Here are a few recent comments about teaching in the Church:
Jim F.: “As you can see, I’m skeptical about Church teaching in general. I hope to see things otherwise, and it seems to me that the Church is interested in making them otherwise, but we’ve got a ways to go.”
Gordon Smith: “I am very frustrated by the teaching that goes on in the Church. . . . I remember Dallin Oaks talking about the poor teaching in the Church, but I do not remember a very coherent vision of where we need to go. In any event, if my experience is generalizable, the lesson didn’t take.”
Yes, a few years ago there did seem to be a big push on the general level to improve the quality of teaching. I remember realizing that they were serious when Elder Oaks mentioned in one of his talks that he had been making unannounced visits to various wards to observe teaching. (He neglected to mention whether the Church was covering medical expenses for people who had massive coronary events when Elder Oaks walked into their classrooms to observe them.) I think the placement of the Ward Teacher Improvement Coordinator on the Ward Council may also have been part of this effort; I am not sure what last year’s removal of the TIC from the council signifies.
I have been thinking a lot about teaching and improving teaching over the last few years. Currently, I am a ward Teacher Improvement Coord. (I also teach GD and Institute). I generally feel stumped on the topic, however. Here are a few of my observations:
(1) The people who least need teacher improvement are the most likely to come to the meetings.
(2) The constant shuffling of callings limits what teacher improvement can accomplish.
(3) Old habits die hard.
(4) No one likes change. (You should have seen the vitriolic email I sent my husband earlier this week when he changed our desktop background without prior consent.)
(5) Church manuals may be part of the problem, esp. the PH/RS ones. If anyone knows how to teach an excellent lesson from them, I would like to hear it. (I generally see one of two things: either read a paragraph and ask a question, repeat, repeat, repeat, or take the topic from the manual and ignore the text itself.)
(6) Our overall approach to studying the scriptures (which I think can be best described as: isolate keyword of topic of passage and then discuss topic with minimal reference to text) instead of what may be more beneficial: the close reading and attention to detail that we see demonstrated so ably by Jim in his SS lesson posts here and his book, Scripture Study: Tools and Suggestions.
(7) We have no tradition of constructive criticism. You would think that part of my job as TIC would be to visit teachers and then share with them my assessment of their strengths and possible areas for improvement. It isn’t. I help only if they come to me. And, see (1) above, the ones that come to me are the least in need of help. Most people would drop dead if someone said anything negative about their teaching; I think it would be nice if we could offer not-positive feedback to each other, gracefully receive it, and put it to good use.
(8) Every class, it seems, has people who are Just Starting Out (new converts, young people, etc.) and others who Know It All (former seminary teachers, etc.). Teaching to two extremes is never easy.
(9) I think one of the biggest discussion killers is asking questions that everyone already knows the answer to. I think teachers persist with this approach out of fear of ‘opening the floor’ to new ideas.
I mention these negatives not to dwell on negativity, but as a starting point for a discussion of how we can encourage change from our current vantage points (in other words, no speculating on what you would do if you were on a curriculum writing committee, just thinking about what you can do in your current position). My contribution:
(1) The best lesson that I have taken from the Teaching, No Greater Call book is that the students bear part of the responsibility for the quality of the lesson. I decided that I was a slacker for zoning out of boring lessons and that I have an obligation to look for openings to make comments that will contribute in a positive way to the lesson.
(2) I also decided that I, as a student, was being less-than-productive if dwelling on ‘man-this-is-lame’ thoughts during a lesson or talk. I made a deliberate decision that I would (1) try to determine exactly why it was lame and (2) think about what I could do to be sure that I didn’t make the same mistake when I taught.
I’m interested in your thoughts on what we can do to improve the quality of teaching in the Church.