A Critique of “Come Follow Me” (the new youth Sunday School curriculum)
Posted by BrianJ on April 4, 2014
I offer my evaluation* after fifteen months of using the new Sunday School curriculum for youth, Come Follow Me (CFM). The purpose of this report is help teachers, parents, and students to capitalize on the strengths while moderating the weaknesses of the new program.
In comparison to the previous curriculum for youth (i.e., the Gospel Doctrine series), CFM offers improved methods for teaching diminished material.
The major change of the new program is its focus on teaching methodology. Without coming right out and saying it, the new materials accurately portray the previous manuals as impersonal and inflexible. The previous lesson plans, with their pre-scheduled** step-by-step weekly lesson plans, have been replaced with “learning outlines” based on monthly topics. Which outline will you use? In what order will you present the material? That is for you to decide based on your students’ needs.
That’s a pretty big change, right? Yes…well, maybe…depending on the teacher. By shunning predetermined lesson plans, the new curriculum certainly emphasizes the need to prayerfully tailor teaching:
“You may find that you need to make your plan flexible enough that you can adapt it as new needs or questions arise. For example, you may find that the youth need more than one week to discuss a topic. Let the needs of the youth, not a predetermined schedule, guide your teaching.”
But please realize that the previous manuals hardly forbade prayerful consideration of the students. Consider these instructions from the old manual versus the new guidebook†:
“Each lesson in this manual contains more information than you will probably be able to teach in one class period. Seek the Spirit of the Lord in selecting the scripture accounts, questions, and other lesson material that will best meet the needs of class members.”
“There are often more learning outlines in a unit than can be taught in one month. Ward leaders and teachers of youth should counsel together to determine which learning outlines to teach from each unit.”
Not substantially different: both resources emphasize leading discussions rather than lecturing, sticking to scriptures and Church magazines, relying on the Spirit as the ultimate teacher, and inviting students to act in ways that bring about conversion to the Gospel.
Out with the Old
The biggest difference therefore is not what or how teachers are allowed to teach, but rather how big of a crutch they are given. The Church, faced with the challenge of helping untrained teachers to effectively lead meaningful discussions, must provide more guidance than simply “pray about it.” The old manuals did a good job of helping a totally inexperienced teacher to lead a reasonably good lesson; i.e., it was a huge crutch for those who needed a huge crutch. Ideally, the lesson plans in the old manual would have helped new teachers through the first few weeks or months of their new calling. As they gained more experience and confidence in teaching, their lessons would improve, their ability to recognize the needs of students would become more keen, and their dependence on predetermined lesson plans would decrease. An experienced, skilled teacher on the other hand could ignore the outlines (i.e., crutches) and simply teach from the assigned reading.
The problem, as we all experienced, is that the crutch became too essential—in many cases, it became viewed as being as authoritative/sacred/essential as the scriptures themselves. The norm of mediocre teaching (from mediocre or hobbled teachers) meant that a teacher did not have to put forth much effort to deliver what most members would consider a passable lesson. Some teachers “studied” the lesson outline for the first time during sacrament meeting. Reading verbatim from the manual became common. Teachers with true dedication might still begin preparing a week or more in advance, but often felt constrained by the lesson outline—i.e., they could walk just fine, but felt obligated to use crutches because everyone else did. Teachers who left the manual at home and taught straight out of the scriptures received critical questions that amounted to, “Where are your crutches?”
The result: the old manuals took poor and great teachers and made them average. (Bad teachers were just bad.)
In with the New
The new guidebook clearly seeks to change all of that. For example:
“Learning outlines are not meant to prescribe what you will say and do as you teach. They are designed to help you learn the doctrine for yourself and prepare to engage the youth in powerful learning experiences. Tailor these experiences to their interests and needs.”
That works wonders…as a teaching method. But how does it perform as a curriculum? The new CFM guidebook fails in three main ways:
1) “learn the doctrine for yourself”: Here the guidebook fails because it selects (i.e., cherry picks) certain verses for students and teachers to study. That’s not inherently wrong, of course, but it must be seen for the crutch that it is. Teachers who read those scriptures are not necessarily “learning the doctrine for themselves,” they may merely be reading what someone else learned. They don’t have to read the scriptures and ask, “What is Alma trying to teach here?” Instead, they are handed a list of verses and told, “These verses are about X.”
2) “Tailor these experiences to their interests and needs.” This idea is exactly right—it’s the execution that falls short. This became apparent when I taught the second lesson on the Godhead in January 2013. I looked over all the outlines and couldn’t find one that I thought would interest my students. I picked one anyway and, sure enough, the lesson was flat and lifeless. I apologized to my students the following week and promised never to do that to them again: if I couldn’t find an outline that they needed, then I’d make up something entirely on my own††.
