In the front of each Sunday School lesson manual there is a section called Helps for the Teacher. It gives basic guidelines for how to use the lesson manual. It explains that each lesson contains certain sections including: purpose, preparation, attention activity, discussion and application, conclusion, and additional teaching ideas. The one section described as “the main part of the lesson” is Scripture Discussion and Application. Notice that the main part of the lesson is not Teacher Lecture. Monologues are for sacrament meeting and dialogues are for Sunday School.
The fact that Sunday School should be full of discussion is not a new idea. Most teachers know this and give a good attempt at doing so. After attempting to stimulate discussion, it is easy to become discouraged by long moments of awkward silence.
Here are some thoughts to consider in order to stimulate class discussion.
1. Avoid Context Questions
When using a Church manual to teach, you will find the Scripture Discussion and Application section sprinkled with a variety of questions. Quite frankly, avoid these questions. It’s easy to assume that because the Church curriculum department put these questions in the manual, all teachers are required to use them. That’s simply not true, and the teacher’s manual even says so (see Helps for the Teacher). Many of the questions in the manual are not effective because they are extremely broad and in most cases only focus on the context of the scripture story (i.e. How did Ammon respond to Limhi’s request?). Reading a verse and then asking the class to explain what is happening in the story rarely stimulates further discussion. Many inexperienced teachers don’t know what else to ask and use the questions in the manual as a crutch and receive short answers or awkward silence.
The main idea behind asking questions about the context is to lay out the story so the class can then reach a deeper level of discussion. However, the majority of the class time can disappear by trying to establish the context of the story—leaving only a few minutes at the end to have a deeper discussion about the doctrinal principles of the lesson.
Don’t get me wrong, the context is very important to establish, but it can be done in more effective ways. For example, one class I taught in Sunday School, I asked a handful of individuals a week before to read specific chapters that related to the lesson, and then I had them summarize it at the beginning of my lesson. Within five minutes, the context was established and we were ready to move on. You could also quickly ask context questions in the beginning of the lesson simply to prime the pump to help them feel comfortable speaking up in class, but don’t let it consume large amounts of time.
2. Don’t Control the Discussion—Steer the Discussion
Once your lesson preparation ends and it is time to teach, there is no doubt you have discovered some fantastic concepts to share. Many have deep spiritual experiences as they prepare a lesson, which is exactly the reason teaching is one of the best callings in the church. Your spiritual preparation gets you excited to share your lesson plan. This excitement causes many teachers to launch into a lengthy lecture leaving the class wide-eyed and barely blinking. A teacher must come to terms with the idea that your detailed ideas and thoughts may never be heard in your lesson. You are not there to create lesson content—you are there to steer the discussion.
The difference between a bad lesson and a good lesson is engagement. The only job you have as a teacher is to make sure engagement is in the room. The reason you planned for hours before the class is to step in when the classroom discussion goes stale or off topic.
3. Engagement: Ask Questions in Advance
It’s no secret that the vast majority of individuals come to the class without a thought of what will be taught. If they did a little studying on their own, things would be much easier for the teacher. You can either run to the bishop and ask to be released or commit to being proactive.
Like my example a few paragraphs back, assigning ward members with specific tasks before your lesson is quite effective in getting them participating during your lesson. It forces them to engage in the topic and to put some thought into it. There is no right way to do this—just ask them to prepare a specific task.
4. Point and Ask a Question
Just like when you ask someone to say a prayer in class and people look at the ground—the same thing happens when you ask a question. The majority of people have an answer for the class but are waiting for someone else to raise their hand. If you throw a question out and nobody immediately responds, simply point at someone and ask them what they think. You’ll be amazed by the response rate.
5. Stop with the “White Slip” Madness
Every Saturday night across the general body of the church there are thousands of Sunday school teachers cutting out slips of numbered paper with quotes printed on them or scripture references. They eagerly pass these out before the lesson and consider class participation to be in the bag. Maybe this works for some teachers, but it is only a way to create artificial classroom participation. Just because you have people reading a slip of paper does not mean engagement is increasing. The same goes for calling on individuals to read a select verse of scriptures—engagement is still not increased by this task. I prefer the teacher read the scriptures because then they can take their time to accentuate specific parts of the verse that they would like to focus on.
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