Saturday, April 12, 2014

033. New LDS Adult Sunday School Curriculum

At the last General Conference of the church (April 2014), a new General Sunday School Presidency was sustained. Immediately after conference, a major announcement was made by Elder Tad Callister, the new Sunday School General President. The announcement was that adult sunday school classes would soon no longer be studying the four major standard scriptural works on a rotating basis as we have done for many years. Instead, the adult classes will adopt the curriculum that has been used in the youth Sunday School classes for the last year or so. The youth curriculum consists of topics, with loose outlines, scriptural references, and links to conference talks and video clips (mostly within last 10 years). Each topic is covered for a month, so there are 12 major topics covered in a year. Here are the current topics for 2014 from the youth curriculum:

January: The Godhead
February: The Plan of Salvation
March: The Atonement of Jesus Christ
April: The Apostasy and the Restoration
May: Prophets and Revelation
June: Priesthood and Priesthood Keys
July: Ordinances and Covenants
August: Marriage and Family
September: Commandments
October: Becoming More Christlike
November: Spiritual and Temporal Self-Reliance
December: Building the Kingdom of God in the Latter Days

Church leaders refer to this new curriculum as "Christ's Pattern for Teaching". It's unclear what is  different in the new curriculum in terms of teaching style from the emphasis provided in previous lesson manuals...which also encouraged instructors to ask questions, facilitate discussions, interact with class participants, and bear testimony. Elder Callister said "We’re trying to follow in the Savior’s footsteps of teaching, which involves inspired questions. It involves participation; it involves teaching to convert people, not just to teach them — to help them to understand and feel the Spirit of the gospel in their lives." Going further, he said "Last week, I attended a Sunday School class, and I think there’s a definite shift from the lecture method to a participation method. I think there’s a definite shift from just teaching a lesson to trying to customize it to the needs of the students in the class." So, have we not been following the Savior's example in our teaching until just this last year? What have we been doing all these years? I sure hope we've been trying to ask inspired questions.

What I've noticed in the new curriculum is that there are no learning objectives. Anyone who has been a teacher knows how important it is to develop learning objectives to organize their teaching materials around. Without objectives, how do we know or evaluate what is being learned? Otherwise, instructors are coming with scriptures and video clips and stories around a topic and are just asking for people's reactions and their feelings about what they are experiencing in class. It's like a focus group evaluating a new product, getting feedback, and moving on to the next one. Rarely anything new is really learned, but people share their opinions, experiences, and feelings. Everyone gets a chance to chime in, and we feel good about ourselves..."that was a good lesson". Certainly bearing testimony of what we know brings forth the spirit, and can sometimes effect learning in a synergistic sort of way.

However, think about what is lost as we move away from a concentration on the scriptures. Even if class members do not study the same scriptures at home from week to week, there is an inherent emphasis on studying the scriptures made manifest in the structure of the current Sunday School lessons. Will members in the future be less inclined to read from the scriptures on their own, choosing instead to study basic gospel topics? We already only focus on just the scriptural highlights in our gospel doctrine classes, glossing over or ignoring entirely the hidden gems within the scriptural record. I fear that within a few years, members will value the scriptures less, will no longer know the scriptures, nor be as intimately acquainted with the teachings of the prophets canonized in the scriptures. With a reliance on electronic scriptures, you can already see a growing lack of familiarity with where certain books of scripture are located ("is that in the Bible?"). I know several people who have decided they will never own a paper copy of the scriptures sad. The new format probably has the advantage of helping us focus on less controversial topics and thus avoid sometimes heated discussions about difficult doctrines or challenging events in our church history. I worry that such an avoidance carries a cost. As we discard or ignore the subtle, yet crucial doctrines interwoven throughout scripture, we set ourselves up to individually or collectively repeat the mistakes of the past. Also, the range of topics is so narrow. Even less than contained in the Gospel Principles manual for new members. The gospel is so rich and vast. There are so many topics important to our salvation, how will those get covered? And finally, the new Sunday School structure leaves less and less room for personal revelation in teaching...having to stick with a topic for the whole month, not allowing the spirit to guide topic selection. I realize there is wiggle room within a lesson or topic, but the focus just seems really narrow.

Certainly Christ taught lessons, even lectured. He lead His followers. He did not lead discussion groups where listeners chimed in with their insights on the doctrine He imparted. He quoted from the prophets and set forth truth, which carried the spirit into the hearts of His listeners. He had mastery of all the scriptures. He had learning objectives, which He distilled from what the hearts of those listening to Him needed to know. He was the master teacher. He used allegories, parables, symbolism, scripture, and testimony to bring light to the hearts of those open to His words. He bore testimony through word and action.

As we deemphasize scripture, what will be the cost?

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