Jason slowly read out loud his assigned verses from 2 Nephi 9. His Sunday School teacher, Sister Johnson, then asked, “What are the two deaths that happen to everyone?” An uncomfortable tension filled the air. Sister Johnson looked nervous and a little embarrassed that no one was responding to her question, even when the answer was right there in the verses they had just read.
I have visited many classes as a stake teacher improvement coordinator. I have seen the pattern described above repeated in many of the classes, as well as in the teaching in my own home.
What has become clear is that if we as parents or teachers will ask a question about the scripture verses or other material before having them read, our family or class members will be more likely to give appropriate answers, and more interesting discussions will result. This is because they knew what to look for as they read. For example, by asking “How could a fig tree be like a hypocrite?” before students read Matthew 21:17–22, they will be able to focus on finding and thinking about the answer as they read.
Some of our lesson manuals suggest that we first explain, then read, then ask a question. The explanations given in the manuals are designed to help prepare students to read the scriptures by introducing or summarizing a gospel topic for them. For example, one manual reads: “Explain that it is sometimes difficult to accept the idea that we need to love ourselves. We may think that we should love other people but not ourselves. We might wonder how we can love ourselves without being conceited. … Explain that the Savior himself told us that we should love ourselves. Have a class member read Matthew 22:36–39. [The teacher then asks:] What do these verses tell us about loving ourselves?” (Young Women Manual 3 , 145).
Another acceptable way to use these kinds of lesson suggestions would be to ask, “What do these verses tell us about loving ourselves?” before giving any explanations or reading Matthew 22:36–39. Asking the question in this manner encourages students to freely share their own explanations about the meaning of the verses. After listening to and discussing their ideas, you will then probably want to offer the explanation provided in the manual.
As teachers in my stake began using this skill, they shared with me their excitement. A common expression was, “My students really participated today. The discussions were great.” One teacher said, “I noticed that more students volunteered to answer the questions. Their comments gave more information than I would have given in the explanations. In fact, all I needed to do was summarize their explanations.” Another teacher said that the entire feeling in the class changed because class members were participating as much as she was. One teacher explained, “I felt like I was facilitating learning rather than dispensing information.”
A pleasing result for many teachers was the level of enthusiasm during the lesson. They found that students were more interested in learning and felt the presence of the Spirit more strongly. One teacher reported, “As I continued to ask the questions first, students began discovering the information on their own.”
Asking the question first can also work with pictures. Some lesson manuals recommend that teachers show class members a picture and then explain what it means. For example, “Display picture 3-34, Mormon Abridging the Plates. Explain that Heavenly Father called a prophet named Mormon to gather all the histories of his people, copy the most important parts, and write them on thin sheets of gold. … These were called gold plates” (Primary 3: Choose the Right B , 70). Another approach would be to try asking questions that help students discover what is in the picture before offering any explanation, such as:
“What do you see in the picture?”
“How many people are in the picture?”
“What are the people doing?”
“Why are they doing it?”
“How might the person in the picture feel?”
“How would you feel if you were in the picture?”
Asking a question before a class member reads a particular statement by a Church President also works well. In the books used in the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums and Relief Society, the questions at the back of each chapter can be used to help students search for answers as they read. For example, after asking, “What is agency?” (see Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee , 16) a teacher could direct the class to look for the answer on pages 13–15. Once they have found the explanatory quote from President Harold B. Lee, discussion on the topic might occur or you could ask, “Why is opposition necessary in the exercise of our agency?” and then send class members back to the book for additional ideas from the quotation.
As participants search or look for information in the scriptures or other books, remember that people may understand gospel principles at different levels. In classes some are new to the Church or do not remember what they have been taught, and children are young and learning. Others have studied much and have significant experience with the scriptures. All of us can learn from each other. The role of a parent or teacher is much like an orchestra conductor who is there to keep order and give general direction and instruction. An orchestra conductor, however, does not produce the music. A good gospel teacher uses effective questions as a conductor uses a baton.
Discussion leader: Who does the Lord require or expect us to forgive and why should we forgive? Please look for answers as you now silently read D&C 64:9–10.
Following silent reading by others, discussion leader asks: Who does the Lord require or expect us to forgive? And why should we forgive? How many of you found answers? Who would like to tell us what you found?
The discussion leader then calls on several to report what they found. The discussion leader may then want to ask additional questions that help others understand the meaning and apply a gospel principle from what they have read.
I recently visited an adult Gospel Doctrine teacher with whom I had shared this skill. I asked how the class was going. The teacher said he wished he had tried this approach years earlier. Although he had much experience in teaching, he said that for the first time class members were really becoming involved in the scriptures. He said, “When I have my class search the scriptures, they each have a personal experience with the verses.”
Not only has this simple skill changed him as a teacher, he says that his class members have also changed. He reported that more of them are bringing scriptures to class because “they know we are going to be searching for answers.” And one father in his class told him that he had used this method at home. He reported that his children really enjoyed looking for answers in their family scripture study and family home evening. Sometimes a simple adjustment can bring about a profound change.
“The Church moves forward sustained by the power of the teaching that is accomplished.”
President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Teach Ye Diligently (1991), 3–4.
More on this topic: See Jonn D. Claybaugh and Amber Barlow Dahl, “Increasing Participation in Lessons,”Ensign, Mar. 2001, 32–36; Dallin H. Oaks, “Gospel Teaching,”Ensign, Nov. 1999, 78–80; Jeffrey R. Holland, “‘A Teacher Come from God,’”Ensign, May 1998, 25–27.