By Scott Knecht We cannot learn new things unless we can connect them to something we already know. That’s why we use metaphors and similes and analogies in our speaking. If someone is trying to get you to eat frog legs and you have no idea if you will like them or not because you don’t know the taste or texture and have never eaten them, the person says “Don’t worry, they are just like chicken.” Now you have something to link it to and can make a better decision.
In trying to help students learn something new, we have to do the same thing – get them to see it in light of something they already know. Scripturally the idea of a ‘broken heart’ is initially confusing. But if you say “Remember when you had a new pair of shoes, or a baseball glove, and it was very stiff? You had to break it in – soften it up and make it useful to you. That’s what your broken heart is to God: it is softened up and useful to Him.” Or you could say “If your heart is full of pride it needs to be broken, drained of all pride, then allowed to have the Master Healer fix it so it is pointed to Him.” We understand those things and can then build on them for more knowledge.
A very helpful way to assist students gain new understanding is to get them to rewrite passages that are problematic. Here are a couple of ways to do it:
1. Define Words – I can’t believe how many times I’ve heard teachers read passages of scripture that contain words that I’m confidant not one student understands and that they should understand in order to learn what the passage is saying. In the well known story of David and Goliath, I Samuel 17, we read in verses 4-7 of Goliath’s size and the weapons he was outfitted with. In an average class, how many will understand “cubits”, “five thousand shekels”, “greaves”, “target of brass”, “weaver’s beam” or “six hundred shekels of iron”? You can solve that challenge by having a dictionary in class so that someone can look the word up, or use the Bible dictionary available in most sets of scriptures, or have them use their electronic devices. Understanding words is very helpful to understanding context and principles. Sometimes if it is just one word I will hand a student a dictionary and tell the class that there are 3 definitions for this word. We are going to listen to all three and then you decide which one fits best in the context of this passage.
2. Translate – Don’t think of translation as just language to language but also as idea to idea, from a less understandable form to a more understandable form. So if we read this passage in II Chronicles 20:20 – “Believe in the Lord your God, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper.” – they will all understand the words. There are no surprises there. But do they understand the meaning of the passage? I’ll say “I need a translation for this passage” and they will start to wrestle with it and eventually come up with something more understandable for them.
3. Seven Words – In preparation one day I happened across an idea that I have come to call “7 words”. I thought that if I could get students to rewrite a verse of scripture in 7 words it would help them boil down the essence of it so that they could understand. Why seven? There is nothing special about it, that’s just the number I landed on. It could be any number you want but seven seemed to have some appeal. Almost every time I do this with a class someone will shout out “I did it in 3 words (or some other lower number) and I have to explain again that the object is not the fewest words but the exact number of words. It could be a sentence, or a phrase, or just a string of words, but it has to express the meaning of the passage. Working with a precise number of words adds discipline to the activity. Once they get the idea, they all seem to like to do it and it will often turn into a little competition to see who can come up with the most creative and accurate way to boil down a verse. It can be done with difficult passages but it works just as well with more common passages. Here’s an example from D&C 45:33 – “earthquakes come, hearts harden, men kill others.”
Inviting students into the text with an assignment to dig in and get a little messy with it makes class livelier, and makes for better learning.