Everything that is wrong with LDS Gospel Teaching, Part 2: Bigger, Faster, Weaker

This is the second in a series of three posts. In the first post, I mostly whine about Sunday School and Gospel Teaching. In this post, I’ll get more specific about what I think the problem is. In the final post, I will actually propose a possible solution.

Here is where I shift from whining to crazy talk. I recently saw the movie Food, Inc and my wife and I have been reading about modern industrial food. In a book called The End of Overeating, the author notes that chicken nuggets do not come from any discernable part of the chicken. Instead, nuggets are a combination of water and chicken goo, that is ground up chicken. If you’ve ever peeled back the batter on a nugget, you are familiar with what I am talking about. In nuggets, the contents of the nugget are pre-chewed (like baby food) because that provides a smoother, more pleasant eating experience (no gristle or bone). As a result, the person eating has less of a sense of how much they are eating and they tend to eat faster (less chewing necessary). Why only eat 6 nuggets when you can eat 9, and so forth. The emphasis in the modern industrial food complex is on providing the consumer with food as cheaply and pleasantly as possible. It’s emphasis is not on providing food which is good for you. Which is fine, to a degree, because you’ve got a head and can choose for yourself. However, in most stores, buying the ingredients necessary for a decent salad is actually more expensive than buying a burger from the local fast food emporium. Which do we tend to follow: our heart/head or our wallet?

The application to Gospel Teaching? I, briefly, worked at BYU in the department of Religious Education and I was fairly unsuccessful there as a teacher. But I listened, because I wanted to be better. At BYU RelEd, they have too few teachers teaching too many students. It is not unusual for instructors to have 5 classes a semester , meaning literally hundreds of students each. As a result, certain types of teachers tend to flourish at BYU RelEd: those who can take Gospel Ideas, distill them to their essence, and communicate them as widely as possible. Certainly, those aren’t the only types of teachers found there and all their teachers are very effective, but do to the department’s unique mission, people who can mush up the Gospel and get it to the masses are valued. In that department, I was told that their classes were different for two reasons: 1. the purpose was not to impart or share knowledge, it was to make people better people (a goal I applaud); 2. therefore, the goal of the class is not to separate those who get it from those who don’t (an unacknowledged goal of much university teaching), but rather to make sure that everyone gets it. Standardization is critical to accomplishing this goal.

Again, this isn’t to say that standards of doctrine or teaching are enforced (that wasn’t my experience at all). But it does mean that if you, the individual teacher, don’t standardize, you will drown. I once had a colleague come in and evaluate my teaching. The primary negative that he mentioned was that I ran it like a graduate seminar. He didn’t have anything against graduate seminars, which are very useful, but rather he was trying to get me to see that if I did this for several classes, I would drown in work (indeed, a portion of my decision to walk away from teaching in academia was due to the need for more standardized course creation on my part and my dislike of that process). You can’t teach such large numbers personally and, therefore, you shouldn’t try. You’ll go nuts. There is a reason that a lot of the PhDs in RelEd are in Instructional Technology. Tools that make educating students more efficient are necessary in that environment for sanity maintenance. The same goes for Seminary and Institute teachers, who operate under similar teaching loads and who, for that reasons, sometimes graduate to become instructors at the Y in RelEd.

The problem being that, when Sunday School manual production time comes around, those people on the committee are often people who were raised as teachers in this system. The determination to make sure that everyone gets it as efficiently as possible requires streamlining, of the lessons, of the doctrines, and of the scriptures. We don’t teach the scriptures in Sunday School, we teach these streamlined doctrines supplemented by scriptural proof texts. If our primary goal is to get a set number of religious ideas out with as broad a distribution and as little time as possible, then it is a good system. But if our goal is, as I was told in BYU RelEd, to make people better, it is likely misguided. Becoming better requires work, the sacrifice of all things; Sunday School doesn’t.

In fact, Sunday School is currently designed to require no work from its students whatsoever (and only a minimum from its teachers). You could, at a moment’s notice, teach a lesson anywhere in the church (that speaks your language) if you can get a hold of a manual, no matter what your experience. Which is good, in its own way, because lots of our teachers don’t have much (or any) pedagogical experience and they require a lot of support. But, I would argue, this is clearly intended as a stop-gap measure. Instead, we’ve turned it into the model of how lessons ought to be taught. Using our manuals exclusively, nowadays, is all technology, no instruction.

This technological emphasis in instruction results in bland lessons that don’t evoke real, lived lives (scriptural or modern). Our lessons are often the pedagogical equivalent of a form letter. To some degree, we can get away with this, because the Spirit is a very forgiving colleague. But we are denying ourselves as teachers and our students of the opportunity to draw closer to God through the instruction of the Spirit if we are simply going through the motions. Going back to Elder Scott’s talk in conference, although Elder Scott clearly valued one lesson over the other, it was clear that both teachers had put an effort into what they taught. That pedagogical effort, I think, had some influence over the ease with which Elder Scott felt the Spirit in those classes.

