Classroom Discussion: Productive or Not?

The LDS Sunday School General President posted this short article at (in the Church News section). Here is his observation about LDS classroom discussion:

[W]e hear of many inspired classroom discussions. Occasionally, however, we hear of discussions that are open and lively, but at the conclusion there has been little, if any, doctrinal focus or emphasis. In essence, there have been some therapeutic conversations or a sharing of experiences, but little connection to doctrine.

Occasionally? That sounds like every LDS class I have ever attended. I tend to think that almost all discussion is good discussion, even if just “therapeutic conversations” or “sharing of experiences.” It makes the speaker feel good for participating and it makes at least some listeners feel empathy for the speaker or maybe even get a little enlightenment or edification. When I teach adult Sunday School, my lesson is organized around setting up five or six key questions that are designed to promote productive discussion. The article takes a different view:

A discussion is not successful merely because it is robust or because many class members participated. … A gospel discussion is successful if it increases faith, leads to a greater understanding of the doctrine being taught, and inspires the participants to live the gospel more fully. … Inspired teaching certainly includes discussion, but it does not, nor should it, exclude powerful discourse and instruction. The teacher is not just a facilitator of gospel discussion ….

What’s wrong with a “just teach the doctrine” emphasis? First, the manuals don’t really present much doctrine. Mostly they stress applications, which generally revolve around a few institutional values (attend church, pay tithing, serve in callings, do missionary work, don’t criticize leaders ever) rather than actual doctrines. Second, it’s always tricky to nail down actual Mormon doctrines. Third, I don’t think most LDS Sunday School teachers are equipped to deliver the details of LDS doctrtine (see the previous sentence).

Once upon a time, I attended a Sunday School class that seemed to fit the ideal class as described by this article. The class was taught by a BYU history prof who included a ten minute substantive discourse in each lesson. It was awesome. He was soon released, apparently after some class members complained. Too much substance to the lessons, apparently.

So, classroom discussion, productive or not?

37 comments for “Classroom Discussion: Productive or Not?

  1. Thanks for the link to the article, which is one of the more nuanced postings I’ve seen on lately. It could almost pass muster as a T&S post itself.

  2. In my view, one if the most important outcomes of class discussion is for class members to make friends – what we call fellowship. When that doesn’t happen, the church is weaker no matter how doctrinal the lesson. When class members have friendly discussions that open the way for them to get to know one another and to feel a sense of belonging, that is a pearl of great price with which no purely doctrinal presentation can compare.

  3. I’m not a fan of the article as published in Church News, and here’s why. I teach Gospel Doctrine. I feel like attendees enjoy and get value out of most of my lessons. My Sunday School president brought the article to my attention after a lesson during which discussion had gone a little bit off the rails, despite my best efforts. I asked around, and ward members told me that they hate when this same SS president substitutes for me because he just talks doctrine at them for 40 minutes. They fall asleep. Pick your poison, I suppose.

  4. I love classes that are run with a socrates like approach by a teacher. But few can manage it. It takes not only a special teacher but a class that can handle that. I rather doubt most Sunday School classes are like that. I also think the ultimate point of the gospel is to call us to repentance so when we discuss doctrine it’s nice to do it in a sense of practical application. Facts for facts sake bore most people and are forgotten. Don’t get me wrong – I love learning that stuff. I just don’t think most do. And event hose who like it sometimes struggle to take it to that point of repentance.

    But overall I agree. I hate most class discussion because, like this article suggests, I’m pretty skeptical the class is actually getting much out of it. The stereotype of “sunday school answers” as superficial rote answers has an element of truth to it even if it isn’t as common as many present it. The only thing I hate worse than vague questions prompting answers we already are splitting into small groups to answer a question. Without a doubt the thing I dislike most about some classes. (Not you if you are doing that. You do it great. It’s everyone else.)

    I’m always scared to judge much by what I like since I worry I just like unusual things in classes. But I prefer two types of classes. The first, most common in Sunday School, is just someone who draws out the lessons while still tying them to the text but emphasizes conundrums or practical applications. The second, most common in Priesthood, is just completely pragmatic issues of how we can do better for the questions at hand. (For whatever reason, Priesthood in most wards I’ve been at is a much more laid back affair than Sunday School)

  5. Second quick question. You seem to distinguish doctrine from what you call “institutional values.” I confess most of what you are calling values I’d call doctrine. What do you mean by doctrine?

