I’ve had quite a few lessons at church lately that have made me frustrated. Not because I didn’t like the topics or because the class got out of hand, but because I was frustrated with the pedagogical choices made by the instructor. While I am aware that I need to engage in a process of repentance and growth, so that I can learn how to listen and participate in lessons without getting frustrated, I wanted to talk about some thoughts I’ve had about church pedagogy that have emerged based on pondering my frustrations in church classes.
I’ve been pondering the following questions. What are the church’s pedagogical goals when it comes to church classes? (Clarification: in this post I’m concerned primarily with adult church classes rather than seminary, Primary, missionary work, etc.) How do the church’s pedagogical goals differ from those in other educational settings? (I’ll primarily be considering the setting of academia, since it’s the educational setting I’m most familiar with.) And, what can we learn from these differences? My reasons for asking these questions are because I think that some of the problems we run into when it comes to problems with (or apprehensions about) teaching at church comes from thinking we need to make church teaching experiences too similar to our academic ones.
Probably the clearest explanation of the church’s guidelines when it comes to pedagogy and teaching are contained in the first chapter of Teaching, No Greater Call: A Resource Guide for Gospel Teaching. The manual outlines five important guidelines for teaching the gospel:
1. We are commanded–it is something on which we have no choice; there are no alternative courses open to us–we are commanded to teach the principles of the gospel.
2. We are to teach the principles of the gospel as they are found in the standard works of the Church.
3. We are to teach by the power of the Holy Ghost.
4. We are to apply the gospel principles taught to the needs and circumstances of our hearers.
5. We must testify that what we teach is true.
I’m not really going to discuss topic #1 because it’s basically just a statement that we need to teach the gospel (i.e. teaching is important). Turning to the other guidelines, I think we can find pedagogical goals in other settings comparable with guidelines #2 and #4. Guideline #2 is what we are supposed to teach, and all disciplines have certain requirements and expectations about teaching materials. Guideline #4 relates to issues of audience and appropriateness–whatever pedagogical setting you’re in, you’re going to want to adjust what your teaching based on who is in your class. I think some of the main differences when it comes to church teaching emerge as we consider guidelines #3 and #5. Academic disciplines generally do not require us to either teach by the spirit or to bear testimony about our classroom material.
So, what does it mean to teach with the spirit? How does a spirit-filled classroom differ from a more traditional academic classroom? What kinds of things do we see in a classroom where the instructor is trying to bring the spirit that we wouldn’t see in a more traditional educational setting? While I think there are a variety of ways to teach with the spirit and invite the spirit into classes at church, we generally talk about the spirit in terms of “feeling.” And I think that oftentimes we (myself included) don’t recognize the “feeling” that we need to have in church classes. Sometimes we stray to far towards the rational/academic because that is what we are used to (I am reminded here of the innumerable Sunday School lessons where there was an abstract debate about matters such as which prophets in the Old Testament had which priesthood keys). Sometimes I think in order to avoid this rational extreme, we are tempted to associate strong emotion with spiritual “feeling” (I am reminded here of the innumerable Young Women’s and Relief Society lessons where all we heard were stories about incredible miracles or horrible suffering). (Incidentally, my next post is going to be on the association of spiritual “feeling” with emotionality and how that connects to spirituality and gender in church settings.) I think that understanding the nature of spiritual “feeling” and how that differs from “feelings” in other kinds of classroom environments will enable us to think more fully about and improve upon our church teaching and learning experiences.
Since the church teaches that bearing testimony is one of the best ways to bring the spirit into a meeting, linked with this is the issue of bearing testimony. I’m reluctant to make a lot of comments about the role of testimony in church classes because of my own peculiar tendencies (I’m an academic who is a lot more interesting in asking questions such as “what do we mean when we use the word ‘truth’?”). So, instead I’ll just ask a few questions. How does bearing testimony cause church classrooms to function differently than other kinds of classrooms, and what can we learn from this?
One additional place I notice differences when it comes to church teaching revolves around the issue of authority. Generally, when you are in other educational settings, the teacher is the authority on a particular subject and the students come to class to learn from the teacher’s authoritative knowledge. In church, teachers are called from the congregation, and they do not have to go through a course of study qualifying them to teach. I think the disjunct between church teaching and academic teaching causes a lot of apprehension when it comes to teaching callings. I know many people who don’t want to teach lessons because of their lack of knowledge on a subject–they are convinced that someone with more knowledge would be the better qualified teacher. I think this apprehension makes a lot of sense; that is the educational model that we are used to. However, if we consider how this is not necessarily the model we should be using in church settings, we can both relieve some anxiety as well as create a better model for church classroom settings. So, what does that better model look like? While I think there are a number of ways for the teacher to function as the authority figure in the class without being the “authoritative knowledge” on the subject at hand, my current favorite model is to think about the teacher as a facilitator. The teacher is there to help things run smoothly, get people talking, integrate ideas, etc. Are there any other models that others like as well or better? Any additional thoughts about pedagogy and the church?