Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » My Philosophy of Teaching Gospel Doctrine

My Philosophy of Teaching Gospel Doctrine

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 12, 2012

The annual shift in Sunday School focus from one book of scripture to another is a wake-up call for me as a Gospel Doctrine teacher. Like most others, I suppose, I fall into habits of teaching during the year, standard ways of framing lessons. But the patterns of teaching one book don’t necessarily transfer to the next – a habit of opening a lesson with the historic or social context of, say, New Testament epistles doesn’t transfer to the Book of Mormon year, where, after Lehi leaves Jerusalem, the narrative is seldom influenced by world events outside of its pages.

That disruption of habits is good for teachers and classes, I think, and forces me to think through the role I have as a Gospel Doctrine teacher.

The purpose of Sunday School – and of every other activity during our formal Sunday meetings — is encapsulated in Doctrine and Covenants 43:8:

And now, behold, I give unto you a commandment, that when ye are assembled together ye shall instruct and edify each other, that ye may know how to act and direct my church, how to act upon the points of my law and commandments, which I have given.

In other words, during that 40-minute period “when [we] are assembled together” in Sunday School, presentations and discussions have two purposes: to instruct, and to edify. Those two purposes must lead to knowledge and action – specifically a knowledge of the law of the Lord, and action in keeping his commandments. Anything else, no matter how suitable it may be for other times and settings, is out of place in Sunday School.

In my view, and with the Book of Mormon as a specific example, my role is to help class members learn and understand the content of the Book of Mormon (the “instruction” part), and to create an opportunity for conversion to or testimony of the gospel principles associated with the content of the Book of Mormon (the “edification” part). If I neglect either half – if I provide only an intellectual understanding of the Book of Mormon, or if I provide only testimonials of gospel principles without grounding them on a scriptural foundation – I am failing in my stewardship.

Another key concept in the quoted scripture is “each other.” I guide discussions, I provide information, I set the tone of each class – but it is essential that I provide the opportunity for class members to instruct and edify each other, by allowing them (and teaching them how, if necessary) to testify to each other of the validity of the gospel principles under discussion. Some specific lessons may call for more instruction on my part than others, but any class period that does not include significant class participation in the way of explaining principles, sharing experiences, and testifying to truth is a failure, no matter how brilliant my own contribution might be.

If those conditions are met – mutual instruction and edification – the stewardship of the teacher ends and the class member is responsible for fulfilling the rest of D&C 43:8: The individual class member is the only one who can accept the instruction given, and who can “act upon the points of [God’s] law and commandments.”

This philosophy governs my planning and teaching in specific ways:

I feel bound to prepare, even over prepare, for every lesson. Almost all adult members of the Church with some experience as members are as informed as I am about the basic gospel principles that are at the heart of Sunday School lessons. We’re all just as generally familiar with the narrative of the Book of Mormon and most other scripture. But my responsibility is not to be “just” as informed or “just” as familiar as other class members – it is to teach. I can’t teach if I don’t have something to share that class members don’t already know, or don’t realize they know, or haven’t thought about recently. A class where the teacher is no more prepared than the class members is really no class – it’s a bull session.

I feel bound to “stick to the manual” to the extent of basing my instruction upon the particular scripture block assigned, or some part of it (there never is time to do all of it). I also feel bound to teach that scripture block with the manual’s lesson purpose in mind. That is, if the lesson’s purpose statement points toward obedience, or prayer, or unity, or tithing, then that is the theme of my teaching. I feel both of these obligations because that is the mandate given to me and to Church teachers in general. That is the job, and we don’t have a right to reinvent it. And in truth it is no great hardship to do this, regardless of how much kvetching we might do about the manuals: Most scripture blocks can validly illustrate multiple gospel principles without resorting to proof texting – the opening chapters of I Nephi were taught with the theme of obedience, but could just as well have focused on prayer, prophets, revelation, family relations, apostasy, pride, humility, the value of scripture, etc. I haven’t seen any overwhelming reason, ever, to refuse to use a designated theme; I respect both the concept of correlation (i.e., that Church curricula should regularly address a core set of principles) and the calling of the manual-writing committee who distributed those principles across the year’s lessons.

