Alt SS: Teaching Adults

by: Stephen Marsh

March 9, 2012

I was once called as a Sunday School President so they could have someone gently wander the hall and encourage everyone to go to class.  The problem was that the hall conversations had gotten so engrossing that no one wanted to attend Sunday School.  But they did not want to offend people.  It took a couple months of steady, but friendly time, but we got it turned around.  Helped that the teachers were good.  But I was thinking, again, of what types of lessons I would like to have taught in Sunday School.

I’m thinking of doing a series of lessons I would like to see taught.

Castle 14-Liebenstein and Sterrenberg Castles, Koblenz, Germany
This travel blog photo’s source is TravelPod page:

First Alt SS lesson:  How to be taught (and learn) as adults.

In theory lessons are supposed to include a good deal of everyone teaching everyone — that is, group discussion and learning.

Setting the stage (or the room) To do that you have to have everyone facing each other — or it at least helps a great deal.  You start by having the chairs set up in two concentric circles or in a V shape with the teacher in the middle.  It helps if the teacher sits down.

Preparing Every one, or almost everyone, is used to people not having read the lesson material, so that they do not seem to be prepared.  But, if the lessons relate to people’s lives, they are prepared by virtue of having lived them.  Part of preparing is being open and allowing the people in a lesson to talk.

Koblenz Skyline, Koblenz, Germany
This travel blog photo’s source is TravelPod page: Day 3: Sunday March 16th 2008

That leads to

Sharing Adults teach each other by sharing. They get better at sharing by practicing sharing.

Sharing is helped by good questions and by allowing time.  While I appreciate the effort that goes into the lesson manuals, often it is easy not to think of them as a springboard for sharing rather than a forced run-through lecture.  But look at the end of Lesson 3 from the George Albert Smith Manual. [Emphasis added]

Consider these ideas as you study the chapter or as you prepare to teach. For additional help, see pages v–vii.

  1. Read the story on page 21. How would you respond to someone who says the Latter-day Saints do not believe in Jesus Christ?
  2. President Smith taught, “Not only do we believe that Jesus of Nazareth lived upon the earth, be we believe that he still lives” (page 23). What reasons do Latter-day Saints have for believing that Jesus Christ lives today? What reasons do you personally have for believing this?
  3. Briefly review pages 24–27. What are some stories or passages from the scriptures that have strengthened your testimony that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? Read 1 Nephi 10:17 and consider ways you can increase your understanding of the Savior’s mission.
  4. As you read page 28, think about how obedience to the principles and ordinances of the gospel has strengthened your testimony of Jesus Christ. What can parents do to help their children gain this testimony?
  5. What thoughts or feelings do you have as you read President Smith’s testimony on pages 29–30? Think about times when you have seen people’s lives change because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. How has the gospel changed your life?

Teaching help: “[Avoid] the temptation to cover too much material…. We are teaching people, not subject matter per se; and … every lesson outline that I have ever seen will inevitably have more in it than we can possibly cover in the allotted time” (Jeffrey R. Holland, “Teaching and Learning in the Church,” Ensign, June 2007, 91).

In preparing for that lesson, a key part would be to prepare follow-up questions for the class.

E.g. “How would you respond to someone who says the Latter-day Saints do not believe in Jesus Christ?” followed up with asking class members to share not only the answer to “how would you” but “have you ever had someone say” and “what do you think it means to believe in Jesus Christ?” — and encourage more than one person to share their thoughts and answers, more than one person to share their experiences, more than one person to comment on others.

Sharing is also encouraged by sharing rather than dominating.  That means that not only should the teacher not dominate the discussion, the class members need to remember to take turns and to allow silence so that those who are not talking will have space to fit into so that they can talk.

Teaching a lesson like this might start with rearranging the chairs after the class comes in, explaining why the chairs are being moved around. Then a discussion about how we prepare by living every day, by raising children, by helping others and by the lessons we have had and by keeping our minds, hearts and spirits open.  Then it would move to how to encourage everyone to share, be listened to, and encouraged without any one person dominating the conversation.  Half the class could be called on in order for their ideas on that topic (the left side) and half randomly (in an order determined by passing out numbered pieces of paper) (to get some experience comparing order vs. random participation).

The class would end by asking people to share about their week and the things they feel they need from Sunday School or want from Sunday School until time is gone.

(06) Manarola, Siena, Italy
This travel blog photo’s source is TravelPod page: Under the Tuscan Clouds

What do you think?

What follow-up classes do you think belong in the Alt SS lesson manual?

I’ve always thought

“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.
( Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe [1954], 135.)

