In a society where sacred religious beliefs are increasingly being contested in the public domain, more and more young members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are frequently being put in circumstances where they need to communicate religious stances. Among other things, Church leaders have turned to its long-established religious education program to better prepare the rising generation for what unavoidably lies ahead. Traditionally, these classes are formatted similar to a typical high school or college class, with the teacher preparing a lesson and lecturing on course material. Although many religious educators have become accustomed to lecturing, teachers need to embrace change and structure their classes in a way that allows for students to learn by teaching; this new method will be most effective in preparing youth to confidently and accurately articulate their personal convictions in the heat of religious disputes.
History of Religious Education
According to the official website of the LDS church, the first released-time seminary program was launched well over 100 years ago at a local high school in Salt Lake City, Utah. What began as an experiment in a small unit of the Church has since rapidly grown into a worldwide system of religious education. The ultimate aim is to bring gospel instruction to young members of the Church throughout the entire world. From modest beginnings, the seminary program for high school students and the institute program for college students have gradually been developed to become the primary educational entities in the Church.
Every year the church employs religious educators to teach in seminaries and institutes around the world. While given some liberty to teach according to his or her own interpretation of scriptural accounts, teachers are encouraged to stick to the lesson manuals provided by the Church Education System. These lessons are set up for the teacher to expound from the approved text, and occasionally lead a discussion or have the students participate in a learning activity.
My friends and I faithfully attended seminary for four years and graduated from the program in 2013. We loved having an hour each day away from school devoted to our spiritual education. Shortly after graduating high school, we all served two year missions to places around the world. Upon returning home, we engaged in a discussion centered on the question: “Looking back, what do you wish you had learned before your mission?” Each participant of the conversation shared the same answer. “I wish I knew how to respond better to questions and misunderstandings about our church.” We had all experienced teaching a Family Home Evening lesson, presenting a short message during a home teaching visit, and on occasion teaching a lesson in our priesthood quorums. However, we all agreed that seminary would have been the perfect place for learning the art of teaching.
The Protégé Effect
About four years ago, Time featured an article written by author Annie Murphy Paul titled “The Protégé Effect: Why teaching someone else is the best way to learn”. The opening paragraph reads, “For thousands of years, people have known that the best way to understand a concept is to explain it to someone else. ‘While we teach, we learn,’ said the Roman philosopher Seneca. Now scientists are bringing this ancient wisdom up to date, documenting exactly why teaching is such a fruitful way to learn — and designing innovative ways for young people to engage in instruction.” After discussing various scientific findings why teaching was the best way to learn, Paul concluded, “It’s the emotions elicited by teaching that make it such a powerful vehicle for learning.”
My friends and I completely agree with this scientific discovery. Amazingly, when taking turns sharing experiences of meaningful, faith-building moments, each of us had a powerful story to share of when teaching a principle of the gospel, we gained or deepened our own witness of that principle’s truth. We also all could share experiences of being frustrated by not being able to respond persuasively and with confidence to questions or criticism directed at our church.
Rhetoric's Place in Religious Education
Silva Rhetoricae, an online guide to rhetoric provided by Dr. Gideon Burton, a professor at Brigham Young University, describes the art of rhetoric as the art of persuasion. In religious education, who is it that needs to be persuaded? The telos of religious education is indisputably to assist students in acquiring a personal witness of the truthfulness of the gospel. Religious instructors want their students to be convinced the message they endorse will be necessary in the pursuit of attaining divine intervention and blessings from above.
The role of a teacher is no longer to persuade students to believe, but rather to persuade students to persuade themselves to believe. This is best accomplished by allowing them to prepare thoughts and express those, only stepping in to add additional and relevant commentary, to build upon the information shared, and to clarify any misspoken or misrepresented doctrines.
Could Students Handle It?
Some present valid arguments that students would not respond well to such a change. Many teachers struggle to get students to participate as it is, and fear placing more responsibility in the hands of students would produce less than desirable outcomes. In many parts of the world, seminary teachers are volunteers who arise not long after dawn to teach a mere handful of students. They feel they don’t have the numbers to make the change. However, the method presented for consideration is not a complete turnover of teaching to students; rather, it is asking for a greater emphasis on student teaching and opportunities for them to learn by explaining.
A handful of professors at Brigham Young University-Idaho have already begun making the change. The class focus is on becoming, not just learning. Periodically throughout the semester, students are called upon to prepare lessons and share insights from their personal reading of the scriptures. Students have responded positively to the change, and have reported that the experience of teaching has solidified doctrinal understanding and prompted further spiritual investigation of the material.
Youth around the world share similar view to those of my friends and me. They want to be confident in their gospel rhetoric as were the prophets and missionaries of old. By placing a greater emphasis on student teaching in the classroom setting, religious educators can do wonders for their present students and for students to come. What remains to be seen is if teachers will embrace the change.
Burton, Gideon. The Forest of Rhetoric. Silva Rhetoricae:. Brigham Young University, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2015. <http://rhetoric.byu.edu/>.
"History of Seminary." Lds.org. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <http://seminary.lds.org/about/history?lang=eng>.
Paul, Annie Murphy. "The Protégé Effect." Ideas The Protege Effect Comments. Time, 30 Nov. 2011. Web. 07 Dec. 2015. <http://ideas.time.com/2011/11/30/the-protege-effect/>.
Walker, Joseph. Seminary Principal Donald D. Davis Teaches at Granite High School Seminary, the LDS Church's First Seminary. Digital image. Deseret News. Deseret News, 22 Jan. 2012. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <http://www.deseretnews.com/article/700217854/LDS-seminaries-100-years-of-studying-learning-and-loving-the-Lord.html?pg=all>.
8 Ways to Make Seminary Great. Digital image. lds.org. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. <https://www.lds.org/youth/article/8-ways-to-make-seminary-great?lang=eng>.