Monday, April 20, 2015

Two Different Ways of Teaching

Here is a way to think about teaching the scriptures more powerfully. Do you teach the scriptures "inside out" or "outside in"? Inside and outside both refer to the scriptures and reference where you start and where you spend more time. I will explain both methods.

'Outside-in' is when you use the scriptures as a support for a story or a thought or an experience that you share with the class. You begin class by sharing what you have with the students. A great story will certainly grab the attention of the class - they will be with you and eager to hear your tale. You tell them the story or relate the experience. When the story concludes you say something like "Everyone now turn to the following verses and let's see how they are just like the story I told you."  You have everyone turn to the scriptures to see how your story is strengthened by what you read there.

'Inside-out' is when you use a story or experience to support a clear doctrinal teaching from the scriptures. You begin class by first going to the scriptures. You spend time there and come to understand the context and content, and then discover a principle or doctrine. You have the class chew on it a while, analyzing it together so that it can be understood by all. Finally you move to an illustration of that doctrine in action with a story from the teacher or a student, one that illustrates how it works in real time, today.

Both methods get students into the scriptures but one of them is much stronger than the other. Obviously the 'inside-out' method is stronger because it begins with the scriptures and the lesson is centered on the scriptures and not on my personal life. It starts where the action really is - in the written word of God. Once we have helped students understand a portion of that word we can then help them to rely on it by showing how it works in a real person's life. That person could be the teacher or a student, or both. In the 'outside-in' method the focus is on the teacher and the teacher's story. It could be a great story, one that illustrates a true principle. But if the focus is on the teacher then the scriptures stay unfocused in the minds of the student. They are just there as a backup to a great story.

I have a story that I have used for years to illustrate the doctrine that the Savior has a plan and that His plan will roll out as He has prepared, so we can be confident that we can see the end from the beginning and we have no need to fear because we know how things will end up. My story is about a football game I was watching on TV years ago. It was on a tape delay and so I knew the result of the game as I was watching it. It is a great story and illustrates the doctrine perfectly. I have used that story as the focus of a class and later, when I knew more, I have used it simply as an illustration of a scriptural principle. The second way has worked better every time.

What is needed more than ever is for students to see the scriptures and what they teach as the focus. That would of course include the words of living prophets. The teacher will someday leave the class. The students may or may not remember the great stories but if we can help them learn to dig in and understand the scriptures, they will have that skill forever and it will bless them for the same length of time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Teaching and Learning is Like a Kaleidoscope

I sat in a class the other day and the teacher posed a question which invited not only responses but perhaps a personal story to illustrate the response. It was a good question and a response came quickly, coupled with a personal story to strengthen it. That was great. Then another similar story came from a different student, followed by yet another of the same kind from someone else and I soon felt like I had reached the saturation point of the same stories. Nothing different was happening in class, just story on top of story, each saying essentially the same thing.

Far too often class discussions become a recitation of the familiar. That's fine and it is certainly not offensive but the longer we stay on only the familiar, the less chance there is of learning anything. You may notice that I did not say "learning anything new." I don't put much stock in learning new things. I am much more excited about seeing old and familiar things in a new way. An effective teacher finds ways to teach well known things with just enough of a twist that it will appear new and thus we will learn. When you see the light come on in a student's countenance then you know you have helped her see things differently.

The kaleidoscope appears to be a simple child's toy, but think of what it is: it is a tube with a chamber into which is placed some colored stones or bits of glass. Also in the chamber are some mirrors to cause reflection. As the light enters the chamber it reflects on the bits of glass or stones to create a pattern with the help of the mirrors. Then, as the tube is turned, even ever so slightly, the stones move and the pattern changes. The light is the same. The stones are the same, and the mirrors are the same. The only difference is the turning, the slight rearranging of the stones. Infinite patterns can come from the same materials if they are turned slightly. That becomes the job of an effective teacher - to turn the cylinder just enough to help us see the same things in a different light, thus adding to our knowledge and wonder.

Here is an example. For years I have used a standard definition of righteousness as I've taught: righteousness is being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, doing the right things. I think it is a good working definition and it is easy to understand. We can get a visual of righteousness just from that sentence. It is not a full definition but it is very useful. Now, would you see it differently if I added Isaiah's metaphor found in Isaiah 48:18 - "...then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea." Isaiah has just turned the kaleidoscope enough that it causes us to see in a new way. How is righteousness like an ocean wave? That is not any of those four things I use in my definition. Is it because righteousness can be constant? Because it can rise up to a large size? Because it is powerful? We can play with those thoughts for awhile and learn something new. For that matter we can play with "peace as a river" too and gain some new insights.

If you went home from a class where those things had been discussed and someone asked what you studied that day and you answered 'righteousness', the inquirer might immediately think they knew what the class was all about, but they would be wrong. You would have personally received some great new insights because your teacher had taken the time to twist the kaleidoscope of learning just enough that you were able to see the same things in a new way. That causes learning. Talking about the same familiar things over and over is review and there is a place for it. But to learn and add to our knowledge we need to blaze new trails of thought. Seeing things differently helps do that.