Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

The student spectrum (a ticking timebomb)… and how to defuse it

Posted by joespencer on July 16, 2007

My father-in-law is a bishop right now, and he and I have talks now and then about how to teach the youth. While camping together at the coast last week, we had a conversation that moved from an initial question about how one should think about faith and the gift of healing through a rather lengthy discussion of the place of presuppositions in reading to one of these talks about how to teach the youth. Perhaps because of the circuitous route by which we came to the final subject matter, I was able to put my finger on something that I do (naturally, I guess) in teaching (youth, but adults as well). I’d be very interested to see what kind of a response this idea draws.

At least something of “the place of presuppositions in reading” needs to be mentioned in order to get the question on the table without too much misunderstanding. Especially in this crowd, I don’t think it is a very foreign idea to suggest that we bring all kinds of presuppositions to the text when we read, study, or teach. It is perhaps more familiar an idea still if I retranslate “presuppositions” as “preconceived notions,” “a particular worldview,” or some such thing. Nephi likes the word “precepts,” which I think may be the most helpful of all. But at any rate, the basic idea is, I hope, quite clear. As has become clear, I imagine, over the course of so many posts and discussions, I understand the process of reading (and hence, the process of teaching) to be a function of rooting out and overthrowing presuppositions. That is, I understand the scriptures to be most engaging when they are reworking us from the inside out by replacing our presuppositions (the “precepts of men” with the “precepts of God”). In fact, I would probably go so far as to suggest that if presuppositions are not being questioned, we are not reading/studying/teaching, regardless of how much perusing/work/talking goes on.

Now, if the scriptures are read and taught in such a way that our presuppositions are constantly being questioned and recast, then it seems to me that we “ought” to read the scriptures in such a way that we can root out the presuppositions of the text. In a sense, this is what every “why” question aims at getting down to, right? “Why would Nephi suggest such a thing?” amounts to asking “What are Nephi’s presuppositions in suggesting such a thing?” And so on. Perhaps this says something about how we “ought” to teach as well. That is, perhaps we “ought” to teach in a way that uncovers the presuppositions of the texts and allows those uncovered presuppositions to question our own presuppositions (this would be “application” done the right way, etc.).

So then my father-in-law asks me: “But isn’t everyone at a different level? One person may have had these particular presuppositions rooted out, and another person may have had those other particular presuppositions rooted out, but neither should be judging the other because the other holds to presuppositions that have already been rooted out for the one.” Really important question, no? And yet it didn’t settle well with me. That is, something about the very question bothered me. It wasn’t hard to figure out what: Do we have to run to the defense of the unstudied every time we say something about how to study the scriptures? That is, must every statement about what we “ought” to be doing be taken as effecting a kind of judgment against which we must be careful to militate? More to the point: when I’m talking about something that seems to me to be a question of charity, why must we raise questions of rivalry, which has no place in charity? Are we always simply assuming that it is impossible to do anything in pure love?

And this brings me to the classroom. If there is any one… complaint?… that is constantly brought against my teaching, it is that it is too deep or too advanced or too involved in the mysteries or too liberal (in the classical sense). Translated: my teaching is often enough accused of not paying enough attention to the fact that there is a spectrum of students in the classroom, that each individual student comes to class with personal questions, with individual problems, with a unique level of experience and learning and spirituality. Now, let me agree completely first: it is certainly the case that every student in that classroom comes to class as an absolute individual. And now let me completely disagreed: once the opening prayer has been said (no one is still coming), no individual remains. Every bowed head, every closed eye, every spoken “Amen,” all performed in unity, dissolve that individualism (and the possibility of rivalry that is undeniably connected with it). That is, class begins with a ritual precisely so that individuality as such is canceled. Or at least, so it should.