Standardized lessons are great for emphasizing basic gospel messages, but at the expense of real experience living the gospel and interacting with the scriptures. If we can’t teach people how to live a gospel life without resorting to a series of platitudes and scriptural cliches, then all we are serving folks is fried froth. Like spiritual fast food, we are filling folks up on easy answers and spiritual mediocrity because it is fast, easy, and standardized. Instead, we should invite them to the table to feast with us on the real, wholesome, messy, tasty, pulpy, and savory word of God.

Comments

  1. This was just an awesome, awesome read.

    It brings up some discussion of the system and in doing so brings up points I simply haven’t thought about before. I appreciate being able to learn some of these things and to consider their effects on what is going on throughout the church.

  2. I am loving this manifesto.

  3. John, I think your critique works for BYU undergrad religion classes but misses for Sunday School. Given how much of the usual Sunday School class is taken up by comments and discussion, it does resemble a grad seminar more than an undergraduate class. Granted, the discussion is more oriented to application than plumbing the depths, but that is what the senior leaders want. Still, most good teachers try to bring some depth to the material even when the manual doesn’t.

    Perhaps what is needed is two different Gospel Doctrine classes … the nuggets class for those who like predigested material; the premium chicken breast strip class for the serious students.

  4. Dave,
    I think the typical Sunday School is better described as a sort of call and response ritual than a discussion. To a great degree, the questions and answers are already pre-scripted (that was the point behind the post yesterday).

  5. >call and response ritual

    JC, you’ve nailed it. Wow. This is, like, anthropology or something.

  6. I’m enjoying this series. I too, am sick of chicken nuggets. I love this:

    the real, wholesome, messy, tasty, pulpy, and savory word of God.

    Amen!

  7. It place little blame on the people who prepare the manuals. It seems they have few viable options other than produce something that can be used by the widest audience.

    Unfortunately we do receive some counsel that seems to discourage tailoring our lesson to our audience (i.e. stick to the manual and the result will fit any humble, truth-seeking audience). Although I interpret Elder Scott’s counsel to be “Make sure your lesson’s goal is to spiritually uplift”, it could be interpreted as “Don’t try to teach anything you have learned that the class has not”. I think only the most self-assured teacher or class member feels empowered to invest a lot of effort in lesson preparation/participation in the face of such (real or perceived) counsel.

  8. Bro. Jones says:

    Interesting critique of Sunday School manual pedagogy. I wonder if the recent development of the “Preach My Gospel” manual/curriculum for missionary work holds any lessons for how Sunday School could be reimagined.

    I look forward to your Part 3!

  9. John, the canned questions from the manual may have prescripted answers, but not all teachers use the canned questions. Furthermore, class members often make comments or pose questions that move the discussion away from prescripted exchanges toward other interesting issues. In fact, some class members make comments designed specifically to productively disrupt the “call and response” routine.

  10. It’s an intractable problem. My guess is, given the management nature of Church leadership (because of the backgrounds of those who serve in the general leadership) the points you raised yesterday and today in this post have actually been considered and the resulting lesson manuals/approach taken is what has been decided is the most workable alternative, considering that very few Mormons, proportionally speaking, have experience with extensive scriptural research, or even with sustained study of a certain topic. So the decision has been taken to provide teachers with the material they need to present so that as many people as possible, at all education levels, can serve as teachers. My guess is that this course has been taken with an awareness of the pitfalls, which you are illustrating in this series, but with a determination that it is the most workable solution. So I am looking forward to your proposed solution tomorrow.

  11. StillConfused says:

    I think the manual would be more effective if it focused on a theme and then instructed the teacher to be unique. For instance “At this point, tell a story of how the law of tithing helped you or someone who know well.”

  12. Thank you for this post. It expressed my feelings exactly, and is why I hate Sunday School. There – I’ve said it.

    And even the Q/A’s are boring. It is a stock question. The same 5 people always give the same 5 stock answers. Because I often think differently, or else ask things like, “Well, what if…” just as a way to explore various topics, it is generally seen in most wards as “straying from the manual”, etc. So I don’t say anything.

    Simple example: Why not talk about gross vs net in tithing. The General leadership won’t address it. But if you bring it up in SS, you get the stock answer with a pithy quote about “Do you want net or gross blessings…?” Why not let people talk about their real experiences with it?

