Using the Apperception Principle in Teaching

Boyd K. Packer

When we study how Jesus taught, we might note that He employed one principle of teaching more than any other. If we also understand this principle and employ it, it will improve us as teachers of religion perhaps more than any other thing that we could learn about His teaching techniques. Educators refer to it as the principle of apperception.

Understanding through Previous Experience

Apperception is defined as “the process of understanding something perceived in terms of previous experience.” This means that if we have something difficult to teach, such as honesty or reverence or love, we should begin with the experience of the student and talk about the things he already knows. Then when we make a comparison with what we want him to know, he will perceive the meaning.

Jesus was indeed the master of this process. To analyze how He used the principle and to understand why He used it so frequently is enlightening for anyone who desires to teach successfully in the home or in the Church …

Use Tangibles to Teach Intangibles

If somehow we might associate faith with something the student already knows about, something that is tangible and measurable in space or time, then the teaching about it would become much easier. Then we can form words to describe it and create stories about it. We can measure it. Better still, we can draw pictures of it. We can make pictures or flannelboard presentations of it. We can show it in color or present it as an object lesson. Then we have the basic interest of the students because students, generally speaking, are more interested in what they know about than in those things they don’t know about.

The letters in the alphabet can be arranged in words, which in turn become symbols for objects in the tangible world about us. We can open a book full of such symbols and read them, and in so doing, we can “see” the things the symbols represent. In a similar way, commonplace things that we already know about can be made to represent intangible, invisible ideals. We can learn to “read” these symbols, and in so doing, we can “see” the things that they represent, such as faith, love, charity, and obedience.

That is how Jesus taught. Each of us may learn to teach that way also. If we learn to teach as Jesus taught, we can then teach our own children and the other children of our Heavenly Father “all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for them to understand.” (D&C 88:78.) (Chapter 5, “Apperception”, pp. 20, 26–27.)

There is a practical way in which faith or any other intangible ideal can be transposed into something tangible and teachable. In fact, there is a procedure we can use. This procedure can help teachers, especially teachers of religion, immeasurably. It can also help parents in teaching some difficult things to children.

At first, the formula may seem too simple to be useful. But as we study it a bit and begin to experiment with it, we find it very useful.

I remind you that this method of teaching comes from the New Testament. And I remind you also that Jesus as a teacher taught unlettered audiences about the invisible, intangible ideals of the gospel. In teaching faith and love and brotherhood and repentance, he employed the technique of likening the intangible, invisible ideal to a well-known, ordinary object about which His disciples already knew. That is known as apperception, and here is the formula:

_____________ is like _____________.

In the first blank, enter the idea or ideal that you must teach. For example, in the first blank, write FAITH.

FAITH is like _____________.

Now use your imagination and think of a tangible object the student will recognize that might be likened unto faith. The homier, more commonplace, more ordinary it is, the better your illustration. Perhaps you will use this one: FAITH is like A SEED. Faith is really like a seed—at least Alma thought so:

“Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

“Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.” (Alma 32:28–29.)

Notice that you have reduced faith to a tangible object the students know. Now you have something with dimension. Faith can be compared to a seed. Jesus used this illustration: “Verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say unto this mountain, remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you.” (Matt. 17:20.) In using the mountain for the comparison, He introduced size, making the lesson more understandable and impressive.

Once you have likened faith to something tangible, you can form pictures of it with words to describe it, measure it; you can tell the size, the shape, the color, the texture; you can draw it on the chalkboard, find a picture, make a slide or a flannelboard cutout. You might show some actual seeds as an object lesson—perhaps displaying a seed from a vegetable packet or a stone from a fruit.

The students could be given some seeds to plant in containers. The teacher could water a plant and let other plants wither, to demonstrate, as Alma did, that faith must be nourished.

When the teacher uses comparisons such as these, students soon begin to “see” what faith is like and come close to knowing and understanding a gospel principle.

Apperception Is a Key to Teaching the Gospel

Apperception can work in many lessons to teach such intangible concepts as faith, hope, charity, love, reverence. They can be taught very effectively and with great meaning even to young minds. Knowing this principle is of great value to the teachers at home or in the Church. It really is not necessary to falter and stumble and half-teach these virtues when they can be successfully taught. To know this one thing is a very important key in teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Suppose we use another illustration. Take the subject repentance.

REPENTANCE is like _____________.

What commonplace thing familiar to everyone could be likened to repentance? Suppose we use soap.


A lesson to explain this idea might be developed as follows:

Repentance is the soap of life. When properly used, it can cleanse us from our transgressions; yet some people stay dirty. Why? Why do so many individuals not use repentance when it is immediately and constantly available to everyone?

