Help! Teaching in Church Settings - John Hilton III
In this episode of the LDS Perspectives Podcast, Laura Harris Hales visits with John Hilton III about teaching in church settings.
John has spent a good deal of his adult life working in religious education. He began his teaching career in the seminary and institute program and was hired by the BYU Department of Ancient Scripture after earning a PhD in education. He is also a popular speaker and author of several books for youth.
Hilton helped develop a “know, feel, and do” model for effective religious teaching. President Thomas S. Monson said that “the goal of gospel teaching is not to ‘pour information’ into the minds of [learners]. … The aim is to inspire the individual to think about, feel about, then do something about living gospel principles.” Hilton’s method aims to accomplish these goals.
To have a successful class, whether it is Gospel Doctrine or Come Follow Me or Seminary, students should learn something new, feel something positive, and should be able to apply what they learn in their lives.
As a professional teacher, Hilton shares insights on what inspires and motivates students to learn and to be invested in the learning experience. He also gives practical suggestions on how to prepare lessons that are impactful.
Most gospel teachers do so on a volunteer basis, don’t have any formal training in education, and often struggle just to make it through a lesson while keeping the class’s attention. According to Hilton, creative teaching techniques can lead to a positive experience for both the student and the teacher.
Listen in as we discuss how mnemonic devices, reviews, creative teaching, group activities, personal interaction, and careful preparation can help us all become effective teachers.
LDS Perspectives Podcast
Episode 40: Help with Gospel Teach with John Hilton III
Laura Harris Hales: This is Laura Harris Hales, and I’m here today with John Hilton III to discuss how to make teaching in gospel settings more effective. John Hilton III is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at BYU. Before that, he worked in the LDS Seminary and Institute program for 11 years.
He also has a master’s degree from Harvard and a PhD from BYU, both in education. John loves to teach, and his research focuses on issues relating to both religious pedagogy and open educational resources. He recently coauthored Q&A: Common Questions and Powerful Answers for LDS Youth with Anthony Sweat. Hello, John.
I appreciate you taking time out of your day to give me this little teaching tutorial here. I have to admit to you that teaching in church settings can be very frustrating because it’s not easy, and it can be really hard to prepare. You and Dr. Sweat have been working together and have developed a program to help us teach better. Will you briefly describe the philosophy behind your model of teaching?
John Hilton III: Yeah. So, our model – and it’s one that we’ve talked about, Anthony Sweat, Tony, and I have developed – it’s one that you’ll see in other places as well. It’s “Know, Feel, Do.” President Monson said in a recent Ensign First Presidency message, “The goal of gospel teaching is not to pour information into the minds of God’s children. The aim is to inspire individuals to think about, feel about, and then do something about living gospel principles.”
So, “know,” “feel,” and “do.” The idea is for me to have a successful class, whether it’s Come Follow Me or Gospel Doctrine or Seminary, my students should learn something new. They should know something they didn’t know before they came into class. Otherwise, I think the class has been ineffective. They should also feel something.
If they leave my class, and they didn’t feel the Holy Ghost — they didn’t feel edified — that’s a problem. And also, as President Monson says, the goal is for students to do something about living gospel principles. If I learn some new things, if I had a happy feeling, but I don’t do anything in my life, that class also hasn’t reached its full potential.
Laura Harris Hales: As I mentioned earlier, teaching is not easy. A lot of us aren’t professionals. We’re busy people. Do you have any ideas from the get go on things we can do to better prepare ourselves personally to teach?
John Hilton III: There’s lots of ways. I would say the most important is to 1.) Study the word, 2.) To live the teachings. So, if we think about studying the word, let’s say I’m preparing to teach a lesson on somewhere in the war chapters, Alma 47–50. Back when I used to teach Seminary, I got the advice that I should read the chapters that I was gonna teach three times.
And on numerous occasions I had the experience where I’d read Alma 47–50, for example. I’d read it one time and think how am I gonna fill a whole class period? There’s nothing here. And then I’d read it a second time, and I’d say, “Oh, here’s a couple of good insights.” And by the time I finished reading it a third time, I’d say, “How can I teach all this amazing material in just one class? There’s not enough time.
And so, there is definitely something about marinating ourselves – I believe it’s David McCullough who used that phrase – marinating ourselves to really, deeply understand the material that we’re going to teach, so it starts to become a part of us, and we’re excited about it. Along with that then is to live the teachings. I remember on one occasion, I was gonna teach a class, and it was about honesty.
