A topic that often comes up in online discussion groups among Mormons is the teaching manuals. As most of us know, these are written by the Curriculum Committee, overseen by the Correlation Committee. You can listen to a podcast describing the curriculum process here. Just reading the overview of it on that same page is very interesting.

Image result for primary teacher ldsOn a different discussion thread, someone noted that she had been asked to participate in an online survey about curriculum, so there does seem to be a desire to improve. Be that as it may, as you can imagine, very few people are gushing about the high quality of our teaching manuals in these online discussions (else why discuss them?). Generally speaking, the complaints fall into a few buckets:

  • Lack of accuracy / white-washing. This is a bigger concern in the Gospel Doctrine manuals where some of the “traditional” information may now be known to be misleading or “optimistic” in its portrayal of facts, although a few Primary and youth speakers also noted misleading stories and examples in the teaching materials.
  • Topics chosen are not Christ-centered. This is particularly of concern for teaching the Primary children and the youth who may be less familiar with the parables and stories of Jesus. Our kids seem to be pretty Biblically illiterate beyond some proof-texted memorization.
  • Lessons are too repetitive. Particularly the new youth curriculum which focuses on a topic each month, and then that same topic is used for both the 2nd and 3rd hour. Gospel Doctrine is of course repetitive because we rotate the same 4 books of scripture every 4 years. The RS/PH curriculum that focuses on one of the modern day prophet’s teachings for a full year is another one with a lot of repetition, depending on which year. For example, Pres. Hunter was in office less than the year we spent using his material as lesson fodder. (However, that one was a pretty good one, IMO).
  • Boring / not thought provoking / all milk and no meat. While it’s true that our lessons shouldn’t be a bear-baiting of controversial topics that have no real bearing on how to live a more Christian life in the coming week, when you are repeating the same materials as often as we are, offering some fresh perspective or interesting content is helpful. This is one place where the limits of correlation really shows (by contrast to manuals from earlier days).

Some previous curricula were written by individual church historians and scholars (for some great examples, see this top 10 list); I’m partial to the O.C. Tanner manuals. The current crop of writers seem to be a dull lot. Maybe that’s because they are each individually unthinking dullards, but more likely the curricula is suffering from a widely known phenomenon: death by committee, the stifling effect bureaucracy has on the creative process. An individual author may create something interesting, fresh and thought-provoking, but a committee of authors will create mindless pablum that is inoffensive and innocuous, fit only to line bird cages [1]. This phenomenon is well known in business.

Now, before we get too far down this path, let me clarify that I’m sure plenty of the teachers and students are also unthinking dullards who would ruin even the best teaching manuals with their insipid and uninspired comments. Granted. And truth be told, a great teacher can make something out of even the most threadbare material. For example, I could listen to President Uchtdorf read a page out of the phone book, but that’s probably 90% the cool accent. I digress. Regardless the quality of teachers and students, let’s start with great materials. All boats rise with the tide, and the curriculum is the tide.

A few very interesting comments came up when individuals asked leaders about the terrible curriculum. There seems to be a blame-the-victim approach at play:

I wrote to the curriculum committee once and asked why, on the Sunday before Christmas, we were discussing missionary work. Someone wrote back and said there was nothing preventing me from discussing Christmas in my family.

I’m relieved to know that the Correlation Committee decided not to prevent people from discussing Christmas in their families. Whew!

A few months ago my daughter expressed concern to her stake president that her five children were not learning about Christ in church meetings. His response: ‘Don’t expect your children to learn about Christ in church. You will need to teach them in the home.’

Image result for primary teacher ldsGood one. Of course, that makes me wonder why then do we go to church? Why is teaching about Jesus AT CHURCH a subversive idea? Another observation from a different commenter:

I was so embarrassed when we visited an evangelical church and the children came out of their children’s class telling me about the story of the loaves and fishes and they didn’t remember ever hearing it before!