Or perhaps discussing the two sections in the Doctrine and Covenants that sprang from the incident behind this quote:

“I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine . . . Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their Church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.” Joseph Smith

20 Responses to Alt SS: Teaching Adults

  1. question on March 9, 2012 at 4:16 PM

    our SS always breaks up our hallway discussion and tries us to get to class. its like, dude, we’re adults, obviously we don’t want to go, or we’d be there. back up off me!

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  2. Mormon Heretic on March 9, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    I’m not a big fan of rearranging the chairs, but maybe it’s just a personal thing. Do you think that your bishop would have been supportive of starting the alternate Sunday School class rather than herding them into a regular one?

    If we’re interested in stimulating conversation, Another question that I’m sure would elicit comments from class members would be “what do you think of people’s attempts to demonize Mitt Romney’s religion?” It could be interesting, but it could turn into a grandstanding discussion as well, so the teacher would have to be careful to guide the discussion.

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  3. Stephen Marsh on March 9, 2012 at 5:34 PM

    Actually, we did not change the way classes were taught in Sunday School, but I did for Elders Quorum and everyone loved it.

    One of the guys in grad school realized I was taking each class and treating it as a facilitation initiative and training others to be able to teach classes that way (which was the best part, seeing other people step in and teach the classes that way later).

    Everyone enjoyed being in class once we got them back in. But it took so long to accomplish it because I was being gentle — but then no other approach worked.

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  4. Stephen Marsh on March 9, 2012 at 5:38 PM

    Later, when I was teaching Sunday School classes, I used the adult approach, and everyone loved it. I never needed to go beyond the lesson material (never had time to even use all of it either).

    People have a great deal to offer each other.

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  5. Andrew S on March 9, 2012 at 6:10 PM

    re 1


    I guess the question (pun totally intended) is why adults obviously don’t want to go to Sunday School, and what can be done to change that? What is the role of people (adults or children) going to church? What is the role they perceive?

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  6. KT on March 9, 2012 at 8:39 PM

    RE: 5

    I would offer that people go to all 3 hours of Church out of a sense of spiritual obligation (“well, it’s what I’m supposed to be doing” or “that’s what we’re told to do”). Also, I think many women (maybe men too) go for social reasons. Also, peer pressure – It looks bad if you’re not there. Maybe some people are actually there for the “right” reasons. Is there even a right reason…..?

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  7. Andrew S on March 9, 2012 at 9:18 PM

    re 6,


    But if people go to church out of a sense of spiritual obligation, then why wouldn’t they go to class? Wouldn’t they feel just as spiritually obligated to go to class?

    What I’m getting at is…there are people in church but they aren’t in class…they are in the hallways. Why is *that*?

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  8. Deeann on March 10, 2012 at 3:01 AM

    We don’t rearrange the chairs but you just describe how our best RS lessons are given. I never undestood why people get so stressed out about teaching. Just get a list of questions that will generate thoughtful responses and intersperse them with content from the lesson.

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  9. NewlyHousewife on March 10, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    For chair arrangements, I suggest the magic square. Everyone sees everyone and there’s only one way to pass things–to your left (or right)–thus, all materials are given in a timely fashion (which is the magic part).

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  10. Paul on March 10, 2012 at 10:05 AM

    I’m a big fan of multiple gospel doctrine classes. Different teachers have different styles, and it’s good to give folks a choice. (That said, our ward doesn’t do that and hasn’t for years; for a while it was a space constraint, but now that there’s room (because we have fewer wards in the building) they still don’t do it.)

    I think the chair rearrangement works in a small call (I set up a youth class in a semi circle, mostly to keep the kids from finding the back row and leaning their chairs against the walls…)

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  11. Bob on March 10, 2012 at 10:09 AM

    What you are taking about is Texas Hold’em poker game. I think that would be a real fun way to have a SS class.

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  12. Phil on March 10, 2012 at 11:32 AM

    I find teachers who use the discussion method boring. I could not stand to go to sunday school for several years and I always told myself if I was ever the teacher I would do it differently.

    Well I got my chance. I taught be spending several hours preparing every lesson. I gave out a lot of information about the subject being taught whether with was BoM or Church History. If someone had a comment they would raise there hands but I rarely asked for them.

    I enjoy good lectures and stimulating insights by prepared teachers. Most of the time sunday school is boring because the teachers don’t prepare and rely on class discussion to fill the time and most of them haven’t thought and studied the lesson in depth.

    I got very good feedback from my teaching, I think because it was intellectually stimulating.

    On a side note, I supplemented the lesson with outside material because the manuals are so badly written. I used my discretion to keep it within bounds but the manuals need some spicing up.

    I know this teaching style goes against this article but, like was said previously, if a ward has several different teachers with different teaching styles people can go to the one they enjoy the most.