This, I think, is vital. The student spectrum as such is a ticking timebomb. Gathering a group of individuals together and allowing them remain individuals in an intellectual or a spiritual setting is to set them at war with one another. Questions with answers known only by certain members of the class establish a pecking order, and “applications to our everyday lives” allow those who are already, for whatever circumstances, living the particular principle to pat themselves on the back and to thank God that they are not like the dirty publicans (read: emo kids or whatever). In a word: the way that most classrooms are conducted, in my experience, sets up rivalry and contention, gives place to pride or arrogance. And what is more, because of its ecclesiastical setting, it reinforces that rivalry and contentious spirit by pretending that it amounts to righteousness!

So how do we defuse this ticking time bomb? That is, how do we teach in such a way that rivalry is rendered impossible (or as close to impossible as is possible)?

By far the most common way of doing this is to subjectify the material to be taught. This can be done in a number of ways. For example, one can ask for experiences that exemplify the principle being discussed. Or one can ask for insights into a verse, none of which is to be taken as definitive. Or one can ask for emotional responses to be shared, since all feelings are equally non-rational. Or one can ask the “how” questions of application, which allows even the unfaithful to generate possible answers and to contribute. Etc., etc., etc.

But let me point out, and this unequivocally I would hope, that all of these reinforce rivalry! What is obviously at work here is this: the teacher aims to subjectify the material so absolutely that individuals are not at all aware of each other in the classroom. That is, the teacher tries to make the material so individual for so many different people that they cannot at all focus on how they then differ from others in the classroom. But, I would guess, such absolute individualization is quite impossible. And besides, even if each member of the class were to become some kind of absolute individual, rivalry is still very, very possible. I’d be interested to hear a strong defense of these methods, but I’m not sure there is any way to salvage them. This is especially because these approaches miss, I think, the point of scripture: none of these approaches discovers the presuppositions of the text or questions the individual as such.

So, the question again: how can we teach without rivalry? I think there can be only one answer: the class must begin to think, to respond, and to speak as one. So let us ask the question this way: how can we teach in such a way that the class begins to work as one (not together, sharing their oh-so-valuable different opinions with each other, but as one)? And the answer to that, I think, is connected precisely with the question of presuppositions.

If scripture is for the purpose of questioning and repositioning our presuppositions, then the teacher is faced with a very real dilemma: how do I uncover the presuppositions of the text without reinforcing absolute individuality? Realistically, I don’t think this is actually that difficult. All the teacher needs to do is to move beyond the realm of the student spectrum. That is, the teacher needs to look at texts closely enough that s/he can uncover presuppositions that will question every student in the classroom. Almost any verse in the scriptures can do this, if it is thought carefully enough. But as soon as the text becomes a source for frustrating presuppositions held by basically every member of the class, there is no possibility of rivalry, or at least very little possibility. The students will begin to think as one, answer as one, and their comments and questions will drive each other to further thought and work.

I’ve watched it happen dozens and dozens of times.

There is, however, one exception in such a classroom, or at least there can be. There is that kid whose whole existence is defined by being the smartest and the best in the classroom. And when that is pulled out from under him/her, the world crumbles. Without trying to judge here, can I suggest that it is this kid (and perhaps this kid alone) that is filled with pride? This certainly leaves quite open the question about what to do with that kid. And I have no idea. Perhaps another post will have to take that question up specifically.

Now, to get off my soapbox after a ridiculously long post. Please, please, please call my presuppositions into question here, and especially with reference to the scriptures! I would love to see this crumble!

24 Responses to “The student spectrum (a ticking timebomb)… and how to defuse it”

  1. Proud Daughter of Eve said

    There is, however, one exception in such a classroom, or at least there can be. There is that kid whose whole existence is defined by being the smartest and the best in the classroom. And when that is pulled out from under him/her, the world crumbles. Without trying to judge here, can I suggest that it is this kid (and perhaps this kid alone) that is filled with pride?

    What about the kid whose existence is defined by being the prettiest/handsomest/best at sports? Why is their pride okay in the classroom but not the smart kid’s?