And I was studying the Anti-Nephi-Lehies. It says that they were perfectly honest. And right as I was studying that verse, a thought came to me of something I had recently done that was not perfectly honest. And I thought to myself, “Okay. I’m just not gonna use that verse when I teach.” And then I realized,
“Oh, this is terrible. I have to change my lesson to match my behavior.” Probably I should change my behavior to match my lesson.
There’s something that students feel if I really live, and I’m really believing those teachings. I love what Elder Bednar said, “Our children and the youth of the Church will learn the most from what we do and what we are even if they remember relatively little of what we say.”
Laura Harris Hales: I started walking into my Come Follow Me class and asking this question of my students, which usually befuddles them. “Why are you here today?” And they’re like, “I don’t know.” And then sometimes they’ll go, “Because my parents want me to be here.” But I keep asking that question hoping that I’ll get a different response sometime. How can we as teachers better prepare our students to learn when sometimes they’re kinda just going through the motions? This is something they’ve always done since they were little kids. They’ve gone to church on Sunday, and they go to Sunday School or Primary.
John Hilton III: I think part of what we need to do is coach them. I love this question that you’re asking, “Why are you here?” And it may be that some of the youth that we’re teaching need some training. If you think about it, they probably have – many of them – gone to Primary, gone to Family Home Evening, gone to Sunday School. And they’re just doing it because that’s what they do.
Maybe no one’s ever stopped to say, “You’re here today to know something new. I’m gonna teach you something about the Apostle Paul in the book of Acts you have never known before. And you need to learn that thing because it’s gonna help you later in your life, or it’s gonna help you today.”
“And you’re here today to feel the Holy Ghost because you live in a dangerous world. And having the Holy Ghost as your constant companion is gonna make a difference in your lives. And you know what? You’re here today to do something to change your life.” That model “Know, Feel, Do” is something we that could help coach and help students to learn.
Another thing that I think is really important for preparing students is to develop a strong relationship with them. I remember as a brand new Seminary teacher there was a legend in the area where I taught in Nyssa, Oregon, with the Director of all the Seminary teachers sitting down with each Seminary teacher and holding in one hand the scriptures and then the other hand the roll book and saying, “Which of these two books is more important?”
And the idea is that they are both equally important. Yes, the scriptures have the power, but I’m teaching students. And so, the more things that we can do to personally reach out to individuals and connect with them – when Molly knows that you were at her track meet or when you ask a question about Susan’s performance in the play – all of those things connect and, I believe, make them want to learn more when they come to class.
Another key I think is to have high expectations. Sometimes – to use your example of a youth Sunday School class – I might think, “Okay, they’re just here because they have to be here. I’m just here because I have to be here. Let’s just grind through this 40 minutes.” That’s very different than saying, “I’m looking at this student, and I see a future missionary or I see a future mother. And I am working hard to prepare this person for what’s ahead. And they need this, and they can do it.” President Eyring said when he was talking to teachers, “Your choice of what you expect will have a powerful effect on your student’s choices of what to expect of themselves.”
So, some concrete examples. Do I invite students to read certain scriptures before coming to class, and how tightly do I follow up on that? So, if I say, “Okay, everyone. Next week read Acts Chapters 1–5,” do I really expect them to do it? Do I follow up during the week? Am I disappointed if they haven’t read it the following Sunday?
If at the end of class I say, “Okay. Today we’ve talked about idol worship, and we focused on how the ancient Israelites handled idol worship. And I want everyone to write down something you’re gonna do in your life to apply this principle.” Do I follow up during the week? Do we check in the following week? Do I really expect them to do it?
And what I found is in some cases teachers don’t. I don’t really expect my students to do any reading or preparation for class, and I don’t expect them to do anything different. And that’s what happens. But if I can raise my expectations, often the youth and others will rise to meet those expectations.
Laura Harris Hales: You and some of your colleagues conducted a study of BYU religion students to try and determine what elements of a religious education class contributed most to a student identifying it as a spiritually edifying experience, which ultimately is probably the goal.
The top two factors are in one way obvious but may surprise some because they’re not always reflected in gospel teaching. They are “intellectually enlightening” and “applied religion to life.” In other words, knowledge gains are not antithetical to spiritual gains. As I read this in your article and as you mentioned before as you say we marinate ourselves in the topic and become so comfortable with the topic, ideas will come to us.
Last week I had a lesson prepared, and as I was sitting there with those ideas marinating in my head, I walked into the classroom and decided I’m going to do something totally different because what I had prepared really didn’t touch on how it would apply in their lives. And for 12-year-olds, that’s really important. As teachers, how can we use this research you’ve done to help us better plan our lessons?
John Hilton III: So, a little context about the study that you’re talking about. We looked at religion classes at BYU, and students can rate the classes on a whole variety of metrics. And one of them was how well did this class help me become spiritually enlightened or was this class spiritually strengthening.
