Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

New Youth Curriculum: Trusting the texts

Posted by KS on November 27, 2012

One thing I really like about the new youth curriculum is its focus on current talks and on the scriptures. (While the old manuals left room for that focus, it wasn’t the automatic fallback by any stretch of the imagination.) Potentially, this change pulls the attention away from a set lesson plan performed by a teacher and focuses the attention on texts that the leaders and youth have in common.

This focus on common texts reminds me of a book by Jacque Ranciere we read here at Feast a few years ago called “The Ignorant Schoolmaster.” Part of what I learned from that book is that focusing both teacher and student on a book levels the playing field and opens up the student to work on their own. Below are a few thoughts based on that book and how it relates to the new curriculum.

One problem that often happens in the church is that when we get a calling, we feel like we need to be experts at what we are doing or teaching. It can be pretty intimidating for many people to be called as a Seminary teacher, for example. We recognize, as mentioned in Ranciere’s book, that “One must be learned to judge the results of the work, to verify the student’s [answers]” (page 31). We recognize that if we do not know more than our students do, then we won’t know if their answers are right. However, Ranciere points out that our ignorance can actually be an advantage in the long run for the student. “The ignorant one himself will do less and more at the same time. He will not verify what the student has found; he will verify that the student has searched” (page 31).

And so why is that so important? Well, Ranciere’s argument is that learning isn’t always a matter of “right” or “wrong” answers. What really matters in the long-run is a desire to learn, and a confidence that one can learn by oneself. “This,” Ranciere says, “is what opens the way to all adventure in the land of knowledge. It is a matter of daring to be adventurous” because we believe that we have the ability to learn on our own. I think this is what Elder Bednar has been emphasizing in some of his work lately: we need to help our students exercise their agency to learn on their own. And it’s what the new curriculum aims at: youth who can learn and can teach on their own.

And so, if we want them to have that confidence that they can learn, the worst thing we can do is explain everything to them. That communicates that they need us in order to understand the gospel. It also communicates that we know everything there is to know. And neither is actually true.

The truth is that they are capable of learning without us, and we are actually quite ignorant. And the reverse is true too: they don’t know everything, and we are capable of learning. And these two facts, that apply to us and the youth, are exactly what can make our new teaching curriculum so effective, if we let it.

What can happen is that rather than the teacher being the authority (where we’re playing the “guess what the teacher’s thinking” game every time a question is asked), or the students being the authority (where we simply say that whatever someone says is valid and right in its own way), the scriptures and conference talks become our authorities. No one in the room knows everything about those two things, and so in some way, we become equal. And it is that equality that opens up the students to be “adventurous” and to grow in confidence that they can learn on their own.

Therefore, our job is not to verify that they have the right answers. (Because, to be honest, we don’t know all the answers.) Our job is instead to verify that they are searching, thinking, working. This usually means we ask them questions about what they are thinking. “What do you see? What do you think about it? What do you make of it?” are the questions that Ranciere suggests.  Our questions point them to the texts we are working on. We don’t ask, “What is faith?” – we  ask, “What does this text teach us about faith?” If we are reading in the Book of Mormon, we might ask, “What does Alma say about faith over the course of these 5 verses? How is he developing the idea of faith? Who is he talking to? What is their background? Why does he use this word? What else is going on here that you’ve never noticed before?” Or, if we are looking at a conference talk, we might ask, “What does Elder Holland say about having faith in a difficult time? What scriptures does he use? What is his overall message? How does he develop it? What does he say about faith that you’ve never noticed before?” These questions aren’t based on the teacher’s experience/knowledge nor on the students preconceived ideas. The text becomes the source we are all looking to. (And in our case, since we are looking at scriptures and talks, the source becomes the word of God!)

Because the answers aren’t from our own minds, there is no need to feel intimidated about what we do or do not already know, and there is no temptation to feel proud and superior. These sorts of questions allow us to be together in the classroom, and simply think together. And that also allows the students to grow in their confidence that they can learn the gospel when they’re not in a classroom. I think this is, potentially, one powerful effect of teaching with this new curriculum.

