The Pedagogy of Sunday School (part 1)

I was recently called for the fifth time as a Sunday school teacher, and once again I am very pleased. I teach professionally — mostly high school, mostly English and humanities — and I find the process of preparing and delivering a lesson comfortable and enjoyable.

Because my professional obligations having shifted in recent years, I have been thinking more about the way we teach and the way we learn in Sunday School, applying the same pedagogical concepts of teaching literature to high school students to the teaching of Sunday School. Today I will talk muse a little about methodology and outcomes.

I generally teach Gospel Doctrine in the same way I teach a literature class. We have a text and we are looking at the text’s apparent purpose and its methods in pursuing that purpose. As I generally do with literature, I make the assumption that the text is successful, doing an analysis of the text rather than an evaluation.

But what reading of the text do we favor? As J. Stapley pointed out there are different approaches, and I am certainly interested in offering flavors of all of those readings. In the end, my job is not to offer a single reading of the text, whether that reading be my own or the authoritative reading.

As a literature teacher, I want students to develop their own reading, supported by the following: 

  • the text: a careful perusal and informed analysis of the text, looking at what the words actually say, identifying techniques, themes and motifs;
  • the context of production: a strong understanding of the context in which the work was created, including biography, generic conventions and the general cultural context of the text’s production;
  • the context of reception: a self-examination of the reader’s own cultural context that creates his or her own reading, and how and why the text has been received over time, when applicable.

I think this basically applies to the teaching of scripture as well. The textual analysis can be complicated by translation issues, but I enjoy and benefit from the exploration of metaphor, imagery, and connotation, as well as the identification of motifs running through scripture. Our need to liken the scriptures unto ourselves can best be achieved through the exploration of themes or big ideas, but in my experience are more fruitful when rooted in the wording of the text.

The contextual analysis is famously complicated, but there are enough scriptural scholars who are also faithful believers that can a provide a model for negotiating the challenges of a true reckoning of how and why the text might have been produced. There is a danger of getting distracted by this, but the temptation to ignore it and pretend the text appeared out of ether leads us equally astray. Context requires study beyond the text, but the sources are readily available.

The context of reception might be seen as threatening to a Sunday School class expecting an authoritative reading of the scriptures, but it is well worth the effort to ask the questions related to this line of analysis: What about my social class, gender, experience in the church, political affiliation, age, or nationality affects the way I understand this scripture? How have others read this differently and why? How would I read this differently if I were a different reader in a different time? In Sunday School, this must include an understanding of how church authorities have read the text historically and how it is read today; many Mormons will want to check their own reading against one that is more authoritative, and they must be given a chance to do so.

With scripture, there is a fourth consideration: the spiritual reading. To some degree, the purpose of the study of scripture is to bring the reader closer to God, either through greater understanding or through a testimony of the truth of the content. In my experience, the most effective way of making this a part of the textual experience is to relate the words and concepts of the text to my own spiritual experience and to invite others to do the same. To be effective, this must be specific, both to the text and to the individual, and it needs to represent some deep self-examination, perhaps even an admission of a desire to better understand or believe. A testimony of the gospel principles needs to be a part of the lesson, but it ought to grow out of the analytical process, not be a boilerplate tacked on after the fact.

As with a literature class, I am not presenting a reading of a text for the class to understand and be able to reiterate. Instead, I offer a range of tools for students to be able to do their own reading and application. If I look at Bloom’s taxonomy, I am looking for analysis of the text, evaluation of the different methods of reading the text, and the creation of a coherent reading of text.

But on another level, what I am really teaching is a methodology for reading scripture that is authentic, challenging, meaningful and fulfilling. I am eliciting a reading from students in the class, but I am also modeling a process for scripture study and overtly identifying that process as I go along. I should vary that process and identify why the process I use works for me as an individual to make sure the students understand the need to adjust their own process to meet their own learning style, the nature of the text they are examining and their goals in approaching scripture. This makes a significant demand on me as a reader of scripture, and because of my own limitations I am not always completely successful, but by the end of the course each student should be able to identify the concepts of scripture study that allow them to develop an independent, coherent and spiritually fulfilling reading of scripture.

Comments

  1. “many Mormons will want to check their own reading against one that is more authoritative, and they must be given a chance to do so.”

    This is really insightful. I suspect that some of those who participate in the bloggernacle are sometimes guilty of assuming that they know what is interesting, exciting, and edifying. As such they perhaps neglect to cater to the desires of others who are different from themselves. This comment reminds me that trying to offer something new is perhaps best received when it is packaged in a familiar way.

  2. “The context of reception might be seen as threatening to a Sunday School class expecting an authoritative reading of the scriptures, but it is well worth the effort to ask the questions related to this line of analysis: What about my social class, gender, experience in the church, political affiliation, age, or nationality affects the way I understand this scripture?”

    I had never thought about this before, and I think it’s extremely important. Without rehashing the whole Utah/Idaho region vs. the rest of the world, I think that plays a factor in this discussion, as well as taking into consideration the old vs. the young, the “seasoned veterans” vs. the newer converts, the liberal religious viewpoint and the conservative. I think that could really add a wonderful amount of perspective and provide for a much more enriching discussion.

    It feels like many of our Sunday School classes seem to be focused on the catechism of responding to the question with the “right” answer, whether because one is “supposed to,” or others in the class might be uncomfortable with venturing down roads that might not be so traditional. Not sure if you’re going to cover this more in your series, but how do you navigate those roads? It seems a delicate balancing act.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    A very thoughtful (and helpful) post, Norbert. Thanks.

  4. Thanks, Norbert. Very helpful.

  5. I look forward to future parts. I will be particularly interested in how you deal with one important difference between Church teaching and teaching in schools: In Church, the teacher bears (or at least shares) responsibility for getting the students to class, which in schools that responsibility is borne by someone else.

  6. “…the temptation to ignore it and pretend the text appeared out of ether leads us equally astray…”

    Even when we’re talking about Ether! ;)

  7. Great post.

  8. Meldrum the Less says:

    “The context of reception” of sunday school lessons often is immediately following sacrament meeting- with its boring sermons, wacky testimonies, dreary music and trite repetitious prayers. In some over-utilized ward houses when you are on the 11:00-2:00 block schedule, it is also right during lunchtime with growling stomachs.

    Teaching Mormon sunday school is not for wimps.

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