I do not, however, feel bound to “stick to the manual” with lesson structure, or questions, or attention activity, or emphasis on particular verses. This is where the art of teaching comes in:

Class circumstances vary. Some wards, heavy on young people or on converts who have not yet mastered the basic narrative of the Book of Mormon, might need to concentrate on that narrative – it would be hard to have a meaningful discussion of Nephi’s commitment to “going and doing” if class members didn’t know who Nephi was, or why he was out in the wilderness. But in a class like mine, of life-long or long-time Church members, including general authorities of the Church, and former mission and temple presidents, and women who have read and taught and loved the scriptures and served in the Church for decades, a lesson that was limited to reviewing in detail the various plot points of I Nephi 1-7 would be neither instructive nor edifying.

Better questions are essential. Very often, the questions suggested by the manual are mere reading comprehension questions (such as these in the case of the lesson on 1 Nephi 1-7: What circumstances led to [Lehi’s] departure? What did the Lord promise Nephi if he would obey the commandments? Why did Lehi send his sons back to Jerusalem? Why did Nephi and his brothers want Zoram to return to the wilderness with them? etc., etc., et-flipping-cetera), which cannot lead to productive discussion among the mature members of my class. Because the narrative is so very familiar to them all, I need to find questions that cause them to think rather than to recite rote answers. It is quite possible for “pray, read your scriptures, and go to church” to be an electrifying response to a question – but it has to be a question that causes class members to reflect and authentically arrive at that response, not one that calls for mere mindless chanting. Those thought-provoking questions don’t pop up – at least in my mind – on the spur of the moment, but must be thought out in advance.

Needs of a ward vary. There is no point, I am convinced, in discussing other people’s sins and determining how they can best repent. We need to talk about our own weaknesses. I simply do not allow class members to talk about drug dealers and prostitutes and “those people who want us to pay for their health care,” or about Catholics or Evangelicals and what they supposedly do or don’t believe. It is within my stewardship to identify problems in our ward or city, or temptations that affect those in our social circumstances. Those are what we discuss. A manual used world-wide can set themes and make suggestions, but it cannot address the specific needs of individual classes – that’s the teacher’s role and privilege.

However, my “tailoring” cannot go so far as to flatter my vanity or personal interests. That is, I cannot turn every lesson into one on Church history just because that’s my thing. Nor can I tailor a lesson to sweep in all the wonderful ideas I’m studying in preparation for my lessons: A lesson on how Lehi’s vision ties into the “heavenly council” visions of other prophets, or a lesson on the variants in the Book of Mormon text discovered by Royal Skousen, or a report on the latest theories of the route Lehi followed through the desert, are absolutely inappropriate for Gospel Doctrine classes, in my view. Such a focus would necessarily require that I do virtually all of the talking, allowing for none of the “teaching each other” aspect that I think is so crucial to Sunday School classes. Such a focus would also tend to flatter me as the one who knows all this interesting “stuff” that is new to many people – and the glorification of the teacher should never, ever, ever be the outcome of a Sunday lesson. A skilful teacher doesn’t have to resort to such tricks in order to keep the class’s attention or stimulate their enthusiasm. And finally, while intellectual stimulation often leads to increased testimony in my own personal study, I question whether intellectual stimulation in the absence of class members’ teaching and testifying can ever lead to the edification that must be a part of Sunday gatherings. No, anything I bring into my lessons from those sources must be limited and used to further the stated purpose of the lesson, nothing more.

This is not to say that I don’t appreciate and at least consider – sometimes fanatically study – the lesson-related posts on other blogs, or that I would never bring some detail learned from these farther-ranging studies into my lessons. I do. It’s just that I believe that such materials are meant for personal study, informal blog discussion, or non-Sunday-block study in other settings (Institute, study groups, family home evenings, home teaching chats, firesides, conferences, workshops, hallway conversations, among other potential venues). They just do not fulfill the primary requirements of Sunday School. (To repeat: I am not in the least knocking the materials posted by other bloggers. Bloggers nearly always specifically state that their materials are intended for personal study, or are preliminary to constructing an actual lesson. None of those I read regularly offer their more wide-ranging studies as replacements for the approved lessons. And for that matter, neither do I: I post my lessons to show how I have adapted the materials to my particular class, but I do not claim that they are suitable for any other teacher or any other class. They are tailored to my class.)

Okay, so that’s my basic philosophy of teaching Gospel Doctrine.



  1. Thanks Ardis: I whole-heartedly agree that questions need to be thought out in advance. A good question helps class members avoid that “deer in the headlights” feeling and solicit great contributions. A bad question can take the entire lesson off the rails.

    I agree that the manual is the “meat” of the class. It is nice to add some spices, but nobody needs a bowl of spice.