    Perhaps what needs to be done is to de-emphasize the classroom aspect. There are no S.A.T’s or valedictorians for Sunday School. Church is where we come to share the light of Christ and sustain one another spiritually. Learning is what is valued here, not knowledge.

    Of course, if I knew how to do that, I might not have such trouble with my Primary class.

  2. Robert C. said

    Joe, I think you’re on to something here, but I’m having a hard time thinking what kind of presuppositions you’re talking about that everyone holds. Can you give some specific examples from the dozen and dozen of times you’ve seen this happen?

  3. Robert C. said

    (By the way, this question of rivalry vs. charity is central to Girard’s thought, so perhaps this is another good opportunity to plug the Girard reading group we’ve started in earnest this week at the lds-herm blog; notice I put a blog roll link on the left sidebar for convenience.)

  4. robf said

    Joe, I think what you are talking about here is central to the concept of “understanding” that seems to be a mark of teaching by the Spirit (D&C 50:22). The class has to stand together or in the midst of each other. Only the best of feelings should exist within the class, and they should “stand” together on the same foundation in relation to Christ, the foundation on which they can build their dwelling/”edify”. Some may be building the bathroom, while others are working on the deck, but by revealing the ground on which they stand–by showing how their presuppositions relate to those of a scriptural writer and those of Christ, all are given the chance to come closer to Christ and finally rejoice together.

    By focusing in class on any of the 98% of the scriptures that we usually ignore, and questioning them deeply, we can avoid the traps of well-worn scriptural paths and proof-text presuppositions that become the traditions that keep us from greater light and knowledge (D&C 93:39).

  5. Daughter #1, I suppose I’m suggesting that those other kinds of pride dissolve during class. Which is not to say that they necessarily do, but to say that they are far more likely to do so when the whole class is being invited beyond classroom rivalry. Because of the structure of classroom rivalry, there is only one kind of person who refuses, for structural reasons, to join the class in unity: the person whose pride is geared by classroom rivalry. I’m wondering about how to solve that difficulty. While I’ve got your attention, by the way, is classroom rivalry even an issue in primary? Or are the kids humble enough by nature not to be thinking that way?

  6. Robert #2,

    Oh, any and all presuppositions, really. From the big ones like “Grace works this way” to small (but ever so important) ones like “Prophets use questions for this particular purpose.” In a sense, most of these questions have never been raised for most members of the class (that’s part of the point, really), but that doesn’t mean that they do not already have presuppositions. Inasmuch as they have ever read the text, they have answered all of these questions implicitly. Implicit presuppositions are almost always what need to be rooted out and taken care of. I really like how Rob has articulated it in #4. He nicely catches the spirit of what I’m thinking about here.

  7. BrianJ said

    Joe asks, #5: “While I’ve got your attention, by the way, is classroom rivalry even an issue in primary? Or are the kids humble enough by nature not to be thinking that way?”

    In my experience, children are just as likely to exhibit traits of the natural man as adults are, though there may be a difference in how those traits are exhibited or in how “set in their ways” children are versus adults. My daughter, for example, is an exceptional reader at an age (kindergarten) when most kids are just learning to read. Does she notice this? Absolutely. Do they? Of course. Do pride and envy/embarassment enter into the classroom when my daughter quickly reads an entire verse of scripture while other kids are stuck on “wherefore”? Sadly, yes—even though none of the kids could really understand what “pride” and “envy” are.

    As for the main post, Joe, I feel a bit lost. Let me number some resaons why:

    1) I’m not sure how to challenge a presupposition “shared by all” unless I were given some kind of omniscience—an omniscience that God has, to be sure, but it’s not my experience that he shares such with me. Perhaps I am asking him for the wrong kind of help in preparing to teach, but I doubt it.

    2) I’ve experienced times when something that I thought was a presupposition held by many/most was really just held by me or a very small minority. In questioning such “unthought of” presuppositions, it seems the teacher must first create the presupposition, or else approach this in a different way (see below).