    So nothing real gets said.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Well done, John. I like your description of the catechistic style as a “call and response ritual.” From long experience as both a teacher and student in GD classes, I can predict what people are going to say as soon as they raise their hands and before they say it much more consistently than I ought to be able to do. The whole experience feels very pro forma, prepackaged, and lacking in authenticity to me.

  14. Chick-fil-a chicken nuggets are not processed as described. If you peel the batter off, it’s a real chicken breast there. That is why Chick-fil-a > McDonald’s.

  15. Terrakota says:

    The Church has revisited it’s instructions for the missionaries in the new Preach My Gospel book instead of the old “here is what you say, word by word”, manual, and the same thing could (should) be happenning with SS manuals. They say that we need better, more prepared and effective missionaries, and the same could be said about SS teachers.

    We had our Area President teach us doctrine classes on a regular basis at work. That was fascinating. I could’ve listen to him forever. It was the most wholesome spiritual food, but he always asked us not to say anything that we hear at Church meetings. Sigh.

  16. Richard Bushman once told me that he views Sunday School more as a ritual than as an education.

    I think he’s spot on.

    Great writing, John.

  17. Great post, John.

    However, now that you’ve explained McNuggets to me, I’m wondering why I don’t like Sunday School much more than I do, as I adore McNuggets. Maybe if there were a deep fryer in Sunday School. But perhaps that’s in your part 3.

  18. Steve Evans says:

    John, this is some of your finest blogging.

  19. Mark Brown says:

    Excellent Crawford.

    Supersize me!

  20. Natalie B. says:

    Write on! I’m finding this series very informative and therapeutic.

  21. Terrakota says:

    “John, this is some of your finest blogging.”
    I agree. But the one on Bush is a masterpiece.

  22. This is great, John.

  23. Sterling Fluharty says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I came up with some questions that might help us to address some of the issues you raise. If anyone is interested in what our teacher training materials say, the numbers in parentheses are page numbers in Teaching, No Greater Call where answers to my questions can be found.

    Do church members still believe what President J. Reuben Clark Jr. said about even the youth of the church wanting to learn the gospel undiluted? (6)

    What role should gaining knowledge play in Sunday School? (16-17)

    How can teachers help their students to become better people? (22-23)

    Is it bad to focus too much on the manual? (25)

    Is it accurate to say that excellence in teaching should be our primary goal in Sunday School? (31)

    How and why are we encouraged to tailor our teaching? (32)

    Why is it important to understand the common characteristics of those you teach as well as their individual differences? (33-34)

    What recommendations did Elder Maxwell give to teachers who find that some of their students are bored, cynical, or questioning their testimony? (34)

    Why should we be cautious about promoting conformity? (38)

    What are the common themes in and differences between Elder Scott’s first and second recounting of his story about the Mexican teacher and the university professor? (41-42)

    Are students in Sunday School really ever encouraged to take personal responsibility for learning the gospel? (61-62)

    Is it appropriate to give our students assignments? (62)

    Are we ever told that the questions included with the manual are preferable to what teachers could come up with on their own? (63)

    Which aspect of gospel teaching “often requires sacrifice”? (66)

    Should our teachers shy away from questions that prompt deeper thinking on the part of their students? (68-69)

    What is an effective method for teaching complex principles? (92)

    Are we told that teaching requires “hard work”? (96)

    What recommendations are we given for departing from the lesson outline? (102)

    Are teachers responsible to evaluate the teaching and learning that happens in their classroom, or should they leave that to their leaders? (103-104)

    Is it true that we have been given instructions for using nearly fifty different methods of teaching? (159-183)

    Is it okay if our classroom discussions bear little resemblance to everyday, real life? (55, 178)

    In what ways are the words “stimulate” and “stimulating” used in Teaching, No Greater Call?

    Which word shows up more frequently in Teaching, No Greater Call: efficient or effective?

    Besides mentioning overhead projectors and showing movies, what else does Teaching, No Greater Call say about using technology in the classroom?

  24. Are comments that ask a string of unanswered questions annoying? (224)

    Why would you want to comment like this? (37)

    Is there any reason for it that anyone can think of? (72)

    Does it make one look like a jerk? (46)

    Do people stop reading after the fifth unanswered question? (394)

  25. Steve Evans says:

    MCQ ftw.

  26. MCQ: Sterling was illustrating why Church members prefer the “call and response” method of teaching. Asking questions, without ready answers, is annoying. And so, thankfully, in most gospel doctrine classes, everyone knows the answers before the questions are asked.

  27. Steve Evans says:

    Suffice it to say that each and every one of the questions Sterling raises is a dumbass one, which completely proves John’s point.

