Feast upon the Word Blog

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Discussions without Destinations: A Tangent From “Jesus Christ, Our Savior” – YW Lesson 2, Manual 1

Posted by KS on January 6, 2012

(A similar discussion is also taking place at Beginnings New.)

Elder Bednar recently published a book titled Increase In Learning. I received that book for Christmas, and between reading that book, and coming across a certain suggestion in the outline for Lesson 2, I’ve been doing a lot more thinking about methodology than specific texts this week.

One of the suggestions in Lesson 2 is to “Ask for a volunteer to recite the third article of faith. Discuss with the class what the atonement of Christ is and what it means to us. Your discussion should include the following [seven] points:…” But the idea that this “discussion” has a necessary destination point seems to defeat the purpose of opening up a place to discuss “what it means to us.”

This of course is not a problem unique to the YW Program. Whenever any of us gets too concerned about how a lesson outline “needs” to proceed, we will find ourselves anxious that the class give certain “right” answers. There may indeed be a right answer to a particular question, but to open up a “discussion” that needs to hit on the right answer is a bit like playing battleship with the teacher.

It can also have some unfortunate, long-term consequences. With this particular example from the YW manual, what usually happens (in my observation) is after the young women give an answer or two, the teacher says, “Okay, that’s good too but here’s the answer…” and writes that answer on the board. The young women tend to respond in one of two ways. If the young women realize that the teacher is only going to write what the manual says, then sometimes they play along, guessing what the manual is going to say. Unfortunately, this can teach youth that the answers aren’t things we think through and learn, they are facts to be memorized from manuals. And that doubly communicates that answers don’t really come from the scriptures, or even if they do, someone else has already mined them all out of there for them anyway.

On the other hand, if the young women don’t decide to play this game, then they feel like their answers are being rejected as unthinking or simply “wrong.” When a young woman’s answers are repeatedly treated as “not quite right,” the young woman will come to believe that she can’t really learn from the scriptures by herself. The first group grows lazy, and the second group grows uncertain of their ability to think.

About two years ago here at Feast, a group discussed a book called The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. In this book, Ranciere outlines two ways we can teach: one, to stultify, which is to tell the student what to learn in such a way that they also learn that they can only learn if we tell them what to learn (they become dependent on us); and two, to emancipate, which is to tell the student what to learn in such a way that they also learn they are capable and free to learn on their own. As you can guess, my concern about giving the class an open-ended task, but then only approving certain pre-decided answers, is that we create dependent, stultified learners.

Elder Bednar seems to be thinking in much the same direction. Here is an excerpt from the Introduction to his new book, Increase In Learning:

Through the Savior’s Atonement, you and I as learners are blessed with the gift of moral agency. Because of that supernal blessing, we are agents with the capacity and power “to act” and are not merely objects “to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:26)…

I personally do not know of a principle more central, important, or essential to spiritual learning than the principle of acting as agents and not being acted upon as objects.

This volume is not intended to be a quick, casual, or relaxing read. It also does not describe or prescribe specific study habits or methods, and you will not find lengthy lists of recommendations on things “to do.” This book does not purport to give definitive doctrinal answers to the pressing questions and issues of our day.

Rather, I invite you throughout the book to engage in various learning experiences so you can increasingly “stand independent” (Doctrine and Covenants 78:14) and learn how to find answers to your own questions. Consequently, as you progress through the chapters you will need to read, study, ponder, search, ask, knock, record thoughts and feelings, link, connect, revise, rethink, ask again, start again, and, most important, act.

I think that Elder Bednar is hoping to emancipate – or free – his readers from the idea that they have to get their answers from someone else’s reading of the scriptures. The scriptures are our text for receiving answers and we have the invitation to find them on our own, through the Spirit and our thinking; to learn “even by study, and also by faith” ( D&C 88:118).

It is interesting to me that Elder Bednar grounds all of this in the atonement. It is our Savior, Jesus Christ, that not only saves us from the negative consequences of the fall, but also opens up for us positive opportunities of learning and growth. Lehi says that “because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon” (2 Ne 26). We have been saved from negative consequences, which sets us free. But, also, it is by Christ we “lay hold on every good thing” (see Moroni 7). Every good thing is possible because of Christ. Ranciere (author of the above-mentioned Ignorant Schoolmaster) wrote something that would fit well here: “This is what opens the way to all adventure in the land of knowledge.”   Perhaps our intellectual emancipation comes not just when some earthly teacher trusts us to learn, but when we realize that God Himself trusts us and invites us to act and to learn for ourselves.

As teachers, we can invite this sort of learning by allowing them the room, as Elder Bednar put it, to “rethink, ask again, start again, and most important, act.” We can have discussions without necessary destinations. And we can show them, by our trust in them, that God also trusts them to act for themselves.

