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.
Classroom habits are not like hairstyles and catch phrases. Instead of being quickly adopted and floating to the top of our collective consciousness, changing the way we teach takes effort and can be emotionally and logistically difficult. It is not unusual for new educational theories and methods to take decades to become common practice.
In the late 1960s, a Swiss psychologist named Jean Piaget became fascinated with how children learn. His studies led him to pioneer what came to be called constructivism. The idea behind constructivism was that students were not empty buckets, and that the job of the teacher was not to fill those students with knowledge and check later to see how much had been lost due to leakage.
Instead, Piaget and his contemporaries proposed that knowledge is constructed. Students take pieces of knowledge and put them together in their own unique way, building on previous understanding, experiences, beliefs, and insights.
Shifting this paradigm in seeing how we learn meant shifting how we taught. “Teacher-centered” classrooms, where teachers simply delivered packages of information to students who received and stored them, tended to produce what the educational philosopher A.N. Whitehead, called “inert” knowledge- knowledge that was stored rather than being used or acted upon.
Instead, constructivists began to argue for a different way of teaching. They imagined a classroom where the instructor took a less central role and was more concerned with facilitating learning, and guiding students in their study and discovery. This approach is often referred to as “student-centered.”
Becoming a Guide on the Side
A few years after some of Piaget’s first publications, Professor Alison King coined a couple of terms that I think are wonderful in differentiating between these two kinds of teachers and classrooms. In her opinion, teachers needed to abandon the role of “sage on the stage,” to become a “guide on the side.”
The role of the teacher changed from being a guru sitting on a mountain top, removed from everyday life, knowing all things, and waiting to share wisdom. Instead, the teachers role should evolve to someone who was walking up the mountain with the travelers, stopping with them to point out a wildflower on this side or a lovely view on the other, monitoring the pace of the group and encouraging the stragglers.
Now, consider this quote by Elder Oaks in the manual Teaching in the Savior’s Way:
“A gospel teacher, like the Master we serve, will concentrate entirely on those being taught,” said Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “His or her total concentration will be on the needs of the sheep—the good of the students. A gospel teacher does not focus on himself or herself. One who understands that principle will not look upon his or her calling as ‘giving or presenting a lesson,’ because that definition views teaching from the standpoint of the teacher, not the student. Focusing on the needs of the students, a gospel teacher will never obscure their view of the Master by standing in the way or by shadowing the lesson with self-promotion or self-interest.”
I think that Jean Piaget and other constructivists would be very happy with the picture of a student-centered gospel classroom that Elder Oaks paints.
Traveling With Our Fellow Classmates
As an instructor, our role is not to share as much information as possible, to answer all questions, or be the wisest in the room. Our role is to travel with our fellow classmates, perhaps pointing out landmarks along the way and avoiding danger, but mostly helping them help each other construct meaning from the scriptural passages and conference addresses we’re discussing.
That is the way the Savior taught. And it’s also the way he lived.
Christ did not act as a sage on a mountaintop, waiting for us to wear ourselves out only to drop at his feet to receive gems of wisdom. Writers and authorities like Elder Bednar and Brad Wilcox want us to recognize that the Savior is with us at every step, and that the power of the atonement isn’t a prize we win at the end. He is the Guide on the Side, helping us to construct our own testimonies by helping us to put our understanding, experiences, study, and discovery together in a way that can then be acted upon.
In fact, Elder Eyring suggests He may have chosen to learn this way as well; passing up the chance to have an understanding of human suffering delivered in a tidy package and choosing instead to walk the path himself:
“He could have known how to succor us simply by revelation, but He chose to learn by His own personal experience.”
As it says in the introduction of Teaching in the Savior’s Way:
The Savior lived what He taught. In every setting, He was the perfect example. He taught His followers to pray by praying with them (see Luke 11:1–4). He taught them to love and serve by the way He loved and served them. He taught them how to live His gospel by the way He lived. He was always teaching—often in formal settings but just as often in homes and in personal, informal conversations (see Matthew 4:23; Mark 14:3–9).
Here are some ways to make a classroom more student-centered. Note that most of these will require preparing for a lesson in a way that is much different from how we have in the past. Teachers will guide the conversations and class members will help each other develop their own ideas.
Frame questions so there is no wrong answer:
- “Tell me about a time when…”
- “How might this information be helpful to…?”
- “Tell me more about the thinking behind …”
- “What are some images/songs/activities that are conjured up?”
- “What other talks/scriptures/anecdotes come to mind?”
Focused Autobiographical Sketches
Have class members think of or share a brief description of a successful learning experience they have had related to the scriptures or talk being discussed. For an extra challenge, put a word limit (say…20? 40?) on these and give a couple of minutes to carefully ‘compose’. This helps to focus on the essential elements of that spiritual experience.
Defining Features Matrix
List two concepts that have potentially confusing similarities like shame/guilt or worth/worthiness. Share characteristics or quotes that belong to one or the other of the two concepts. Discuss in small groups or as a whole, which characteristics belong to which concepts to clarify their definitions.
Ask students to share (anonymously, if you prefer) which was the muddiest, or most unclear, point in the lesson, talk, or set of scriptures for that day. Use as jumping-off points for classroom discussions.
Break students into groups, giving each a slightly different task. For example, how would they customize this lesson for: Sunbeams/8-year-olds/teenagers/single sisters/divorced fathers/new converts etc… Which scriptures and anecdotes would they highlight and why? Then, bring the groups back together and have them share.
Create Cognitive Dissonance
Challenge students to work faithfully through difficult questions together. Learn as a team how to identify doctrinal misunderstanding and flawed logic. And when that’s not possible, model being comfortable with uncertainty. Something like:
- My uncle has always followed the Word of Wisdom, so why did he get lung cancer?
- Or, I’d like to keep the Sabbath holy, but also want to work in healthcare where having Sundays off isn’t an option.
Uncomfortable Leads to Growth
It’s understandable that changing the way we teach will be uncomfortable, especially when we have only known teacher-centered learning spaces. Many of us have not had constructivist theories and methods make their way into the classroom during our formative education. But I believe in the promises of miracles when we, as sisters and brothers of loving Heavenly Parents, help each other to co-construct personal and usable meaning from our experiences, our lesson materials and the words of the Lord.