Teaching Methodologies for Church and School

Having a Master’s Degree in Teaching, I spend a lot of time studying different teaching methodologies, both in and out of the Church.  In doing so, I’ve recently constructed a typology of major methods of core teaching methods used by instructors I’ve observed over the years.

It all ties into my depiction of a lake or ocean below.  Note, I have a variety of degrees, none of which are in the fine arts….

Here we have a body of water. It represents the knowledge/truth available to mankind. For my legend, we have different representations.

The goal is to reach a level ‘A’ of knowledge in the subject (religion, science, etc).

The methodologies fall along these lines.  ‘B’  shows a method where the instructor goes deep into the logic and structure of the data available.  This differs very much with ‘C’, also known as the “water skipper”, because such an instructive method only touches briefly on the surface, and then skips to the next topic.

These two methodologies explain the difference between how Japan and USA teach math.  The Japanese will pick a math theme and focus on it, sometimes for weeks.  The students learn in depth how to understand the material, and can often take that information and expand it to other deep areas of knowledge. Meanwhile, USA math skills are often very shallow, skipping along the surface, expecting the students to pick up the deeper stuff later on in another class, or on their own.  From the USA’s woeful standings in the world concerning math knowledge of students, we can determine that ‘C’ is a poor methodology.

Method ‘D’ has two types in it: those who only wade in to their knees, or worse, who only stay on the sand and dig there.  At most, they offer milk, which is a good method for new beginners.  Such is important for those in the early grades of school, or perhaps a Gospel Essentials class.  However, to remain there is to remain extremely ignorant of the subject matter.  Eventually, one needs to learn to swim/skip on the water (C), and later dive (D).

Method ‘E’ is not really a method, but it is a common action in teaching: going totally in another direction.  We’ve all had teachers that go off the reservation, talking about their sports achievements rather than the material.  In a Sunday School class, it may be the person who wants to talk primarily about speculative issues.

I once had a college class on the computer programming language Pascal. The instructor did not like the language much, but was totally gaga over another language, ADA.  So, he only talk for 5 minutes on Pascal, and then spend the rest of the time on ADA.  The book was a useless book, and he was never available for phone calls to answer questions. Needless to say, it was a total waste of time and money for me since he didn’t really teach me what I paid him to do  (I did end up putting in a complaint with the department head).

I see the Gospel Doctrine classes in the church as normally being a ‘C’. The manuals are designed to teach methods ‘D’ and ‘C’.  Since we do not have a professional staff of instructors, our lay teachers tend to only have an understanding based upon methods ‘C’, ‘D’, and sadly ‘E’.

‘E’ becomes a danger, because we will get an instructor feels there is more to the doctrine than what ‘C’ offers (and they are right). However, speculation does not equal doctrine, nor depth of doctrine.  It tends to lead us further away from the real objective.  While ADA may be a programming language, it is entirely different than Pascal.  So it is with speculation and doctrine. They both are things to be taught about the gospel, but when we’re to focus on doctrine, we should not replace the doctrine with speculation.

‘D’ is necessary, as noted, for Primary and Gospel Essential classes. However, many of our adult classes remain in that realm.  How often has the priesthood manual been read in front of the class from beginning to end by the teacher. It needs to real preparation, just the basics of literacy to read.

Only in moving to a ‘B’ (advanced study) and later ‘A’ method (expert study) can the student get detailed knowledge of the material, and become an expert herself.

So, if I were to re-work the adult Sunday School manuals, I would first stop the piecemeal lessons they now provide. They offer only water skipper teaching.  Second, I would consider changing the structure towards themes. Imagine spending a month studying “faith and hope”, the next month  studying “charity”, etc.  How about discussing tithing as a preparatory commandment for consecration, rather than as a stand-alone commandment?  I can imagine some excellent discussions on themes of “justification” and “sanctification.”  I personally think we could spend a month in Sunday School on each of those topics.  Suddenly, we move away from USA math methodology to Japanese methods.

This would also reduce the amount of ‘E’ speculation going on. When the material is in depth, doctrinal, and engaging, there is little reason to look beyond the mark.  For our failing schools, it could regenerate interest for both teachers and students.

What do you think of this?  and Am I leaving out any methodologies or concepts?

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About rameumptom

Gerald (Rameumptom) Smith is a student of the gospel. Joining the Church of Jesus Christ when he was 16, he served a mission in Santa Cruz Bolivia (1978=1980). He is married to Ramona, has 3 stepchildren and 7 grandchildren. Retired Air Force (Aim High!). He has been on the Internet since 1986 when only colleges and military were online. Gerald has defended the gospel since the 1980s, and was on the first Latter-Day Saint email lists, including the late Bill Hamblin's Morm-Ant. Gerald has worked with FairMormon, More Good Foundation, LDS.Net and other pro-LDS online groups. He has blogged on the scriptures for over a decade at his site: Joel's Monastery (joelsmonastery.blogspot.com). He has the following degrees: AAS Computer Management, BS Resource Mgmt, MA Teaching/History. Gerald was the leader for the Tuskegee Alabama group, prior to it becoming a branch. He opened the door for missionary work to African Americans in Montgomery Alabama in the 1980s. He's served in two bishoprics, stake clerk, high council, HP group leader and several other callings over the years. While on his mission, he served as a counselor in a branch Relief Society presidency.