    3) What are we to do with the “well-worn” passages of scripture? Like robf, I like to take my class into the lesser known verses, but I also feel a certain obligation to address the so-called “scripture mastery scriptures”. This goes back to mine and robf’s posts about what it means to feast, but the key point is that there is a sense of community that we gain by having “traditional scriptures” and I think that community is valuable. So yes, let’s discuss what James 1:5, for example, really means, but at some point I feel like we should reach and understanding that is not presumptuous precisely because it is an recognition of God’s presuppositions. When we return to that verse, are we to question it all over again? That seems unfaithful to the witness we received.

    A different way. First, let me say that maybe this really isn’t a different way, and I just missed your point. Now, the way I have tried to approach this problem is act as an example to the class. I come to class and share my questions, my doubts (cautiously, of course), my presuppositions, and even my triumphs. I lay myself bare before them to show that it is safe to open up to each other, it’s okay to not know, it’s okay to be confused or—gasp!—wrong. My example has allowed many students to open up in similar ways: some of them openly (before the whole class), others more privately (in hall, with me, after class), and others more privately still (in their own minds and hearts as they listen attentively). Sure, many of my presuppositions are shared by others, but many are not, but they still benefit from “seeing how it’s done,” so to speak.

    So I don’t see why, as a teacher, we must identify presuppositions that are shared by all. Rather, I think we must uncover the truth that presuppositions are to be found in all—though not necessarily the same presuppositions—and that we root out those individual presuppositions by coming together as a community. In fact, I think that is the purpose of meeting as a Church in the first place.

  8. robf said

    And what if you are a student in the class. Yesterday in EQ, the president was instructing the quorum when he asked two of us “what can we learn about warfare from the Book of Mormon?” I rolled my eyes and said “don’t even get me started on that one.” The first guy brought up Captain Moroni and Alma 48:17. I said I didn’t know what that means, that I’m not sure if we want the powers of hell shaken forever, and that what I see in the Book of Mormon is Captain Moroni getting really angry and attacking people in his wrath. In short, not sure he’s an ideal role model. I then said perhaps there was a continuum of responses to warfare seen in the Book of Mormon–from evil people like Amalickiah who start wars for their own gain or glory, to people like Captain Moroni who are perhaps justified in defending themselves, to the Anti-Nephi-Lehis who perhaps most closely follow Christ’s teachings to love your enemies and to renounce war and proclaim peace. There was a minor uproar as the quorum president suggested “that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for” (no kidding!) and another suggested that Christ really was violent–as seen in his driving the money changers out of the temple. I suggested we should re-read that and see if it really meant that Christ used force on people there. The class kind of fell apart right then and I felt terrible. It was time for the closing prayer and the guy saying the prayer thanked the Lord for the spirit that was in the lesson, to which I had to wonder what the heck he was talking about. Afterwards, he came up to me and thanked me for my comments as he had been uncomfortable with the traditional pro-war view that many readers seem to find in the Book of Mormon. I still feel bad about this experience, and don’t mean to cause contention. Perhaps I could have worded things more delicately? Perhaps I should have dodged the issue? I definitely challenged some preconceptions and the time bomb went off–hopefully with minimal casualties!

  9. BrianJ said

    robf: “don’t even get me started on that one.”

    LOL!

    I’m not sure how to respond, and I hope that the fact that your comment (#8) made me really laugh won’t come across as a hand grenade in your lap.

    There was a minor uproar as the quorum president suggested “that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for” (no kidding!)

    The thing is, I think many (if not all) of us here have been in a similar situation and wondered what to do. Many of us have also been in the position of the teacher whose “lesson plan” went totally…somewhere unexpected. So I guess that my laughter is from commiseration.

    But if the attitude of teaching/learning in church could change, then your type of comment might be the norm (which would be a good thing).

