Improving Gospel Teaching

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When I was young my parents would ask after church something like this: “What was your Sunday School lesson on today?” or “What did you learn about in primary/priesthood?” Many times my response was non-existent (if I wasn’t feeling particularly chatty) or as insightful as “I don’t know [remember].” There were numerous times I honestly could not remember what my lessons were about.

Fast forward many years. Just over a year ago I was teaching Nursery (one of my favorite callings ever). The Nursery manual is built around repetition, which is the only way we really learn anything. Key concepts from the lessons are reinforced over and over in the brief span of lesson time and 1 – 3 year old attentions. There is a lesson, there are songs, and there are coloring activities. I’d also try to show video clips whenever relevant. This is a form of multi-modal teaching – different ways to teach the same point with each child hopefully responding to one or more of the methods. If a child doesn’t like singing, maybe she will like the video clip or coloring. What this type of teaching does is improve the possibility that learning will occur. To supplement this, I would also ask at random throughout the time after the lesson what the lesson was about. This allows the children to try to recall the information at random times and variable spans of time, which increases learning. This is a type of variable interval reinforcement.

Yesterday I substituted teaching my daughter’s primary class. We had a nice Sacrament Meeting with the mission president and his wife speaking along with our stake president. The topic was – no surprise – missionary work. When I asked the children in class (right after Sacrament Meeting) what the talks were about, the children could not remember. This was expected because one of the children had slept through part of Sacrament Meeting and others were busy doing what little children do – coloring or playing with small toys. I wanted them to remember or learn something from Sacrament Meeting so we took 10-15 minutes to do a reinforcement activity – the ever popular (and not politically correct) Hang Man. It took a while for the kids to guess the words because of their ages but the activity was worth it because after that they remembered that Sacrament Meeting was about missionary work. I asked them a few more times after that in order to boost their memory (because they would have to retrieve the memory after a variable interval). We also sang a couple songs (or at least I did), watched a couple video clips, looked at pictures, colored pictures, and talked. Again, this is multi-modal learning and really benefits learning as long as all activities are directly related in theme. Stories also help a lot, particularly if they come from class members.

As for our lesson in class, I had them boil the lesson down to one word – love. Pulling out a key concept is important to help memory. For little children it needs to be short – love or missionary work or happiness or family. Older children, teenagers, and adults might be able to remember more but consolidation of lesson material into 3-7 words as a summary benefits memory. This means that if you have a lesson on kings of Israel or Abraham or Alma, whatever you as teacher want the class to remember about the lesson should be able to be stated in 3-7 words (and probably less than 5 realistically). So, for example: “Abrahamic Covenant” or “Wickedness never was unhappiness” or “The righteous still suffer” and so forth. This could be written on the board or on a handout and stated repeatedly (but at random intervals). Teachers can also ask the class members to summarize what the lesson is about in their own words with the encouragement that it be under 7 words. This requires thought and consolidation.

I’ll have more to write about gospel teaching and learning, particularly as the church moves forward in redoing more lesson manuals (to follow the pattern of the relatively new pattern of instructing the youth, “Come, Follow Me.”). For now, I think we could boost retention of lesson materials (particularly with children) by making sure we consolidate what our lessons are about into no more than a few words.

Seek Learning

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When I was growing up our family made a weekly trip to the local library. Occasionally we’d not go for 2-3 weeks but generally we were at the library every week. Each of us would come home with a stack of books, which we would then read over the next 1-3 weeks. For the most part the books I checked out were novels or other fiction works but I’d also check out non-fiction books. We were and are a family of readers. All of this reading supplemented our education in school, which was very good. From an early age I gained a love of learning.

One thing I really loved was animals so I read animal encyclopedias and many other animal books. I also learned about music, coins, roses, electricity, and many other topics. There were algebra, history, anatomy, and other books at our house. My parents also exposed us to computers; while I might have spent more time using a computer (and still do) than my parents might like (although apples don’t fall far from trees), most of my work today is focused around computers. The research I do is not possible without computers. Growing up we also learned to work; we had daily and weekly jobs. We learned to take care of a garden and fruit trees and the house. We learned the scriptures and the gospel. Learning was not limited to just secular or sacred – we learned about all good things.

The Lord said: “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). The title of this blog is taken from that verse. We are commanded to seek learning and wisdom by study and by faith. We cannot just have faith without works, we cannot learn without studying. We need to seek out and study the best books. Those books are not just the scriptures or religious works, they can be anything from sacred to secular. We as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accept all good and all truth, regardless of its source.

However, learning can be a two-edged sword. There are many people who are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). If you learn and study but never find the truth, there is not much point in your studies. These are some of the same learned who believe they are also wise because they know a lot. Because they have a lot of knowledge they think that they do not have to listen to (or believe in) the counsels of God. They become (or already are) humanists. Of these people the Lord said, “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.” (2 Nephi 9:28).

The Lord commands us to study and learn but He wants us also to be faithful. That is what the next verse in 2 Nephi says: “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29). We should learn; we should learn all we can but we must always be faithful. Why? Because we are to seek learning by study and faith! Learning is incomplete if we just study without faith.

This is something I taught the Teachers in our ward on Sunday – that studying is important; more importantly, we should exercise faith when we study. We should pray when we study. I ask for God’s help as I work on my dissertation; maybe not every time I work on it but often. Does that mean I should expect to always be successful and have earth-shattering research? No, but I seek for truth in all I study and learn. Not only is that what the Lord has told us to do but also that is what I have found to be most effective in my life whether I am studying the brain, reading Shakespeare, doing calculus, or reading the scriptures.