  6. I think a lesson without discussion would be incredibly boring. Endless discussion without a point is pointless. Discussion that leads to key points in the lesson and encourages a better understanding of the principals being taught is the proper balance. As an instructor, it’s important to move the lesson a long and emphasize the principals being expressed during the discussion. Ask inspired questions and hope for inspired answers. Too bad sometimes you just get crazy answers ;)

  7. If the teacher talks too much without discussion (especially when I’m the teacher), the class is flat. Discussion, even without strong “doctrinal focus,” often leads to more comments that are pertinent. As Tad Callister said I the article, “The ideal teacher is constantly striving to connect class comments to doctrine.”

    The problem, as you pointed out, what is doctrine? Try to find the Doctrine Section in a Sunday School manual. There is none. I’m assuming he is referring to things that manuals call scripture truths, but no where will it say teach this doctrine. The lessons encourage discussion and personal testimony, which often meander because personal experiences usually do. I I’m puzzled why he is scolding members for teaching the way the manual is laid out?

  8. Meh. I read the article and I certainly see it point. I have listened to discussions that seemed aimless. Still, that is in the minority in my experience. It is the “gospel lecture” that tends to be aimless and the discussion that at least tends to bring people into a somewhat connected thought process. In other words, generally the problem is the other way around from what I understand the article to be saying.

    The “Sunday School Problem” or SSP, as I call it, is very complex and there are no apparent solutions at hand. Because of this, I feel for the Church who tries to manage it. The SSP can be summarized (by my experience anyway) as:

    Some teachers are not prepared but like to talk anyway. Some have not read the lesson. Some have read the lesson but do not know how to teach. Some teach but do not teach the lesson. Some ask ridiculous questions followed up by ridiculous discussions. Some teachers are good teachers, but the class members are petrified wood. Some teachers are great teachers, and they are released for simply being great. Dear God, in this mess, what is one to do?

    Complicating the lay membership model that underwrites the SSP, is the nature and structure of the manuals. The manuals teach almost nothing about context, historical or otherwise. They are bullet points of some scripture verses and very general questions. It turns out in a world wide church where you want everyone to participate I don’t know how else you would approach it. I wish there were a few clarifying statements at the front of the manual, i.e. for the most part we are recontextualizing scripture for our day and it is okay to do so, and many of the lessons are thus disconnected from historical analysis. Other than that, the manuals are fine with me for what they are.

    Problem is, most wards I have been in treat them as something different. A bullet point lesson allows the teacher to explore the topic according to her interest, knowledge, and the Spirit. Much learning can be done in this way. Problem is many teachers take the lessons off the rails, and as a result the de facto response is to stick to the manual, practically word for word, as if it were scripture. Suddenly, a bullet point lesson is not a spring board for discussion and growth, but a chain of eerily reductive paths that turn gospel study into a redundant parody of truth. Most of the tedious lessons I have sat through are not the result of letting discussions go off the rails, but a result of a word for word recitation of a gospel principle that has been correlated into a bullet point series of preformatted questions and answers that were written with crayon.

    This problem seems to me to be so universal that when good teachers actually start using the manuals for their intended structuralist purpose they are sometime scolded by their leaders. Oi vey! Now this is a problem.

  9. Jane (6) I think a lesson without discussion would be incredibly boring.

    I think it depends upon the topic and the speaker. In general I have a hard time learning from lectures and found many (most?) of my classes in college a tedious trial. Yet simultaneously I’ve been listening to some of the Great Courses which are basically a semester of college lectures. I’ve loved the history ones I’ve listened to. Go figure.

    I really enjoyed Nibley’s classes though, and he almost never asked questions. But my favorite class at BYU was Chauncey Riddle’s Epistemology class which was largely taught in a quasi-socratic fashion. Our homework was often to come up with questions on the reading or topic. Then one day of class would be going through the roll and having one person ask their question and the next person in the roll attempt to answer it.

