Good Thoughts on Teaching Sunday School

LDS Sunday School

My second-favorite group blog recently posted a series on what’s wrong with Sunday School, showing once again that we bloggers are, if nothing else, talented complainers. So let’s talk teaching and collect a few simple suggestions for improvement.

First, a few words from a teaching expert: Daniel T. Willingham, author of Why Students Don’t Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means For the Classroom (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). He summarizes the terribly interesting material in the book into nine cognitive principles; I’ll select the most relevant and add some comments that try to relate them to LDS teaching.

1. Factual knowledge must precede skill. For youth classes and seminary, this suggests a lot of time building a working knowledge of the basic facts of the scriptures. The small set of seminary scriptures (it used to be 160; now it is 100) is a great example of attention to scriptural fact building. While discussion in the adult Gospel Doctrine class is broader, this principle suggests that every lesson ought to spend a few minutes highlighting the two or three inconic passages in that week’s material, such as Gen. 1:26-27 (also a seminary scripture) in Lesson 3.

2. Memory is the residue of thought. The point is that students will only remember the things they think about and ponder a few minutes. In terms of ideas or principles or applications, class members will only remember those two or three items that you package as a discussion that prompts some thinking during a lesson. So maybe in Lesson 3 you create a discussion prompted by the following questions: What can the word image mean? So what might God’s image refer to? In what sense are we literally created in God’s image? What else (symbolically or abstractly) might “created in God’s image” convey about our nature? With this discussion, they will probably develop a richer understanding of “created in God’s image” and (this is the point) actually remember it.

3. We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete. I think the focus on the concrete suggests using persons, events, and stories to establish principles rather than just stating abstract principles and citing strings of scriptures to reinforce or illustrate the point. For example, the material covered in Lesson 3 contains the passage in Genesis 2 where God brings living things to Adam “to see what he would call them,” which then became “the name thereof.” Names, it seems, are given unusual importance here. The “context of things we already know” would be a short discussion of the names we give our children, something most parents spend months pondering and invariably attach great importance to. This might even lead to a discussion of what’s wrong with stereotypes, labels, and derogatory nicknames — this naming thing is obviously open to abuse. This discussion also sets the stage for the discussion of the disclosure of the enigmatic name of God in Exodus 3.

4. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved. Wow, a complex cognitive skill. No wonder good teachers seem to be few and far between. But the good news here is that teaching can be improved with practice.

The one good idea I have developed in my experience teaching Gospel Doctrine classes is to structure the entire lesson around the five or six discussion questions I ask during the lesson. I think hard about these questions; I write them out and draw boxes around them in my notes; I set them up by reading a scripture or recounting an anecdote that is on point. Personally, I find that the prescripted questions in the manual almost never serve to create the sort of thoughtful and enlightening conversation that should be part of a good class experience.

So … what are your good thoughts about LDS teaching?

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38 comments for “Good Thoughts on Teaching Sunday School

  1. Wonderful post Dave, in terms of both topic and content. Building on point 4, I’ll belie a personal prejudice, and claim that passion is critical to teaching. I don’t mean superficial enthusiasm – jumping up and down and ejaculatory “Aha!”s don’t do it. But an obvious, palpable passion both for the topic and for creating a great discussion (ENJOYING an engaged discussion) helps students engage as much as anything. And as point 2 brings out, we only learn when we engage. I think most teachers are, to one degree or other, passionate about the topic, but we let other things get in the way (fear, social norms, prescripted questions/points from the manual, etc).

  2. Thanks for the post. Although I agreed with the “What’s wrong with Sunday School” posts, they proposed no solutions, so they were just complaining.

    I like your suggestion to focus the lesson around 5 or 6 main discussion questions that are supported in the scriptures. I often get lost in shotgun lessons, where the teacher tries to cover a certain amount of material and doesn’t give me time to think about each topic.

  3. Strike that first sentence-I see he just posted some suggestions instead of just complaints.

  4. Dave, thank for you this. Most or all of these things are almost instinctual to a teacher with even a little successful experience, but having them laid out in a conscious, deliberate fashion makes it easier to plan on improving the next Sunday School lesson.

