Teaching and Sentencing

Teaching is like sentencing. After all, we all know that sitting though Sunday School can seem at times like cruel and unusual punishment. Also, in both areas, we see the same sorts of arguments in play, about the appropriate balance between predictability and flexibility.

Throughout much of United States history, judges have had significant discretion in sentencing. Legislatures historically established maximum and sometimes minimum sentences, but judges enjoyed great discretion within those parameters. A statute might say, “up to 20 years for armed robbery.” If that was the only constraint — and that kind of statutory structure was very common — then the judge in the case would have free reign to give a sentence of 20 years, ten years, one year, or even no jail time at all.

During the 1960s, this practice came under attack. Researchers at NYU and at the Vera Institute produced studies showing that broad sentencing discretion tended to result in all sorts of problematic results — in particular, that minority defendants were likely to receive far longer sentences than whites who committed the same crimes. In 1972, Marvin Frankel, a very influential and well-respected district judge in New York, published an important book called Criminal Sentencing: Law Without Order, where he vigorously criticized the extent of judicial discretion in sentencing, and called for more uniform sentences.

Congress eventually responded, passing legislation that put into place the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. The Sentencing Guidelines create a matrix which you apply mechanically, like an actuarial table, to find an appropriate sentence range. You look at the points assigned to a particular crime — five, or ten, or twelve, or whatever — and at the offender’s past criminal history, and at any aggravating factors. Five points for the crime, add two more points for an aggravating factor, move to column two because of prior history, add three, subtract four, carry the one, and presto — an approved sentencing range of 18 to 24 months. No higher, no lower.

Almost immediately, judges and commenters criticized the guidelines. Why? They didn’t allow sufficient flexibility. Is it really the case that everyone with a certain amount of drugs found on them, at a certain time, and with a certain criminal history, deserves an 18 to 24 month sentence? What about a defendant’s prior history of good deeds? What if a defendant is very old and ill, or is mentally handicapped, or is acting under duress, or has agreed to help prosecutors bust the drug kingpin he worked for? Judges pushed hard for more discretion, to give appropriately tailored sentences in individual cases.

And so a complicated system of “departures” from the guidelines emerged, ultimately approved by the Supreme Court in the Koon case. Judges were free to depart in special cases that were outside of the “heartland” that the guidelines contemplated.

Even that compromised eventually failed. In a series of recent decisions, the Supreme Court has invalidated the practice of madatory Sentencing Guidelines as violating defendants’ rights to jury trial. Today, the Guidelines are no longer binding rules, but rather really are Guidelines. Time will tell how long the current configuration lasts, before the pendulum swings again, in one direction or another.

The problem is that there is no consensus on how to balance the underlying principles. It is both very important that sentencing be sufficiently predictable so as not to be arbitrary (Judge Frankel’s critique of the pre-Guidelines world) and also very important that sentencing not be unfair in individual cases. The values of predictability and flexibility are in tension with each other. Both are important, and there are very valid criticisms of a regime that goes too far in either direction. And different people give different weight to each side of the spectrum. Some people are most concerned with predictability; others with flexibility; and others balance the two virtues, through various compromise or mixed approaches. This inability to agree on underlying principles results in the shifting sentencing regimes.

The same broad questions come up in the teaching context. To what extent should teachers use only the manual? My recent thread on teaching brought out comments on all sides of the issue. Some commenters argued strongly in favor of a sola scriptura (or, following Kevin Barney’s suggestion, solus libellus) approach. Others argue strongly for more flexibility.

Of course, there are potential problems with either approach. Open things up to too much flexibility, and you potentially create the kind of chaos Judge Frankel detested. Lessons would be all over the map, the equivalent of sentencing without any kind of order.

On the other hand, too strong of a solus libellus approach creates its own concerns. As Ardis mentions in her comments, she’s slated to teach one upcoming lesson with no application to the particular group (in this case, a lesson mostly about high jumping techniques, to a group of octogenarian Relief Society sisters). Is there no room for customizing the message to the class?