And we took the top 2 percent of classes and the bottom 2 percent of classes, and we read all of the comments that students made in those classes to try to figure out what were they saying. And the No. 1 thing that they said in the most spiritually impactful classes was this class was intellectually enlightening. And I think that says something about the know part of the “Know, Feel, Do” framework.
Sometimes we might not put enough attention on the fact that students are hungry. They want to know. They want to learn new things. They don’t want to hear the same thing that they heard in Primary. They want something that’s going to challenge them intellectually. And, obviously, our study was done at BYU, and other contexts might have different results.
But I think one key is to as I’m planning my lesson and thinking about what I’m gonna say making sure that I’m feeding them; I’m giving them some intellectual enlightenment. Going back to what you said, the second most common comment from students had to do with this class helped me apply or relate religion into my life.
And that’s sort of the “do” of the “Know, Feel, Do.” I think one of the things that we as teachers can plan for is exactly what you did. As I walk into a class – because it’s not just 12-year-olds, it’s adults, it’s everyone – what does this mean for me? How am I gonna apply this into my life?
Laura Harris Hales: Other classes, other age groups maybe lend themselves better to applying the “do.” For instance, in Relief Society we sit around the whole hour and talk about the “do,” how it applies in our lives. With teenagers is more difficult to say, “Hey Suzie. When you do this, how does that affect the rest of your week when you pray?” So, we have to use different principles and maybe work a little bit harder on that probably with young adults, teenagers?
John Hilton III: Yeah. And that also is one reason why developing that relationship is so important. I think you can get different responses from students when they know that you love them and care about them, and you’ve paid the price to create a warm, nurturing atmosphere. I’m not advocating for teachers to hold a class party every week, but if once in a while there is a class party at your house and everyone comes over for pizza on a Friday night, on Sunday it’s a little bit easier to share and open up.
But you’re definitely right. Certain ages you’re gonna get a lot shorter of responses. And maybe there’s, like you said, different types of things that we could do; for example, a roleplay activity. Okay, hypothetical situation. You and your friend are in X scenario, and I want you to apply this principle into your lives. And everyone’s gonna get into groups of three or four. Come up with a skit, and you’ll perform the skits for us in five minutes.
And so, maybe they’re not sharing directly their lives, but they might be acting out something they’ve seen or they’ve thought about or experienced. That could be another way of helping them see how whatever topic we’re discussing today really applies to me right now.
One of the things that we probably all as teachers do intuitively, but I think is helpful to do explicitly is to create specific learning objectives. So, when I walk into class, can I say all right, at the end of this 40 minutes, here are three things I hope my students know? And they’re things that I don’t think they already know or they don’t know well enough.
If their mom says to them, “What’d you learn in church today?” then they’ll be able to say these three things. And here’s what I want students to do. My goal is to help students do “X.” Having those explicit objectives in mind can really help me to then follow through and actually accomplish something rather than, “Hey. My main objective is to just get through these 40 minutes and move on.”
Laura Harris Hales: I’ve heard you talk about this before. I think you gave a name: backward design. Can you describe this a little bit more for those of us who haven’t had any formal training in education?
John Hilton III: Yeah. So, the idea behind backward design is we start with what are students gonna be able to know, feel, become, what are they gonna do, and then plan backwards. If I want students to know something about the Word of Wisdom, I’ll plan a different class than if I want students to be able to teach something about the Word of Wisdom because knowing and being able to teach are two totally different things. And if I’m not really explicit up front with what I want students to be able to do or to know, I could wind up planning the wrong type of class. So, I think that backward design is really important, and it begins with focusing up front what are the objectives.
And a lot of times the manual will provide some objectives specifically, and a lot of times the Holy Ghost can individually give us those. And again, that’s a really basic thing, but have I paid the price before I teach to even pray and say, “Heavenly Father, what are the things that I should help my students to know and to do? And how can I help them to feel the Holy Ghost?”
Praying about what we teach is one of the most basic ideas, but it might be in some cases a neglected idea. And that’s a powerful opportunity for us to receive revelation for the people that we’re teaching. And along with that, it sounds like with the lesson you referenced earlier that that’s what you were doing.
You had been thinking and planning this lesson for many days ahead of time. And so, thoughts could come into your mind rather than during the closing hymn of Sacrament Meeting kinda flipping through saying, “Okay. Well, how can I pull this together real quick.”
Laura Harris Hales: Yeah, with the Come Follow Me, you can’t do that anymore. We used to be able to do that. What are some things we can do to help students know things? Sometimes they even kind of step back when you try to go beyond what they’re used to. You said they have a hunger for knowledge, but they also have a comfort with learning the same things over and over again.
