Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Church and Pedagogical Uniquities

Posted by Seraphine

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?

6 Responses to “The Church and Pedagogical Uniquities”

  1. 1.

    You might want to add the gloss that is included in every priesthood and relief society manual, for the last twenty years, about encouraging group participation and discussion, so that people will teach each other.

    Then read a good book on facilitation.

    When I taught last Sunday, one of the guys in a doctoral program realized what I was doing now that he has learned about facilitaiton initiatives.

  2. 2.

    I know this is off topic, but I wanted to contact all of you. For Girl’s Camp this year we are trying to find young women (12-17 or so) who have had the courage to change history, such as Joan of Arc. We’d like to teach our girls that they can do amazing things, even though they are not ‘adults’ in the world’s eyes. I was hoping that you might have suggestions for me of some historic young women that I can research. you could post the answers on my blog, perhaps, at linzdawn.blogspot.com. Thank you so much!

  3. 3.

    I like your idea of the teacher as the integrator and facilitator. This idea seems to fit well with D&C 88:122:

    “Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege.”

    This verse makes it sound very much like a teacher is supposed to make sure the discussion is orderly and that everyone gets her chance to speak, which sounds like what you were saying as well.

  4. 4.

    I’m fascinated by the question you raise about how teaching in church should be different than teaching elsewhere. I think the point you make about authority is a particularly key one. In academic settings, it’s assumed that the teacher has some kind of extra knowledge or expertise about the subject, but that’s clearly not the case at church, which is why I agree that the teacher as facilitator model makes a lot of sense.

    Having spent several years studying religion in an academic context, I’ve often thought about the question of how teaching about religion in church is different than teaching about it in a university setting. Sometimes I think that Sunday School in particular can end up as the worst of both worlds; it in some ways strives to be academic-ish, but it doesn’t really allow for the kind of critical and open inquiry that (ideally) takes place in academic settings. The result is something often rather dry, removed both from the actual lived experience of faith and the possibility of thought-provoking discussion about real issues. (Though I should mention that the Sunday School teachers in my current ward are very good at encouraging relevant and interesting discussion.) I wonder whether it would be helpful to more clearly define what we’re attempting to accomplish. Are we in Sunday School to learn more about the scriptures in an intellectual way? To apply them to our lives? I’m not saying the two have to be mutually exclusive, but I do think it’s something worth thinking about, because it shapes the way we teach.

    The thing I like about church classrooms that isn’t often the case in academic discussion of religion is that there’s explicitly room to include the personal. I find church lessons far more engaging when people not only talk in the abstract about principles of the gospel, but make connections with their lives. That’s maybe where I’d see the role of testimony coming in–not even necessarily explicitly saying, “I testify that x is true,” but saying, “this is my experience with x, and this is how it’s affected my relationship with God.”

    I also find that I enjoy church the most when people talk about what’s really going on with them: their questions, doubts, challenges. So I’m thinking that creating a space where people can raise the questions they’re actually thinking about at church (instead of feeling like they have to censor anything that might not be faith-promoting) could be another important pedagogical goal for church contexts.

    Thanks for the post. I’m currently an RS teacher, and I’m not sure I have any idea what I’m doing, so it’s helpful to think about this stuff!

  5. 5.

    Thanks for this post, S. I really like your questions about what our pedagogical model for church teaching is. Your explication of tendencies toward the excessively academic, impersonal, and speculative, on the one hand, and the tendencies toward the dramatic and emotion-inducing, on the other, are gendered discourses I’ve observed as well.

    I also really like your point about the problems with the model of church teacher as dispenser of knowledge, and I agree that it creates apprehension among potential teachers and other problems. I’ve seen Sunday school teachers, in particular, feel that they have to scrounge up something new and amazing to present to the class every week and so dispense with the scriptures for bizarre speculation. I agree that the facilitator model is better because a teacher of adults in the church is _not_ called for any extra knowledge she has.

    For what it’s worth, when I used to teach Sunday school or Relief Society, I gradually came to this teaching model for myself: the class supplies the content, I supply the form. I saw my job, more and more, as simply to ask questions and link the answers together, and I tried to be very cautious about supplying too much content myself. I think that a teacher should actually say less than a student about her ideas and opinions.

    One of the great temptations of teaching is to fall in love with one’s own preparation and impose it on the class at the expense of where the discussion needs to go (that’s where I see the spirit coming in). (How many good discussions have you seen cut short so tht the teacher can race through the rest of the material while the class zones out?) A teacher should be prepared for a number of possible discussions but also willing to jettison them all if that’s not what the class needs to talk about. Teaching provides the seductive experience of a captive audience, and I think the most common mistake of church teaching (to adults, anyway) is to talk way too much.

    For those of us who can’t stop our love affair with our own ideas, the Bloggernacle provides a nice alternative :>

  6. 6.

    Stephen, I haven’t ever read anything on facilitation, but I’m guessing my own teaching pracitices (especially when it comes to church teaching) fall under the broad rubric of facilitation.

    Ziff, thanks for sharing that scripture. You’re right–it does fit well with my ideas.

    Lynnette, I think you raise an important point about defining pedagogical goals. When I develop lesson plans for my students at school, I usually write down some thoughts about what I want to accomplish (i.e. what I want to the students to learn that day). I think that’s trickier in a church setting, but I still think it’s important (though as Eve mentions, at times you need to be willing to let the classes’ interests take precedence over your own pedagogical goals). I also like what you say about including the personal. I also value that about teaching at church (one of the main reasons I love teaching women’s studies at school is because I get to include the personal there too).

    Eve, thanks for your thoughts. I’ve found myself falling into the same kinds of patterns that you discuss in my teaching as well (providing form rather than content and doing my best to not allow my preconceived notions to dictate the direction of class discussions). I definitely think there’s a tendency for the teacher to want to talk too much, and to combat that, I probably err too much on the side of not talking. It doesn’t really make me nervous anymore to sit for a minute or two in silence before someone in class decides that they want to jump in and say something. :)

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