What’s the proper balance?

I tend to think that a combination of predictability and flexibility is best. In general, I’m an advocate of following the general lesson plans and guidelines in most cases. On the other hand, I also believe in incorporating material from outside the manual, in at least some lessons, to encourage discussion and interest. And every now and then, we end up ditching the manual entirely. Immediately after last General Conference, for instance, we had an impromptu loose-flowing discussion about Conference — which talks people liked best, what messages they remembered, what they personally enjoyed about Conference.

On a more extreme note, I was teaching Elders Quorum in New York during 2001. Right after 9/11, we ended up having a couple of impromptu off-list lessons in a row. Very shaken quorum members needed a place to talk about their experiences and thoughts on 9/11. And so, rather than just going through the scheduled lessons, we spent a few weeks talking about 9/11. Quorum members discussed their fears and thoughts and questions, and had a chance to draw strength from others, during a difficult time. And we talked through some bigger, related questions — like why God allows evil to happen. The lessons were very informal — I tried to let quorum members guide the discussion, to what they needed to talk about. I don’t know that it was a perfect approach. But it seemed to be helpful to quorum members, during a difficult time.

So that’s my own preferred approach, in general. I use the basic materials, by default. I try to bring in supplemental information where it will help. And I retain the flexibility to occasionally, as best for the class, move the discussion to different topics entirely. I’m not saying that my own approach is perfect, but it seems like a good balance, from my own vantage point.

What do others think? How do you best navigate the tension between flexibility and predictability in your own teaching?

17 comments for “Teaching and Sentencing

  1. When I taught Elder’s Quorum a few years ago, I used only the Teachings manual and the questions at the back of each lesson. I found the questions to be open ended and that they didn’t have a right answer. You got the predictability of what the lesson would be about, but weaving the quotations with the questions allowed for flexibility. A good teacher can identify what the class wants to talk about and moves the discussion in that direction. A lesser teacher tends to just read the manual without regard to what piques class members’ interest in the lesson topic.

    Introducing outside materials can be useful, but only to the extent that the outside materials add substance to lesson being taught. I particularly remember one lesson where the teacher got a collection of quotes from who knows where and went into a huge discourse on why drinking *milk* violated the Word of Wisdom. It was a great theory, but it was also difficult not to roll your eyes when he finally came to his conclusion.

  2. When I taught EQ, I was a Lesson Manual Supremacist — rarely, rarely, if ever, would I bring in outside “material”. But, I didn’t usually find a need. *MOST* of the lessons in the Teachings of the President” series are chock full of more material than you’ll ever need.

    The key, for me, is NOT on material, as it is on presentation. Priesthood lessons are NOT supposed to be a lecture given to note-taking students. PH lessons are supposed to be, in my mind, discussions and conversations, with a facilitator/leader at the head to control the flow in a usually-predetermined way.

    I taught EQ for over 3 years (two stints). Best callings I ever had. I routinely spent more than a week on the lesson. There’s no way I ever got through more than a couple of pages’ worth of the lesson (in fact, I used to hand out a one-page summary of the best quotes from the lesson, so that if quorum members didn’t bring their book and didn’t want to participate, at least they could read lesson highlights that we weren’t going to cover).

    I would usually pull out 4 or 5 themes from the lesson. Then I’d map out what points I thought should be discussed. I’d formulate questions intentionally designed to foster feedback from the class and get them talking. EQ is like the Bloggernacle, in that you can elicit certain predictable responses from certain people by asking the right kind of question, and then certain other quorum members will respond. Done right, and adequately guided and controlled by the facilitator/instructor, the conversation can go into interesting territory that feeds back into the material and doesn’t *REQUIRE* anything from the outside.