You could illustrate the misuse of repentance in this way. Describe a beautiful, white handkerchief, pure and untouched, that is dropped in the mud. If it can be carefully washed, it will be clean once more. But suppose it is dropped in the mud again and washed again; then into the mud and washed again many times. The handkerchief soon becomes gray and ingrained with dirt, and it is much harder to get it clean, even with strong soap.

On one occasion, I sat with a group of seminary teachers, presented this formula, and asked them to put their minds to work on the subject of teaching repentance. It was interesting how in an hour of discussion we produced a dozen or more life situations that might be used.

Use Imagination

It is important to understand that if you are too literal or too technical, no comparison or reference will satisfy, not even those the Lord used. You must use imagination.

I remember one teacher arguing that repentance really isn’t like soap. For that matter, the kingdom of heaven really isn’t like a net, nor are the Pharisees like unto the whited sepulchre. Some creative imagination is necessary. If you don’t try to develop that, then you will be a very dull teacher, not an interesting one. If you are determined to be literal, no apperceptive reference is quite good enough. (Chapter 6 “Is Like Unto. …” pp. 28–31.)

Now that you have some idea how the principle of apperception operates, it will be helpful to look again into the scriptures to see many illustrations of this method of teaching. In His teachings, Jesus always dealt with familiar objects and experiences. By studying the examples He presented, one will recognize that many are very ordinary illustrations. In presenting the familiar example, Jesus began with what the people knew in order to provide a learning experience.

One thing Jesus had in common with most of those whom He taught was basic life experience. From the information we have concerning His personal life, we conclude that He might have been regarded as an ordinary individual of His day. His teachings reflect and portray for us the world of His day.

He related directly to the background of his listeners. He referred often to the basic religious instruction that was paramount in the life of every youngster in that day …

Common, Ordinary Things

The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps as productive an example as any particular teaching episode …

Quite as rich a source of obvious apperceptive material can be found in a study of the parables. In these stories, He refers to experiences common to the average life in Palestine in His day or refers to Judaic history for references to well-known regulations from the Law of Moses.

He speaks of hens, chickens, birds, flowers, foxes, trees, burglars, highwaymen, sunsets, the rich and the poor, the physician, patching clothes, pulling weeds, sweeping the house, feeding pigs, threshing grain, storing into barns, building houses, hiring help, and dozens of other things. None of them is mysterious or obscure, and all are from the real-life, everyday experiences of those whom He taught.

“… Is Like …”

He was always comparing the tangible world about us with the intangible world within us. Time after time after time He used the expression “is like” or “I will liken.” …

To Make the Lesson Clear

Keep in mind that Jesus was not merely talking to the people of His day about their experiences and the things in their environment. He was not teaching them about hens and chickens. He was using the hen and the chickens to teach them in Matt. 23:37 about something else. He related and interrelated these experiences in the visible world to the unseen world within. He made the application, the comparison, so that the lesson was obvious …

The application in each discourse was the important thing. In the reference to salt (Matt. 5:13), for instance, He was not interested in reminding His listeners of the common table condiment—so common, in fact, as to be almost uninteresting if mentioned in other ways. The word salt as used in His teaching was not used to tell them how to eat, but rather, was a stepping stone to connect and interrelate the past experience of His students into larger, more meaningful, more inclusive learning patterns.

We mentioned earlier that such concepts as faith, repentance, and humility are hard to teach because we cannot visualize them. They have no size, no shape, no texture, no color; therefore, it is difficult to make word pictures of them. By using the method Jesus used, however, we can teach them well (Chapter 7, “It’s in the book”, pp. 33–36, 38–39.)

Subject ideas for comparisons and references are everywhere, and there are many of them in our surroundings if only we can see them. Consider the following illustration.

A New World

During World War II, I was in cadet training at Thunderbird Field near Scottsdale, Arizona. We would on occasion go into Phoenix on the weekend, and on Sunday afternoon, we would be finding a way back to our base. Scottsdale, Arizona, in those days was a rural suburb of Phoenix and consisted of not much more than two street crossings.

One Sunday, several of us were not able to get a ride, so we began the long walk back to the base. As we were hiking along, an old car drew up and a gentleman offered us a ride. There were more of us than could get in his old car, but there were small steps by the doors on which we could stand, and so he drove slowly along as we chatted. Several complained about the desert and how dry and dead and lifeless it was. Finally, he stopped the car and said he wanted to show us something.

He then told us he was a teacher of natural sciences, and we spent some time walking into the desert. He showed us plants and animals and living things and opened our eyes to a new world. He pointed out shriveled and supposedly dead plants.