  5. I just had a thought/question. I wonder what criteria goes into the decision of each bishopric to choose a gospel doctrine teacher. And I wonder about the correlation of wards with great teachers and the bishoprics criteria.

  6. My 2c on that, Clean Cut: I’m sure bishops have lots of criteria, from inspiration to who isn’t otherwise occupied to who will accept. Not many bishops would call a ward organist who hadn’t had at least a few keyboard lessons, though. Analogous teaching competency doesn’t always seem to be a criterion for calling a teacher.

  7. By the way, I agree with your “one good idea” here:

    “The one good idea I have developed in my experience teaching Gospel Doctrine classes is to structure the entire lesson around the five or six discussion questions I ask during the lesson. I think hard about these questions”

    Ditto to that. (And you have many other good ideas here).

  8. Good points, but these seem to have more to do with building knowledge of gospel principles, and I think there’s another area that needs to be kept in mind: building understanding of gospel principles, and how to better apply them and that understanding to our lives. We can give someone knowledge, pretty much, by presenting them with a bunch of material and encouraging enough thought about it to fix it in memory. Knowledge of principles, however, is of little use without an understanding of those principles and how to use them. The point of all of this learning is to help us come closer to God, to do what he wants us to do, and to become more like him in the process. Entrance to the CK is not based on our scores on the Celestial SAT — it’s based on more of a Ma’at weighing of our hearts to see if we are ready to live a Celestial law.

    A teacher can not give someone understanding, but they can encourage building that understanding by raising thought-provoking questions about the principles being discussed, and allowing time for discussion to see where those questions can lead.

  9. The problem I see is that there is no easy place for members to gain the gospel knowledge so as to impart to others. Unless one spends time in religion classes at BYU, reading deeper LDS books on doctrine, or a lot of time on the Bloggernacle reading deeper concepts, such as these, there really are few ways to learn the stuff.

    Those of us in the wild do not have as easy access to Daniel Peterson or the Church archives (aka Ardis’ primary residence). And it is not uncommon to ask someone who recently has joined the church to suddenly be a teacher. How can one develop the skills without the knowledge base?

    I’d like to have the Church provide instruction over the satellite dishes. Instruction on how to teach. Instruction on understanding doctrine. Classes for Sunday School teachers to provide them with insights and info, etc.

    In fact, why not open up a series of classes on an Institute level to all members that can be recorded, then broadcast over the satellite? Why should it be only for the young single adults?

    I think if the Church wishes to have a solid group of teachers, they need to use the technology available to train and instruct us. The prophets do a great job using the technology to teach us at General Conference, for instance. Why not have BYU do series of instruction? We’d have a much better group of teachers everywhere after just a year or two.

  10. I second the suggestion made by Rameumptom. I remember catching a program on BYUTV in which a professor explained to ordinary people how they could use their voices more effectively to sing with more volume, better pitch and tone. The concepts were simple, but could significantly enchance the singing of ward choirs. Surely there are basic instructional courses that could be prepared and recorded for distribution on DVD, via BYUTV, and the Church satellite system.

    Within each ward and certainly each stake there must be at least several people who could work, not just as instructors of teachers, but as real coaches, who add feedback to the lessons about teaching. If the basics could be imparted via instructional media, the people who are experts in teaching could concentrate on individualized observation of teachers and coaching. Such a teaching coach could observe by appointment a couple of Sunday School or Primary classes, and Priesthood and Relief Society or Young Women classes, in a given ward each Sunday, and prepare feedback given in private, individual meetings with each teacher. The observation could be preceded by having each teacher answer a survey about his or her own teaching habits, mindset, and self-evaluation, especially things they would like help with. The concentration would be on people who have less experience and confidence and thus the greatest need. Assignments could be made and a second observation and evaluation made a couple of months later.

    No matter how slow this program was able to progress through all of the teachers in each ward, it would be worthwhile. Bishops and other leaders who extend teaching calls would be responsible for giving each person a copy of the instructional DVD and materials and evaluating the priority of the person’s need for coaching.

    The last time I was a Sunday School president, I tried to provide some of this kind of feedback, but the time of myself and counselors was limited because we were frequently substituting for teachers who were absent because of illness, out of town travel, or unexplained reasons. Occasionally we reassigned teachers to try to match their skills with their classes.