    But as I said my favorite Sunday School classes of all time were by a guy who compared the lesson to various musicals he was a fan of in order to draw out lessons. He rarely asked questions.

    I think it’s what works for the teacher.

  10. Hard to see where the “just” teach the doctrine interpretation comes from.

    He doesn’t say you should only teach doctrine. To the contrary he expressly says that discussion would be part of good teaching.

    ‘…Inspired teaching certainly includes discussion …”

    His point appears to be that discussion for the sake of discussion is not necessarily good. Instead it needs to be productive.

    “A gospel discussion is successful if it increases faith, leads to a greater understanding of the doctrine being taught, and inspires the participants to live the gospel more fully.”

    Thus his view seems to be consistent with your stated point of view regarding discussion, although your definition of productive appears to be different than his.

    From my experience there are few things worse than sitting in a class where the discussion, while vigorous, has nothing to do with the gospel. While perhaps not bad if it happens periodically, spending time listening to therapeutic conversations or to someone talk simply for the sake of talking generally makes for a pretty boring meeting and if I’m on the west coast an increased desire to pull out the iPhone to check the football scores.

    Quality instructors I have seen have had the ability to use the discussion to teach and enhance understanding of the gospel principle under discussion and thereby allow the participants to feel the spirit which is, I think, the point of being at church rather than at a friend’s house watching the game and listening to therapeutic conversations about how Brady is as honest as the day is long and Goodell simply has it in for him.

  11. @Clark Goble

    I agree that there are some amazing lecturers, especially when you are talking about BYU professors and some equally talented ward members but I have found they are few and not often called as Gospel Doctrine instructors. Often the naturally gifted teachers get stolen by the youth programs or seminary and the adults are sacrificed. At least, this has been my experience. We could argue whether this is appropriate or not but I think in most wards, there are just not enough teachers that can make a 40 minute lecture interesting. I am happy about the new teacher training councils and the ones in my ward have been incredible.

  12. I don’t know how much discussion is the correct amount, but I believe the goal for any instructor or speaker in a Gospel setting is for the class members/congregation to feel edified by what they hear. I think that is the point the article is hoping to make.

  13. Jane, I fully agree. And often I think the teachers get a lot out of the class. That’s why I’m completely unwilling to be too critical of Sunday School. Worst case scenario I can study my scriptures on my own during class.

    That said, I think a good discussion is as hard to do as a good lecture. The difference is perhaps the more laid back discussions that seem pretty common in PH lessons but oddly quite uncommon in Sunday School.

  14. Honestly, I think Br. Callister is spot on. Discussion is good, but it is a means, not an end. He is not arguing lecture over discussion, so I think we can avoid that tangent.

  15. I think brother Callister is simply calling for better teaching and discussion. However, those most needing the encouragement are also the least likely to read his words.

  16. Lecture= expert model (learning from a great sage, drinking in from one of those enlightened members who you suspect are close to being translated.)

    Brother Joseph, Parley, etc. spoke for hours on end as people sat on ROCKS and LOGS outdoors. Little if no other theology rivals the expansiveness of Mormonism’s early vision. CROWDS were so big, scribes were needed. Today, inspired persons are rare. A ward is lucky to have ONE.

    Today we have class discussion. Mediocrity by committee consensus. SLC correlates the content, then we correlate is AGAIN in classroom “committee”. Nothing controversial, it will have to be vetted by an entire room. Ugh.

  17. I highly suspect that what the SS President was thirsty for was not a certain teaching methodology, but an enlightened saint who could fill his cup. If we have a teaching crisis, it is because we have fewer spiritual dynamos. I’ll bet he was lamenting a long period without being “filled” or enlightened by a fellow brother or sister. There is a difference between spiritual snacking and feasting. We need our teachers to spread a feast for us.

    Tinker with the spigot all you want, if there is nothing in jar, it won’t help. I’m not saying we don’t have enlightened saints, we do, but they are rare. I’d be interested to know how many spiritually actualized people are in your ward?

