The Convert Files: Asking Questions and Creating Safe Spaces in Our Learning

By creating safe spaces in our classes and worship, through active learning and engaged teachers, questions can help us grow and learn on the Gospel path.
Photo: Intellectual Reserve

I remember taking the missionary discussions like it was yesterday. Sitting in my girlfriend’s home, I peppered the missionaries with questions regarding all aspects of the Church and doctrine. This curiosity, questioning, and constant desire to learn haven’t died down in me since then. After my baptism, like most new members, I started attending Gospel Principles class.

In Gospel Principles I could learn and grow in an environment that was safe to ask questions. I wasn’t worried about bringing up a different point of view. It was a place where I didn’t feel ostracized if I didn’t understand a principle or doctrine.

My feelings about this class could be due to the simple and pure nature of the material. Or maybe it was that I was surrounded with other new members and those returning to the Church. More likely, it was the ability of the teacher to create a place where active learning through questions was encouraged. Questions or concerns were not seen as being unfaithful, but as an integral part of our learning experience. We were encouraged to pray and learn the answers to our questions.

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I’ve served a couple stints as ward mission leader, because I obviously didn’t learn how to do the calling properly the first time. But that calling has given me ample opportunities to be a part of this wonderful class and its unique environment. Some Sundays I will go into Gospel Principles instead of Gospel Doctrine. And to be honest, I often come out of that class with a renewed love of the Gospel and its core principles.

Which is why I was sad when I heard that the Gospel Principles class would be going away in 2019.

Teacher vs. Class Member

One of the unique aspects of Gospel Principles is that I never felt like we rushed through the material. There was no mandate to get all the way through the lesson, instead we went where the spirit directed, and where the questions of the students led us.

Unfortunately I haven’t always had this same experience in Gospel Doctrine. More than once a discussion has been cut short because the instructor wanted to move the lesson along. They often say the same thing, “We still have material to get to,” as if the lesson is a battle that must be won. I’ve always believed, unless the comments are way off topic, then the conversation should be allowed to flow naturally. If lots people are talking about some aspect of the lesson. it should be obvious that that topic is what the people need at that time.

In fact, the outgoing Gospel Doctrine manual specifies this, and always has:

Covering all the lesson material is less important than helping class members better understand the scriptures and commit themselves to increased discipleship. If class members are learning from a good discussion, it is often helpful to let it continue rather than try to cover all the lesson material.

Another thing that can cause class participation to wane, is that sometimes the teacher doesn’t give enough time for me to contemplate an answer. I’m getting older. The white hair I’m developing testifies to that. But it takes a while to search my memory banks for experiences that may tie into the lesson. By the time I come up with something we have moved on, and then I have to spend time catching back up.

We Are Not Professional Teachers nor Learners

I’m not here to criticize our teachers. We are all volunteers to the cause, with little to no formal training, all doing our best. But it’s true that the teacher can make or break the spirit of the class. That being said, the students can make a break a class too. We both have to be willing to engage, share, and most importantly, be flexible. However for some, it can be difficult to share for any number of reasons.

I think most of us have witnessed a scenario such as this: The teacher is giving their lesson and someone raises their hand to offer a different perspective or to contradict something the teacher said. You can feel the tension almost immediately in the room. This could be because the teacher doesn’t know how to respond to a different opinion, question, or even a doubt. But once that tension appears, the tendency to want to share anything further greatly diminishes.

Sometimes we can even be intimidated in class situations like this, because we may think that everyone else knows the answer,  or understands the material better.  No one wants to feel like a dummy, or even unfaithful if they question something. In these situations it feels easier to keep those doubts and insecurities inside. Be a proactive, powerful learner. And help others do likewise.

The Power of Questions

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came about because of the questioning of a young man. By all accounts, the Smith home was one where the children could question, grow, and learn. Their home must have felt safe enough to share their experiences and feelings with each other. If not, Joseph might not have shared his concerns, or the answers he received. We also know that the revelations which guide the Church today, largely come about through the honest questions of leaders. Heavenly Father doesn’t fear our questions, and neither should we. However, we should ask our questions with sincerity. After we ask, we need to make sure we are open enough to receive and act on our answers.

But I often wonder if we are  doing our best to foster an environment of positive questioning in our wards, classes and homes, where we can share our experiences and seek better understanding of Heavenly Father’s plan for us. Questioning and seeking revelation and answers are essential to our spiritual growth. Creating places in our houses of worship that are safe should be a top priority for us.

Now let me pull a word right out of the Millennial playbook (Yes I’m a Millennial, so I can hijack the term without any guilt).

We are not good at creating “safe spaces” for questioning and growth.

There I said it.

But what exactly is a safe space, beyond a term used both positively and derisively, depending on one’s point of view?

In his August 7th 2018 Devotional at BYU, Professor Eric Huntsman said the following,

“When I use the expression “safe spaces,” I do not necessarily use it in the same sense as some in our broader society use it. Rather than alluding to trigger warnings, the effects of micro­aggressions, or the need to shield ourselves from difficult language and ideas, I am using it to refer to the creation of environments that are, on the one hand, places of faith where we can seek and nurture testimony but that are also, on the other hand, places where our sisters and brothers can safely question, seek understanding, and share their pain. This requires flexibility and sensitivity on our part; it requires that we listen as much as—or more than—we speak.”

Come, Follow Me

I’m excited about the Come Follow Me for Sunday School because I’ve seen its success firsthand in Young Men’s classes (at least when they haven’t been sugared up by the Sunday School teacher before me, and they are actually paying attention). The ability to navigate and adapt a course based on the needs of the learners is huge, especially when you consider that we all don’t learn the same way. That and the fact that we are all at different stages of the Gospel journey.

But there’s also a greater responsibility with the new materials, as they require the teacher to do more work to create a lesson around chosen concepts, rather than erroneously following a script of sorts. Again, it’s on us. It always has been, but now we have the program to help us get there.

My hope is that  this new curriculum will open up more dialogue and discussion in our adult classes. Now lest you think I am coming down on Sunday School and its teachers, I am not. I think what they do is sometimes incredibly challenging. But there is always room for improvement in our callings. It is also important that we engage in a different mindset in teaching. Rather than lecturing, we will adopt a facilitating mentality. Instead of teaching at someone, we will engage in active learning with them.

Maybe we will listen more than we speak. That seems like a strange concept in teaching, but if the class is engaged, we won’t have to do much, except ask questions and prompt discussion.

I know we are not going to be perfect at it. We should at least consider what we are doing within the context of our wards to create these spaces for personal and spiritual growth. And since we will be teaching at home, we should look at how we are doing within our homes on this as well.

As we work on our weakness together, we will draw closer to the Savior. As we draw closer to the Savior, we will create unity in our wards, classes and our homes.

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