Helping Light the Fire to Learn

Contributed By Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, Young Women general president

  • 28 July 2015

Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson says that the goal of teaching in the Church is the same as it is at home—a burning testimony.

Article Highlights

  • Create a learning environment that encourages and nurtures the desire in our children and youth to study, learn, and live the gospel on their own.
  • Teaching should be lighting a fire, not just filling a pail.
  • The goal of teaching in the Church is the same as it is at home—a burning testimony.

“The role of teaching in the Church is not to entertain with dazzling displays of pedagogy; rather, it is to help individuals take responsibility for learning the gospel for themselves and to awaken in them the desire to study, understand, and live the gospel in their lives.” —Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, Young Women general president

As a mother and grandmother my greatest desire is that my children and grandchildren will seek to understand the principles of the gospel and enjoy the full blessings of membership in the Church. In short, I hope they will be truly converted. No matter how much I desire this for those I love, I can’t achieve it for them. Each and every individual is responsible for his own learning and conversion. No one can gain a testimony for someone else.

There is something we can do as parents and teachers and that is to create a learning environment that encourages and nurtures the desire in our children and youth to study, learn, and live the gospel on their own.

We have often been reminded that the home should be the central place for gospel learning and conversion. Parents are the most effective teachers because they are instinctively focused on the needs and challenges of their children and naturally create teaching opportunities to meet those needs. Parents are not thinking about how they can impress or astonish their children as expert educators but are more concerned with engaging their children’s interests, opening meaningful discussions, and reaching their hearts. These are the elements that encourage learning and living. Because a parent has the best interests of their children at heart, they know best how to motivate to action and learning.

So how do those charged with teaching classes at church create that kind of desire to learn? How does a teacher at church light the fire of testimony in the hearts of their learners the way a diligent parent does at home?

Consider two different teaching situations on a typical Sunday at church.

Situation one:

A student comes into a class expecting to be taught a gospel lesson. The teacher is brilliantly prepared with stories, personal examples, creative object lessons, clever handouts, and new ideas and insights that no one has ever considered before. The teacher is entertaining, eloquent, and holds the interest of everyone present for a full 40 minutes. All the students leave the classroom talking about what a great teacher they have just heard.

Situation two:

At the invitation of the instructor, the students come into the classroom prepared to share with one another something they experienced during the past week. The Spirit fills the room as each person briefly shares an experience they had living a gospel principle discussed in last week’s lesson. The teacher encourages class discussion by asking thoughtful and meaningful questions. The students are then invited to read a scripture and discuss with one another a gospel principle and how they can apply it to their own lives. The teacher guides the discussion without dominating it. Everyone participates. Students are given time to write down inspired thoughts and impressions and even personal goals for the coming week. The students leave the classroom excited about the gospel and anxious to read and study on their own in order to understand and better live the principles they discussed that day.

Which situation describes the ideal Church classroom?

While these examples are greatly simplified, they serve to make the point that the role of teaching in the Church is not to entertain with dazzling displays of pedagogy; rather, it is to help individuals take responsibility for learning the gospel for themselves and to awaken in them the desire to study, understand, and live the gospel in their lives. There is a well-known saying often attributed to William Butler Yeats, which says that “education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of the fire.” The goal of teaching in the Church is the same as it is at home—a burning testimony.

Both in the home and at church, the focus should be on the learner and not on the teaching. In one teaching resource it suggests some questions that will help a person know what their focus is. A teacher who is focused only on their teaching asks, “What shall I do in class today?” and “What will I teach today?” Contrast those two questions with the teacher who is learner-focused: “What will my students do in class today?” and “How will I help my students discover what they need to know?” (see “The Role of the Student”).

Sister Virginia Pearce, a former counselor in the Young Women general presidency, observed, “The skilled teacher does not want students who leave the class talking about how magnificent and unusual the teacher is. This teacher wants students who leave talking about how magnificent the gospel is!” (“The Ordinary Classroom—a Powerful Place for Steady and Continued Growth,” Oct. 1996 general conference).

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has pointed out, “Every member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, or will be, a teacher” (“Gospel Teaching,” Oct. 1999 general conference). Parents are teachers from sunup until sundown, every day of the year. Almost all of us will have specific callings to teach in more formal settings during our lifetimes. We all need to understand the importance of helping our family and class members be self-motivated learners. An ordinary teacher prepares to teach a lesson. An extraordinary teacher prepares to ignite a spark which kindles a testimony and changes lives.