For instance, I won’t read a scripture in my class without context. We have to know who wrote the scripture, why they wrote it, who were the Philippians, why do we care what’s in this letter, and sometimes my students are just caught off guard. Do you have any techniques to share that will help make this process more comfortable for both of us?
John Hilton III: Great question, and just to broaden it out this is not only for youth. If I’m teaching a Gospel Doctrine class, I want to think about, “Okay. What do my students reasonably already know, but what are some things that are within the realm of teaching that they probably don’t know that I should make sure we talk about?”
As a recent example, this year’s Gospel Doctrine topic is Doctrine and Covenants and Church History. And so, if I’m looking at the Gospel Doctrine curriculum for the translation process of the Book of Mormon, it’s gonna link to the gospel topics essay. Maybe not everyone in my Gospel Doctrine’s class is familiar with the content of that gospel topic essay.
And I’m gonna want to make sure that that’s a part of my class. That’s something that they should know and I need to be prepared to teach well. I’ve gotta think about what’s reasonable? And a 40 minute Sunday School class I can’t help them know everything. But what are a few key things I want them to know, and then one simple example is using pneumonic devices.
So, I think we can make things fun. For example, as a missionary, somebody asked me what the Ten Commandments, and I didn’t know. Later on I was in a class, and the teacher had these really clever finger symbols to help you remember the Ten Commandments, and I’ve never forgotten the Ten Commandments since.
Let’s say as a part of the class, I’m hoping my students will know the Ten Commandments. Let me think creatively about how I can help them learn these specific things, or if I want my students to know about the translation process of the Book of Mormon, is there some artwork that I could bring in.
I know we have another podcast on that topic. How could I help them put a picture into their mind that’s gonna help them remember this thing? I also think it’s important for us to realize that students are gonna forget things. And typically, as weekly teachers or even as daily teachers in the Seminary program, we might be tempted to look at our classes as series of one-off lessons.
But I think it would be more important for us to step back and look at the bigger picture and say, for example, with Come Follow Me over the course of a month or in a Seminary class maybe over the course of a book of scripture, what are the key things that I want students to know and then be disciplined enough to loop back and to review those things from time to time.
Maybe even give a little quiz or a test to the students to say do you really know this? Are you understanding it? There’s nothing like a test to make me realize, “Oh, I actually don’t understand this.” I recently was talking to a young man. He had a friend who had done something really wrong. And he said, “So, is my friend still gonna be able to go to heaven?” And this told me that this young man who’s grown up going to Sunday School, and all of these things didn’t really understand what repentance was. So here’s a basic thing where he’s been to lots of lessons, but he just hadn’t put it together.
And that’s why I would also recommend when possible helping students ask questions because as a student asks questions, there’s little connections that are gonna come together in their minds. In whatever setting you are, but I think it’s especially useful with youth, to maybe have a box and say if you want to drop a question in the box anytime, you’re welcome to.
And I’ll study the answer, and I’ll answer it. And you can put your name, and I can give you a personal answer. Or you can leave it anonymous, and I’ll share it with the whole class. And not all the time will students ask questions, but sometimes they might be wondering about something that’s not part of my planned lesson. But they’re ready to learn the thing they have a question about. That’s a moment I don’t want to miss.
Laura Harris Hales: If I want to help them with the “know,” I need to know where they’re starting at. We need to have this pretest or this pre-assessment, and then we need to say, “Okay, where can we go from here?” Because as they go through the motions, if they still are on the question of, “Why am I here?” a lot of times I don’t think it soaks in like you mentioned with that young adult who didn’t really quite understand the concept of repentance.
I call that the Colgate Principle. There used to be a Colgate commercial where there was some blue dye and chalk. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this. And the fluoride in the Colgate would penetrate the enamel of the teeth, but other toothpaste’s fluoride would not.
So, they would dip the one chalk in, and they’d take it out. It was still white. They dipped the second chalk in, and the blue dye would permeate. And as teachers, that’s what we want to do. We want to make sure what we’ve said in those 40 minutes is in their head after they leave the room.
John Hilton III: Yeah, it’s gone even from their head and sunk into their heart. You mentioned assessments there. This is something that you couldn’t do every class period, or it would get old. But I think you could do every once in a while. Have a quiz at the start of class. In my college classes, what I’ll do is sometimes I’ll use Kahoot! I don’t know if you’re familiar with Kahoot! It’s an online system. If you have a smartphone or an iPad, you can connect to the internet. The answers will display on a screen. And so, that’s really fun because I’ll ask a question, and we can see really fast if everyone in the class knows the answer or doesn’t know the answer.
