Conversing about teaching in the Church, the Sunday School general president reflects fondly upon his very recent visit to a ward in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Russell T. Osguthorpe shared the experience in a Jan. 19 Church News interview.
"Of course we use the manuals," he said, "but at this class I attended, what I thought was very impressive, the teacher had the manual open on the podium; she referred to it only a few times, sometimes for a question. She got superb participation from people, and she was able to build on that participation.
"When the class ended, she said, 'Thank you, brothers and sisters, for teaching this lesson. I am here to help facilitate our conversation about this doctrine.' The topic was foreordination, and we never diverted from that topic at all."
The director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at BYU, he fills a role at the university similar in some respects to his calling as Sunday School general president.
In fact, when he and his counselors were given their orientation last April, a charge they received from President Thomas S. Monson was to help improve teaching not just in Sunday School but in all the Church auxiliaries and priesthood quorums of the Church, as well as the homes of members.
Easier said than done, perhaps.
It has to begin in the heart of each individual teacher, he affirmed. "That teacher has to want to improve."
To teachers preparing to instruct either adults or youth, he said, "Study, learn and pray until you gain new insights yourself about the particular principle of the gospel you are about to teach. Sometimes, principles of the gospel are simple to explain, but they're not simple to live."
He told of a high priest group instructor faced with the challenge of teaching the topic of baptism to a group of seasoned priesthood holders steeped in Church leadership experience. His approach was to throw the question out to the class: "What would you teach this group about baptism?"
The question elicited multiple responses, after which the teacher gave his own thoughts. "It was obvious he had studied, prayed and worked until he had something to share himself, but he didn't want to do that until he had allowed other people to share their own insights about this very basic principle of the gospel," Brother Osguthorpe observed.
When preparing to teach, "Think first about the ones you're teaching and second about the topic you're teaching," he said.
As a mission president, he advised the elders and sisters in his charge to bend their teaching toward the particular needs of the investigator. "That changes teaching a lot," he said.
A question teachers should ask themselves is, "Do you know what your students are going to do?" he said. "Especially when teaching youth and children, most of the preparation time ought to be spent in thinking about what the students are going to do during the lesson."
He cited a quotation from President Heber J. Grant who, in lauding the Sunday School organization, said he could ask almost any of the youth in the Church spontaneously to give a 15- or 20-minute talk on a principle of the gospel, and they could do it.
"Why could they do that in the Church 100 years ago, and it would be challenging for us now?" Brother Osguthorpe asked. "My only conclusion is that they were practicing it."
He suggested that if teachers of young people could see themselves more as coaches than as deliverers of information, things would change. He told of an experience he had as a Sunday School teacher of 15-year-olds. He suggested the class members prepare a podcast for a Sunday School class in another state in which they individually selected a principle of the gospel they had been studying and give a lesson on it. The class members responded positively to the challenge.
How does a teacher get so in touch with the needs and backgrounds of the students that he can follow those suggestions?
"The short answer is to ask them," Brother Osguthorpe said. "Teachers need to ask more questions of students and then watch them. If we have something for them to do, it can build their skills. And then we can know what to teach them because we can see where they might fall short a bit."
As for adult classes, an important technique is to involve the learners in teaching each other through their own comments, he said, returning to the example of the gospel doctrine teacher in Honolulu. He is confident she used the teacher's manual carefully in her preparation, but she did not feel obligated to stay with the precise sequence or to use all of the material in the printed lesson.
"I don't think any teacher should," he said. "If we're going to teach by the Spirit, then we have to go with what the Spirit helps us decide in the moment, and we don't overly structure the lesson."
That includes leaving time and opportunity for class members to testify, largely through the spontaneous comments and insights they share during the lesson, he said.
"It seems the whole purpose of gospel instruction is to help us make clear and relate to our own lives what God has said to us right there in the scriptures. And that's why it's so great to have these different participants share their insights, because they've had different life experiences, and it makes it very rich and inspiring to listen to."