New Institute Class: towards a “pedagogy of the question”?

David Aubril is a French teacher and regular BCC guest blogger. He follows with great interest the contemporary debates on Gospel and Church matters from France.

I recently received an email from the Church about a new Institute class, Finding answers to our questions. I went through the materials and found it very interesting. Lesson 3, in particular, questions the idea that “it is inappropriate to ask questions regarding the doctrine, teachings, policies, and history of the Church” and encourages students to accept their questions as part of the faith process. Elder Uchtdorf explains: “Inquiry is the birthplace of testimony. Some might feel embarrassed or unworthy because they have searching questions regarding the gospel, but they needn’t feel that way. Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness ; it’s a precursor of growth.”

Will that new class initiate a shift in our teaching practices?

In Transformer L’École (2004), Olivier Maulini focuses on questioning practices in classes, and analyzes different kinds of pedagogy: mainly a “pedagogy of the text” and a “pedagogy of the question”. The “pedagogy of the text” considers the intended knowledge as a text and focuses on it. The purpose of the teacher is to say its text. Of course, he usually asks questions, but they are just milestones of an itinerary that he has already chosen, and pretexts to bring the prepared answers. In our lessons, in the Church, we often fall into that category. We’re used to putting the emphasis on the text of the Gospel. I think that our doctrine frames it that way: since we believe in revelation, then the truth is in the words of Church authorities, or in Church materials, and we have to stick to it. This is a “pedagogy of the Text”.

The “pedagogy of the question” reverses the focus and the use of questioning. It puts students’ questions at the core of the lesson – the questions they have, the questions they should or could have, sometimes facing them with problems to raise questions – and accompanying them until they find their answers, or at least new questions. The new Institute class takes, at least partially, this orientation: the first lessons show how to find answers, they offer a method for seeking, then lessons 7 to 14 are to be based on the students’ questions. The progression is a bit infantilizing for young adults (I show you first and then you can do by yourself), but focusing on students’ questions and encouraging teachers to listen more are great directions.

Moving towards a pedagogy of the question is good thing, because there are several problems with the “pedagogy of the Text”. For me, the main one is it makes us use the same wordings over and over again. “We can’t think without language, but it may happen that language thinks instead of us” writes Michel Fabre in Le Sens du Problème (2016). When I attend Church’s lessons, I often get that feeling of language thinking for us, “instead of us”. When we use the same wordings over and over again, we turn the Gospel to a list of fixed and meaningless expressions, what we call in French “clichés”. These clichés make it difficult, even impossible for us to think, and therefore explain to others. 

During my mission in France, about thirty years ago, I often found that missionaries were having a hard time explaining the Gospel to people from Oriental or Asian backgrounds, or even people without a strong Christian culture (like most French people, in fact). Back then we were instructed to learn the lessons by heart, and to recite them. Time has passed. But whenever I attend a lesson with people who don’t share a strong Christian background, I still see pretty much the same thing. Members teach Gospel’s principles with a language they are so used to that it seems obvious and natural, and people politely listens to wordings that don’t mean much to them.

This “pedagogy of the Text” is probably inspired by our scriptural culture and the stories of prophets delivering the words of the Lord to the people. But sermons are not lessons, and discoursing isn’t teaching. A few years ago, I was pursuing a master’s degree in didactics. We were studying the New Testament then. And I was struck by the way Jesus taught. Far from repeating, Christ was inventing. He used parables and analogies to raise questions and doubts. As a French didactician, Alain Mercier, puts it: “The creation of ignorance [is a] condition for learning” (Alain Mercier, Revue des Sciences de l’Education, Volume 22, Issue 2, 1996, p. 345–363). That’s what Jesus did: he placed his listeners in a state of ignorance, making them think and getting them curious.

There is a famous saying: education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. There is, in fact, probably a balance to be found between the filling and the lighting. But certainly investigating and questioning should be more often natural parts of our lessons, since they are an essential part of faith. Recently one of the leaders of our ward sent an email with a long list of answers to life’s questions provided by the Book of Mormon. And I thought to myself “what’s the point of providing a list of answers when you don’t know people’s questions?” It also made me think of why this book of scripture really matters to me. The Book of Mormon led me to the faith not because of the answers it brought, but because of the questions it raised. This is still the case. It is because the Book of Mormon makes us doubt what we know, that it can change people’s minds and lives.

I rejoice in this new Institute class and I hope that it will be the beginning of a shift in our teaching practices, because I believe that putting the emphasis on questions and questioning could revive many lessons in the Church, and even our understanding of many principles of the Gospel. And I think our youth needs it.

Comments

  1. Like you I hope it’s a positive shift – we shall see. One positive (ish) sign I saw recently was that my wife, who teaches early morning seminary, taught a similar lesson: that it’s good to ask questions and that we should accept the answers. That’s fine and dandy … as long as we’re ok with others getting answers we don’t like.

    On the other hand just this morning I picked up my son from early morning seminary. The teacher apparently taught to only trust answers from God, not science, “because science always changes.”

  2. I don’t see this shift happening. I think it’s lip service to questions to try to get people to ask questions in institute class where they can get a correlated answer rather than asking online.

    But we shall see.

  3. Speaking of lack of transparency— check out the two items in the OP of this thread:
    https://www.ldsfreedomforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=67666
    Maybe one of your researchers can find out more details.

  4. Not a Cougar says:

    David, let me add my hope that this leads to more acceptance of questions of doctrine and history. My concern is that the focus will be more on, as Toad puts it, “accepting the answer.” Frankly, many of the “answers” in the Gospel Topic and Church History essays aren’t very good or, at best, beg further serious questions. I can’t help thinking that bad answers are often worse than admitting that we don’t have good answers, but I also don’t think Church leaders are capable of admitting that from the pulpit. The most we get is a demand to “give Joseph a break” and to stop asking questions about our faith to the faithless.

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