    More seriously, I sense a problem with the question the teacher asked:

    “what can we learn about warfare from the Book of Mormon?”

    The problem is that his words do not convey the actual question, as his later response illustrates:

    “that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for”

    He did not really mean to ask “what can we learn…,” but rather, “what have I learned…” or “what do I want you to learn…”. I’ve heard it said somewhere (in some movie) that the first rule of litigation is to never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. While that may hold true in court, I don’t think that it has a place in the classroom.

    Perhaps you have already talked to your EQ president about this? I’ve done so in similar situations, and found that many of my worries about the “episode” were misplaced.

  10. BrianJ said

    (and I don’t mean to pick on your EQ pres—I’ve made plenty of mistakes as a teacher myself!)

  11. Re: this business of “what can we learn,” etc. I tend, when I’m asked a question (whether I’m singled out or the question is for the whole class and I decide to answer) that literally asks one thing but I know the teacher is looking for something else, to restate the question with a radical emphasis on what would appear to be misleading about the teacher’s question. I would have said, in this instance, something like: “What can we learn from the war chapters? Oh a great deal, I imagine: geography, history, something of the connections between misery and war, hatred, etc. Or, if we want to turn the text into something symbolic rather than something historical, we can draw all kinds of lessons about Satan as the enemy and ourselves as the good guys, or perhaps about ourselves as enemies to Christ, or some such thing. But, to be honest, I’m not sure what the text itself is trying to get me to learn, though I’d be very interested to find out.”

    For some reason, teachers do very well with an answer like that. I imagine it’s because they don’t feel like I’ve tried to push their lesson where they didn’t intend it to go, but I’ve still been quite honest. And I suppose it is a polite way of saying “Are you sure you asked the question you really want to have answered?”

    Brian #7, I suppose I’ve got a curious presupposition guiding my thoughts here. It seems to me that, because of the Fall, I can assume that everything the scriptures teach overthrows some presupposition. I don’t have to identify presuppositions constantly, the text does that for me. As I’m working through a text in a classroom, I will bring up some presuppositions, but classmembers bring up all sorts of presuppositions as well, and I learn a great deal from that. The more I teach, the more I come to see how “the average Mormon” thinks about texts, and that makes all the difference. I suppose I can ride on the back of published material as well: what appears in the Ensign is probably pretty representative of how most people in my class will be approaching the text.

    As for the well-worn texts… I suppose I experience the Spirit somewhat differently from the way you describe things. I don’t know that I have ever had a “confirmation” of an interpretation: I am moved by the Spirit toward and away from things, rather than being told after I’ve gotten somewhere that I got to the right place. For that reason, the Spirit tends to teach me more and more and more out of a verse I’ve visited hundreds or even thousands of times. The Spirit pushes me to it to find more than last time, and then more than last time, and then more than last time. My wife and I spent a full hour of scripture study together the other night looking at the word “As” in D&C 128:1! As if I could exhaust any scripture!

  12. robf said

    Joe (#11) As if I could exhaust any scripture!

    Generally, I think the scriptures are more likely to exhaust me!

    BrianJ (#9) a hand grenade in your lap.

    Actually, as things go, this incident was regrettable but not the worst I’ve had at Church. In the past 15 years I’ve been released from a teaching calling for a misunderstood statement, called into the bishop’s office (twice), and inadvertently made a teacher cry. So I really do try to be sensitive and careful. Gee, this makes me sound like an even bigger jerk. I best be more careful!