    Comment by -MMM- — January 12, 2012 @ 7:19 am

  2. Well … I wouldn’t exactly call it the “meat” — there’s no meat in our Sunday School manuals at all! — but if we need a bodily analogy I’d settle for stem cells. The manual sets the pattern or directs the growth or something like that, but the meet comes from the scriptures, and the heart comes from the teacher, and the animating spirit comes from the Spirit. But even though I take my direction from the manual, there is nothing actually contained within the manual’s covers that can be taught as a lesson.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 12, 2012 @ 9:18 am

  3. The “meat” in the manual mostly lies in the passages of scripture that are to be covered in each lesson.

    Comment by -MMM- — January 12, 2012 @ 11:12 am

  4. Oh, okay, so long as we’re agreed on that, and not on the necessity of parroting the commentary and discussion outlines printed in the manual, we’re on the same wavelength.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 12, 2012 @ 11:18 am

  5. Good advice here on many fronts. Questions, as both you and MMM have pointed out, are the key. And a good question to begin the lesson, for me often makes or breaks the lesson. I try to find a good thought provoking question to ask either as the introduction or as part of it, and be prepared enough from there to jump into the scriptures and quotes from the manual, letting the class members lead the discussion while keeping it on track. Knowing well the scriptural passages or statements from the manual allows you to use them to keep the lesson flowing in the direction of the manual’s stated purpose.

    For me, the best advice here is that it is not “my” lesson, but that I am there to “provide the opportunity for class members to instruct and edify each other.” I’ve learned a lot about teaching from wife who teaches junior high math, and it works the same way there. They learn more when they are discovering and teaching each other than when they are lectured to.

    This fits nicely with your own lesson plans that you post here, showing us what it looks like in practice to be “over prepared” and how you structure your lessons. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by kevinf — January 12, 2012 @ 11:27 am

  6. Thanks, kevinf. and I want to endorse your practice of opening strong, either with a good thought provoking question as you have indicated, or a quotation or demonstration or other effective attention-focuser. Dilly-dallying with a too-long welcoming procedure or sliding into your lesson only after cracking a few lame jokes or mentioning how unprepared you are or how nervous it makes you to see everybody there or how you just know everybody is going to love the lesson you have prepared — or 1,001 other weak openings — signals to your class members that they should turn their attention to something more interesting … like their daydreams or Angry Birds on their smartphones.

    But a good question, one that is interesting enough that they want to work out an answer, is very effective.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 12, 2012 @ 11:56 am

  7. Ardis, I love these posts on how you teach, and I wish I lived close enough to attend one (or more!) of your classes. It would be great to see you work.

    We had a discussion in HPG a few years back about how to improve teaching in the church. One older brother (who usually was pretty quiet) spoke up and said, basically, If someone’s a bad teacher, they’ll always be a bad teacher; time to get someone new to teach. He freely admitted he was not a “good” teacher.

    I think your posts can help willing teachers improve. It’s not just clever questions and attention getters, as you say. It is over-preparing, being sensitive to the spirit during the lesson, having flexiblity to turn left or right as the class (and spirit) require that day, and, of course, to guide a discussion, not a discourse, on the scripture. (My personal practice in Gospel Doctrine was always to think of the scriptures as “the manual” and the manual as a supplement. It was a technique I learned from a CES adminsitrator when I taught home study seminary years ago during grad school.)

    Comment by Paul — January 12, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

  8. “Needs of a ward vary.” Shouldn’t the more pertinent statement be, “needs of class members vary”? A Gospel Doctrine Class is not “the ward”; it is a particular group of people. Usually a large group, to be sure: all adult members not assigned elsewhere, either teaching or in another class (Gospel Principles, etc.). Occasionally a ward recognizes that class is simply too large to be taught effeectively and divides it. But the GD teacher is always responsible for the class, not the ward.

    Which leads to … Missing from your discussion is how you teach those who don’t usually attend.

    Comment by JrL — January 12, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

  9. Thanks, Paul — I think our philosophies are similar. And I may try to short circuit the common “you’re not sticking to the manual!” complaints (usually by people who aren’t there to know exactly how the class does go) by adopting your ‘scriptures-are-the-manual/the-manual-is-a-supplement approach.

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at, JrL. On the one hand, you’re right that a teacher addresses the needs of a class, not a ward; as a teacher I have a stewardship for my class, not the ward, and often the needs of classes within a single ward will vary. In my particular case, however, and my very peculiar ward (super-humongous in size, all adults — no children whatsoever — and extremely high functioning as far as church experience goes, with six Gospel Doctrine teachers and with class members self-selecting which classroom to go to), there isn’t much difference in needs among the various classes. The key then becomes “how is my ward different from a ward in Maryland or Finland or Taiwain, and how can I address the needs of people in these circumstances rather than in those other circumstances.”

