Jenny Parnell Willmore lives in Logan, Utah, USA with her husband James. They have four children and one grandchild. She currently serves as Relief Society president and has taught everything from nursery to Gospel Doctrine. She has a Master of Second Language Teaching from Utah State University and taught Spanish at Snow College, the military’s JLTC, and for the past 17 years at USU. Consequently, she has made every teaching mistake in the book. She and her family volunteer every other summer in Colima, Mexico with Project Amigo and she is an interviewer and producer for the LDS Women Project.
“Love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning.” Carol Dweck
A young mother recently revealed to me the pain she felt as her oldest daughter approached baptism. As she bravely opened up to me, it became clear that she had misremembered parts of the scriptures in D&C 68:25 and Exodus 20:5 to believe that her daughter, once baptized, would need to repent of all the sins that she, the mother, had committed. Once we had discovered the flaw in her understanding, we were able to find the flaw in her reasoning as well. Identifying this mistake and replacing it with the knowledge that baptism was a blessing. Having her error exposed and corrected led to opportunities for both of us to testify of other gospel truths.
Mistakes Hasten Understanding
It might go without saying that finding flaws and errors hasn’t always been viewed in a positive light. In 1914, Dr. John B. Watson wrote a paper popularizing what came to be known as behaviorism.
Behaviorists believed that our behavior could be manipulated using rewards, punishment, and aversion. Watson argued that anyone could be trained to act a certain way given the right conditioning. As the most popular psychological theory from 1920 to 1950, it informed public education- in part because it was easy to engineer and measure outcomes.
A corollary of behaviorism was an unease with flaws and errors. In 1968, educational psychologist David Ausubel identified his unease with errors- they were inefficient. Mistakes presented a hurdle to instructors and students because they were signs that the system had failed. As a result, time and effort would need to be diverted to unlearn misconceptions and relearn correct associations.
But in 1994, psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler conducted a landmark study comparing math classrooms in Japan and the United States. In Japan, where math scores were higher, researchers noted that errors were discussed in depth, which hastened student understanding of both actual and potential flaws in understanding. Studying what had gone wrong led to an understanding of why the correct procedures had been appropriate as well as ways in which plausible routes and reasons could lead to incorrect answers. In the American classrooms, by contrast, teachers leaned toward arranging conditions so that students could avoid errors and any situation where incorrect but plausible routes may present themselves. Although there may have been other reasons for the differences in math scores, one big difference that the paper’s authors noticed was the difference in whether teachers would or could engage with students’ errors.
Instructors and students alike began to appreciate that those with a distinctly positive attitude towards flaws and errors thrive because they see flaws as opportunities, not as signs that they or the education system have failed. We’ve begun to “right the ship” when it comes to our attitudes about flaws and errors in the classroom, as evidenced by the popularity and celebration of what Dr. Carol Dweck calls growth mindset– a distinctly positive attitude toward errors as an opportunity for learning.
Engaging With Flaws in Our Teaching Ministry
Correcting flaws, misunderstandings and misapplications of doctrine needs to be reimagined as a blessing in the lives of those we teach. As Elder Neal A Maxwell said,
“Be grateful for people in your lives who love you enough to correct you, to remind you of your standards and possibilities even when you don’t want to be reminded.”
Engaging with flaws can be seen as opening doors in our ministry as teachers if done correctly and with sensitivity. We can view errors not as inefficiency, but as opportunities to find the pure doctrine of Christ. As President Nelson said in the most recent General Conference,
“The pure doctrine of Christ is powerful. It changes the life of everyone who understands it and seeks to implement it in his or her life. The doctrine of Christ helps us find and stay on the covenant path. Staying on that narrow but well-defined path will ultimately qualify us to receive all that God has.”
Proactive Humility to Find Pure Doctrine
Finding the flaws in our understanding and application that keep us from having access to this pure doctrine is worth the proactive humility that will be required by us as students and as instructors. As Dr. Wendy Ulrich says,
“I do not want to live a life based on illusions and being disillusioned is very valuable to me.”
A testimony of the need to teach pure doctrine can lead us to a desire to find flaws in our understanding, flaws in the ways that we we’ve been taught, or even flaws in the way the human brain absorbs and stores information.
Take, for example the 2012 study from the University of British Columbia that found that the more people learned to think analytically, the less religious they became. When other researchers couldn’t replicate the study, the author admitted in 2017 that the study had been flawed. Why, then, had the study been so widely reported and adopted? Because it played into assumptions that many already had. Psychologist Nadia Brashier says that we’d like to believe that we are making decisions based on information, but in truth we tend to celebrate ourselves and others more when an instinct pays off than when research and analysis do. Wrestling productively with our flaws helps us to identify and correct ways that our instincts and good intentions can lead us to incorrect conclusions. Eliminating unhelpful illusions can bring us more in line with the pure doctrine of Christ that brings us peace and hope and can lead us to engage with other gospel truths. ……
‘Prayerfully studying the word of God puts us in tune with the Holy Ghost. He can then inspire us to draw upon what we have studied as we teach and lift others. (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)
Even as instructors who have been called to teach the gospel, we are all students first. As we study the word of God, we can look for ways to ensure that we have learned and understood correct doctrine. In teaching about misinformation in the secular classroom, Professor Molly Beestrum of Dominican University came up with the acronym CARP to check sources of information. I believe that with some modifications, these steps can help in identifying flaws in our understanding and application of doctrine as well.