If you say, “Well, my students don’t have phones. I can’t access this technology,” then you could do something similar with paper. So everyone takes the quiz, and then you can talk about Question 1. And students are gonna be interested to find out if they got the answer right or wrong. And so, automatically there’s a little bit of now desire to learn, to make sure, “Oh, I got this.”
And if all the students in the class got 100 percent on the quiz, then probably I need to change what I’m teaching because they already knew everything I had planned to teach. But there’s nothing like getting 40 percent on a quiz to peek my interest to say, “Wow! I guess I don’t know this stuff very well.”
And if I “feel” from the teacher because I know him and trust him or love her or whatever the case might be, then I’m gonna trust. I want to learn this. I want to make sure that I understand all this material.
Laura Harris Hales: I think we have this cultural attitude in the church – I’m not so sure it’s incorrect because of the repetitive nature of our curriculum – when we walk into a classroom, we don’t necessarily think, “I’m going to learn something new today.” And I like that quiz idea where if we get 40 percent then we’re like well, maybe I should be a little more humble. Maybe there is something I can learn today, and instead of going to my happy place, I should pay attention.
John Hilton III: And, I mean, it is a challenge for the teacher to intuitively know – in your case – what does my group of 12-year-olds already know? What do we not need to talk about because if I’m not careful, I’ll just talk about the same things that they’ve already said, or if I’m not careful, I’ll wind up talking about Kolob and other things that they’re not feeling is relevant to them. And there’s no connection.
So, there is this sweet spot. Actually, in educational theory, Vygotsky talks about the zone of proximal development. And the zone of proximal development are the things that you can do with help. If I’m helping you do stuff that you already can do, that’s not useful. And if I’m trying to help you to do stuff that’s impossible for you to do, that’s not helpful. But if I’m in this zone where you’re kind of familiar with it, you can do it with a little bit of coaching and help, that’s how you build out and grow.
And that’s maybe one way that assessment can help us out. Thinking from another perspective if you’re perhaps a Seminary teacher. So, you have students. You have a little bit more face time with them. Maybe there’s 25 doctrinal mastery verses. I could find ways to assess throughout the year are my students really learning these doctrinal mastery verses?
Can they connect a scripture with a key doctrine? Can they sit down and use that verse to teach me a principle? And those are things that you could continually loop back to. Understanding that students if I teach you today, you’ll probably forget it tomorrow. But that is probably something of sufficient importance that I want to come back to that periodically.
And with whatever class we’re teaching, there may be some important points that we want to reinforce but, again, with the idea that the students can do something with it.
Laura Harris Hales: That, again, goes back to the taking it from the theoretical to the applicable. What can I do with this? I don’t know. Well, here, my teacher is showing something that I can actually do with this knowledge that maybe I didn’t know before. You mentioned a pneumonic device that helped you learn the Ten Commandments. Can you give us some examples of some of other fun review activities and memory devices we could use, whether it’s with youth or maybe even young adults or older?
John Hilton III: Sure. So, let’s say that I’m teaching a class, and every week there’s been three or four things I’ve wanted students to learn. So, at the end of the month, I’ve now got 15 questions. With youth, maybe we would have a little activity with a ball. So, we pass around the ball, and maybe I’m playing some music. And whenever the music stops, whoever’s holding the ball they get to answer the review question.
And that gives us a moment to stop, talk about that question, and remind ourselves of the principle if we’ve forgotten it. Then we start passing the ball again, and the music plays. And that has a little bit of energy as we’re throwing the ball around, and then we can talk about the questions. Another one you could use Jeopardy or almost any gameshow you could rework so that it’s some kind of activity for you to review some key principles. One of my favorites – we touched on it a little bit earlier – is having the students do skits, or if students have phones, they can make little movies of themselves acting out a principle and then everyone watches those movies.
That’s really fun, but I think there’s something about that roleplay, of acting it out, that’s going to be helpful for students. And even in a Gospel Doctrine setting, again, we have this challenge because I’ve got my one lesson that I’m gonna teach today. And next week I’ve got a different lesson, but maybe periodically we can find connections.
So, in a future Gospel Doctrine class, the subject might be the Book of Mormon. And as we’re talking about the Book of Mormon, I’ll come back: “Do you remember when we talked about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the translation process?” And try to remake some of those connections. I have found that in Gospel Doctrine, you have to be careful with the pass the ball game because some people get hurt.
Laura Harris Hales: That gets wild.
John Hilton III: Yeah. So, again, you definitely gotta know your audience.