  28. Kevin Barney says:

    I was a good teacher myself, but I’m also something of a hypocrite on this subject, because I once had the calling of SSP, where I was supposed to improve gospel teaching in the ward, and I neither knew how to do that nor felt comfortable trying. For example, I was supposed to sit in on people’s classes and critique their lessons, and while I didn’t care whenever anyone did that to me because I was very confident in what I was doing, it made me feel like I was spying on them or something. I think my bad case of Mormon “nice” got in the way of me ever giving anyone constructive criticism. Much easier for me to bellyache on a blog…

  29. One of the frustrating results of ritualized Sunday School is that straying from ritual makes a lot of Mormons nervous.

    I think that depending on your ward and leadership, even if, as a teacher you want to ask different kinds of questions than the manual offers or focus on different themes in the assigned scriptures, there is pressure not to stray from the manual because Sunday School is a ritual.

  30. For example, I was supposed to sit in on people’s classes and critique their lessons, and while I didn’t care whenever anyone did that to me because I was very confident in what I was doing, it made me feel like I was spying on them or something.

    Julie Smith has actually done this, or at least tried. She has some interesting stories about approaching high priest instructors and giving them constructive criticism…

  31. Molly Bennion says:

    Teaching, No Greater Call says many of the right things, those which, if widely adopted, would result in far better teaching and learning at church. However, I believe it is most effective if distilled into no more than 10 classes, with much of the material coming from the resource, not the lesson, sections. If presented as lessons written, it’s 10 miles of dirt road. The good stuff is buried in the resource section or lost amid boring and superficial repetition. And isn’t that a central theme in this thread’s comments on SS? Though wonderful material is close at hand, further than the manual in the case of SS itself, but pretty easy to find, we teach our teachers to bore.

  32. Cynthia L. says:

    #28: ratemygospeldoctrineteacher.com: an idea whose time has come!

  33. Seeing it from the committee’s perspective, I don’t see how they can do much other than what they do. The burden of teaching is on the teacher, there is no way around that. Therefore, the lessons will vary as much as the teacher varies. The lessons seem to have been meant as jump-off points, not boxes to crawl into. Even the warning against other materials does not preclude a teacher working with the Spirit of God to powerfully use their own experiences and paradigms in teaching.

  34. Antonio Parr says:

    I was educated in a Catholic high school. One of my religion teachers (who was a member of a Catholic order) thought that the best way to get us to find God was to set us out on a journey by encouraging us to ponder and question. And so, as part of his curriculum, he would play excerpts from the Jackson Browne LP (just dated myself!), “The Pretender”.

    Browne’s “The Pretender” is a songwriting masterpiece, and is filled with longing and questioning that resulted in more than a few of us wondering about life’s purpose and meaning. One of us even ended up joining the LDS Church as a result of a teaching approach that could have been mere catechism but, instead, was an act of trust by a teacher who genuinely believed that those of who seek/question will, in fact, find. It was one of the most unorthodox, yet at the same time, most faithful acts of teaching that I have ever encountered. My debt of gratitude to this teacher knows no bounds.

  35. Steve’s comment has inspired me. Here are my thoughts.

    The word dumbass could probably be used more often in church lesson questions. It would make them more interesting. I’m not sure though if the word should go at the beginning or the end of the questions.

    Dumbass, do church members still believe what President J. Reuben Clark Jr. said about even the youth of the church wanting to learn the gospel undiluted? (6)

    -or-

    Do church members still believe what President J. Reuben Clark Jr. said about even the youth of the church wanting to learn the gospel undiluted, dumbass? (6)

    I’m not sure which question wording is more effective – but I suspect the intonation utilized could make quite a difference.

  36. Antonio Parr says:

    Is it “dumbass” or “dumb ass”? And does it take one to know one (or the other)?

    (Since my New Year’s resolution includes avoiding calling someone a dumbass/dumb ass, my question is purely rhetorical.)

  37. If you separate the two words, then you have to enunciate more and pronounce them separately – which is a bit of extra work – and then you have to be careful how much emphasis you place on each word. Too much separation and emphasis could sound unnaturally aggressive.

  38. Cynthia L. says:

    Um, this subthread seems to me an unfortunate addition to John’s thoughtful post.

  39. StillConfused says:

    I believe that the spelling of dumbass as a single word means that the u becomes an ew sound and the b is part of the second syllable. dewm-bass.

  40. Cynthia and John, my apologies. Feel free to delete my comments if you wish.

  41. We have a gospel principles class for a reason. Put the members of a ward who are lacking in gospel knowledge in that class.

    Let Gospel Doctrine be about learning the doctrines of the Church. These lessons should help us explore the gospel, not just regurgitate a small selection of truths that are covered everywhere else. I mean, how are parents going to teach the gospel to their kids, if there is no place for the parents to learn it?

    Stretch their minds, or be ready to accept the fact that we’ve raised a Church for the dumb masses.