- C stands for Current. Is the quote, story, or article current? Is there anything more recent available for reliable church resources? Has it been cited recently by church officials? Has it been contradicted recently by church officials?
- A stands for Authority. From what authority does your quote, story or article come? Can it be traced back to a specific individual? Does that individual have the authority to introduce new doctrine, to interpret it for the church, or to make the promises he or she is making?
- R stands for Reliable. Can you trust the doctrine that has been taught by this individual because it has been taught by or cited by other individuals who had the authority to testify to its truthfulness? Official Church websites and faithful organizations like the Maxwell Institute, BYU Studies and Leading Saints are great resources for checking to see whether an older quote or article has stood the test of time.
- P stands for Purpose. Is this quote, story or article meant to entertain or inform? Is it fact or opinion? Is it proposing to sell you something? Is its purpose to help you to grow closer to the Savior?
Sharing Corrected Information Respectfully
Identifying and rejecting flaws as a student or as an instructor is not a natural talent. It is a process that must be learned just as we would learn and teach anything else. Being corrected, especially in front of others, can trigger our “survival brain”- that part that triggers the reactions we associate with being under threat. If we testify to the value of identifying and correcting flaws, we can enlist the help of our classes to decide how we will handle those situations lovingly. In D&C 121:43 the Lord teaches us how to correct in his words to Joseph Smith:
“41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; 42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— 43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.”
Modern classroom management techniques can help us and our students to view honest questions from students, or honest sharing of misinformation or error with a class, as an opportunity for spiritual growth. I find that the words of the Lord in section 121 line up very well with the suggestions that Dr. John Cook of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia has for combating information. When errors, misinformation or even disinformation come up in class, Dr. Cook suggests steps that instructors can take to engage with the misconception and share correct information in way that is respectful to all. I have modified Dr. Cook’s idea for gospel-centered learning.
- Persuasion- Establish yourself as someone who has the authority to talk about this, whether it be because of your calling or because of a personal testimony that you have received. Then, approach the flaw or misinformation clearly. Stay relevant to the needs of your class. Stick to the doctrine and to your experiences and testimony. ‘One way to ensure that you are teaching true doctrine is to consider how what you are teaching relates to the doctrine of Christ, which is summarized in 2 Nephi 31 and 3 Nephi 27:16–21 and found throughout the scriptures. Continually ask yourself, “How will what I am teaching help my class members build faith in Christ, repent, make and keep covenants with God, and receive the Holy Ghost?”’(Teaching in the Savior’s Way)
- Warning- Use gentleness, meekness, love, kindness, and pure knowledge to warn how the flaw, interpretation or information could be misleading. The way that you deliver this correction will need to be different for different students. Students of all ages need to hear correction in a way that doesn’t put them on the defensive. Keep in mind that although some students may share misinformation and expose flaws in their understanding, there are usually genuine values behind their desire to acquire and share this information. “Following the Savior’s example, pray by name for the people you teach who have the greatest needs. Pray to know and understand their specific needs and ask Heavenly Father to “prepare their hearts” (Alma 16:16) to learn the things that will help meet those needs.” (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)
- Fallacy- Reprove with sharpness- Not the student, but the information. Flag tactics being used to sell something or to excite or sensationalize. Emphasize what a blessing and opportunity it is to stumble upon a flaw in our understanding or application of the gospel. Establish that we all learn together how to deal with flaws. Let them know that their errors help you as a teacher. “When you ask learners to search the scriptures and other Church resources for answers to gospel questions, you provide them with excellent learning opportunities.” (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)
- Fact – An increase of love- Provide an alternative to the erroneous facts. Replace the misinformation and make the correct information ‘stickier’ by including why you know what you know, and what you still don’t know. Bear your testimony of a gospel topic that is related. If you and your students can feel the peace and hope conveyed by the Spirit when talking about the corrected information, it will have a larger impact on their minds and spirits than the flaw or misinformation. “The Savior’s personal testimony gave authority to His words and helped those He taught recognize that He was teaching eternal truths. As you bear testimony of true doctrine, the Spirit will confirm the truth of the doctrine in the hearts of those you teach.” Teaching in the Savior’s Way
Engaging with our flaws and those of others can bring us closer to the pure doctrine of Christ. It gives us opportunities to replace misunderstandings and illusions with knowledge that will bring us closer to the Savior and our Heavenly Parents. This humble study provides freedom from confusion and leads to a firmer knowledge of the gospel and peace and hope.
“Prayerfully studying the word of God puts us in tune with the Holy Ghost. He can then inspire us to draw upon what we have studied as we teach and lift others…The Lord promises that if we “treasure up in [our] minds continually the words of life, … it shall be given [us] in the very hour” what we should say and how we should teach (D&C 84:85).” (Teaching in the Savior’s Way)