  11. Off thread a little. What do we really learn in Sunday School?

    I belong to a really wonderful social group of mostly Mormons, but not all. Two members of the group, also LDS, also in the same ward together, went into business together. There was a falling out between the business partners and one quit coming to the group meetings because she can not be in the same room with the other woman. This caused a significant breach in the social group. They are both reasonably nice people. They both have been going to Sunday School for over 50 years each.

    Did they learn about the core principles of the gospel in Sunday School about forgiveness and kindness and understanding and love? If they did not then what good is Sunday School?

    Might the goal of Sunday School be the alteration of bad behavior? How to achieve enlightenment? At least, how to turn the other cheek?

    Would not a good metric of teaching be how much behavior was altered?

  12. My second-favorite group blog recently posted a series on what’s wrong with Sunday School, showing once again that we bloggers are, if nothing else, talented complainers.

    Dave, nice post, but this seems pretty unfair. Even granting the that solutions didn’t come until today, he was abundantly clear that it was a really long post broken into three parts and the solutions were coming at the end, as is a perfectly natural way to order the logic.

  13. My husband is currently a mission president. One of his biggest responsibilities is teaching the missionaries how to teach. He and the assistants work on skills and teach doctrine. Missionaries can work on skills all day long for 2 years and take notes on doctrine, but without the Spirit to direct the teaching, teaching doesn’t occur. It’s a 2-way situation. Even with the best teacher, learning doesn’t always occur in the hearts and minds of the hearers. If the hearer doesn’t come prepared to learn, nothing will be gained.

    One thing we have observed over and over again is that if the teacher will take daily time to study (an hour a day for the missionaries’ personal study), plan their lesson to the needs of the hearer as directed by the Spirit, and then let the Spirit direct the actual teaching, hearts are more likely to be softened, and knowledge, understanding and a desire to change will be affected.

    An excellent example of this was the conversion of Brigham Young. He studied, learned and listened for a long time without being convinced. But it was simple, powerful testimony of a simple man that invited the Spirit to be present and to pierce the heart of a future prophet. Skill and deep knowledge aren’t complete without the Spirit. On a continuum, none of us will be masters in the class of the Savior, but we all have something we can teach if we will be humble, strive to learn by the Spirit in our preparations, and then let the Spirit guide.

  14. #14- I don’t think anyone (most?) would deny the importance of the Spirit in teaching/learning etc. However, having very concrete ways to check yourself on how your teaching is or how to improve your teaching is immensely helpful to me. I served a mission, and benefited from the tutelage of the Spirit in how to teach effectively. I came home and had numerous callings and benefited from reading Teaching, No Greater Call and studying HOW to teach. I like this OP and would be interested in reading this book. Approaching teaching in a concerete way is very heplful to me.

  15. Good thoughts, Dave. Those are all ideas I’d promote (and tried to in said complainy blogs). In general, I think the more we do to help individual Sunday Schools to go at their own pace and interest, while still maintaining the importance of central LDS tenets, the better off our teaching will be.

  16. If the bishop wants to use the Sunday School Presidency that way, each ward already has three coaches.

  17. I’ve taught both Gospel Doctrine and Gospel Essentials multiple times over the years (though not at the same time), with several years’ experience with each. I take quite a different approach in the two classes.

    In Gospel Doctrine, my approach is to set as much context as I can for that week’s chapters/sections/books — dates, location, author, etc. As for the relevant lesson topic(s) themselves, as per your post, I work very hard to come up with “discussion” questions rather than “one right answer” questions (e.g., “What are some possible reasons why Jesus said this?” instead of “So what did Jesus say we should do?”. For Old and New Testament, I’ll usually call out in every lesson at least one or two examples where a better translation of a given word or phrase helps clarify or correct the KJV.