Laura Harris Hales: The third characteristic that you identified in the survey that we’ve mentioned was that students felt the spirit. And this is, of course, one of the most difficult things for a teacher to facilitate just because there are so many things that go into feeling the spirit. I attended a seminar you did one time, and you talked about silent lessons.
John Hilton III: One of the things I love about a silent lesson is it often does create an environment conducive to the Holy Ghost. So, when I was a brand new Seminary teacher, I was working hard, doing the best I could. And one day a student came to me, and she said, “Brother Hilton, when are we gonna have a silent lesson?” I’d never even heard of a silent lesson.
She’s like, “Well, Brother Kirkham’s class had a silent lesson. It was awesome. Go ask him. Everyone’s talking about a silent lesson.” So, I went, and there’s different versions. But the version that I learned and have grown to love it’s a mix between the scriptures and audiovisual resources. So, today I would typically do this in a PowerPoint presentation. So, as a teacher I won’t say a word. Students as they come in, they’ll see some instructions on the screen to open their scriptures maybe to 3 Nephi 8, and I’ll invite them to offer a prayer personally in their hearts. And then as the class goes on, they’ll be invited to read some scriptures.
And then they’ll see some scenes. So, in that specific example, maybe they’ll see a scene of destruction from the movie Testaments, and then they’ll read in their scriptures 3 Nephi 8 where that destruction happens. And we’ll bounce back and forth between video and scripture, and maybe I’ll put in a song that has images tied to it.
In all of these things that can help the student see the scriptures on the screen, and they read it. And they internalize, and they start to feel it and think about what it would have been like to have been there. And something about just the difference – I’m not use to a silent lesson. This is new – invites the Holy Ghost, and they feel something different.
And maybe at the end of the class, we’ll have an opportunity to share experiences, or I’ll say who’d be willing to share a verse that really touched your heart as you were reading. Or what did you feel as you thought about Jesus Christ during our class period today? And those are some of the most powerful moments, and we can link to a sample silent lesson in the notes.
Another thing – and we touched on this earlier, but to me I can’t emphasize it enough – is the personal relationship with each student. I was talking recently with an administrator. The whole focus of his dissertation was evaluations of spiritual classrooms – kind of like the study we’ve talked about – so, having students rank: “How much did I feel the spirit in this class?”
And he said that one of the things that came up was there was a big connection between how the student felt about the teacher and how much they felt the spirit in class. So, I kinda wondered well, is that a faulty instrument then because does that just mean if the student likes me, they’re gonna feel the spirit? And we’re just confounding those two things?
And while that’s a possibility, what the administrator suggested was actually, there’s a connection there. If the student feels connected to the teacher, they’re gonna be more open and receptive to feeling the Holy Ghost.
Laura Harris Hales: Maybe we should clarify this here. This doesn’t mean you’re funny or that you bring treats because your study definitively showed that those were not big factors in students saying they had a positive experience in class. It’s the connection.
John Hilton III: We looked at the top three, right. No. 1 was intellectually enlightening, No. 2 applied the gospel, No. 3 I felt the spirit, and No. 4 was teacher rapport. So, that’s what we’re talking about. Maybe an example from my life. The first semester after my mission I was kinda discouraged. I was having some hard classes. So, I decided to register for a class with my religion teacher from my freshman year.
So two years previously I had had a good experience in his class. The teacher was Matthew Richardson. And I walked into his class. He looked at me, and he said, “John Hilton, it’s great to have you back.” And I thought how does he remember me from two years? And I felt this warm, great connection with him that when I think about that class, I remember some of the principles and the things that he taught.
But that warmth, that connection that he cared about me really stands out. And so, I think if I want to help facilitate the Holy Ghost – I love what President Hunter said. “The very best teaching is one on one and often takes place out of the classroom.” And that might be a conversation with a student in the hallway, or it might be a text message to encourage a student.
Hey, I loved the experience you shared. You are an inspiration to me and many other people. Some of that personal connection is the powerful teaching. President Eyring said, “Find little things to do for your students.” You’ve heard a story of a teacher who shows up at a track meet or wherever a student is performing. It doesn’t matter whether the student sees you in the stands. Just go.
Pay the price of service for them, and they will seem more loveable to you. It will be a gift from God. And I really believe that there is a spiritual gift of love and connection between teachers and students. And you’re right. It’s not about treats. It’s about praying and saying, “Heavenly Father, here are my ten students.”
And praying for them by name. What can I do to help one of these students this week? And then a name comes to my mind, and I do a little act of service for him or her. That connection grows, and there is a more powerful spirit.