  18. I’ve agonized over issues of GD pedagogy for years, and I still feel like I’m looking through a glass darkly. There are times when some lecture is appropriate and necessary, because you can’t draw out from the class what they simply do not know. Conversely, some class discussion is I think essential to keep the class well engaged. So for me it’s a constant balancing act. The reality is that, in my classes, at least, no one, and I mean nobody, has actually read the assigned reading in advance of class, and so class discussion usually has to be on extrapolating general Gospel principles from what we actually read in class.

  19. I am concerned that too many lessons seem to focus more on policy and personal opinion and less on the Savior. After many years of attending Sunday School, I now feel that a lesson is great if my love for the Savior and for others increases. That can occur in many ways, either with a great lecture, an honest discussion, or both. When lessons focus on Church policy, rules, or procedures without relating them to the Atonement, I feel less edified.

  20. How do we increase our love for the Savior and others? By being disciples. Disciple comes from the word “discipline”, you know- that thing that being in the military or on a mission is supposed to teach you. It means ‘to strictly and repeatedly study and follow rules set out by a master, to be diligent in pursuit of a goal of becoming like them.’ How do you become an Olympic athlete, pianist? Practice, practice, practice. The problem with SS is that people sorta just want to show up and be entertained with warm fuzzy “feels” for an hour. They want “LDS light”.

    They aren’t ready to apply themselves. We’re audience members at the concert, not the musicians; tv spectators, not the Olympians. Sure, it’s fun to watch, but another thing to wake yourself up at 4am every day (without fail) to practice. We are complaining that our SS teachers aren’t producing pianists or Olympians, while trying to make it as easy as watching tv. If a teacher makes SS hard by requiring people to “wrestle” with ideas (which is essential to Socratic teaching and was typical of the Savior’s teachings as well), people just LEAVE. It’s not fun. It’s uncomfortable. It’s cognitive “dissonance”. I’ll just come out and say it, this is ***PAINFUL*** stuff. As athletes say, ‘no pain, no gain’.

    That type of wrestling can’t be correlated-it’s messy and hard-won and you have to struggle with chaos and question your assumptions before you find the solution. SLC doesn’t want us to wrestle that way, they want you to take the “right” and “approved” answer and repeat it. Ahh, feel the warm “feels”.

    The problem is that you never become the pianist, you never become the Olympian, you never truly become the spiritual dynamo. I think that most spiritual gurus underestimate how important the struggle was for them in striking their own light. They try to light another person’s candle without allowing the other person to similarly struggle. You can share a small flame, but not the generator, not the core, not the fuel.

    We’re so entrenched in this cycle that we now have multiple GENERATIONS of saints who have become SS teachers who teach spectators to teach spectators to be spectators. And we wonder why we aren’t “getting” enough out of SS? Everyone is happy with the warm “feels” thinking about Jesus hugging babies (as opposed to Jesus overthrowing money changers, criticizing church leaders, breaking rules, doing the unthinkable, radically loving us, etc.)

    I don’t want to start a works-grace thing, because grace is everything. I’m just saying that we are given the choice – we want to take the easy way out rather than pick up the cross and break and consecrate a heart. If we aren’t wanting to vest ourselves, we aren’t going to have the same results, whether we’re talking about works or consecrated hearts.

  21. p.s. I’m tired of people saying that you can get as much out of SS as you put into it as a class member. You can’t become an Olympian by learning from a fellow tv spectator eating potato chips.

  22. I’d like to actually learn something, which to me is someone with insight or knowledge I don’t have telling me something I don’t already know. Our weekly discussions are the same audience members, talking every week, sharing their opinion, which may or may not be the truth. I don’t find any learning in that.

  23. If our gospel education consists primarily of Sunday School then we’re doing it wrong.

  24. SS= Mormonism light and Oprah’s audience open floor time.

    Everything is relative -there are no “right” or “wrong” answers from the peanut gallery. The teacher asks, “what do you think about x?” Then calls on four different people who each say something unique. The teacher just says, “thank you” after each one. Were they all right? Wait! They were all different. What about that screwball answer? That was surely wrong. Was anyone right? Which was best? Who knows? We all had to be polite and treat each response equally. Time was filled. Did we teach the gospel? Point out the guiding lights and safety zones? Maybe or maybe not. We just took a polite poll.