  42. ROFL – for real. Thank you Rameumpton.

  43. Anne (U.K.) says:

    Excellent post- insightful comments. Thanks.

  44. Last Lemming says:

    Why not talk about gross vs net in tithing…[I]f you bring it up in SS, you get the stock answer with a pithy quote about “Do you want net or gross blessings…?”

    Actually, you get that answer even if you bring it up on a tax blog. Seriously.

    http://taxvox.taxpolicycenter.org/blog/_archives/2010/1/4/4418505.html

  45. Bravo John, this is a most excellent analogy. I look forward to your next post.

  46. Teaching: No Greater Calling has a picture of Jesus on the cover teaching in the synagogue. I pointed out to the teacher of the class that shortly after the picture was taken, Jesus was taken to a brow of a hill to be thrown over and was only saved by a miracle.

    She did not know what to say.

    Should all Sunday School Teachers be like the Savior? (Dumb unanswerable question.) Would we listen? (Another one)

  47. #44: Uhh. That link talked about Rev Warren and his claimed 90% “tithe” to his church…

  48. Peter LLC says:

    Julie Smith has actually done this, or at least tried. She has some interesting stories about approaching high priest instructors and giving them constructive criticism…

    The amen was still echoing around the room last Sunday when the EQ president jumped up and gave me feedback on my lesson. That’s the first time anyone has bothered. Usually they suffer in silence.

  49. Last Lemming says:

    #44: Uhh. That link talked about Rev Warren and his claimed 90% “tithe” to his church…

    Right. And because taxes would eat up more than the remaining 10%, the only way Warren’s practice makes any sense is if he tithes on net income, which prompts the aside at the end of the second paragraph.

  50. I’ve been teaching 11 year old boys for a couple of years so I have kind of forgotten what Sunday School is like already. Maybe the church should institute my program of setting aside the last 10 minutes to allow class members to huck a beanie baby at each other. That seems to work pretty well.

  51. Geoff J, when teaching youth SS I always take the first 10 minutes of class to ask about everyones week (sports events, HS, family, etc). When in EQ I decided to do the same thing, mainly focusing on life events and their children. It has worked out really well for quorum unity.

  52. Bro. Jones says:

    Geoff, that beanie baby thing is awesome. I may have to steal that for the next time I’m in primary!

  53. The solution is having 3 classes for beginning (Gospel Essentials), moderate (current GD) and then one for people more familiar with scripture/doctrine.

  54. To add, many wards where there just aren’t enough people for all callings clearly won’t be able to do that.

  55. Bro. Jones — feel free to use it. The rules are these:

    1. Whoever drops is out for that round
    2. Hard throws must hit the recipient “in the numbers” or the thrower is out

    We can usually get 5+ rounds in. Teachers are the refs. I normally announce bronze, silver, and gold for each round so the boys try to accumulate as many fictitious medals as possible per class. The game has astonishing staying power. (Though we do like to mix in trashcan free throw shooting contests at times as well)

  56. #49:

    I perhaps must have misstated my initial point. In a Sunday School class last year, someone brought up whether we should pay 10% tithing on our gross pay or on our net pay (which especially in Europe can have quite a substantial difference). Rather than letting this turn into a discussion which might have been enlightening to see how real people handled this question in real lives, the teacher brought up the standard quote of “Gross or net blessings” to effectively suppress the discussion and move on.

    I think this is emblematic about how we are encouraged not to “wander off” into random areas but merely stick to what is in the manual. While that might be fine for the sake of cohesiveness, we lose a tremendous amount that might be gained if Sunday School was an environment where genuinely questioning people might raise real concerns (non-orthodox thinking) that others in the class may have already processed and might be able to help. Instead, we get more bland lessons that do absolutely nothing.

  57. “he views Sunday School more as a ritual than as an education.”

    Profound!!!

  58. I’m actually happy with the net blessings and taking the rest in cash.

  59. ummquestion says:

    The “Helps for the Teacher” section in this years Gospel Doctrine teacher’s manual contains four pages telling the teacher to seek inspiration and guidance from the Spirit, to help class members participate meaningfully in discussions, and learn how to apply gospel principles to their daily lives.

    It states that covering all the material is less important than helping members to understand the scriptures and commit themselves to increased discipleship. It advises that if members are learning from a good discussion-let it continue rather than worrying about covering all the material. It say to encourage class members to share feelings, experiences, testimonies related to the weekly topic and to ask them to prepare for class by studying the assigned reading and discuss it and the lessons with their families.

    All the manuals begin like that. Along with Teaching, No Greater Call, Teacher Development classes, and all the lds.org online resources available to all- I don’t see how it can be “the Church” that fails here.

