My second-favorite group blog recently posted a series on what’s wrong with Sunday School, showing once again that we bloggers are, if nothing else, talented complainers. So let’s talk teaching and collect a few simple suggestions for improvement.
First, a few words from a teaching expert: Daniel T. Willingham, author of Why Students Don’t Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means For the Classroom (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). He summarizes the terribly interesting material in the book into nine cognitive principles; I’ll select the most relevant and add some comments that try to relate them to LDS teaching.
1. Factual knowledge must precede skill. For youth classes and seminary, this suggests a lot of time building a working knowledge of the basic facts of the scriptures. The small set of seminary scriptures (it used to be 160; now it is 100) is a great example of attention to scriptural fact building. While discussion in the adult Gospel Doctrine class is broader, this principle suggests that every lesson ought to spend a few minutes highlighting the two or three inconic passages in that week’s material, such as Gen. 1:26-27 (also a seminary scripture) in Lesson 3.
2. Memory is the residue of thought. The point is that students will only remember the things they think about and ponder a few minutes. In terms of ideas or principles or applications, class members will only remember those two or three items that you package as a discussion that prompts some thinking during a lesson. So maybe in Lesson 3 you create a discussion prompted by the following questions: What can the word image mean? So what might God’s image refer to? In what sense are we literally created in God’s image? What else (symbolically or abstractly) might “created in God’s image” convey about our nature? With this discussion, they will probably develop a richer understanding of “created in God’s image” and (this is the point) actually remember it.
3. We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete. I think the focus on the concrete suggests using persons, events, and stories to establish principles rather than just stating abstract principles and citing strings of scriptures to reinforce or illustrate the point. For example, the material covered in Lesson 3 contains the passage in Genesis 2 where God brings living things to Adam “to see what he would call them,” which then became “the name thereof.” Names, it seems, are given unusual importance here. The “context of things we already know” would be a short discussion of the names we give our children, something most parents spend months pondering and invariably attach great importance to. This might even lead to a discussion of what’s wrong with stereotypes, labels, and derogatory nicknames — this naming thing is obviously open to abuse. This discussion also sets the stage for the discussion of the disclosure of the enigmatic name of God in Exodus 3.
4. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved. Wow, a complex cognitive skill. No wonder good teachers seem to be few and far between. But the good news here is that teaching can be improved with practice.
The one good idea I have developed in my experience teaching Gospel Doctrine classes is to structure the entire lesson around the five or six discussion questions I ask during the lesson. I think hard about these questions; I write them out and draw boxes around them in my notes; I set them up by reading a scripture or recounting an anecdote that is on point. Personally, I find that the prescripted questions in the manual almost never serve to create the sort of thoughtful and enlightening conversation that should be part of a good class experience.
So … what are your good thoughts about LDS teaching?
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