  13. Robert C. said

    Brian, I think you raise very good questions. As sort of a challenge to myself, I’ve sometimes thought about a certain well-worn phrase or scripture, and tried to think long and hard about it for new meaning and understanding. That is, I sort of feel like I should be able to get infinite meaning out of any scripture (though perhaps not with equal effort…), and so I take your line of thinking as a challenge: the most well-worn scriptures are the most dangerous and challenging scriptures because it is so hard for us to avoid falling into thinking we already know what the scripture means rather than approaching the verse with child-like humility, ready to be taught new and deeper meaning. Whereas at first this was very hard for me to do, it has become significantly easier. I think Joe has a knack for delving deeply into even the most well-worn of scriptural passages, it seems he can do so without really making a conscious effort, whereas it requires much more of a conscious effort on my part. This, of course, is why I like Jim F.’s thought questions so much. I get the most out of them when I read a passage and think about all the questions or comments I could think of pertaining to that passage. Then I go and read some of Jim’s questions. Invariably, Jim will have raised questions that I haven’t thought of, though my batting average is increasing—it’s exciting when I see one of my questions on his list. Doing this week-in and week-out has really helped me see universes of meaning open up in scripture that I’ve simply been oblivious to before, enough universes that it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone has really explored all of those universes….

  14. John said

    Good discussion.

    What a provocative and open-ended question: “What can we learn from war…!” The responses are limitless, and all are equally valid. It’s not your fault that the teacher lost control of his lesson, but rather a dynamic of the classroom and the emotion such a question evokes. Hopefully, you experienced no violence as the lesson “fell apart.”

    The best Sunday School teachers I have had are those that humbly admit a level of ignorance and open the question up to the class — no single, expected, correct, or pat response required, merely astute follow-up and inquiry, followed by testimony, shared experience, and deepening knowledge.

    No “right” answer means there is also no “wrong” answer. In absence of a “master instructor” there are no “ignorant students” nor a “teacher’s pet.”

  15. BrianJ said

    Joe,

    Perhaps I am missing something due to a difference in how we are using some words—“presuppositions” being the most critical. Let me say that in the broader context of your post we are in agreement, but I am still having difficulty accepting or understanding certain particulars.

    You wrote, “the teacher needs to look at texts closely enough that s/he can uncover presuppositions that will question every student in the classroom.” I take that to mean that you are saying that it is my job as the teacher to identify not only the presuppositions of the text, but also to determine whether those presuppositions will challenge every students’ presuppositions. The problem that I have with this is that I cannot know my students’ presuppositions beforehand. I can try to predict them, but experience teaches me that such efforts are extremely error-prone.

    Now, in comment #11 you perhaps soften your statement, when you refer to the “average Mormon,” but even then I have a problem: first, because my students are not “the average Mormon,” neither collectively nor individually, and I feel it a major disservice to treat them as such (and I loathe being treated that way myself); second, I feel it may be a bit audacious and offensive (and not in a “call to repentance” way) to approach the classroom with the mind-set that I am going to show my students where they are wrong.

    That being said, I don’t think it is a bad idea to make guesses about commonly held beliefs, it is just in what a teacher does with those guesses that I think we disagree. I see the “guess-based preparation” as a way to increase my ability to understand comments that might come up (i.e. “I understood the question Susan asked because, like her, I read Pres. Faust’s article and know how he applied this verse”), whereas you seem to use “guess-based preparation” as a way to decide what you will bring up.

  16. BrianJ said

    Joe, sorry to write so much, but I really want to understand this!

    You wrote (original post): “But as soon as the text becomes a source for frustrating presuppositions held by basically every member of the class, there is no possibility of rivalry, or at least very little possibility.”

    It is with this same goal that I describe my “different way,” in #7. Let me see if I can articulate my problem better: Suppose I find something in the text that frustrates the presuppositions of 80% of my class. What are the other 20% to do as we discuss those presuppositions? Perhaps they already identified—in their own study—those same presuppositions and then worked to root them out. Suppose those 20% are always this way—one step ahead of me in identifying their presuppositions. This group can only become part of the class as they explain and expound upon that which they already learned about the presuppositions I selected to discuss. Thus, they become the know-it-alls, and by so becoming are no longer part of the class.