    I took those resources seriously when I taught Gospel Doctrine, and perhaps I’m just lucky to have nearly always lived in wards where other teachers have done the same thing. We currently have two teachers who switch off and they both lead great discussions. One of them is a woman who openly admitted that she is so inexperienced and afraid that she gets almost physically ill every time she has to teach. But she teaches anyway, and the class loves and supports her every time. The other is a deeply spiritual, soft spoken brother who asks probing questions and doesn’t let class participants off the hook if they give “seminary answers”. And yet somehow he manages to stay on topic and teach solely from the scriptures and the manual every week.

    Our current class shares, asks questions, jokes, and has even wept together during several lessons lately.

  60. alextvalencic says:

    I am making one of those rare exceptions in my blogging response experience by not reading all of the comments before leaving my own, mostly because I don’t want the idea that has popped into my head to disappear as I slog my way through nearly 60 comments. I will read them, though, I promise. I just wish to apologise if I am saying something that has already been said.

    I see John’s point in the streamlining of gospel instruction through the lesson manuals available, but I think that his reasoning for why it has been done so is misguided. I don’t think that the manuals were created to allow members of the Church to teach (and to be taught) with as little participation as possible. I believe they exist for the benefit of the weakest among those who can be called Saints.

    To put it another way, there are places in the world where the Church is extremely young. Due to our nearly-complete reliance upon lay ministry, the Church does not sent trained teachers to build up the kingdom. Rather, there are a few individuals sent to train Priesthood leaders, who are then asked to train the members in their units. As this is an extremely daunting task in the most seasoned areas of the Church, we have lesson manuals that offer the simplest outlines for teaching. It allows someone who has nothing but a testimony and a desire to teach a class.

    Of course, these members are expected to trust in the Spirit and still study and prepare. And they should receive training on doing this. In part I, Sterling asked why there are no longer Teacher Improvement Coordinators. The answer is simple: there are–they are called Sunday School Presidents. Having spent a fair amount of time as a member of my Stake SS Presidency, this is, really, the main function of this group. The SSP, with his counselors (if he has any) should be teaching, training, and encouraging his Sunday School teachers.

    I don’t think we need to move away from a curriculum-based gospel instruction model. What we need is more diligence on the part of those called to oversee the instruction and teaching of the gospel. It is hard, and it requires a major paradigm shift on the part of many Priesthood leaders, but it can be done. And I have witnessed the miraculous changes in the Sunday School program when this shift does take place.

  61. Mike S (56), I’d probably have avoided that conversation as well. It just seems a discussion that unless everyone is mature in discussions will lead to offense, judgement and the like. Color me cynical but while I think most people are, there will be a few who won’t. More seriously I can see people getting hurt feelings.

    I’m normally not one for the “it might offend” defense of avoiding discussion. But this is one of a few where I think in most wards it would be wise. (Others might disagree)

  62. 1. I’m deeply enjoying this series. Bad gospel doctrine classes make me wonder why I bother with the second hour at all.

    2. The key to taking a good BYU religion class is to only take classes from people who’ve gotten PhD’s in theology (whatever branch they choose) at other institutions.

  63. alex,
    You and I actually see the same proximate cause, but we are calling it different things and we are seeing different effects.

  64. Last Lemming says:

    Mike S.

    I wasn’t trying to dispute or distract from any point you were making. I just thought the simultaneous appearance of that particular pat answer in such radically different contexts was funny.

  65. Bogolubov says:

    I believe the problem can’t be remedied by better instruction manuals or methods. My time spent in Provo (and elsewhere, but especially Provo) led to me to the rather depressing conclusion that rigorous, critical thinking wasn’t particularly valued or even encouraged. In fact, any line of questioning seen as challenging the orthodoxy was viewed as heretical. As long as the current culture persists, I imagine most lessons will be bland and uninspiring regardless of who gives them or who participates. That’s largely the reason why I don’t attend church anymore, and if that were to change I’d be there every Sunday.

  66. #58 Karen – LOL I would love to hear someone say that in class.

  67. I am seeing in some comments what I would consider to be a false dichotomy. i don’t think in our teaching we have to choose between orthodoxy and critical/rigorous thinking. Nor do I accept that only ‘non-orthodox’ folks have “real concerns.”

    There are many truths and ideas and connections to be made that are perfectly in line with the gospel and scriptures – insights that still have not been learned or expounded.