    In Gospel Essentials, which I current teach, I am using the missionary discussions in “Preach My Gospel”, covering one point per week (e.g., last week was “study the scriptures”). I have an 8″ x 5″ index card for each lesson that simply has a list of scriptures (quite a few more than are actually given in “Preach My Gospel” for that topic); if possible, I start with a scripture out of the Old Testament, because I love the Old Testament and think it tends to get short shrift in the Church. :-) We read each scriptural passage and talk about what it means, and specifically what it means in our own lives. As questions get raised or issues come up, I’ll pull up other scriptures (not on my list), provided I can find them on the fly. :-)

    My focus on teaching from the scriptures in Gospel Essentials is very deliberate. I have both new converts and (from time to time) non-LDS visitors and less active Saints in the class. Whatever I teach them, I want them to see it as coming from the scriptures and not as “the gospel according to Bruce Webster”.

    Finally, I read regularly in scriptural and gospel commentary (including non-LDS commentary). I don’t tend to drag a lot of that into my classes, but it provides a useful backstop when interesting or awkward questions come up. ..bruce..

  18. Excellent thoughts, Bruce — I think we’re on the same frequency. I like your approach to the Gospel Essentials class and I will use it if I ever find myself teaching that class.

  19. Thanks for these thoughts, Dave. I especially love the concept that memory is the residue of thought.

    Something important to remember for teaching our own families.

    Hm. Makes me think that another thing that can improve gospel teaching at church is better prepared members at home, starting in childhood….

  20. Most of my ideas for teaching have already been mentioned, so I know they might be repeats. My top 3 list for a great teacher would be:
    1. Enthusiasm and love for the people/topic
    2. Great (discussion) questions
    3. Don’t “wing it.” Be prepared. I don’t mean that you can’t be flexible and follow the class, but don’t rely so much on your own knowledge that you just teach from the hip. You will rarely get a concrete message across this way.

  21. I really appreciate you using modern pedagogical practices as a foundation for what can and should be done in LDS gospel teaching. It is important to realise that teaching in the Church is NOT drastically different from teaching in a secular setting. The principles of teaching remain the same.

    I would hesitate to support the idea of only calling professional educators as gospel instructors (even though I fit this category). For one, it dismisses the idea promoted by the Church that everyone can teach, and that everyone is called as a teacher (home and visiting teaching is called such for a reason). Also, it quite frankly annoys someone (not me, obviously) when they are asked to do something for free that they typically do for a living. But I don’t want to sidetrack the conversation with that train of thought.

    I will forever be strongly encouraging gospel teachers to seek out critical feedback from the members of whichever presidency has stewardship over their teaching. In an ideal world, these stewards will be magnifying their callings by providing the feedback (both the areas of strength and the areas that need improving) but in reality this rarely happens. It should be noted that this feedback does not need to be given every week, and it does not need to be given immediately. Sending an email after church, or making a phone call later in the evening, is quite sufficient.

    Finally, I would submit that the greatest thing to happen while teaching in the Church is when you have a moment or a lesson that makes you want to shout “Hallelujah! Praise Jesus! They got it!” I love it when I am teaching and I suddenly realise that those I am teaching are learning!

  22. “I love it when I am teaching and I suddenly realise that those I am teaching are learning!”

    Few feelings in the world are better than this.

  23. I have loved more than any other calling the chance to teach through the Old Testament twice in the Bible saturated South. Both times, attendance at my class more than doubled to my complete surprize. Both times I unfortunately generated numerous complaints and hacked off many people. I called my class: Questions to Gospel Answers and advised everyone at the very start of every lesson to consider attending the other class I described as Answers to Gospel Questions.

    I could not even image actually using the lesson manual then. That might just be me. Since I work many Sundays and needed substitutes, the table of contents had to be sort of followed. I am not a very good Saint nor a professional teacher nor do I have any background in university level education remotely connected to the Bible. Just an intense curiosity and a big mouth.

    I collected a few resources: a Harper’s Bible commentary, a NIV commentary, some right-wing evangelical commentary, the usual assortment of McKonkie/Talmage/Nibley books around the house. And of course the second time random google articles, including anything from back-issues of Ensign/Dialogue/Sunstone to borderline cultural porn. (For example, search “Bible, Ester, sex”). I would spend 20-30 hours a week in unsystematic research of a section of the Bible mostly for my own edification. I put together my thoughts the night before, asking for the Spirit to guide me, and often produced a one page handout. I assumed my gospel knowledge was about average, and my critical attitude extreme. When I ran across anything new and interesting, I assumed many of my class did not know this material and I made an effort not to be too offensive.

