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.

BYU Devotionals, the Friend Magazine, and Internet Safety

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Yesterday my 6 year old and I were watching a recent BYU Devotional address by Parris Egbert, a BYU professor. I was surprised my daughter wanted to watch the devotional (“This seems interesting; I want to watch it.”). During the talk he spoke about technology and how it can further the work of the Lord. Near the end of the address my daughter started looking bored so I asked if she understood what he was talking about.

“Not really.”

So I explained that part of what the speaker was saying was that technology is a blessing from the Lord so that His work might be better accomplished. So technology can be used for good. Then my daughter chimed up and said, “It can also be bad. There are some bad websites with bad pictures.”

“Yes, there are. Where did you learn about that?”

She then showed me the most recent Friend magazine, which had an article about what one boy did when he came across a bad website. She had just read that article earlier. I was happy that she remembered and understood what she read.

This led to a nice teaching moment where I taught her how to turn off the computer screen, or the computer if necessary, if she couldn’t close the bad website. Then I made sure that she knew what the most important thing to do was: tell Mom or Dad.

I thought that this was a great teaching experience for me, thanks to a BYU Devotional and an article in the Friend magazine. It was more powerful because she brought the issue of bad websites up as a counter to some of the positive uses of technology I was teaching her about.

I have to echo Bro. Egbert’s most important point from his BYU Devotional address – that as great as technology is, the best thing is reliance on the Spirit of the Lord. We need to live so that we are sensitive to His promptings. I’m grateful for a sweet daughter who is learning to listen to what the Spirit teaches.

The Divine Role of Motherhood – Part 4

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A few years ago I talked with my mother about some of the best experiences she had in life. She talked mainly about being a mother. During our conversation I learned much about the great joy she had as a mother but also about the great times of struggle. She stated that the most rewarding and satisfying thing in her life was, in her own words: “The safe pregnancy and delivery of our children and then raising them. Having and raising seven lovely children has been wonderful. It was a lot of hard work but they all turned out okay. We did a lot of things together as a family, we worked hard, we survived hard times and ate cracked wheat. We went to church every week and spent the time together as a family. There were occasional problems but we survived them and overcame them.

“One time when we had 3 or 4 small children a friend was extolling the virtues of Sesame Street and said how her child could count to 10 and knew all the colors and all because the child watched Sesame Street on TV. I was appalled and wondered ‘What is a mother for?’ and why would anyone need TV to teach children what I thought was my ‘job description.’ So we read and played and counted everything and numbered everything and named colors and tied shoes and did all sorts of things. We learned to work and had jobs to learn responsibility.”

She also talked about the struggles of being a mother: “What has been difficult? How about seven babies! It was very difficult when we didn’t have any money and Dad was working two jobs and we were trying to make ends meet. We did not have much money at all, especially when the kids were small. We did not have much but we always survived. It just took a lot of hard work and some ingenuity.

“Another hard time was when we had four children under the age of five. This was a terrible emotional stress. The kids were sick all the time and we had no money. I was physically sick some too. Our washer broke during this time and so the children stomped the clothes in the bathtub to wash them – they thought it was fun; they thought they were like the pioneers. At least they had fun with it.

“These years were hard with a lot of difficult physical work. I was changing diapers on three babies. I also mopped the floors at night so they would stay clean at least the eight hours until morning. I also had to deal with potty training all the kids and cleaning up their messes. We also had a garden and had to plant it and keep it growing and harvest the food and can and store some as well. We had to work really hard to survive.”

My mother found that church helped her cope with the stress of raising children: “I really loved going to church and relief society – that was my salvation once a week. Enrichment was lovely to put the kids in the nursery and be away for 1.5 hours. We had weekly meetings and so it was nice to have some time away from the kids. I could learn and grow and spend time with other ladies in the ward. Church was always a big boost for me and I looked forward to it each week.”

I will always be grateful for my mother and all the work she did (and does) as a mother. She is a remarkable woman and mother. She is someone the Lord looks upon and smiles.

Hugh Nibley on Teaching

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While reading Hugh Nibley’s Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Part 1 (on page 167) I came across this very important truth.

“The interesting thing we find out from Nephi very soon is that all preaching is to yourself. You are preaching to nobody but yourself. If I preach, I preach only to myself. You can see how that is here [in 1st Nephi]. Others may pick it up, as far as that goes. That’s like teaching the point; that’s all you do. You can’t teach a person; that’s not a transitive verb. You might hit a person or see a person, but you can’t teach a person. What do you do when you teach a person? Well, the word for teach is touch, tactile, didactic. That’s when you point to something. Teach is the same word as touch. It just means point the finger. All I can do is point. You look and then you see for yourself. I don’t go directly from one person to another that way. So the teacher is just didactic. He teaches and points so others may pick it up. Nephi goes on preaching too, and later on he tells us in 2 Nephi that it’s just himself he has been talking to all along anyway.”

Why is this important? Why is this true? Being taught (implying learning) requires the listener to actually listen and to be changed by what they hear. This change comes not from the teacher but from within. Even the Holy Ghost cannot teach us anything without our willingness to be taught, to learn. No person will be forced to heaven. No person will be forced to learn anything they are not willing to learn.