10 Responses to “Discussions without Destinations: A Tangent From “Jesus Christ, Our Savior” – YW Lesson 2, Manual 1”

  1. Catherine Ockey said

    Karen, I don’t get onto this blog very often, but I followed your link from your FB post because this is a subject that is of interest to me. I had a wonderful Laurel teacher (way too many years ago) who fostered wonderful discussions with no destination (though guided). She was my saving grace my senior year in high school. I think these types of discussions in lessons are especially important with the YW and YM, but they are also important in the adult classes. It seems to me that the current manuals, along with the instructions to never stray from those manuals, have intimidated many teachers (at least in our area) into not having open-ended discussions.
    Thanks for this post. I’m going to share it with a few people.

    • Karen said

      Thanks Catherine. I find the instruction to “never stray” from the manuals is sometimes taken out of its own meaning and context. If we agree that we should stick to the manuals, then we ought to read their introductions. And if we read the introductions, of those very manuals we are committed to, we will see that they actually encourage discussion, going to scriptures, using conference talks, gearing lessons to individual needs, etc. Even the manuals themselves call the outlines “suggested lesson development.” Sticking to the manual, even on the manual’s own terms, does not mean we are bound to use every example, every outline, ask every question, or cut short every productive discussion. :)

      I did a post just on the introduction of YW Manual 3 if you’re interested: http://beginningsnew.blogspot.com/2011/09/teaching-by-spirit-d-4212-14-and-yw.html

  2. Robert C. said

    Karen, terrific post!

    In an effort to keep in harmony with what I think the spirit of the manual is (or, at least, what I’d like to think is the proper spirit of the manual), I’d be inclined to interpret the suggestion that the discussion “should include the following points” in a way that minimizes the normal connotations of “should” and maximizes an understanding of the list provided as a brainstorm of ideas to get the conversation started. Note the OED definition 18a(a) for should: used “in statements of expectation, likelihood, prediction, etc.” I’d thus interpret the manual as “predicting” the kind of discussion that is likely to take place, rather than a restriction on the bounds of the discussion….

    • robf said

      Like :-)

    • Karen said

      Robert, I like your way of reading that too. You’re right that this could be done in a very productive way. I was exploring just one way of implementing this suggestion, one that I’ve seen used frequently with the above negative results. But it isn’t really because of the manual, obviously. People can use the manuals without stultifying, and people can stultify without using a manual. Thanks for bringing that out.

  3. BrianJ said

    “a bit like playing battleship with the teacher.”


  4. BrianJ said

    More seriously, I should say that I find Ranciere’s “two ways we can teach” too limited as viewed in the context of this post. I think there are very often times when it is appropriate to lead, guide, and direct a class discussion much in the same way that a gardener directs the growth of a vine—pruning and trimming, making it go where he wants it to go. I’d agree that it’s not really a “discussion” at that point and I’m okay with that. But a teacher should have the opportunity to guide the class through his own way of thinking on a subject. If this takes on the air of “This is how it is because I say so” then that is no good, of course.

    • Karen said

      Thanks BrianJ. I’ve been taking some time to think before I respond, and I hope I’ve got something worth to say that makes some sense. :) I agree that there are often times when guiding is very appropriate as well. I think Ranciere’s main point, is, as you said at the end, more a matter of whether or not it “takes on the air” of superiority. Any method could be used to emancipate or to stultify, so I see where my post doesn’t sound fair. I need to do more thinking about this, you are right. I was going off of my observations, but when I write I need to be more rigorous in my thinking.

      For now, let me say that I think the way one stultifies is to get in between the students and the text in such a way that they give up trying to access the text on their own (through laziness, or through despair). But if any of our methods point them to a text, then we are beginning to emancipate. To guide a class through a discussion of a text, where we are asking questions about the text to guide them through a text, is still allowing the students to work with the text. The hope is that those students would feel empowered to read the text later on their own. Gathering information isn’t the same as being stultified. One has to start with information in order to do as Ranciere suggests: make connections, compare, think, etc. So I think that a guided discussion is, generally speaking, not stultifying for the students.

      I think there are some ways to get to the moment of emancipation faster – ways of encircling a student so that they have to use their will and intelligence to get out, thus realizing their potential to learn – but these are often ways that needs to be done one-on-one. In a classroom setting, it seems that any encouragement to think about the text, especially giving them resources to work with the text on their own, is on the way to emancipation. Or, it opens a place where students may emancipate themselves, even without us knowing it.

      What I observed was that the teacher used the manual (not that the manual needs to be used this way, and I apologize about the way I wrote this in the post) in such a way that she came between the student and the text. Even if a young woman used the very words of the verse, she was corrected because it was not the same as the wording in the manual. Obviously, this isn’t the manual’s fault but something the teacher needs to think through more carefully. When this happened, however, the girls became more and more quiet, with one girl, who knew the answers not from reading the text in front of her, but from years of hearing how things are worded in church, answering all of the teacher’s questions. That was the problem I saw and that I wanted to think about.

  5. Karen said

    I should also say that I don’t think the manuals always give answers to the questions they ask. Even in this very same suggested lesson outline, there is a section with several scriptures and a question with no answer given.

    Apologies for basing my post too directly in the manual. It was too easy a target, and not quite fair. The topic of my post is still of interest to me and I used that one minor example in the manual as an excuse to delve into the topic. I’ll be a bit more careful in the future. :)

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