    I believe the Church leadership wants lessons in PH and RS to focus on modern application of the principles taught by those Presidents of the Church. It’s not a doctrinal discussion as much as it is a pastoral discussion of how we grow closer to God in a certain area, and here’s what this particular prophet said about it.

    Now, I say I never brought in extra material. That is 95% true. From time to time I would a relevant social point from the news, the Bloggernacle, or even an algorithm from Cormen, et al (given the nature of our EQ, it was a salient point once to relate a discussion on omniscience/omnipotence to the backprogation algorithm during a lesson on prayer). This was usually handled in my monologue (never more than 5 minutes).

    The best lessons I gave never involved much talking from me, no more than 3-4 readings, but about 2 weeks of prayerful preparation for 25 minutes of discussion that invariably took the discussion in places I couldn’t have possibly predicted, yet related to the material at hand.

    Again, good Church teaching is less about the material and the knowledge of the instructor and more about how you guide the class to a self-discovery of the truth.

  3. I’m currently into my 3rd year of teaching Gospel Doctrine (started about 1/2 way through D&C, did all of Old Testament, and virtually all of New Testament before a 2nd teacher was called to alternate with me in December; we’re now trading off teaching Book of Mormon). And, of course, having been in the Church for 40 years, I’ve had lots of previous teaching assignments (Sunday School [Gospel Doctrine, Gospel Essentials, Course 17], Priesthood/YM, Seminary).

    I pretty much spend a full week preparing my lesson. I always review the lesson manual (which I also always have open during the lesson), and I always pray throughout the week for help to teach what the Lord wants me to teach and what the class members need. That said, I have no problem at all bringing in or making use of lots of outside material, since I’ve got a fairly large library of religion-related books. So, for example, while teaching the Old Testament, I made use of (among other things) Robert Alter’s translations of (and commentary on) the Books of Moses and the David story and made heavy use of the Old Testament map set (non-LDS in origin) that you can buy via BYU Bookstore. Likewise, all last year I used an interlinear Greek NT both in preparing for my lessons and in the classroom itself; likewise, I use the set of New Testament maps (non-LDS) from the BYU Bookstore. I made heavy use of Richard Lloyd Anderson’s _Understanding Paul_ through that part of the NT. Now that we’re into the Book of Mormon, I’m rereading all of my Book of Mormon-related books (mostly a wide variety of FARMS/BYU publications, including a lot of stuff by Nibley). I even used Royal Skousen’s _Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon_ in talking about the Tree of Life vision last week (here’s a post that summarizes the issue I brought up).

    But I also work hard to remain focused on the purpose of the class: to help the class members understand the scriptures better for themselves, and to bring us all to Christ. The feedback I’ve gotten over the past 2 1/2 years has been very positive, so I trust I’m doing something right. On the other hand, the bishopric called in a second teacher, so maybe I’m doing something wrong. :-) ..bruce..

  4. I agree that a teacher\’s default expectation should be that he/she will follow the manual and teach primarily from the manual. My sense is that most lessons–even those on the less interesting end of the spectrum–have some opportunities for meatier discussions or challenging real life applications. I think the main problem is we as teachers (and as students) fail to really explore the ideas that are explicit or implicit in the lesson materials. That said, there is no way to cover all of the material in any of our EQ/RS or GD manuals these days. We have to be selective and the manuals themselves make clear that it\’s not about getting through any particular content. I think this means that the most important thing is to follow where the Spirit guides. Stay on the general topic, use the passages of scripture of prophetic teaching as a jumping off point for discussion, and then go with it.

  5. I’m definitely on the flexibility end of the scale. I review the manual materials first, and normally I stick to the assigned lesson topic, although occasionally I’ll go off the reservation (as Christmas approaches, I usually sneak in a special Christmas lesson, that sort of thing). But within the context of the lesson topic, I take great freedom in preparing and giving a lesson that I think will be informative, interesting and (it is to be hoped) ultimately inspiring. I abhor the normative catechism format of LDS church lessons, and avoid doing that at all costs. In my view, the true lesson is the underlying scriptures, not what’s written in the manual.