    I often began the lesson with a short lecture, an attempt to actually teach some new concept or two. Next were a couple of thought provoking discussion questions designed to be uplifting. The last five minutes were devoted to something controversial or disturbing. Which usually spilled beyond the closing prayer into the foyer and ruined my attendance in EQ. Often it didn’t end until the phone quit ringing late at night.

    My MIL (who sometimes doubled-dated with Eugene & Charlotte England) visited once. She reported she might actually enjoy Sunday School if she attended my ward regularly and claimed I reminded her of a less reserved and less informed version of EE at a very early age. (I was never honored to hear him teach.) The Stake President after one lesson told me I was “the most provocative teacher he had ever met” but to watch my step. The temple president from Idaho, whose wife refused to attend my class thanked me for having driven him to his most intense study of the scriptures and the gospel ever in an effort to combat me and calm the collision of ideas in his own head. All of this I consider highly complementary.

    I do not have a calling at this time. I am envious of those of you who have been given this blessing of teaching the Old Testament. My current Bishop is a rather busy physician and perhaps has considered asking me to teach OT again, but refrained when he realized he doesn’t have the time to deal with the problems I might again generate. And there are so many others who deserve a crack at it.

    I believe the process of researching and wrestling with the material and assuming complete conceptional ownership of your lesson is what generates the passion needed to teach effectively. I doubt following a manual can duplicate this process, regardless of how well designed and informative it might be. And I know the Spirit has a hard time working in a vaccuum. As J. Golden Kimball once said “You can’t build a church on Bull$#!t and the Spirit.

  24. I’ve enjoyed being a Gospel Doctrine teacher and Relief Society teacher all the many times I’ve held those callings.

    The calling I have now violates Rule #1. I’m the Family History Consultant. I’m supposed to teach a FH class during Sunday School. I have never done any family history research at all. The more I try to learn this stuff, the more discouraged and overwhelmed I get. I asked relatives on my side and my husband’s side of the family for their research, thinking I could jump in somewhere, and got a total of 60,000 names (we’re both pioneer descendants). I don’t even know where to start.

    My current strategy is to hide out and hope no one notices that I’m never going to teach a FH class. I’ve told a couple priesthood leaders that I’m not qualified and they really need to call a FH teacher who knows how to do family history, but they laugh like I’ve made a joke. Family history research is not a topic you can learn in a few weeks. I’d need to take classes myself for a year, and then actually do some research, and that just isn’t going to happen at this stage of my life (two preschoolers and a baby).

    Which is a long-winded way of saying that I completely agree that calling a teacher who knows something about the subject matter, or having subject matter that is learnable week by week, is very important to good teaching. Having the spirit is nice, but if I can’t answer practical questions about combining duplicate records in New FamilySearch, or how to look up census records online, a warm fuzzy feeling about the Spirit of Elijah isn’t going to produce any names to send to the temple.

  25. As the education counselor I held a RS Board meeting a couple of days ago and gave my teachers a short list of questions I have gleaned from bloggernacle posts over the last week or so–questions that can work with pretty much any lesson on any topic. We talked about asking questions that require thought and engagement, rather than ones that invite “Sunday School answers.” We also set a goal to “use the manual for preparation, and the scriptures for class” (a suggestion from the stake). Anyway, here is my compilation (without credit to the various writers–sorry), and I think it would be fabulous if we could add to these (perhaps a blog post in itself):

    • What scriptures come to mind when you think about this topic? Why does that scripture resonate with you?
    • What can we understand from this passage?
    • What would you tell a loved one who is struggling with this aspect of doctrine?
    • How does this topic relate to our covenant relationship with Christ?
    • What has the Restoration added to Christian understanding of this principle?
    • How is this principle relevant to our everyday lives?
    • We use the phrase, “********” all the time in the Church. What does it really mean?
    • In what sense is this X metaphor true? How far can we take the metaphor before it breaks down? What other metaphors might apply?
    • Why does it matter that we understand this principle during our earthly probation?
    • What have you learned about this topic from your own experiences?
    • The manual introduction says this: “You can find answers to life’s questions, gain an assurance of your purpose and self-worth, and face personal and family challenges with faith.” What in this lesson can help you meet each of these goals?

