31 January 2010

How we can make "Everything that is Wrong with LDS Gospel Teaching" right

Having recently been called as a Sunday School teacher in my ward, I followed John C.'s three-part series on "Everything that is Wrong with LDS Gospel Teaching" at BCC three weeks ago with great interest. I have been deeply dissatisfied with my experience in Sunday School for several years now, and now feel like I have the opportunity to make things better (if not for others, than at least for myself). Below I have tried to synthesize what I believe are some of the major points to emerge from John C.'s posts (as well the 300+ comments) followed by my own take (in italics), based on personal experience as both a teacher and student and my personal teaching philosophy. I obviously won't be able to address each and every worthwhile point that was made, but I've tried to identify the 11 most important (and possibly some subpoints).

  • Sunday School is "dead boring," primarily as the result of homogeneity and repetition (see John C. post #1). There was not much pushback from this from commenters, though I suspect that the active participants in the Bloggernacle tend to self-select for those who are generally dissatisfied with their experience in weekly church meetings. However, this is becoming less and less true with the passage of time.
I confess that I am 100% in agreement with John C.'s initial statement that, as currently implemented, a member of the Church can learn everything that they are going to learn from Sunday School in approximately 4-5 years. My experience in Sunday School over the past five years has been generally poor, with a few bright spots here and there. Of course, making these more interesting is not always the solution. I have had a few teachers try to make things more interesting, but have generally done so at the expense of the Spirit and/or good taste.
  • Part of the problem lies in the Correlated curriculum materials provided by the Church for the Gospel Doctrine classes (comment #11, post #1). A key part of failure of these materials is that they are focused less on teaching the scriptures, rather than teaching a simple version of Gospel principles that can in some way be related to these scriptures. (see John C.'s posts #2 and #3). The means by which this failure of the curriculum has resulted in poor teaching is that what ought to be used as a last resort for unexperienced or time-strapped teachers has become the model for how lessons ought to be taught. (see John C.'s post #2; smallaxe's comment #45 to post #3)
Again, I'm in agreement here. I loathe the manuals that we are asked to teach from. I think the manuals do a vast disservice to the members and insults the actual content of the scriptures by insisting that these narratives can be crammed into tiny contemporary LDS orthodoxy boxes. My general approach is to use the manual as a last resort if I am strapped for time or if no better idea presents itself.
  • Engaged teachers and students can resolve some of the boredom issues, but are not a panacea (various comments to post #1). The larger issue is to what extent does the responsibility for good classes lie with the teacher and to what degree does it lie with the producers of the curriculum. (see SilverRain's comment #33 to post #2)
I do not have an easy answer for this. I would place the greater responsibility with the teacher, since he or she is presumably more familiar with the particular circumstances of the class that they teach while the curriculum committee is tasked with the admittedly difficult task of preparing materials that will be used all over the world by members of the Church with vastly different backgrounds and levels of commitment to the Gospel and the Church. A good teacher can overcome a poor curriculum, but will likely have to be comfortable deviating from that curriculum somewhat, and will have to teach classes that are willing to accept some measure of deviation. Of course, this is a personal preference only.
  • There is a great deal of disagreement as to the degree to which "dumbing down" the lessons for new members or the recently reactivated is a) required and/or b) prudent. One standard solution arises: two classes - regular SS and "advanced" SS (Dave's comment #3 to post #2). Or for a variant on that solution- bump the "slow" folks back down to Gospel Principles until they learn enough to join everybody else in Gospel Doctrine. (rameumptom's comment # 41 to post #2)
For a long time, I was in the two-track Sunday School camp. Older members who were ready for a little more meat could opt into the "advanced" class or alternatively, less experienced or less knowledgeable members could stay in Gospel Principles until they were ready to move up. However satisfying this solution may be as a matter of pedagogy, it does not sound like a positive development for the character of the members of our Church. There are plenty of scriptures from the Book of Mormon that denounce the division of people based on classes or the level of knowledge that they were able to achieve. Again, no easy answer here. I would opt for a model where all members of the class are challenged on a consistent basis and that the teacher sets expectations for the student at a high level. I am an optimist in believing that most people will generally seek to meet the expectations that are set.
  • There is some disagreement as to whether the responsibility of the Gospel Doctrine teacher is to actually "teach something" or simply facilitate a discussion among class members (see john f.'s comment #30 to post #1).
I stand resolutely in the category of people that believes that it is the job of the Gospel Doctrine to actually teach the class. Again, the teacher will be most familiar with the needs and capabilities of their own class. Some classes may be capable of amazing, inspiring, and thought-provoking discussions. Other classes may simply not be up to that level. I presume that the Lord and/or the bishop of my ward has called the teacher to actually teach and not because he believed that person would be a really great facilitator of other people's conversation.
  • A lack of teaching technique for some persons called to teach may explain a large portion of bad lessons (see JNS comment #33 and RAB #56 to post #1).