Now, I’m sure we could excuse this by saying that we have the FULLNESS of the gospel to teach, whereas all they have is Jesus. But let’s get the priorities straight here. Our kids don’t have the foundations yet; they are still just kids. The more we teach about Jesus, the better. If our kids are illiterate about Jesus, no wonder everyone says we aren’t Christians. Another Primary President noted that she is baffled that the curriculum was focused on tithing and modesty–for pre-pubescent children–while those same children were mostly unfamiliar with the stories of Jesus. Our priorities seem a little off track.

So how do we make change? Well, the surveys should be a way to improve the materials. Another suggestion:

If you want the curriculum to change, you’ve got to have a different group of people writing it. We can’t expect these folks to all of a sudden come up with historically accurate, deeply considered material. Didn’t the Savior say something about new wine in old wine skins? I don’t understand why the Brethren won’t change this model. It’s obviously not working. I’d love to see some honest to goodness Mormon theologians and historians come together to write new lessons.

This sounds fantastic to me. In the attached podcast, the introductory note lays out the nine steps in the curriculum process and boasts that the materials are reviewed by hundreds of people before they are distributed. Hundreds! Well, I’m not some country bumpkin, impressed by the number of editors. Sometimes more is less, and this is one of those times. In addition to the creativity-strangling aspect of committees, there’s a psychological phenomenon known as bystander effect as well as a few other related psychological effects.

The bystander effect, or bystander apathy, is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present.

This is why when up to 38 people overheard a woman screaming while being murdered in 1964 New York, nobody called the police (you can read about the murder of Kitty Genovese here) [3]. They all thought someone else would do it, or they were only partly attentive to what was happening. In the case of curriculum, the “victims” are the people who use the materials either as instructors or students: the recipients of the materials (as opposed to Kitty G., the recipient of murder). So in editing a document, if 100 people review it, the majority of them will assume it must be OK as it is because if not, somebody else would fix it. There’s another term for this:

Social loafing” basically means when people tend to spend less effort to achieve a goal when they’re working in a group.

Image result for lds gospel doctrine teacherThe greater the number of people who are involved with something the less any individual will feel responsible for the outcome. As a leader in business, it was certainly my experience that the more people who were asked to “sign off” on a document, the fewer who actually read it. I would often ask my peers if they had read such-and-such a document, and if we had all been asked to read it, most of them had not or had “skimmed it,” which usually means they read about the first paragraph and looked at any tables or charts, and then signed off. The clever ones might memorize a key phrase to demonstrate knowledge of the document to a superior if requested. If there was ever a problem, people would quickly point out that the document was X pages long, so maybe they had missed that one part. Yeah, right.

For those who have seen or read Julius Caesar, this is also the powerful idea behind each of them plunging a dagger into Caesar: no one person can be held accountable for the outcome. They all share the blame and the credit, so effectively nobody is accountable. In editing, it’s more likely that nobody will plunge the dagger, though, because evaluators are aware they are being watched:

Evaluation apprehension theory predicts that when we work in the presence of others, our concern over what they will think can enhance or impair our performance. We see the effects of evaluation apprehension in brainstorming sessions.

In other words, nobody wants to be “that guy.” Everyone wants to move that paper along and sign it off and get it off their desk so they can get back to their other stuff. People don’t want to be the one cog that doesn’t move the paper through the machine. They don’t want to be the bottleneck. They don’t want others to see them as “different” or “outside group norms.” This can affect the quality of their feedback as well. While it may be “safer” to bring up a typo or a grammatical change, it might be “risky” to point out larger issues like the content or topics chosen or to point out that the traditional view of the material is not accurate or needs to be updated. Cultural norms prevail.

Social facilitation, or the audience effect, is the tendency for people to perform differently when in the presence of others than when alone. Compared to their performance when alone, when in the presence of others, they tend to perform better on simple or well-rehearsed tasks and worse on complex or new ones.

So the higher the number of reviewers, the worse the finished product. Nobody wants to be creative or point out a flaw others accepted or express a contrary opinion because that can cause backlash toward them or put them under scrutiny. In our highly authoritarian church culture, this is especially difficult for average people to do; if they have titles or credentials to back them up, they may feel more confident in dissenting, but most of our curriculum committee consists of average people who have taught seminary or other secondary education roles [2]. Teaching and writing curriculum are not the same thing, and neither require any theological degrees or background in our church. Reviewers have the majority weight of the other reviewers to consider, as well as how their intervention will be perceived by others, peers in the process, as well as superiors.