Laura Harris Hales: Okay, most of us are teaching for 40, 50 minutes a week or every other week. What are some suggestions you have to encourage our students to leave the classroom and go home and “do” or apply the principles that they’ve learned?
John Hilton III: One series of scriptures that’s been really interesting for me to think about is Nephi and the process of his knowledge. So, maybe the most famous Nephi scripture is 1 Nephi 3:7, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded for I know.” So, in that case, because Nephi knew, he would do, right. Knowing drove the doing.
If we look at other parts of that story, it’s flipped. So, 1 Nephi Chapter 4:6, “I was led by the spirit not knowing beforehand the things which I should do. Nevertheless, I went forth.” So, in that case, doing was gonna drive the knowing. Think about Sariah in 1 Nephi Chapter 5. She says once Nephi and his brothers come back, “Now I know that Lehi’s a prophet.”
So, what does that actually mean? The day she left she didn’t know. To me, Sariah’s a huge example of faith. Because she did she later knew. And I think that’s important because sometimes we might teach a class, and we’re thinking, “Okay. My job is to help students know about the Word of Wisdom so that they’ll live the Word of Wisdom.” But maybe we should switch that.
My goal is to actually help the students do things so that they’ll know, and that can be a little bit challenging in class, right. “Okay, everyone. We’re gonna live the Word of Wisdom for the next 40 minutes.” Okay, that might be a hard example. But the more we could have students actually do things in class – for example, if we’re having a lesson on missionary work, we might state in class, “Okay. Everyone pull out your phones.”
“I want you to text someone that you think could use a gospel message, and just take three minutes right now. Send them a little gospel message.” That’s something that’s active. I can be doing that as a student, and that’s a good opportunity, a good experience for me. And I’m doing something.
And maybe as I’m doing that, later on I get a text back, and the gospel conversation continues. And in the process of doing, sharing the gospel, that knowledge gets driven a little deeper into my heart, or you mentioned in your class the students always want to be active and doing things. I think having a coach mentality – so, a basketball coach doesn’t dribble the ball, dribble the ball, shoot some hoops, and have the students watch everything that the coach is doing, right?
The coach is gonna give a brief explanation, a brief demonstration. But hopefully, the majority of the time is spent on practice. So, going back to Word of Wisdom. If I’m teaching a little bit about the Word of Wisdom, if my goal is to help the students be able to teach others about the Word of Wisdom, hopefully I’ve reserved half the class for teaching.
And maybe what I’ll do is I’ll tell the students, “Okay. Get together with a partner, and you have five minutes to prepare a little message on the Word of Wisdom. And then we’re gonna have some people come in, and you’re gonna teach them.” Let’s say I have six students in the class, so there are three pairs of two. And I have asked three different members of the ward to come in at a certain time period.
And so, now, these two 12-year-olds have to teach this adult about the Word of Wisdom. And they give it a go for three minutes. They make a lot of mistakes, and I say, “Okay. You have two minutes to retool your lesson, and then we’re gonna rotate. You’re gonna have a different adult to teach.” Now, a lot of this class period is spent with the students doing and practicing. But I think all of that will drive the knowledge deeper into their hearts. What are your thoughts on that?
Laura Harris Hales: I love that. How do we get them to study their scriptures?
John Hilton III: Elder Dallin H. Oaks said something in a recent address specifically to Seminary teachers that really impacted me. He said, “There are few things a teacher can do that would have a more powerful, long-range effect upon their students’ lives than teaching them the importance of studying the scriptures. Giving them that experience, letting them taste the fruit of daily scripture study.”
So, if you think about that that actually might frame my objectives as a teacher. I will backward design my lesson differently if I think there’s few powerful long-range effects that I can have than helping the students develop a love and understanding the importance of studying the scriptures. Elder Oaks continues. He says, “In my judgement, that would go beyond any subject that might be taught from the scriptures, except the fundamentals in the first few Articles of Faith. Beyond that, I think the most important thing we can do as teachers of Seminary and Institute students would be to connect them with the scriptures and the results of daily scripture study.”
I’ve looked at this and explored it primarily at the university level, so I can maybe tell you a story about some of the experiments that we’ve done at Brigham Young University and Brigham Young University–Idaho. And the exact applications might be different in different settings, but what we found is that students when they were invited to read for a specific amount of time as opposed to a specific amount of chapters tended to read more.
And as I look back and think about my own experience as a high school student, I had a goal to read a chapter a day from whatever book of scripture I was studying. And if there was a TV show I wanted to watch that started in two minutes, I could read Doctrine and Covenants Section 76 really fast. But that’s why I think there’s something about studying for 10 minutes a day or 15 minutes a day.