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  13. Andrew S on March 10, 2012 at 11:45 AM

    re 12 (and to a lesser extent, 10),


    Isn’t it interesting how different teaching styles can raise totally different perceptions from different people…so to one person, a discussion style sounds like a good idea because they don’t just have to listen to one person lecture at them…but to another, it sounds like the teacher hasn’t prepared enough and is trying to use class discussion to cover that up.

    One thing I would like to ask…for people who have experienced multiple gospel doctrine classes, is…does there tend to be a self-selecting into the various classes? Are there clear “favorite” teachers? Does that shake out by a particular style of teaching?

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  14. prometheus on March 10, 2012 at 11:54 AM

    Sounds like good teaching practice to me. However, I think there are some serious obstacles in the way.

    Although I believe that teaching by the spirit is essential, I think sometimes we use that as a cop out for not developing our own skills as teachers. I recall poor attendance at teacher training nights, right up until they were discontinued in my ward because of lack of interest.

    On top of that, our no-criticism policy doesn’t lend itself well to any kind of critical evaluation of teaching effectiveness.

    Additionally, SS is rarely used as an educational block of time. Most often it is simply a call and response session that simply affirms our beliefs.

    One more issue is class size. An EQ discussion in a small room with maybe 15 people has very different possibilities as compared to a SS class of 75-100 in the chapel. I have never been in a small SS class, and in larger classes, it is much more difficult to get any kind of interactive dialogue between members without breaking into small groups. (And I can imagine the reaction that would provoke! :D)

    I don’t know that there is an easy solution besides calling dynamic teachers who are willing to both take risks and seek out critical evaluation of what they are doing.

    Just a few thoughts.

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  15. prometheus on March 10, 2012 at 11:57 AM

    Re: 12 (Phil)

    I totally agree that discussion is often used as a crutch to cover over lack of preparation, but I would also argue that *with* teacher and class preparation, discussions can be incredibly interesting and valuable. The trick is to have everyone come prepared….

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  16. LovelyLauren on March 10, 2012 at 12:59 PM

    We have two Gospel Doctrine class and one (poorly attended) Gospel Principles class. One is held in the Chapel where the majority of the people sit near the back and most of the younger members gravitate towards and one in the Relief Society room, where I’m the youngest person there by a decade at least but more like forty years.

    I choose the Relief Society room. I have often thought that the church could really improve the quality of Sunday school classes by having a few classes meeting in smaller rooms with less people. The high amount of old people means that people aren’t quite as hesitant to disagree with each other and the teachers are an enthusiastic older couple who each teach part of the lesson. Barring the occasional ‘Mitt Romney is under attack’ and ‘gay people know what they’re doing is wrong’ lesson, it’s a pretty enjoyable class.

    I wish that more people would feel confident speaking up in Sunday School and some people would consider limiting their comments. It’s frustrating when you just hear the same belief affirmed rather than examined or studied in a new light because the discussion is dominated by a few very vocal individuals.

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  17. […] as future scriptures. Ardis helps an exmo connect with his family history. People don’t like sitting through all three hours of LDS church meetings. The church can encourage you to embarrass yourself. Was […]

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  18. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 12, 2012 at 9:10 PM

    LovelyLauren — good point.

    prometheus — you are right that class size makes a difference. I’ve seen the format work with law school classed, but never well over 125 or so people.

    Phil — give me a few weeks to give some examples. I’m used to, btw, classes with no time for discussion at all.

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  19. bonnieblythe on March 13, 2012 at 1:38 AM

    As a Gospel Doctrine teacher, I ponder on this all the time. We have two classes and people self-select. The other class is taught by a sweet lady (and good friend) who sticks religiously :) to the book and is mostly attended by people who are much older or whom I’ve offended. I tend to bring in exegetical material and ask the class to do their own expounding. I really try to change up the way we do class and I’ve moved the chairs into concentric semi-circles, and for the most part, people are just happy to see something change. I’ve taught every year differently (OT was a lot of history and anthropology, NT was a lot of area religions and comparison of later interpretations of the text, BM is a lot of class discussion, etc) and still am not sure what everyone likes. I’ve kind of settled into just doing what I feel prompted to do and not relying on feedback (since everyone is loathe to give constructive advice.) I had a blessing in which I was promised that if I listened to the spirit I would always provide someone in that room with a spiritual experience. I guess I just trust that, as much as I’d love a few eyes lighting up with ahas every once in awhile.

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  20. Jeff Spector on March 13, 2012 at 5:55 AM

    I’ve found that if you:
    1. Prepare well
    2. Teach enthusiastically
    3. Are interested in what the class has to say
    4. Promote alternative thinking
    5. Express doubt when appropriate
    6. Share background on lesson material
    7. Use appropriate quotes when necessary

    People will enjoy the class and want to come. You mill not get everyone out ofthe halls.

    Thanks, Stephen, good post!

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