    It is absolutely true that there is a lot of repetition in what is taught at church. To some degree, there might be too much repetition. I think the problem though is less in the manuals with which we are provided and more in ourselves. If those who are in the classroom are listless and apathetic and unimaginative, then the lessons/discussions that take place will simply mirror the participants who are involved. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

  68. My experience is that church members love good, challenging and well prepared lessons. They like to think rigorously, and do it well when encouraged. However, I also have learned that they are intolerant of crusaders and are fiercely egalitarian. So you have to be very careful to not appear to be telling them that they are wrong, naive, and that you know better. If you are matter of fact and diplomatic you can ask hard questions, encourage critical thinking, and even discuss troubling points of church doctrine and history without causing much of a problem.

    I agree though, that the manuals are not a lot of help. I am so glad to be leaving the D&C one behind. Teaching from it was a terrible challenge.

  69. StillConfused says:

    So I can remember having blood sugar troubles during church and for a few weeks there I would go get chicken nuggets during the second hour. THings that make you go hmmm

  70. Bogolubov says:

    I certainly agree with you to an extent hbar and I just found your comment on the other post. But why then does the huge disparity exist between the approach taken by your science students and those in Sunday school? My experience was that questioning of any kind, even if it was sincere, diplomatic, and in line with the gospel made quite a few people uncomfortable.

    With a name like hbar, you are probably familiar with the story of Feynman’s sabbatical year in Brazil which is recounted on page 191 of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” which perfectly describes the dilemma of Sunday school: (paraphrasing)

    “In regard to education in Brazil, I had a very interesting experience. I was teaching a group of students who would ultimately become teachers. I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question – same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell – they couldn’t answer it at all! After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. One thing I could never get them to do was to ask questions.”

    I do think that as long as I continue to harbor doubts and concerns that get posed as questions, I’ll never feel comfortable at church because that type of participation is rarely welcomed where in a science classroom it’s a mandatory prerequisite.

  71. Am I the only one who has had good SS experiences? (And I live in Utah valley — gasp!) I hate missing SS, actually, if i ever have to.

    Don’t misunderstand, I’m all for improving teaching, and I think our leaders feel strongly about that as well (I love Bro. Osguthorpe’s recent conference talk on the topic — reminding us that teaching can save lives!) But it’d be nice to hear a little more positive thought about what good things people have experienced, rather than so much about what people think is wrong with it. There is a part of this equation that involves the learners, too — how we receive and all of that. (That was a great talk by the former SS president.)

    I think there is a tension here in a lay church — we strive to improve, and our leaders are constantly encouraging us to do so (honestly, I have felt great urgency from our leaders about teaching — e.g., an entire WW leadership meeting on the topic was held a few years ago). But I think charity has to come into play, too. Maybe that’s why this all makes me squirm a little — I know people who receive callings to teach and are scared spitless. And yet, they put their heart into it, and some still aren’t the greatest teachers, pedagogy-wise. But I think they deserve some credit and a whole lot of patience for facing their fears and fulfilling a calling that they would never seek. I think there are probably more of such people than we might sometimes think. I think there are a lot of people, too, who really don’t need or want a graduate-level discussion. I think we need to remember those people, too.

    Besides, for all that pedagogy can help, still, teaching by the Spirit is a different animal than just good teaching elsewhere. In fact, pedagogical tricks and skills can sometimes get in the way of good gospel teaching if we aren’t careful.

  72. Oh, good grief…sorry for the lack of an tag there.

  73. that would be an /a tag.

  74. Can’t wait for the 3rd installment.

  75. Terrakota says:

    Many people are saying that the areas where the Church is still young are benefited by the simple manuals. It is so, though the Church has already simplified the program for such areas. They don’t have 3 hours block meetings, and don’t have RS, Primary, and many other things. And usually the only material available is the Gospel Basics (or is it called Gospel Doctrines in English?) book. Then, as membership grows, manuals are being added very gradually. We didn’t even have translated D&C for 6 years or so. And then, there is always a separate SS for new (less then 1 year) members where they teach from that Gospel Basics book.

    I don’t know about US, but here, in Russia, one of the biggest problems with SS and RS is that every capable, bright member is already a president or a couselor of some sort. Those who are left – they are teachers. It’s treated as a left-over calling.

  76. Kim Siever says:

    Based on the comments I have read here, I have to wonder how many commenters have actually been Gospel Doctrine teachers and/or have read the instructions at the front if the instructor manuals.

    The manuals explicitly encourage instructors to tailor the lesson for the needs of their classes, and that the materials in the lessons are merely guides.

    I never once taught from the manual when I was Gospel Doctrine instructor; I taught exclusively from the scriptures. I did use the manual to keep on track with the proposed topic and as a resource for scripturEs to use.

  77. Antonio Parr says:

    65. Bogolubov: It was not so long ago that I was where you are now with respect to frustration with Church and limited Church attendance. I am now fully active, in large part because I have shifted my focus from seeking to be edified during lessons to seeking opportunities to say something edifying, thus allowing me to create (in part) the Church experience that I am seeking. This takes tact and patience and the companionsihp of the Spirit (all 3 of which are every bit as hard for me as it is for everyone), and I don’t always succeed. But when I do, Church can be a very good experience.