  25. Oh, my heck. I am a scared to death Gospel Doctrine teacher. I have no idea why I, an old woman with no teaching experience was called. I am in agony for a day or two before each lesson. The bishop said he wanted me to teach because I was pragmatic. Well, I do my best. I get compliments, but this discussion has not helped my self confidence, thank you!

  26. Kris, that’s exactly what my wife said so many years ago. As long as you transfer your passion for the subject (and especially the scriptures) into what you’re teaching you’ll continue to be terrific. Sometimes its lecture and sometimes its discussion. (See Kevin above, who’s class I’d love to be in).

  27. have to agree that most of our discussion in gospel classes is controlled by a few who seem to always have a personal story to tell or an unrelated comment. I unwisely attempted to all a question about a matter of doctrine once and after a firm verbal stomping by one of our self proclaimed experts I will not be commenting again. I have moved to a class where the teacher has a round robin scripture reading each week without discussion and am at least getting the assigned reading completed.

  28. To echo what Kevin Barney said, no one reads. I taught for 2.5 years recently and no matter how hard I tried, we never got much more than 2 or 3 people out of 50 reading each week. I’ve often wondered why we have Sunday School at all if the only ones invested are the instructors. Students aren’t invested, if they were, they’d read more. It’s not like the assignments are hard or long. This year is the Book of Mormon, it literally doesn’t get much easier (or more fulfilling) from a study perspective.

    How do we avoid a lecture-model if no one comes prepared to learn? I felt that some weeks I wasn’t teaching, I was entertaining. I even joked with the Bishopric that it was part of my role to be somewhat entertaining.

    Mortimer, I love all your comments. We don’t have dynamos because we haven’t taught them how to train to become dynamos. Lots of reasons for that, uniformity of curriculum for one which gives SLC the control of the message they so valiantly seek. I think control of the message is an important thing as we are in fact prone to wander, but we need to train folks how to study the Gospel, how to analyze context, and then how to prayerfully apply what they learn. We largely can’t accomplish that in the 3-Hour Block. I was fortunate to have a Dad who taught me a ton.

  29. I used to read every week because I used it for my scripture study. I don’t recommend it. All the teachers do is read the lesson, so it’s even more boring if you’ve already read it.

  30. I’d second what Kirsi says, although I usually do the reading in class. (I read fast) I usually find lots of questions and get a lot our of the lesson even if I’m not always listening too terribly closely. (I do listen – especially to interesting questions)

    I think what Kevin and Joshua bring up is a big problem. It’s hard to get far in a lesson if no one has read it or (in many cases) is even familiar with the scriptures in question. It leads to a pretty huge gap in discussion and favors lecture style.

    All that said over on lds-phil we were having a similar discussion to here. Many people there were far less cynical than I am and offered lots of good suggestions. My brother who has teaching degree, suggested breaking up into small groups. Quoting him (I’m confident he wouldn’t mind)

    [The] biggest change church teacher training teachers could do would be to focus on total time people talk to each other about answers and thoughts. Right now you get some people thinking about each question, but only 8 or so interactions per class (1 one-way interaction every 5 minutes for 40 min.). If you split into small groups (say 6) for just one 10 minute period you’d now up that interaction rate to 18 interactions.

    6 x 2 (due to two-way interactions) + 30/5

    Add in one question that is a think-pair-share (share your thought with a neighbour and get their response, and the number of interactions jumps up to 80 interactions.

    30×2 + 6×2 + 30/5

    Thinking about interaction rates is a fundamental aspect of teaching strategies. Of course, structuring interactions to be properly primed and properly integrated into follow-up teacher led debriefs is challenging. But I think we do our students a big dis-service when we don’t facilitate enough opportunities for real edification. The big change online teaching has had on the profession is a wake-up call that face-to-face instruction time must be structured so as to take advantage of it’s niche strengths. This strength is quick response feedback which enables divergence in thought to lead to common understandings.

    I objected that I absolutely hate it when teachers do this. (And I really do – both in Sunday School and Priesthood) His rejoinder was:

    I’ve found how the question is structured is really key. I usually offer a couple of different approaches groups may want to take on the sub-topic. Then people don’t feel so constrained to the painful ‘share an experience you’ve had of ___ ____.”

