Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Help Them Understand

I have mentioned before in this blog that the style and quality of teaching is not really important if no learning is taking place. The whole purpose of teaching is so that people can learn. If that is not happening then we need to readjust our teaching so that the outcome is achieved.

Yesterday I went on a teaching appointment with 2 of our elders. We went to the home of a woman who is committed to being baptized in a week and a half. She was a delight and is so full of faith and hope that I was more edified when I left her home than when I entered. During the course of the lesson, which was on commandments, she asked a question about tithing. One of the elders opened to Malachi 3 and read to her verses 8-10, which as you know is the classic biblical reference on the subject. She listened as he read and when he finished she said “I don’t understand a word of it.” It wasn’t said in a mean way, just a factual way.

He then handed her the book and invited her to read the passage, thinking that her own voice might help in understanding. She did read and when she finished one of the elders immediately said “So what do you think it means?” She hesitated, then stumbled a bit in her explanation. Eventually, with the help of these excellent missionaries she came to understand the passage.

As we drove away the Elders asked me how I thought the lesson went. I told them that I would give them a tip about scripture reading. “You could go to any strong, well-established ward and read that same passage and there would be many adults and youth who would tell you that they don’t understand it. Scripture language is in some sense a foreign language until we pay the price in time and effort to understand the language. Not everyone has yet paid the price, even people with strong testimonies. So my tip is this: don’t assume that people automatically understand the scriptures, just because they were read aloud." I shared with them the reference in D&C 68:25, the one that says that parents in Zion need to teach their children the basics of the gospel. But the sweet spot in that verse for me is the line that says “...and teach them not to understand…” It is not just the teaching that is key – it is teaching to understand. That takes more time and more effort.

When I teach, my first question after reading a passage of scripture would not be “So what do you think that means?” because my steady assumption is that they didn’t fully understand what was read. That is not a comment on a person's intelligence. It is rather a feeling I have about what it takes to learn to understand things of the Spirit. And if they truly didn’t understand then we put them on the spot and they mumble something and hang their head and learning stops. We don't want to embarrass people. 

My first response after reading is to comment on it myself and pose a few simple questions to aid them in understanding. After reading “Will a man rob God…” I might say, “Did you catch how God talks about us robbing Him? Can you see in that third (or fourth) line what He says is robbery in His eyes?” I want to summarize and point them back into the passage so that they grasp the meaning of it for themselves. They will begin to understand. They want to understand, they just need help and we, as teachers of the gospel, are in a prime position to help.

It takes listening and sensitivity and a great desire to see people learn in order to help them get the most they can from a lesson. Think of every student as the Ethiopian described in Acts chapter 8. He was reading the scriptures and wanted to understand. When Phillip approached him, he asked "Understandest thou what thou readest?" The response is a classic: "How can I, except some man should guide me (verses 30-31)." Here was a student who wanted to learn and just needed a little help. We can be that help.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Don't Just Talk About It, Really Do It

Sunday morning before the church meetings I was met in the hallway by our bishop. He was holding in his hand a printed article five or six pages long. He held it up to me and asked “Did you write this?” It was something I had written a while back about teaching, and I confessed to it. He told me, “I have been studying this for weeks and am going to teach it during the 3rd hour today to the adults and youth of the ward. Now that I know you are the author, you are going to help me.” My wife and I have vowed in the mission field to only be ‘yes’ people: anything we are asked to do, we will agree to do it. So I told the bishop that I would help him but I preferred not to diminish his preparations. He said for me to just come to the front when he started and we would do it together.

I thought that this was a good thing because he has told me that he wants to strengthen the teaching in the ward at all levels. I was a little nervous as this is a Portuguese speaking ward and we’ve only been here a few weeks and I am still knocking the rust off of my language skills after 45 years of inactivity with the language. It’s coming back though and I thought I would have a good shot at being understood for an extended time. There is an additional language challenge in this ward in that 90% of the members come from Cape Verde and they speak Creole, which is a variant of Portuguese. And most of them understand English to some level. It is really a 3 language ward.

The bishop started the class and said a few things, then I did some teaching in Portuguese. When the bishop took it back from me, a sister in the back of the room said “We need this either in Creole or in English,” so we agreed and proceeded with each of us in our native tongue.

Here is where it got tricky. This was a class about teaching and improving your teaching so that students can improve their learning. Our good bishop was so excited to have a resource to help him teach about teaching that he wanted to share the whole thing. So he started simply reading it. I knew that this was a recipe for boredom among the members of the class, so I jumped in each time I thought it appropriate and modeled what he had just read and then, to the extent possible, had them practice a bit. It all turned out well and the bishop thanked me for the help and I thanked him for his desire to improve and share it with the ward.

Here is what was re-emphasized again to me: if you want to teach about teaching, you have to teach well. You can’t just talk about it and hope it will help. Talking just won’t help all that much. The teacher teaching about teaching needs to teach with excellence and that includes explaining, modeling, practicing, and giving feedback. It takes time. It is a process. It is well worth the effort but the effort has to be real and meaty and true. We rarely learn anything simply by listening.