I believe that pedagogical skills, like leadership ability, are something that people are just born with and cannot be taught. That does not mean that some people are always going to be condemned to being poor teachers or that they should not have the opportunity to teach. To the contrary, with sufficient preparation and some work on improving teaching skills, I suspect that most members of the Church can be serviceable teachers for the purposes of Church classes. However, the preparation required for that person to excel may be a great deal more that for other persons who have more natural teaching abilities.
  • Finding the right balance between abstract gospel principles and real-life application is difficult. Opinions vary.
No easy answer here. I suspect that it is a matter of personal preference for each member of the class, as well as the teacher. I have always preferred acquiring knowledge on the level of abstract principles rather than more concrete examples. This holds true even outside the Church setting. As a law student, I was always much more comfortable understanding a principle on the basis of the "black letter law" rather than having it introduced to me through a series of discrete cases, all of which had different facts and circumstances. The Church's official philosophy appears to clearly side with teaching more towards real-life application. I would argue, as I did above, that too much emphasis on application ends up missing what the scriptures actually say in favor of teaching what we believe they ought to say.
  • The need for multiple teachers to appeal to students who respond to different teaching styles. (see Natalie B. comment # 67 to post #1)
We have six different Gospel Doctrine teachers for two different Gospel Doctrine classes in my ward. I think that it is a wonderful system. I don't think that the teaching style of any two of these teachers is the same. Some are extremely "by-the-manual" kinds of teachers, while others (including myself) are pretty much making up their own lessons. It is likely that each of these styles appeals to a least some portion of the class, so presumably every person gets a lesson taught to their learning style at least once a month. According to the bishop, the classes are supposed to be divided up alphabetically by last name; nevertheless, I have noticed some people migrating from the class they ought to be in just to hear another teacher. And lest you believe that I am boasting that everyone in the ward is flocking to my class, I have seen some students who ought to be in my class choosing to attend the other, including one family doing so just this morning.
  • Nobody is confident in their opinion regarding how much deviation from the instructions and questions set forth in the manual is acceptable. (see Amri comment #29 to post #2)
This goes hand in hand with the problems with the manuals themselves. If the manuals were perfect, no deviation would be necessary. Seeing as how I believe that the manuals are not perfect, I have to decide what degree of deviation from the manual is optimal. In contrast to most people, who believe that in Sunday School, no deviation or use of outside materials is permitted, the manual explicitly instructs teachers to "be judicious" in their use of outside materials. That is an exception that a lawyer can drive a semi truck through. What we are really dealing with are at least two sets of expectations- the teachers' and the students'. While a teacher may feel comfortable with less-than-average reliance on the manual alone, as long as students retain the manuals-only norm, the teaching will be less than effective. It will take a simultaneous development of comfort with teaching that is not delivered to us in a shrink-wrapped package for a non-manual-based teaching strategy to be totally effective.
  • Standardized lessons which are presented in a standardized format do not "convey what is important about the Gospel" (John C.'s post #3)
As I mentioned above, I am not a fan of our Sunday School manuals. One reason is that, as I read the questions it asks, I do not find myself inspired or passionate about the answers to the questions. The things that interest me and that really get me excited about teaching and learning generally are not presented in our manuals. I am a firm believer that a class can be better if the teacher is passionate about the principles that they teach, if they feel personally invested in the content of the lesson. And more to John C.'s point, the lessons often focus on only the most superficial issues with the Gospel and do not get down to the questions that require us to exercise our minds and our spirits, to grasp after the divine.
  • Whether we should not simply be teaching the what of reading the scriptures, but the how (reading and interpretation methods)
While I personally would be very interested in such a component to our class, I think it is beyond the capacities or desires of about 90% of those who attend Sunday School. I have no doubt that improved reading and interpretation techniques would lead to improved discussions in our classes, but when we struggle to get members to just read the lesson materials on a weekly basis, adding an additional layer of complexity just does not seem prudent.

10 January 2010

Reid's faux pas - much ado about nothing

The weekend's big political story has been the controversy surrounding Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)'s unfortunate remarks regarding then-candidate Barack Obama's race during the 2008 presidential campaign, as reported in Mark Halperin's new book. According to Halperin's book, Senator Reid stated that America would be more receptive to Obama as president because he was "light-skinned" and did not have a "Negro dialect." The new Republican attack wants to demand that Reid be treated the same as former Majority Leader Trent Lott, who was forced to resign after he commented that the country would have been better off had it elected segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond in 1948 and avoided all its subsequent problems. See Josh Marshall's take here, as I think he has hit the nail on the head.

