Teaching Like the Temple Teaches

 In a classic address, LDS apostle John A. Widstoe summarized the educational value of temple work:

Another fact has always appealed to me as a strong internal evidence for the truth of temple work. The endowment and the temple work as revealed by the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith (see also Doctor Talmage’s The House of the Lord) fall clearly into four distinct parts: the preparatory ordinances, the giving of instructions by lectures and representations; covenants; and, finally, tests of knowledge. I doubt that the Prophet Joseph, unlearned and untrained in logic, could of himself have made the thing so logically complete. The candidate for the temple service is prepared, as in any earthly affair, for work to be done. Once prepared he is instructed in the things that he should know. When instructed, he covenants to use the imparted knowledge, and at once the new knowledge, which of itself is dead, leaps into living life. At last, tests are given him, whereby those who are entitled to know may determine whether the man has properly learned the lesson. The brethren and sisters who go through the temple should observe all these things and recognize the wonderful coherence and logical nature of the carefully worked out system, with a beginning and an end, fitting every known law of God and nature, which constitutes temple worship.

The wonderful pedagogy of the temple service, especially appealing to me as a professional teacher, carries with it evidence of the truth of temple work. We go to the temple to be informed and directed, to be built up and to be blessed. How is all this accomplished? First by the spoken word, through lectures and conversations, just as we do in the class room, except with more elaborate care, then by the appeal to the eye by representations by living, moving beings; and by pictorial representations in the wonderfully decorated rooms (as any one may see in Dr. Talmage’s book.) Meanwhile the recipients themselves, the candidates for blessings, engage actively in the temple service as they move from room to room, with the progress of the course of instruction. Altogether our temple worship follows a most excellent pedagogical system. I wish instruction were given so well in every school throughout the land, for we would then teach with more effect than we now do.

Indeed.  As an educator myself, I’ve always been impressed with how effectively the “lesson plan” of the endowment is put together.  I’ve often outlined it in my head as I’ve gone there, wondering if I could reproduce such a complex yet organically coherent structure in my own lessons.  I’ve largely given up on that, though: I realize that the best means for teaching the gospel may not necessarily be the best means for teaching grammar. 

Still, I think examining the pedagogy (teaching strategies and methods) of the temple, in the manner of apostles like Elder Widstoe and Elder Talmage, can assist us in our worship and discipleship.  Certainly, most things I’ve noticed are simply the same things Widstoe and Talmage mention, and my thoughts are hardly exhaustive or authoritative.  Some aspects of good teaching that I note in temple work include:

  • Establishing a productive environment: In one of his final addresses, Hugh Nibley said this of the physical nature of our temples:

“Whether we catch a glimpse of the inside of the temple as we approach it from without, or of the outside world once we are inside, they are worlds apart. Latter-day Saint temples have always provided a soothing transition to soften the culture shock, the passing from one existence to another. Gardens of almost unearthly beauty offer an easy and credible passage by sharing the essential qualities of both worlds.”

I think this understanding of the role of natural beauty in the temple applies just as much, if not more, to the early stages of temple work itself as it does to the actual building grounds.  The temple, and its grounds, is designed, first, to help us leave the cares of the world and focus on the spiritual.  All good lessons establish this in some way. 

  • Presentations:  Though Widstoe mentions lectures prominently, I really don’t see much in the way of “direct instruction” in the temple; most of the teaching that falls under that heading takes the form of training us to perceive symbolic items.  Most of the ides and information taught in the temple are given by dramatic representation, where otherwise dry, doctrinal knowledge (as it may be thought) is given a narrative context.  This is why anecdotes are so common in talks and even scriptures–everybody loves a story. 
  • Student involvement:  That symbolic representation and dramatic context is extended to the point of student participation, itself explicitly developed to the point of role playing, almost.  Truly, temple instruction is practical, “hands on” learning.  I’m not a devotee of the “multiple intelligences” fad in education, but if here is such a thing as kinesthetic learners, the temple is the perfect classroom for them.  Truly, the nature of temple teaching makes it difficult to be an apathetic student!
  • Metaphorical illustrations / explanations:  As noted earlier, the symbolic nature of temple teaching is not meant to be a secret–it’s explicitly pointed out multiple times, as a key to further exploration and discovery by individuals. 
  • Modelling:  Most aspects of temple work, including those dramatic representations, model characteristics and behaviors that student participants are themselves encouraged to practice. 
  • Guided practice:  Not only do we see role models, and subsequently (and simultaneously) model them, but we aren’t even left to our own devices to figure out such skills–all along the way, careful and patient friends help us to develop ourselves properly.  The temple is full of coaches. 
  • Repetition:  Its status as the bane of trendy edu-blather notwithstanding, all good educators know the value of practice, repetition, and drilling.  The temple not only offers that, but especially emphasizes it in the expectation that Latter-day Saints return as often as possible to continue practicing temple work. 
  • Cooperative work:  I almost hate to say it, but it’s hard not to see elements of this in the temple–nobody can get very far, much less completely through, all temple work alone.  Friends and coaches are just the start–the family is essential to the order of the temple.  Granted, this is hardly the equivalent of a classroom where “group work” means “making the smartest kid do all the work,” but I’d be remiss not to mention it at all.
  • Making commitments:  This is one where the wishy-washy egalitarianism of modern public education falls short, but the temple illustrates the crucial power of the principle: if it’s worth teaching at all, it’s worth expecting students to actually do the homework and practice the skills, use the knowledge, and live the values embodied in that education.  Some schools have honor codes and such, but they’re few and far between, it seems, and nothing like the temple’s requirements that student participants not just forget their lessons on the way to the parking lot.  Might the world be a better place if more schools even tried to elicit promises from students that they would not throw away the progress they’ve worked so hard to make?
  • Tests:  Of course, tests are also given at points in the temple, but it’s important to note that these aren’t the kind of “high stakes” testing we public school graduates all know and love.  For those familiar with the endowment, could there be tests more peaceful and encouraging than these?  How can we better practice such mercy in our lives and classes, I wonder? 

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