    On the other hand, as you point out, my responsibility is to my class — which, given the numerous classes in our ward, makes it rather contradictory for you to make me responsible for the entire ward, including “those who don’t usually attend.” I’m not sure why you think I have *any* responsibility as a Gospel Doctrine teacher for that segment of the ward. As a ward member, as a visiting teacher, perhaps I have some responsibility for those who do not attend, but I don’t see that I have any responsibility as a teacher for people who don’t come to be taught.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 12, 2012 @ 3:47 pm

  10. Ardis, you outline clearly why JrL’s question about non-attenders is troublesome for your class. But I can remember tons of teacher training that taught us that we should be teachers for those who attend and who do not attend our classes. Easier to do in a Primary class, for instance, or a YW class, than in an adult Sunday School class, esp in your circumstance with so many similar classes from which to choose. (I can remember stewing over this issue as a young Sunday School president 30 years ago, living in a family Provo ward in which we shared boundaries with four or five student wards, and came to the same conclusion you did.)

    Comment by Paul — January 12, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

  11. I taught Primary for something like 15 years (beginning when I was too young to have graduated from Primary myself), and understand the concept there. In that case, you have a definite enrollment in your class (in addition to generally small numbers), and whether or not a child was active, I was responsible for them as their teacher. Maybe that’s still the case in a ward with a single Gospel Doctrine class and one teacher.

    But in my current circumstances, there is no definite enrollment, any responsibility for “those not there” would by definition by shared by all six teachers … and even the bishop doesn’t pretend to be responsible for 600 adult ward members without the aid of counselors and Relief Society presidency and visiting and home teachers! Ay yi yi …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 12, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

  12. Great thoughts here, Ardis – thank you. I’ve often struggled with “the manual” for the reasons you mentioned; I find the questions it suggests less than engaging and inspiring most of the time. And I think I’m also going to adopt Paul’s phrasing that “the scriptures are the manual and the manual is a supplement” – it puts my current method into words beautifully.

    Most of those who come to my Gospel Doctrine class are fairly familiar with the scriptures, so I try to put a slightly different “spin” on the same lessons they’ve heard multiple times. For last week’s lesson, for example, we actually started out in 2 Chronicles and 2 Kings talking about King Josiah’s reforms that Lehi would have lived through as background for Lehi’s experiences at the beginning of 1 Nephi. It was very well-received and seemed to shake folks out of the “autopilot” they seem to go on when reading well-known scriptures.

    Using the most recent General Conference addresses to expand on the topic at hand has been helpful in getting class members to draw connections and consider modern applications.

    Comment by EmiG — January 12, 2012 @ 5:02 pm

  13. That sounds like a great introduction, EmiG — reliance on the scriptures, relevant as context for the events of the discussion of the opening chapters of the Book of Mormon — nothing weird or esoteric or irrelevant — and yet novel enough to engage the interest of class members. (Incidentally, I wish they would provide for a lesson directly on Lehi, rather than lumping him in as a supporting character to the action starring Nephi.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 12, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

  14. This is a great post.

    “A lesson on how Lehi’s vision ties into the “heavenly council” visions of other prophets”

    Funny you mention this. I used this in my lesson last week–I spent about 50 seconds saying that Lehi’s vision was very similar and suggested comparing it to Isaiah, John, etc., for further study. I find that a way to bring in the tangential-type stuff for those who want to do more, and let everyone know that there is a *lot* more that could be said, but not derail the entire lesson on it.

    Comment by Julie M. Smith — January 12, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

  15. Good post and comments.
    I do what Julie does. Unless it’s Institute, and then it’s down the rabbit hole! Selectively, of course.

    Comment by Ben S — January 12, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

  16. I appreciate these lessons on how to teach, and look forward to reading them all again when I get the opportunity to teach in GD (my favorite calling)or in RS.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — January 12, 2012 @ 9:59 pm

  17. I wish Lehi had his own lesson, too, Ardis! But we are reading Nephi’s record, after all. I imagine Lehi featured more heavily in his own plates. Can we blame Martin Harris? 😉

    Julie – That’s something I’m hoping/planning to bring up over the next couple of weeks when we’re discussing Lehi’s vision of the tree of life and Nephi’s subsequent vision. There are some great insights to be gleaned by comparing all those apocalyptic visions!

    Comment by EmiG — January 13, 2012 @ 8:59 am

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