This is a purely false and specious equivalence. First, the statements themselves. Taken even without the broader context, Senator Reid's comments were a compliment to President Obama. Make no mistake, his choice of particular words and terms was incredibly antiquated, not to mention unfortunate and bone-headed. Any insults were directed at white Americans who still harbor racist attitudes, who Reid believes (and he is no doubt correct) will have a less difficult time accepting a "light-skinned" African-American who does not speak like a stereotyped black person. For all the hoopla about Obama being the first black president, his is more a transitional racial achievement, since so many things about him seem to indicate his "whiteness."

Sen. Lott on the other hand was complimenting Strom Thurmond, the man who set a record for filibustering for over 24 hours to stop the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act and never renounced his defense of segregation (all while having a child with a black maid). Senator Lott had the gall to claim that the country could have avoided all its problems if it had elected Strom Thurmond back in 1948. What problems, you say? Based on Thurmond's record, any problems with black people and their "civil rights."

Context, of course, matters. Sen. Reid, despite a prodigious list of other wince-inducing public statements, has no history of recorded racism. His scores as a legislator from the NAACP have been very strong. If this particular statement had not been made, there is little in his record that would suggest that Sen. Reid held racist attitudes. Sen. Lott, on the other hand, has a long record of support for Southern, Confederate causes, including some groups related to the KKK. His statement regarding Strom Thurmond only seems to confirm what seems to have been certain even if that statement had never been made.

Whatever other problems you may have with Sen. Reid, this ridiculous comparison needs to be put to rest immediately. (And as for these people commenting on the Times & Seasons thread regarding its designation of Sen. Reid as "Mormon of the Year," they make me feel embarrassed to be an American and even more embarrassed to be Mormon.)

09 January 2010

Courage and Leadership

This will be brief as I get back into the blogging groove from a too-long holiday hiatus.

A man died last month. While a few news publications made note of his death, it likely went unnoticed and largely unmourned by your average American. The man was Yegor Gaidar, the first finance minister of the new Russia and later its prime minister for a brief period. Mr. Gaidar was most famous for his decision to rapidly move Russia, then in transition from the Soviet command economy, towards a liberalized and privatized modern economy. Its immediate effects were devastating. Those of us old enough to remember the Russian transition period (it is in fact one of my first political memories) may chiefly remember the numerous bread lines in Russian stores due to shortages and hyperinflation. These hardships were the direct result of Mr. Gaidar's policies.

I heard Mr. Gaidar speak twice while at Duke University and have a signed copy (now read) of his account of the Russian transition period and the economic decisions for which he was so widely vilified by his countrymen. My own knowledge of macroeconomics is weak enough (as attested to by my grades) to leave me wholly unfit to make judgments about Mr. Gaidar's reforms. Nevertheless, I have great respect for his courage as a leader. Few of us can understand the uncertainty of that period, particularly regarding the task of reforming a 75-year old command economy, something that had not been tried successfully at that time. Mr. Gaidar's decisions were bold, but extremely unpopular and painful for thousands if not millions of Russian citizens. However, they were the indispensable foundation of moving Russia away from its Soviet past. I imagine that Mr. Gaidar must have known that his political future would be imperiled by these decisions. The retribution was swift-- his tenure as finance minister lasted less than six months and a later stint as prime minister fared little better. He attempted to return to democratic politics later in his life, but his reputation for the early missteps of the Russian market followed him.

Nations, if they are to prosper and progress, must have courageous leaders. The world in which we live, even if not in the midst of a crisis such as the Soviet transition, is an extremely complex one. Decisions on governing are necessarily made in the face of uncertainty and imperfect choices. But decisions must be made. Through their decisions, courageous leaders may become unpopular and lose the confidence of their friends and countrymen. The most courageous and correct decisions may hurt those that the leaders were chosen or elected to serve. Courageous leadership is not automatically rewarded by its beneficiaries and may require the sacrifice of personal ambition. But, despite its seeming rarity, it is indispensable.

By this defense of "courageous leadership," I do not mean to imply that an unpopular decision, by virtue of its unpopularity, necessarily possesses a high degree of merit. But neither is popularity an infallible proof of merit. My point is that the United States, at this moment in its history, faces a number of difficult choices in its near-term future-- decisions about health care, climate change, war and peace, constitutional protections, and national priorities, among others. Current national leadership is driven too much by electoral politics and how decisions will play out in the news media and for the "average American." This does not mean that our leaders are irredeemably flawed or self-serving villains; only that they are human. We need leaders NOW who are willing to throw it all away for the sake of being right. I was struck by the following quote from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (who ought to know a little something about being unpopular):
The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they're necessary to do and better than the alternatives.
President Obama once said he was willing to be a one-term president in order to make the right decisions and get important things done. Show me.