7 thoughts on “Teaching Methodologies for Church and School

  1. I think there is something important that you miss. There is a wall between B and A that can not be breached by teaching and you can only reach A by revelation. I’m referring to gospel knowledge.

    Of course, you can hand someone an answer, and we are very good at teaching the answers in church. But knowing the answers is certainly different from experiencing the answers, and many of the knowledge in A I believe must be revealed into our hearts through the Holy Ghost. True, it may have been spoken and “revealed” by others, but we do not take ownership of it until it comes directly from God to us, via the Holy Ghost.

    So really the ultimate goal of the manuals and teaching from my experience is to of course teach true doctrine, but no focus so much on the doctrines for truths or interests sakes, but rather with the desire to get people to go and use their agency via a change (or continuation) in their behavior. If we want to increase faith, we need to increase the righteous use of agency. No amount of learning and teaching in class can do that, it’s only when we get up and go help someone, or decide to sincerely spend our time in study and prayer because we have a fervent and anxious desire to know, etc.

    Applying this to other disciplines like Math, etc. isn’t easy but possible.

  2. From the USA’s woeful standings in the world concerning math knowledge of students, we can determine that ‘C’ is a poor methodology.

    No, we can’t. Even assuming that the US had a uniform descript method and Japan had another, you still couldn’t rule out other racial, cultural, and family differences.

  3. Chris, I agree that any good project requires application of the knowledge. That’s why I separated out B and A. However, B cannot get us to A without personal application.

    But in issues like math, science, etc., we do have what is found in the books and lessons, but the individual also has to involve herself in the practical labs, etc. So it equally applies in spiritual things as well.

    The issue is, we cannot get to A very easily without first going through B. And that is displayed time and again in our school systems that fail in math and science.

    Adam, the studies do weed out other issues, such as family issues, etc. Recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did a study, and found out that the prime factor in a successful child in school is having a good teacher with a good curriculum. From this study, they began to finance KIPP (knowledge is power program) and other programs that focus on successful key points like this.

    Gates Foundation Education Strategies

    Gates Foundation On Math Standards

  4. I agree with aspects of your model. The most important point that I think it misses is where teaching become relevant or meaningful to the student. That is what makes levels ‘B’ and ‘A’ stand out from the rest. In that light, it’s not so much that there is something concretely wrong or shallow about the Church manuals—one of its questions or lessons might ring profoundly true to a given individual—it’s that no manual can substitute for an insightful teacher who asks the questions that really matter to the individual being taught. And, in many cases, that would necessitate devoting time to what you and others would call “speculation” (‘E’).

    But I may have missed this idea in your post. On a related note, I think the methodology (viz., analogy) you used to teach your point almost always goes no further than a ‘C’ level.

  5. Your model is a very insightful description of the levels of teaching I’ve seen at church and school.

    But I’m not sure if our goal at church should be to reach “A.” I think “A” and even “B” is sometimes too dangerous. Milk before meat, and church is mostly for milk. But I think a lot of the discussions we have on good blogs like this one get down deeper.

    Where would you put General Conference? Is the level of teaching at GC of the depth we should strive for in our church meetings?

    I also wonder, should obtaining “knowledge” be the focus of meetings like Gospel Doctrine? I think the focus should be on changing lives, freeing people from addictions and strengthening faith. I think the reason Elders get up and read from the manual with no preparation, is that they have no vision of changing lives. They see it as their duty to obediently get through the lesson. They don’t truly believe that if they prepared better they could save someone’s life. They think it must all be there if they just read it, because it comes from the church. They are just being obedient. They’ve never been given a vision of something greater.

    Even very prepared teachers stumble in their anxiety to get through the lesson. They frequently interrupt important testimonies being born by the class, “OK guys, we need to move on, we’ve got a lot to cover!” This attitude displays a complete lack of understanding of the true purpose of teaching the gospel. They may be excellent teachers and know all sorts of historical background and insights, but they have no concept of the class as a forum for strengthening faith and sharing testimony.

  6. The Gates Foundation previously believed that smaller schools were what the studies proved work, so they invested heavy in those, and they didn’t work. I do beleive KIPP is a good idea at the margins, but for the most part education studies use terrible methodologies, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, and are blown about by fads. The main predictors of education outputs are the inputs—the students raw ability and family circumstances.

  7. Adam,

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. However, the Gates Foundation has done some in depth studies to find out what does/doesn’t work. And the main input that makes the biggest difference is the teacher. I’ll go with their studies over your personal thoughts on study methodologies, etc. For all I know, your belief regarding such studies isn’t worth the bytes used to write them. 😉
    Many years ago, a columnist suggested that school methods should be based on engineering principles: base lines, etc. Instead, most schools across the nation just built failure upon failure (kind of like our tax system). I think this is the method being used by Gates Foundation, and the places where it works, has worked well.
    Example, Washington DC poor kids were given vouchers for school. They all went from being at the bottom of the education pile to at least middle grades or above.

    That is not an issue on the margins. The same kids, so that was not where the difference was made. Quality of teachers and methodologies is where the difference came in.

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