    The alternative that I tried to describe is to come to class ready to work through presuppositions, with myself as the example. There are many benefits to this, which I mentioned in #7, but here is one more: that 20% group gets to participate in class—gets to join the class—because they are welcome to share their own questions, etc. (And yes, I think that even that smarty-pants kid you mention at the end can get involved, because from his perspective the “challenge” is to identify where he is wrong, and by so doing he will eventually have to question his prideful attitude.)

    Maybe it would be a whole lot easier to understand what I’m saying if I put it this way: Teach the student how to identify his/her own presuppositions and let class become a time to work through those together. Thus, the spectrum-bomb is defused from the inside-out.

  17. BrianJ said

    Joe, just one more:

    In #11, you wrote, “I don’t have to identify presuppositions constantly, the text does that for me. As I’m working through a text in a classroom, I will bring up some presuppositions, but classmembers bring up all sorts of presuppositions as well, and I learn a great deal from that.”

    This seems to agree with what I was saying, but based on what you wrote about identifying presuppositions (“the teacher needs to…uncover presuppositions…”), I don’t know what you mean (i.e. you seem to contradict yourself).

    “As for the well-worn texts… I suppose I experience the Spirit somewhat differently from the way you describe things. I don’t know that I have ever had a “confirmation” of an interpretation…. the Spirit tends to teach me more and more and more out of a verse… to find more than last time, and then more than last time, and then more than last time.”

    No, I don’t think we’re all that different. The point I was trying to make is that we can’t always approach every verse assuming that everything we think about it is wrong. We have to recognize and remember those things the Spirit has taught us about that verse. Thus we find (as you say) “more and more” rather than ‘something else.’ So when we revisit those well-worn verses in class, I think it is great to ask, “What did we miss? Where did we go wrong?” but I also think we should give time for, “Let’s remember what the Spirit has already taught.”

    So if I made it sound like the Spirit tells me about a verse that I have “got to the right place,” I meant it in more of a Brigham Young/pioneers way: i.e. This is the right place, but there is still a TON of work to be done.

  18. BrianJ said

    Robert C, #13: “…so I take your line of thinking as a challenge: …hard for us to avoid falling into thinking we already know what the scripture means rather than … ready to be taught new and deeper meaning.”

    Please see my clarification in #17. I think you will see that my “line of thinking” was not as you suggest. Think: “precept upon precept”, not “precept replacing precept”….

  19. I think we are getting closer and closer to understanding one another here, Brian. :)

    Let me take up what seems to me to be the most important phrase of my original post: That is, the teacher needs to look at texts closely enough that s/he can uncover presuppositions that will question every student in the classroom.

    The only thing in this sentence that I see as an action the teacher has to take up consciously, as it were, is this: “the teacher needs to look at texts closely.” On that, I’m sure we’re agreed! :) What I’m trying to think out in this post and discussion is what happens in relation to (1) presuppositions and (2) classroom rivalry when the class is given quite fully to the text. I’m suggesting, regarding the former, that if we give ourselves entirely over to the texts, we will find the texts questioning us, rather than ourselves questioning the texts. That is, it will be our historicity, our truth, our self-consistency, our worldviews, our presuppositions, our relationships, etc., that will be called into question, rather than those of the text. I’m suggesting, regarding the latter, that if we give ourselves entirely over to the texts, we will find that the depth of the questions that the texts will propose to us will outstrip basically any question anyone in the class could have asked, and it will thus shatter the spectrum that is the rivalrous establishment. That is, because the text calls us into question when it is given to be heard, it will also make it impossible for rivalry to be reinforced within the classroom.

    Again, then: “That is, the teacher needs to look at texts closely enough that s/he can uncover presuppositions that will question every student in the classroom. The presuppositions the teach thus uncovers are, then, not the presuppositions of the students, but of the text: they are presuppositions on the text’s part “that will question every student in the classroom.” I have no guesses to make, no anticipations to worry about, no anxieties to distract from the Spirit that speaks in the text. I have only to give myself, as a teacher and with the class, to the texts as fully as possible (or, more fully than is possible).