It did not take long before I had to deliver on my promise. Through February (Plan of Salvation) and March (Atonement), I didn’t have too much difficulty choosing outlines that I could loosely follow. April (Restoration) and May (Prophets and Revelation) went okay, but I found myself needing to be ever more esoteric to satisfy both the guidebook and the students. Still, I tried.
But June (Priesthood) is when it became all too apparent that I would have to ditch the guidebook’s outlines altogether. Remember: the students cover the same topics in Sunday School as they do in Young Women/Young Men. After only two lessons on the priesthood, the students had asked everything they wanted to ask and said everything they wanted to say. They were experiencing extreme “priesthood doctrine burnout.” Well, that’s okay…just SIX more lessons to go§! Ugh. (Now try to imagine how unmotivated they felt two months later when August’s topic was “Marriage”!)
3) The learning outlines draw upon conference talks, church handbooks, high-quality videos, and a few selected scripture verses. The first three are good, but I will always view them as side-salad or garnish in the big feast upon the word. The main dish—the meat, potatoes, bread, veggies, and drink—will always be the canonized scriptures. To the extent that selectively studying a few verses out of context can often lead to incorrect interpretations and/or restricted understanding, I would say it’s about as welcome as serving only 0.5 oz of a 16 oz. porterhouse.
I suspect that this criticism will receive the most resistance from readers; nevertheless I want to make my viewpoint perfectly clear: no subject material—not even the most recent General Conference talks—wields and delivers the same authority, depth, interest, or relevance as the scriptures§§. Youth can, with help, understand the scriptures and learn to rely on them throughout their lives. Don’t shortchange our youth by pointing them in some other direction!
I’m not sure whether #2 or #3 (above) is the greatest concern—I find that both are so potentially catastrophic that I cannot differentiate (like choosing between having either the wings or the tail of an airplane fall off). But they don’t have to be catastrophic. My advice:
- Recognize why the curriculum was changed—and help to stamp out those mistakes or bad practices that necessitated the change.
- Recognize the limitations of the new curriculum (remember: nobody/nothing is perfect!).
- Prioritize the demands of the new curriculum; i.e., it wants you to a) choose from the selected lesson outlines and b) to listen to the needs and interests of the youth—which takes precedence?
- Dare to really listen and respond to the needs and interests of the youth.
- Worried that your lessons will “stray” too far off topic#? Then just study the scriptures##.
- Send a weekly email to parents briefly summarizing the questions and discussions from class‡.
* You may wish to know my background and the environment in which I “test drove” CFM. I taught seven youth age 15-18, boys and girls. I spent the first eight months as a team-teacher, teaching every other week, then taught solo every week for seven months after my teaching partner moved. The students participate regularly, willingly, and sometimes even eagerly. I started teaching this group in 2012 for the last half of the Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine manual. In other words, I taught this group for four months of the old curriculum and fifteen months of the new. In previous callings, I taught Gospel Doctrine, Gospel Principles, or Sunday School for youth age 12-18, each for a few years.
** “Pre-scheduled” since 1996, if not earlier, as indicated by the copyright date in the front of those manuals. To illustrate just how impersonal this is, consider that since most of the kids in my class are under 18 years old, these lesson plans were decided before they were even born!
† Note that even the way the official materials are referred to changed: a “manual” lists rules that must be followed, whereas a “guidebook” helps you find your way during a personal adventure—like exploring a foreign country—with the understanding that you’re not expected to experience everything or follow any particular order.
†† With the Spirit as a guide, (obviously). (I wish I didn’t feel the need to include this kind of qualification to my words….)
§ My solution: I never mentioned priesthood again that month. Instead, we studied the scriptures, and I chose stories to study that would have a tangential or indirect connection to the priesthood, but not be “about the priesthood” per se. For example, we studied in Genesis when Rebecca received revelation, deceived her husband, and secured the birthright for Jacob (i.e., a woman taking the lead in the home when her husband is blinded by superficial favoritism). We read and analyzed the story for a bit, then spent the last half of class responding to the question, “Why did God include this crazy story in the scriptures?!” A couple students actually thanked me after class—for a “good lesson,” but more for “not making us study the priesthood again.”
§§ Maybe that’s too strong. The other subject material that I might equate in status with the scriptures is the individual experiences of each student in actually practicing (i.e., living) the Gospel: a selfish girl may never really comprehend Corinthians, whereas a young woman who worked hard to show kindness to a rude classmate already knows what Paul means about the enduring greatness of longsuffering charity.
# Which you’ll believe is not possible if you agree with me that the only true “topic” worth considering is the youth themselves.
## Bonus: if you just study the scriptures, then you don’t always have to choose a topic each week. What is Genesis 42 about? Why not study that chapter with the youth, see what they draw out of it, and see if the discussion brings up another chapter (Luke 15 maybe?) that could be studied next week?
‡ Sometimes it is helpful to quote a particularly insightful comment or question, but always respect the students’ privacy.
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