Audience inhibition might explain why people are reluctant to intervene in response to a potential emergency. People become concerned about other people negatively appraising their altruistic behaviour.

Nobody wants to be pinpointed as the one who disagreed with everyone else. Standing alone is different when you are working with one other person than when you are working with 99 who are all fine with the status quo (but in reality probably haven’t even read the thing completely or may not have the skills or background to identify errors).

So, back to the curriculum. Let’s hear from someone who has actually worked on the curriculum committee. Dan Peterson was interviewed by Dan Wotherspoon, transcript here, about his thoughts on curriculum, and it will sound pretty familiar if you’ve read this far. When he was extended the calling, he was told by Elder Lee that it was to improve the manuals, but when he tried to add context to the Old Testament manuals to help teachers, he was rebuked.

Peterson: I said ‘I’m not sure I’m the person you want because I don’t like the church’s manuals very much.’  [Lee said], ‘You’re just the person we want because we want to improve them.’  Well, when I got onto the committee, in fact, there wasn’t much we could do.  We were constrained within certain limits.”

Wotherspoon: “Was it Correlation Committee or was it certain personalities that had?”

Peterson: “I was never clear.  I think it was Correlation, I think it was the Curriculum Committee.  They would lay out certain things about the way they wanted us to do it.  For example, we were doing the Old Testament one year and we wanted to put in some historical background.  People can’t make sense of this if they don’t know what’s going on.  I think a big aid to understanding Isaiah is to understand the politics of his day. Isaiah and Jeremiah were reacting to great power politics, and if you don’t know any of that, you can’t make any sense of it.  A lot of it is talking about their day.

We tried to put some of that in and we were rebuked by someone, some nameless bureaucrat up in Salt Lake who said, ‘you’re just trying to show off.’  I thought ‘How? We’re anonymous.  Who would know?  We’re just trying to help people out.

Peterson describes the tension between depth and simplicity that the curriculum must manage:

Some of our manuals I think are not very good.  They’re not very deep. I understand the danger.  I think if you allow people to simply go wild, you’ll get some really weird Gospel Doctrine classes out there with people grinding their own axes and having little hobbies, teaching false doctrine, and so I understand the need to sort of reign people in, but on the other hand, the lessons can be really, really pablum and boring.

And he shares his own frustration as a teacher, using the manuals, particularly because of the constraint to avoid using outside materials that has been taken as an inviolable mandate in most wards and stakes:

Well then, at one point the stake Sunday School president came into my Gospel Doctrine class and he sat through the whole thing.  My lessons still is the way I teach them.  I look at the lesson to see what the passages are that I’m supposed to teach, then I put it away.  I mean I mean to read it, but I don’t.  I never do.  Then I read the passages, and then I comment on them and come up with what I think is the theme of the passage and try to give a historical background and so on.

Well this guy sat through my lesson and came up afterward and rebuked me, that I wasn’t using the Gospel Doctrine manual. Did I not realize that these were given by revelation and so on and so forth?  [I responded] Well, you should know that I’m on the committee that writes them, and I don’t like them at all.

Let’s get your thoughts.

  • Do you think the curriculum is getting better or worse over time? Defend your answer in the comments.
  • How can we continually improve the curriculum to bring people closer to Christ? What’s lacking today, if anything, in your opinion. What would you do differently?
  • Is the curriculum development process a positive or negative in your view?
  • How much does curriculum improve the lessons compared to teacher skill?
  • Is the mandate to avoid outside materials an overall positive or negative to the quality of lessons?


[1] I think I’m channeling Mark Twain.

[2] Again, based on those in online discussion forums who know people on the committee.

[3] One woman claims she did call the police, and 38 witnesses is an approximation based on the number of open windows in apartments overlooking the crime scene–not actual named witnesses in the police report.