As a very young boy, I was intrigued with oil paintings. I spent many hours not only enjoying, but carefully examining the brush strokes still visible in the hardened paint. I was especially fascinated with the way the colors were mixed and placed one beside another.
It was exciting. Finally, upon growing older, I could restrain myself no longer. I just had to try it!
I obtained a few supplies, and then one night, after all the rest of the family was sound asleep, I ventured to paint.
My first attempt was to copy a painting of a beautiful landscape. Carefully I painted the sky—all of it—in all its detail. I even tried to make my brush strokes look like the ones I saw on the original. When the sky was finished, I painted that magnificent mountain; every stroke of it! Then, the trees—one at a time, of course; and then, the lake. On and on, I moved downward until finally that final blade of grass was placed in the only small white space remaining at the very bottom of the canvas.
Nothing could have kept me from awaking my father and mother to show them the “masterpiece.”
Actually, considering all that I had not yet learned, the painting was not too bad. At that stage in my development, I didn’t notice that the colors reflected by the lake were not very consistent with the colors from which those reflections came, or that perspective lines and size relationships were terribly distorted.
It was not until I enrolled in college art classes that I came to realize that great artists do not produce a finished product by starting at the top of the canvas and by moving systematically to the bottom. Instead, they clearly envision the entire image they wish to portray and then proceed to develop all parts of that image somewhat simultaneously.
By adding one line here and another there, and by applying paint, here a little and there a little, a balanced and coordinated composition finally emerges into reality.
So it is also with teaching and learning the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Great teachers of the gospel do not teach a lesson mechanically and inflexibly. Instead, they develop a clear vision of what the student needs to learn, an objective that needs to be reached. The exact manner in which each teacher presents each lesson should be flexible. This allows each student to blend each truth into his own pattern of growth and development.
Students do not grow simply because teachers expose them to truth, but because students absorb, accept, and choose to obey that truth. Just as the artist is sensitive to the subtleties of the constantly changing scene before him, the teacher must be sensitive to the infinite variety of needs and moods existing with his students.
Speaking of His own approach to teaching, the Savior has said: “I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.” (2 Ne. 28:30.)
Thus, we see that the amount of truth declared by the teacher in any given situation should be influenced by the degree of development and readiness existing with the student.
Since our task as teachers demands such flexibility, organizing the approach we will use in presenting a lesson, becomes very important. (See chart, “Teaching/Learning Relationships” International Magazines, April 1977, p. 27.)
Our initial concern ought to be with the objective of a specific lesson we are expected to teach. “In teaching we have a specific goal to get to, and there must be a plan. We must give careful attention to objectives.
“Fortunately, the Church does a lot of work in preparing lesson materials. The objectives are carefully considered, and the plans are carefully organized so that with reasonable attention to the lesson manual, one can formulate objectives.” (Teach Ye Diligently, by Boyd K. Packer, p. 119. See “Using Objectives in Teaching,” page 27, for additional information on this subject.)
Every lesson written, taught, and learned in the Church, should have an objective. In actual use, that objective needs to be expressed on three different levels: one level for the writer, one for the teacher, and one for the student.
A lesson objective is first used by a writer to guide him in identifying, selecting, and organizing resource materials into a written lesson.
A teacher takes the objective provided in the written lesson and uses it to guide him through his personal preparation of the subject he is concerned with. He must be able to express the objective in terms that are meaningful to his culture, his own personality, and the general needs of his students.
Finally, a lesson with an objective guides the student to understand a principle that he can apply in his life; when the student makes the objective part of his personal goals, then the lesson is meaningful.
But the teaching and learning processes are not achieved without effort. Many years ago, the following counsel was given in a Sunday School session of a general conference of the Church:
“The prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were both blessed with the gift to translate. Oliver lost it, and the revelation tells us why. He thought all he had to do was ask God and he would get the translation without further effort. Because he did not exercise his own mind, to think it out, his gift was taken away. So with the teacher … Take each lesson, think it out, ask God’s blessing upon it, and give it your best effort; your gift will grow; you will succeed.” (Elder Horace Cummings, Conference Report, October 1902, p. 96.)
In the same conference, Elder James E. Talmage went on to give the following:
“Reference has been made to teachers who do not teach in the way to make the most lasting impression. Now, something depends upon the dress of the teacher … I do not refer to the style of the coat, the style of the gown or to the flowers and feathers on the hat, but to the clothing of the spirit. The teachers should wear the garments of their calling … or they will never make the impression necessary.
“When the garment of Elijah fell upon his successor, it was manifested that the spirit of his calling was transmitted. Without his spirit, we cannot accomplish anything. So, my brethren and sisters, strive for it, work for it and the spirit of your calling will engender the spirit of industry—God fearing industry, which will bring with it efficiency in the work to which you have been appointed.
“My heart bounded with joy in listening to the voice of authority calling upon the teachers to prepare by study and earnest effort for their work and not expect the Lord to do it all for us … The Spirit of the Lord comes to him who seeks for it.” (Elder James E. Talmage, Conference Report, October, 1902, p. 96.)
As we think about how we will approach the students with the principle in our lesson, we should make diligent efforts and seek the direction of the spirit so we may use wisely the lesson materials provided for us.
President Ezra Taft Benson of the Council of the Twelve, gave the following insight:
“The purposes of the Lord—the great objectives—continue the same: the salvation and exaltation of his children.
“Usually, the Lord gives the overall objectives to be accomplished and some guidelines to follow, but he expects us to work out most of the details and methods. The methods and procedures are usually developed through study and prayer and by living so that we can obtain and follow the promptings of the Spirit. Less spiritually advanced people, such as those in the days of Moses, had to be commanded in many things. Today those spiritually alert look at the objectives, check the guidelines laid down by the Lord and his prophets, and then prayerfully act—without having to be commanded ‘in all things’. This attitude prepares men for godhood.
“The overall objective to be accomplished in missionary work, temple work, providing for the needy, and bringing up our children in righteousness has always been the same; only our methods to accomplish these objectives have varied. Any faithful member in this dispensation, no matter when he lived, could have found righteous methods to have carried out these objectives without having to wait for the latest, specific churchwide program.
“Sometimes, the Lord hopefully waits for His children to act on their own, and when they do not, they lose the greater prize, and the Lord will either drop the entire matter and let them suffer the consequences, or else he will have to spell it out in greater detail. Usually, I fear, the more he has to spell it out, the smaller is our reward.” (Conference Report, April 5, 1965, pp. 121–122.)
As teachers who are called to be “fishers of men”, (See Jer. 16:16, Matt. 4:19) we must launch forth in our assignments with firm decisiveness on what it is we need to teach; but as to how we handle each teaching moment, we must remain flexible enough to cast our net on the other side of the boat when the Spirit so directs. (See John 21:6.)
By doing so, we can draw multitudes unto Christ—even, if by chance, there should be only one, how great shall be our joy with him in the kingdom of our Father! (See D&C 18:15–16.)