    Your mileage may vary, but I found this approach to be a lifesaver.

  78. JC, if the manuals are the chicken nuggets, what is the barbecue dipping sauce? Inquiring minds, etc.

    On a serious note, I find that it takes about 2-4 conscientious hours to write a decent lesson based on the manuals, and that’s for someone who has spent about 15 years doing religious history as a pretty active sideline and has a reasonable reference library in the home. People should realize that moving from chicken mcnuggets to stuffed pork loin with a French gratin takes a lot of time and energy. I believe it’s worth it.

  79. On the lesson on tithing, I would not say “gross or net blessings”, I would say that it is literally an issue to be determined by each individual and the Lord. If the Spirit tells a person that his 10% net is a full tithe, then why confuse it with pithy statements that are not based upon any doctrinal truth?

    Our lessons need to focus on doctrine and principles. Those are the things that define our Church, and what strengthen the members. Although I’ve deeply studied it over the years, I would be the last to suggest a detailed discussion on the signs of the times. Why? Because doctrine only goes so far, and then the wild speculations come in.

    But I would like to see a Nibley-esque form of teaching of doctrine. Ancient and modern ideas that enhance our understanding of doctrine and principles. As high priest group leader, I’m having to work closely with my instructor to ensure the Gospel Principles manual does not become “dumbed down” information. None of my high priests needs to have someone pull out 10 pennies and show them how much equals a tithe. But they do need to know and understand the spiritual dimensions of the commandment. It could be an interesting lesson IF we try to study its history (Abraham paying tithes to Melchizedek – just what did Melchizedek use the tithes for?).

    In studying the Old Testament this year, we are not going through the entire book as in years past. Instead, only certain topics are being picked out of it, and the first few lessons aren’t even in the Bible! Unless the instructor has a lot of knowledge and teaching skills, or allows for much discussion (and the class has good depth), we may see many classrooms taught on a very shallow basis. Teaching a doctrine in-depth, when the materials given are very sparse, and the instructions forbid outside materials, means the instructors are walking a very tight rope. One risks a class between giving a dumbed down class and giving one that has members just sharing their testimonies. This will definitely require teachers to step up to the plate and not just spend a little time in the lesson manual, but a LOT of time on their knees.

    To help my Sunday School class and other friends, I’m doing a weekly blog on the OT lessons for them to see some of my insights, which probably will not make it into the lessons themselves.

  80. I agree that the distinction between critical thinking and gospel teaching is a false dichotomy. And I agree with m&m that there is a lot of good gospel teaching out there (I was encouraging people to share about it in the first post’s thread, but there is no reason to not share it here, too).

    I also agree that often the primary problem with Sunday School participation is personal preparation. However, I contend that the structure, as it currently stands, does little to nothing to encourage personal preparation and this series is primarily about finding ways to change that.

    Kim,
    I know that the current manual says that and I believe that the leaders on the Sunday School board would like us to follow that advice. But so long as the “stick to the manual” idea is so powerful amongst the membership, I think those pages will mostly be ignored. Which is too, too bad.

    Finally, I feel no sympathy for called teachers who would argue that they don’t have time to prepare a class well. If you don’t have time, please don’t accept the calling. There is no shame in that. I believe that Gospel Teaching is important and if we aren’t willing to magnify our callings in it, then everyone loses. I should also note that I am a big ol’ hypocrite on this front, but I am trying to become better. smb, you are in this, as in most things, an example to me of how to do better.

  81. Bogolubov says:

    Thanks Antonio.

  82. alextvalencic says:

    I’m getting ready to pop on over to part III, but I thought I would throw out that for all y’all who have had terrible experiences with teachers discouraging critical thinking, you need to come out and visit us here in Champaign, Illinois. I have had SS teachers regularly challenge our assumptions, and one of the best PH lessons I attended was the recent (December) lesson on the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, in which the teacher challenged everyone to explain why it mattered.

    So it can happen. Feel free to visit!

  83. In some homeschooling circles, public school is referred to as a conveyor belt. I sometimes see church education similarly when teachers don’t read and act on those critical first few pages of the manual or magnify their calling.

  84. “Finally, I feel no sympathy for called teachers who would argue that they don’t have time to prepare a class well.”

    If anything, Gospel Doctrine Instructor was the calling that took the least of my time. I simply replaced my scripture study time with lesson prep time since I relied heavily on the scriptures as my material.

  85. Here is an image you could use in this post John.

  86. What if it turns out that the fruit of the Tree of Life tastes like McNuggets?

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