And I think the best thing is to invite the students to prayerfully select their own amount of time. So, it’s not an arbitrary imposed amount, but you say you pray about it. “How much time do you feel that you should study each day?” And then as I study for time, I feel a little less forced to race and keep up. But maybe I can feel the spirit a little bit more.
One of the things that we did – this was a study done at BYU–Idaho, and it was an independent study class. It was online, and the reason we did that is we could sort of strip out any teacher effect. And the way that it was is students were invited to pray about a specific amount of time they would read the scriptures every day, and then every week they would report on whether or not they read for this specific amount of time.
So, half of the independent study classes had that mode. The other half were told you need to read these specific chapters every week. So, some people are reading for time. Some people are reading for chapters. And what we found was that the people who read for a specific amount of time every day, on average, read one day more per week. They read six days a week, whereas, people reading for chapters read five days per week. And you think six versus five not that big of a difference. But in educational interventions, that’s a really big effect size. That’s a big difference between these two groups. So, the next semester we decided to repeat the experiment, but in our coding, we made a mistake. And so, the group of students set the goal at the beginning, but we never followed up. There was never a, “Hey, did you do what you said you would do like there was in the first semester?”
And at the end of the second semester, the results between the two classes were identical. So, it wasn’t so much the setting the goal that made a difference. It was the follow up that made a difference. And I love what Preach My Gospel says. Preach My Gospel says, “Extending an invitation without following up is like beginning a journey without finishing it or buying a ticket to a concert without going into the theater.”
So, as teachers, one of my main points of focus is to help students develop a habit of scripture study. I need to spend time thinking about how am I gonna invite them, and how am I gonna follow up. Clearly, I don’t want to shame anybody. I don’t want to make anyone feel bad or have it become a hassle. But are there loving, helpful ways that I can constantly encourage and invite my students to daily experience the fruits of scripture study?
Laura Harris Hales: I’m curious. You interchangeably used the words “read” and “study” the scriptures, which we both know are two different things. In our family scripture study, sometimes we read a chapter, and sometimes we study it, to the frustration of my teenage boys who want to get onto other things. Do you take that into count at all when you’re talking to the students the difference between reading and studying?
John Hilton III: Yeah, that’s a great point. And going back to what Elder Oaks says, “There are a few things a teacher can do that have a more powerful, long-range effect upon their students’ lives than teaching them the importance of studying the scriptures.” This is a challenge because it might not be embedded into any one lesson that I’m teaching. But when are students really gonna learn how to study the scriptures?
When are they gonna learn – you mentioned earlier – to look at the context. Who’s speaking to who? Why are they talking? When are they talking? What’s the setting? When will they learn those skills? And I think sometimes we absolutely need to explicitly talk about how to improve our scripture study. And some of those are really small, basic things like pray before you study. Have a journal where you write down things at the end of your study. Some of those are more complicated exegetical skills. In my view, that should be a key role that I have as a teacher to really help my students learn how to study their scriptures.
Laura Harris Hales: Where would you tell a teacher to start to improve the effectiveness of their class?
John Hilton III: I would start with prayer. I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than a teacher kneeling down to say, “Heavenly Father what should I do to help these principles sink deep into the hearts of my students because the answer will be different?” And this is one of the challenges of gospel teaching. I have 45, 50 minutes to teach this class, and maybe in this particular setting if I do the quiz, it’s gonna backfire. Whatever the case may be.
But if I pray, I believe that Heavenly Father can give us guidance. To me the “Know, Feel, Do” model combined with the idea of that teacher rapport really gives a lot of strength to a teacher. What do I want my students to know? And then I’ve got to pay the price to know those things and to dig deep in the scriptures. What do I want my students to feel? And am I living my life in such a way that I’m feeling the Holy Ghost?
What do I want my students to do? Am I doing these same things? And then how am I reaching out to students outside of class? Am I loving them? Am I building that relationship of trust with them? And then am I inviting them and following up on those invitations? To me all of those things together but especially with prayer to let the Lord say here’s what you should focus on. Because it’s easy for me to sit here in this conversation and talk about this.
I’m a teacher by profession. I’ve been a fulltime teacher for 16 years. It’s what I love to do. There might be someone else who’s an accountant, and she has a fulltime job and a whole other life. And now, teaching this class is the most intimidating thing that she’s done. I would say don’t be overwhelmed. God is gonna strengthen you and is gonna help you because he loves your students even more than you do.
Laura Harris Hales: Thanks, John. Appreciate you taking your time to visit with us today.
John Hilton III: Thanks for having me.
Duration: 44 minutes
Disclaimer: LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS church leaders, policies, or practices.