    I figure that the bishop knows how I teach, and if he calls me, then he knows what he’ll be getting. Manual nazis might not like my lessons, but at least people aren’t bored and they actually learn things (a novel concept–actually learning something in a classroom–I grant you).

  6. I taught EQ for eight years until about a year ago. Prior to teaching a lesson, I would read it a few times and glean as much as I could about the stated topic. I then did a lot of reading on the topic and what the prophet said about it and the context in which he made his statements. Sadly, the manual was of little help to me in my efforts to gain this understanding. I struggled for years to get past the jumble of quotes in the manuals. It was not uncommon for a lesson to contain quotes from a prophet that were 30 or 40 years apart but treated as the same saying.

    I had great success in educating myself outside of the manual. When I felt like I had a good understanding of what a prophet said and felt about a topic, I was ready to get up in front on the quorum.

    Even with my preparation, I rarely had much more than a loose idea of where I wanted to go on any given Sunday. When teaching, I preferred to generally stick to the lesson (as basic as it was) and simply ask questions that would stimulate discussion. Because I had a reputation as a prepared teacher, I was often asked questions in return. It was then that my preparation paid off. I felt I could confidently and accurately respond. My responses were not always in sync with the manual. I answered to the best of my understanding whether it was orthodox or not and felt justified in referencing any source I deemed helpful. I felt it was my right to use candor when responding to a question.

    l believe this approach honored the request that I stick to the manual and also gave me the opportunity to be honest about what I personally thought. I also believe that it allowed the spirit a great deal of space in which to maneuver the class.

  7. I abhor the normative catechism format of LDS church lessons, and avoid doing that at all costs. In my view, the true lesson is the underlying scriptures


    As a teacher, I reckon it’s not my place to change the subject, make up new doctrine or press my interpretation of the materials on the flock, but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle before I run through the suggested questions in order just ’cause they’re there.

  8. When teachers don\’t prepare for lessons, sometimes sitting through Sunday School or priesthood can seem like a sentence. I\’ve been in way too many wards like Chad Too: \”People prepare lessons ahead of time in your wards?!?! Wow.\”

    So when I became Gospel Doctrine teacher about 2.5 years ago, I was determined to prepare good lessons. Now that I\’ve been released, I have had many people tell me they miss my lessons, but I think there are a vocal minority who felt my lessons had too much outside material. When I was released, there was no replacement for me for a few weeks. The new teachers practically read the lesson manuals, and they are painful to sit through, so now that I\’m membership clerk, I spend my time in Sunday School doing clerical stuff, and my bishop doesn\’t seem to mind.

    So all in all, I guess my preparations were not appreciated by those whose opinions mattered the most. Once again I\’m in a ward where the teachers don\’t prepare before hand, but as long as they stick to the manual, I guess that is the right thing to do.

  9. Not all lesson books are created equal. The Gospel Doctrine text is not the manual but the standard work that is focused on during the year is. The manual was developed a long time ago and is updated periodically to make the quotations more current. It says right in it that it offers “suggested lesson development.” So I think in these classes there is flexibility as long as one recognizes that the point is to get people to read the scriptures.

    The RS and Priesthood books are the text. So probably it is better to treat them the way one would treat any other text and supplement less rather than more.

    If the lessons are like sentencing then it has had the exact opposite development where things have gotten looser leaning toward more flexibility.

  10. As a teacher, I reckon it’s not my place to change the subject, make up new doctrine or press my interpretation of the materials on the flock, but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle before I run through the suggested questions in order just ’cause they’re there.

    There’s a HUGE difference between sticking to the “material” and recycling the questions at the end. One can derive insightful discussion from the lessons and yet stick to the material.