8 Responses to “New Youth Curriculum: Trusting the texts”

  1. hiep said

    How does he develop it? What does he say about faith that you’ve never noticed before?” These questions aren’t based on the teacher’s experience/knowledge nor on the students preconceived ideas. The text becomes the source we are all looking to. http://thietbi-vesinh.vn (And in our case, since we are looking at scriptures and talks, the source becomes the word of God!)

  2. Robert C. said

    Nicely said, Karen. I’ve had several experiences recently that have really helped me understand the power of this approach to learning better, it really is a powerful idea–and it’s surprisingly ubiquitous!

  3. BrianJ said

    There’s something interesting about what you quote from Ranciere. The idea that if we are ignorant on the subject (or at least only as ignorant as our students) then we cannot judge the student’s learning: we “will not verify what the student has found; [we] will verify that the student has searched.” I see that point, see how it applies to the new teaching curriculum, and I agree.

    However, in order to “verify that the student has searched”—i.e., in order to qualify as a judge in this context—we have to know more than our students about how to search. We have to understand searching well enough that we can recognize it when we see it, but also recognize its counterfeits so when can be critical when our students hasn’t searched.

    So with this new curriculum, we’re off one hook, but on another.

    • Karen said

      Yes, and I think what goes along with that is knowing each student very, very well. I homeschool and I know when my kids have searched, because I know them. How do I know this when I’ve got 5-15 kids in my classroom? How well do I really know my youth? How can I see how everyone’s doing at the same time? (I suppose not only do I need to know my students to know this, and also know what searching looks like myself, I also need to rely on the Spirit to know who is searching and who needs another question asked of them to get them sincerely working…)

  4. BrianJ said

    One more side comment, which I think could have some value: I can see how this new curriculum allows and even encourages this way of teaching. What I don’t see is how the old curriculum prohibited it.

    The reason I think that is important to note is because I don’t want anyone thinking that changing the curriculum is going to be the cure for any bad teaching that went on in the past. The curriculum still cannot make up for or prevent bad teaching. Likewise, teachers who worked well within the old curriculum will almost surely continue to do well in the new; for them, the change will not be so dramatic.

    • Karen said

      I totally agree with this last comment, BrianJ. I’ve written many posts over at Beginnings New about how the manual’s introduction pointed to the right kind of teaching (teach to the needs of the students, use the scriptures, follow the Spirit, etc). This “new” way of teaching might make some classrooms more to the point, or more helpful to students, or more engaging, but then again it might not. And certainly, the only kind of “good” teaching in the church is by the Spirit, and there is absolutely no guarantee of this or any program bringing the Spirit! Thanks for the comment.

  5. JohnS said

    Although I certainly never felt restricted to the Sunday School manual alone, there is a strong warning against relying on external material for your lesson plan. For example, the introduction to this year’s course of study includes this stern warning:

    [Additional references and commentaries should not be necessary to teach the lessons. Elder M. Russell Ballard said: “Teachers would be well advised to study carefully the scriptures and their manuals before reaching out for supplemental materials. Far too many teachers seem to stray from the approved curriculum materials without fully reviewing them. If teachers feel a need to use some good supplemental resources beyond the scriptures and manuals in presenting a lesson, they should first consider the use of the Church magazines” (in CR, APR 1983).]

    I think the intent may have been to focus more people on the scriptures, but in practice it has been used to dissuade teachers from bringing in supplemental materials of any kind. It’s really quite remarkable that the church has made the transition from manuals that were published before the advent of the Internet to a wholly online experience that links to Mormon Messages that can viewed on YouTube.

  6. jennywebb said

    Karen, I needed to reread this tonight (I’m subbing tomorrow and for a youth SS class and needed the pep talk :) ). Thank you for sharing. (And for pointing me toward Elder Bednar. Very helpful for what I’m trying to share tomorrow!)

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