leader is the teacher, not the booklet. The booklet is just a tool in service of a goal, so make it work for you! Here’s some more student feedback:
I like the way that strand was not so ‘by the book’ like I experienced in first year! (Kelly)
Moving through at a steady – not too fast pace to get most out of info (Lisa)
Working in groups and reporting back (Coralie)
I really like how both of you scaffolded your learning. You met each person where they were at, gave each student personal attention and support. (Marianna)
3. Four tips
1. Dedicate the entire first session to group formation. This initial relationship-building time makes the group more cohesive and more productive. Have some fun and leave the Bible work till the second session.
2. Minimise whole-group time. There’s no need to do everything as a single group, so periodically split your group into smaller teams or pairs. As well as enabling the group to complete tasks more efficiently, this enhances participation and group bonding. Uni students are quick-witted and eager to learn, so don’t be afraid of changing things up! Splitting up the group also adds new dimensions by enabling students to learn from one another, instead of just a linear teacher-student relationship.
3. Add extra content where appropriate. Christian students can sometimes switch automatically into deductive thinking, using a framework with the text without also working outwards from the text. We discussed the dangers of working carelessly with theological frameworks (in this case, Goldsworthy’s kingdom framework) and explored the place of inductive thinking.
4. Scrap ‘practising a talk’. We kept asking ourselves, “What will be most useful for the students?” We wanted our students to work on something they would be sure to use, so we didn’t insist on them producing ‘talks’. Instead, one guy created a biblical narrative that he could weave into casual conversations with his uni mates. Another guy created a Bible study that he would use in his role as a youth leader. To afford our students the best opportunity for this, we turned the last two sessions into workshops in which they could complete their work.
Strand groups are an opportunity to get students thinking outside the square and rethinking their assumptions. Our business as thinking Christians is more about reimagining and retelling than summarising, systematising and syllogising. Let’s make knowledge subservient to growth in love. Let’s set students on edge with big questions, not with frustration or with boredom!
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.