PROVO, Utah — Pay attention now, class. A major transformation is underway within the LDS Church, reshaping all teaching and learning from Sunday School courses to the priesthood.
The shake up is radical, but members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are only beginning to grasp the breadth and depth of a fresh emphasis on the learning process through the introduction of new methods, teaching manuals and curriculum.
"We have had a revolution in teaching in the church. Most of you have not caught onto it yet, but the Brethren are modeling it," LDS employee Ronald Schwendiman told an Education Week audience at Brigham Young University last year.
If "revolution" seems like a strong word, note that Schwendiman has been in the middle of the metamorphosis as the church's director of publishing product management for Seminaries and Institutes of Religion. But he is not the first to use that description, nor was he the last. And more has changed since he said it.
Earlier this month, a direct request was emailed to anyone who teaches a class in the church from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Elder Holland invited teachers to join him in an interactive online discussion on Nov. 5 about the new manual and teacher councils.
Why alter all teaching in the church?
LDS leaders say they want to help church members become better — and more active — learners, a critical skill in an age saturated by information.
"With the current conditions of the world, we desperately need real learning and teaching in our homes, meetings and gospel classes," Matthew Richardson said in the October 2011 LDS general conference while a member of the church's general Sunday School presidency.
The goal is to alter classroom interactions radically in an effort to increase personal conversion and growth. Leaders now want teachers to concentrate on the process of teaching and learning rather than disseminating information.
In the past, teachers in Sunday School, Relief Society, Primary and priesthood classes often focused on presenting information. It was common to hear a teacher cut off a class discussion by saying he or she had more material to cover. Leaders want to drum that out of the culture.
Instead, they want to emphasize class discussion so teachers can learn to understand and meet the needs of the people in the room and encourage them to activate their own personal development.
"What is the role of teachers?" one LDS manual says. "It is to help individuals take responsibility for learning the gospel — to awaken in them the desire to study, understand and live the gospel and show them how to do so."
Teachers no longer can be lecturers, and learners no longer can be spectators.
Richardson was a member of the church committee that created the "Come, Follow Me" curriculum for LDS youth Sunday School, Young Women and Aaronic Priesthood classes. The way to improve learning in a class, he said, is to enable learners to act on what they learn.
"Some still think 'Come, Follow Me' is about boosting class participation, getting people to talk," Richardson said. "No, it's an invitation to act, to exercise agency. You can do that many ways. A person can exercise her agency to listen, to share, to ask questions, to respond. All of those are ways that bring blessings for action."
The late Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told seminary and institute teachers that "the use of agency by a student authorizes the Holy Ghost to instruct. It also helps the student retain your message. As students verbalize truths, they are confirmed in their souls and strengthen their personal testimonies."
Richardson is now a vice president at BYU. One of his roles is to oversee the university's athletic program, and he used a sports analogy to describe this method of teaching.
"The hymn, 'I Am a Child of God' was my mentor," he said of his time on the "Come, Follow Me" committee. "'Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, help me find the way. Teach me all that I must do...' As a teacher, I can't do it for you. But I can lead and guide and walk beside you. There is a collaborative process that is taking place.
"I'm kind of like a coach. I need people in class to learn how to bat. They need to get in to the box and take some swings. It would be poor coaching if I only talked and showed them powerpoints. On the other hand, if I just said the field is open from 3 to 6 p.m., here's the equipment, go do baseball, that wouldn't be leading, guiding or walking beside."
For teachers, then, the emphasis is to know their students. "We are teaching people, not subject matter per se," Elder Holland said in a 2007 training session, "Teaching and Learning in the Church."
Church leaders began to focus on the process of teaching and learning in the 1990s. The first visible sign was the revision of the manual "Teaching, No Greater Call" in 1999. In 2003, the Church Education System introduced a new teaching emphasis designed to help students explain, share and testify through classroom opportunities. The following year, the church overhauled its missionary program with the manual "Preach My Gospel."
Meanwhile, BYU-Idaho introduced a new learning model focused on a proactive and engage approach.
"To learn by faith," the university's president, Elder Kim B. Clark of the Seventy, said, "students need opportunities to take action." Faculty began to work to enable students to take greater responsibility for their own learning and for teaching each other.
In 2013, "Come, Follow Me" revamped all teaching of youths in the church.
Richardson described the background of all those developments in an article in a 2013 issue of Religious Educator titled "Come, Follow Me."
"It was a radical change and departure from the past," Richardson said. "This is a revolution in the way we think about learning and gospel teaching."
Asking teachers to leave behind methods used for decades can be difficult, Richardson acknowledged.
"Focus first and foremost not on 'What I'm going to do?'," he suggested, "but on 'What do I want my learners to be doing. How can I help them do that?' A teacher might ask, 'How do I invite and help those around me to learn for themselves?'"
Inviting, encouraging and providing students with opportunities to use their agency helps them assume responsibility for their own learning and empowers personal conversion, or what church leaders call "real growth."
Church leaders always anticipated providing help for the transition, Richardson said. That is why they introduced teacher councils this year. Each congregation now holds a monthly teacher council meeting, where all the teachers in the ward or branch counsel together about what is working well, where they are struggling and discuss the new learning model and the principles of "Teaching in the Savior's Way."
"We hope teachers will exercise faith in the power of the message," Richardson said, "and if they have faith that this is a great message, have courage to try new things and ask for help."
In his invitation to the online discussion, Elder Holland said he will consider it a worldwide teacher council meeting. The event will be held Nov. 5 at 1 p.m. Mountain Time. Teachers can submit questions or comments beforehand at teach.lds.org, where the meeting will be broadcast.
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