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Avoid the "Plop"

Teach the WordThe study of adult teaching methods has been a special interest to me for many years. The most useful and engaging resources I have read on the topic have come from an approach to andragogy called Dialogue Education™. A simple bit of advice I’ve found very useful is to avoid “plops.”

A “plop” is not just a wrong answer. A plop is a discouraging thud in the heart of the participant who gave the wrong answer. Consider an exchange like this between a Bible study leader and a participant:

LEADER: What do we mean when we speak of Christ’s humiliation?

Mrs. Smith: It’s when Jesus descended into hell.

LEADER: No, that actually wasn’t part of his humiliation. Anyone else have an answer?

As a teacher, maybe I feel that I’ve responded simply and honestly. But the potential for a “plop” here is huge. Many participants would spend the rest of the Bible study licking their wounds after getting a response like that. And don’t underestimate the effect on others. Not only might the individual feel hurt, a plop can make the learning environment unsafe. Just as we struggle to think straight when a gun is held to our head, we struggle to learn when we feel respect or love is on the line.

I’m sure many readers can remember some painful plops in their past. I can remember a gargantuan plop from my early days in grade school. The correct answer was “diary.” I eagerly shouted out “diarrhea.” I can’t blame my teacher for laughing, but I went white with embarrassment and didn’t open my mouth for the next week. Plops are painful to learners and detrimental to learning. They need to be avoided.

How do we leaders avoid these disheartening plops? One way that will not work is to give a more complete rebuttal to a wrong answer: “No, Mrs. Smith. It’s a common misperception that Jesus descended to hell to be punished. But we find in 1 Peter that Jesus went there to proclaim his victory. So, this was actually a part of his exaltation.” Poor Mrs. Smith! She sure learned how wrong she was.

For teachers, the most important things are to be empathetic and aware of the problem of the plop. Then we will look for ways to deal gently with a wrong answer—ways that fit our style and personality and context. But here I’ll highlight one counterintuitive strategy to avoid a plop: Gloss over it. Don’t correct it. Let it go.

In the case of Mrs. Smith’s answer, we might say, “Okay. Thanks. You’re in good company with that thought.” Here is a stock response I use for both correct and incorrect answers is: “Thanks for that thought. What other thoughts are there?” Find a way to phrase your response so that you are not confirming the wrong answer, but are also not correcting it.

Don’t fret too much about leaving a wrong answer uncontested. Consider the results. You’ve preserved a welcoming and safe learning atmosphere. Meanwhile, it’s likely that the participants and even Mrs. Smith herself will get the idea that something was off with that answer. Often a wrong answer will be corrected by another participant—a much easier pill to swallow than a correction from a leader. In a wrap-up of the question, you will overview the correct answers and “descended into hell” will be notably missing. Of course, there will be times when a wrong answer must be explicitly corrected, but usually a wrong answer can be gently and implicitly corrected by focusing on the right answers.

If we only heard correct answers, we would have no reason for a Bible study. In the task of learning, wrong answers are welcome. But we leaders need to be prepared to handle them. Try out the “Thank you. Any other thoughts?” line and see how it works in your context. However you deal with wrong answers, do work at it. Correcting, criticizing, and judging take little skill or experience. Gentle responses take practiced effort.

As a postscript, let me add that there is a certain kind of question that almost begs for a plop. But that leads me into another practical lesson I’d like to share from Dialogue Education. Look in an upcoming issue for advice on avoiding “fishing” when questioning.

Video Extra: Teach the Word - Interview with Pastor Nitz, Part 1

Further Reading

The main website for Dialogue Education is www.globallearningpartners.com.

The book that launched Dialogue Education is, Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach, by Dr. Jane Vella. A sample chapter is found at the following link. See especially pages 8ff. about “safety.”

http://www.globallearningpartners.com/downloads/resources/LTL_Sample_Chapter.pdf


This is the first article in a five-part series by Paul Nitz, a WELS pastor and missionary to Malawi. He teaches pedagogy at the Lutheran Bible Institute, the beginning level ministerial school that serves the Lutheran Church of Central Africa in Malawi and Zambia.