    If I’m doing break-outs, I also tend to start out with that rather than break up the pace of a class by splitting up part-way through. My key is getting out of teacher-centric mode as quick as possible so as not to bias the interaction with answer constraining dynamics.

    I found the group break outs gave me an excellent chance for people to look over the headings of the lessons for a minute or two prior to sharing with others. In exclusive large group sessions people seem to bifurcate around ignoring the manual and listening to the teacher or ignoring the teacher and reading the manual themselves. Neither is very good leverage for face-to-face niche strategies….

    The other theoretical thing small groups do, is allow each group to have a conversations at the level of depth most appropriate for them. In practice this means instead of one or two people con tolling the level for the class, you get one or two people controlling the level for each group. Not a perfect solution, but at least it offers the opportunity of meeting more people’s needs (at the risk of excluding those who don’t fit into each group’s specialization). Large groups really do have to shoot for mediocre. Small groups may still produced mediocrity, but it is via pockets of high and low.

    But groups aren’t for everyone. Once its routine though, it does make you much more conscious of where to sit…..

  31. Breaking into small groups in a church class is the equivalent of governments tackling a problem by appointing a commission. It gives the appearance of doing something without accomplishing anything.

  32. I forgot to add, whenever that tactic is used in a class I immediately assume the teacher is unprepared, has nothing to say, and just wants to burn some time.

  33. KLC, I kind of assume that too. But there is good reason for it pedagogically. I still hate it, but I’ll admit Chris gave a pretty strong argument for it. My complaint on it is that the questions we’re suppose to answer are so superficial or else are so personal that I just don’t enjoy it. I’m fine giving personal experiences when the moment seems appropriate but doing it on demand just makes me very uncomfortable. And when the question is so easy I can answer it right off, I just feel awkward for 10 minutes because I don’t want to come off like a know it all by answering it for everyone. (I rarely speak in Sunday School partially for that reason – priesthood is different since it’s so practical oriented)

  34. In almost four decades of teaching, I have broken into small groups maybe three times. The most memorable was during the GD lesson on the succession crisis after Joseph Smith died. Before the class, I called on three people to lead each of the three groups. I told them that I was supposed to meet the Stake President at some point during the class and that when they could see I wasn’t there, they were to take charge of the class. Surprisingly, it had the desired effect and was a vivid illustration of Nauvoo shortly after June 27, 1844. I don’t often go for such theatrics, but it was a large class and we met in the cultural hall.

  35. Learning is 50% the teacher and 50% the student (or thereabouts). When a teacher comes prepared and a student does not learning is obstructed. Good teachers might inspire good students to want to learn. But that requires a really good teacher. And an interested student. Mormon SS often lacks both.

    How to inspire something different? I am still uncertain if many local leaders want anything different. Difference requires deviating from the preformatted lesson’s questions and answers, and that risks “off the rail” comments and discussion (as indicated from the article Dave cited).

    There is no easy answer. There is no magic pill. The new “Teacher’s Council” will do nothing but reiterate the pattern already firmly established in the culture. All I can do is teach the material in the way that I study and enjoy it. That’s all I will ever do. 90% of the time it’s a hit. 10% of the time I’m a heretic. I can live with that. So far, and luckily, so can most of the bishops (but not all) who have called me as GD teacher.

  36. Look guys, SS could use some improvement, but there is a reason that the church controls the content. God said, “my house is a house of order”. You can intellectualize the gospel at home but not at church. Not only would you be inviting chaos, but you would be putting a heavy burden on the teacher.

  37. I know that the topic is older but I saw a true teaching moment this fast Sunday but the teacher was not brave enough to go all the way. After a testimony meeting full of testimonies that features praise for our ward and town and how blessed we are to live in this wonderful place safe from the evils of other wards and town the Sunday school teacher started his lesson on pride by standing on a chair and repeating almost word for word phrases from the earlier testimonies. Unfortunately he then moved to the lesson on the zoramites and did not apply the pride lesson to what had just happened. It might have been a less than feel good moment but a very thought prompting lesson. Don’t know if he even realized that he missed a chance to really teach.

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