    When I bring up presuppositions along the way, or when students do, they are inevitably personal, as you suggest. I imagine that is why I always put them forward as a question. Something like this: “Wait a minute! Does that really say that x, y, z? We don’t believe that, do we? But here it is!” These moments come, as does everything else, from the Spirit. And so it is.

    In one sentence, here is the point of clarification: I do not think that it is the teacher’s job to identify presuppositions, but to follow the Spirit that leads through the texts; I’m suggesting rather that the text, through the teacher who follows the Spirit, questions the presuppositions and rivalrous relations of the classroom that, without the Spirit, reinforces the war that so often divides us as people right down the middle.

  20. BrianJ said

    Joe: Thanks for reading through all that—and understanding it! In #15, I wrote, “Perhaps I am missing something due to a difference in how we are using some words….” I can see now that that was exactly the case. I think we are in agreement, though if you do not think so I would like to hear it.

    Let me be clear, though, that I am not seeking agreement for agreement’s sake. I’d much rather learn that one (or both) of us is wrong than agree and persist in error.

    For what it’s worth, I think the real “word of contention” was not so much “presupposition” but rather “will”, as in “s/he can uncover presuppositions that will question every student in the classroom.” But I understand now what you meant by that, and I was reading too much emphasis on it.

  21. BrianJ said

    Now, you raise a question at the end of your post about “the smartest kid in the classroom.” I addressed it parenthetically in the 4th paragraph of comment #16. What do you make of my thinking? Do you see this as an effective approach for that kid? Is he brought into the community without being crushed?

    It seems like we could talk about at least two types of this kid: the one who privately has all the answers, and the one who vocally demonstrates that he has all the answers (i.e. dominates the discussion). The first seems easier to reach than the second, because the later defines his “classroom self” by the demonstration of his superior knowledge and not merely the possession of it. The classrooms you and I describe (which are essentially the same, I think) still allow for one person to dominate the discussion (though, not by design, of course), but not in a “know-it-all” way. Thus, the vocal know-it-all is forced out of the community because his “answers”, which are his only form of participation, are exactly the sort of thing the class is trying to reject. The silent know-it-all, on the other hand, can begin by pondering his own errors—following the example set by the class—and eventually learn to deny his ego and become part of the community.

  22. Robert C. said

    Brian #17 and Joe #19, these are especially interesting comments for me to ponder, thanks!

  23. jevans said

    I just thought I’d inject an old Ensign article I really like by Elder Holland on teaching scriptures. It is set in a family teaching environment, but I think there are some good teaching ideas illustrated.
    [Holland, Jeffrey R. ”Daddy, Donna, and Nephi.” Ensign, September 1976.]

  24. brianj said

    jevans: I finally had time to read the article. I liked two parts in particular:

    I think it is also important to note that through these chapters we are repeatedly taught our role in the process of revelation… For example, in chapters 11–15 Nephi is continually commanded by the Spirit of the Lord or an angel to “Look!” “Look,”… “Look,” the Spirit directs, and he learns the meaning of those things. “Look,” the Spirit cries, and Nephi sees the fate of a nation and the end of the world. “Look,” the Spirit commands nearly a dozen times in less than half as many pages. [1 Ne. 11–15] Could it be that this short imperative is also crucial to what will—or won’t—happen as we read the rest of the book?

    …and:

    Why does Alma 31, a chapter on the self-righteous “prayerful” Zoramites, follow Alma 30, a chapter on Korihor, the most unrighteous, un-prayerful anti-Christ in the book? What do either of these chapters—or rather both of them—have to do with Alma 32, that masterful lesson of faith? Why is …?

    Or what contribution does 3 Nephi 11 [3 Ne. 11] make to the Book of Mormon’s “Sermon on the Mount” (3 Ne. 12, 3 Ne. 13, 3 Ne. 14)? What sense does …?

    This will definitely form part of my first BofM lesson next year!

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