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.


  1. Great post.

    I think the fundamental problem we have is that most Mormons simply don't care about any kind of substantive teaching in Church. They are more than happy with having the same type of discussions and lessons that they had in primary. Otherwise they might be required to think.

    Another major problem, as you somewhat discussed, is that we have a lay untrained ministry. While a good teacher may take any lesson manual and any class and turn it into something special, a normal/mediocre teacher combined with our lesson manuals can only turn into mediocre lesson. A poor teacher with our manuals is destined to fail. And as you pointed out a good teacher isn't someone who plans the lesson well--I have many lessons where the teacher probably spent hours preparing. It comes to actual skills--skills that our teachers often simply don't have. This latter problem is further problematized when Bishops and other leaders have a tendency to those who simply can't teach in order to teach them to teach--or something like that. Often, it is those who are most capable of teaching--and moreso those who are particular experts in the topics--who are specifically not given the call to teach.

    Finally, there is a mentality in the Church that it is the fault of the student and not the teaching is something if the student does not find a Church class constructive and worthwhile. I have heard this said over and over again. While it is true that the student must play an active part (in both participation and reflections), it is certainly moreso the responsibility of the teacher to provide for a worthwhile class. If it were really all up to the students as some would presume, then we need not have any manuals, lessons, or teachers in our classes. Instead we would only need a facilitator who sees that a rock is passed each sunday from student to student over and over again to fill up the hour. If the student is not spiritual enough or inclined enough to take something from the weekly exercise, then it is his/her own fault.

  2. Adam,
    I really appreciate this post. I was just called to be GD teacher in my (very elderly, established, SLC -- the young upstart coming in to shake things up!) ward and it's a calling I've held in every ward I've been in. I would add one more reason GD lessons don't have the oomph they should: unlike a professor teaching a semester-long course with a unified, theme-driven curriculum, our teachers tend to approach each week's lesson as an isolated collection of wise sayings and bullet-point doctrinal highlights, instead of linking the lessons to the scriptural books as pieces of literature. I love to approach the curriculum as a year-long study of a book -- a piece of literature that has themes running through all lessons and build on each other as the weeks go by. By highlighting patterns, themes, parallelisms, character comparisons etc throughout the entire work and putting that work into historical and cultural contexts, I find that people are more excited to come back each week and build on what they learned previously.

    This technique, however, relies on betraying one of your preferences which is to have several teachers. I agree with having different classes that feature different styles, but if I teach less than once every two weeks I feel that I and the class lose momentum as a team.

  3. Great post
    I was a seminary teacher for a few months in my branch. It doesn't matter how much prep time I would put my students never wanted to participate. They came in layed on the floor with their back turned away from me did there homework everything did everything but participate. The president of the branch did absolutely nothing to support me or my comanion teacher. I eventually asked for a release because of the lack of respect or support of the branch presidency or othe parents. We were nothing more than glorified baby sitters and I will never accept a call to teach again