  26. ““use the manual for preparation, and the scriptures for class””

    I love this line!

  27. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Idahospud, I got a little worried when you said “gave my teachers a short list of questions I have gleaned from bloggernacle posts over the last week or so,” but the questions sound like winners. Good questions, good lessons.

  28. But how do I teach the OT or any other topic to youth? They seem to have so little understanding of the basics, I feel like I have to focus on the facts which doesn’t lend itself well to discussion. How do you get 14 year olds to discuss anything?

  29. Thomas (30) Teach 14-year-olds by asking them what questions they have. Make the lesson all about them, instead of about what the manual says you should be teaching. Sometimes you will have a lesson that doesn’t even touch on one principle that is in the official curriculum, but it provides answers to Gospel questions, and those are things that I can guarantee 14-year-olds are anxious to find!

    Just remember that it is much more effective to let them not only ask the questions, but to also find the answers. You can guide them and share scriptures, but let them draw the conclusions.

  30. I also teach 14 year olds. I love their energy, enthusiasm, and eagerness to learn. We always do a game to start every class–sometimes a scripture chase (using only scripture mastery verses which are relevant in the lesson material); sometimes a small jeopardy game; sometimes ease-erase boards where they must reveal their answer, indiviually. The game at the beginning is always reviewing previous material from prior Sundays. This week we discussed various definitions of words dealing with the lesson material, before tackling Abraham 3. They all seem to love to read the scriptures, and most have Itouch or Ipod technology to use. They know they must be attentive to the material or they won’t be able to play the review game the next Sunday. I have the most success when I try to keep things simple. They can’t discuss as adults, but they are eager to throw in their ideas.

  31. I taught the OT to seminary kids and they loved the stories. Lots of trickery, sex, blood, and death. It’s perfect actually. Rely on the stories where you can. Sneak into more basic gospel principles sidewise, from the stories. That worked for me.

  32. I have read the blogger’s complaints and the reponders solutions. I can’t help but feel that what is missing is who the real teacher is and that should be the Spirit. I believe it doesn’t matter how much gospel knowledge you have or experience in teaching. What matters is if you can bring the Spirit into the classroom so that the students not only hear the lessons but feel them. I have taught four years of Seminary along with two ‘terms’ at Gospel Doctrine and also Relief Society and the Youth classes. I know that no matter how much I know and how much I study and prepare, if I don’t have the Spirit to guide me then my lessons fail to do what they were meant to do.

  33. Sabra: I don’t many people would disagree that the Spirit is the key for teaching and learning, or that it is the Spirit that will make the best difference. Your objection assumes that using better teaching techniques, asking better questions, engaging students, and making careful preparation are things that do not involve or acknowledge the role of the Spirit. I think that is incorrect. I see the potential for the Spirit to be involved in all of the above. Thinking does not only occur in absence of the Spirit.

  34. “Thinking does not only occur in absence of the Spirit.”

    …Unfortunately, so many members would disagree. It has been my experience that the most transformative learning and teaching (secular or spiritual) comes only after a lot of hard work. It seems like a prevailing – and spiritually devastating – attitude toward teaching in the church is that we don’t have to work hard because we have the Spirit to convey the message. The Spirit can come through in a pinch, but will not CYA when you don’t do the work.

  35. Elder Holland did a worldwide leadership training meeting in 2007 on teaching and learning in the church. He said you can judge the success of your teaching if the students are asking questions. Sunday School and Relief Society/Priesthood seem like great places to go if you’re struggling with something or don’t understand a part of the doctrine or lesson, but we just make comments, not ask for clarification. How do you create an environment where the students will ask their questions? Is it the environment or is it a total mindset change?

  36. #36, amen.

    “How do you create an environment where the students will ask their questions?”

    Some thoughts:
    (1) Never, ever respond to a question or a comment in a way that might make another person hesitant to make a question or a comment.
    (2) When students do ask tough questions, praise them. Acknowledge the question. But also, make it clear that one can have faith and testimony even without the answer to that question.
    (3) As a teacher, ask your own tough questions.

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