    And on preparation – I used to drive about 50 minutes each way to work as an EQ. Instead of listening to the radio, I would audibly run through things I wanted to talk about in my lesson, to see how it sounded out loud (I find that practice helps expose the more goofy elements of my lesson). So it wouldn’t uncommon for me to have 2 weeks’ worth of commuting of an hour+ each day fine-tuning my lessons audibly.

  11. I used to drive about 50 minutes each way to work as an EQ

    I used to drive about 50 minutes each way to work, when I was an EQ instructor.

  12. Kaimi,

    What do you think of this quote from _Teaching, No Greater Call_?

    “A skilled teacher doesn’t think, ‘What shall I do in class today?’ but asks, ‘What will my students do in class today?’; not, ‘What will I teach today?’ but rather, ‘How will I help my students discover what they need to know?.’”

  13. As a impudent upstart of a Gospel Doctrine teacher/instructor, I find myself difficult to characterize. Perhaps I am normal. As has been said above, I try to focus on the scriptures, using the manual as a loose guideline. I prayerfully select several points (usually no more than five) as kind of a “center point” to the lesson. Actually, I think the Lord selects them for me. I usually feel guidance, and then I focus on what I have been guided to. I will include whatever I feel impressed to include. Once I ended the lesson talking about trimming trees and the formation of the grand canyon (both were allegorical representations related to conversion; I don’t recall any suggestion in the manual to include them; the formal lesson topic may have actually been unrelated to conversion). But generally (80 to 90% of the time) I focus on scriptural materials.

    After I had been teaching for several months, I started perusing the “Teaching: No Greater Calling” manual, and found that I was naturally using several of the suggested teaching methods. Some I still shy away from (breaking up into different groups and re-grouping for a class discussion has resulted, in my own limited experience, as an anarchic and off-topic fray, often resulting in less enlightenment than a rote recitation of an empty prayer; there are others, including “Readers Theater.” I just can’t seem to make that one work without being too hammy. Maybe it would work if I had more faith.). But the whiteboard is a good friend and close ally.

    One frustration I have had is the lack of preparation of class members. Sometimes I wonder, “Do they even read their scriptures?” I suppose the obvious answer is, “Not with great regularity; otherwise General Conference addresses would not focus so intently on simply reading scriptures.” Some come prepared (loosely defining preparation as having read some scriptures and prayed during the week), but I would venture to say that not 10% give much thought to the lesson beforehand. I would think that if more members of the class were truly feasting on the word of God (with all that is entailed therein), class discussions would be much more enlightening. I do the best I can, (and I admit it may not be much, and that I have much improvement to be made), but I wonder what the class would be like if others had prepared more. Perhaps I am too judgmental.

    I remember a recent ward we lived in where the Gospel Doctrine teacher read the suggested scriptures and asked the suggested questions, looking for the suggested answers. My reaction was anger and frustration rather than boredom. How much spiritual potential was being wasted? I didn’t really sense an intensity or even a strong focus. It was like we were reading a biology textbook. I never made my frustration public, though, and tried to be supportive. I am sure the instructor was well-intentioned; he may have not enjoyed teaching. But he answered the call.

  14. #15: Sometimes I wonder, “Do they ever read their scriptures?”

    My default answer is “No”, so my approach now in my Gospel Doctrine lessons is to give them both incentive to go back and read the chapters/books under discussion and guidelines/insights to help them understand those passages. I’ve had class members come up and thank me for doing just that, so it must work to some extent. ..bruce..

  15. I am not a teacher, but consider myself to be a very active student, in terms of my preparation for the lesson each week. I read the lessons (SS and EQ/RS) nearly every week along with a healthy amount of related extra-curricular material. However, I never read the half-page “lesson” for SS or the questions at the back of the Presidents manual chapters. Why? Because that is where the mediation of the Correlation Committee is most direct. The lessons in EQ and SS that best engage me as learner (and I speak for myself and not for the remainder of the students) are those which follow a similar approach, in presentation if not preparation.

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