The Role of Agency in Learning the Gospel, by John Hilton III


Do you know how lucky you are to be hearing from this guy about teaching?

He has earned a reputation for being an amazing teacher, speaker and author! If you are a regular at Deseret Book, Time Out For Women, EFY or BYU Education Week, you probably already know him. We are SO lucky to have him sharing what he knows with us.

John will be addressing one of the questions in the Youth Curriculum. If you are a teacher of any capacity (especially “mom” or “dad”), he has some GREAT insights. Plus if you are teaching this lesson – you are super lucky!

John Hilton III was born in San Francisco and grew up in Seattle. He served a mission in Denver, and got a Bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University. Along the way he met his wife Lani and they have five children. They have lived in Boise, Boston, Mexico and Miami. Currently, they live in Utah. John has a Masters degree from Harvard and a Ph.D from BYU, both in Education, and currently is an Assistant Professor of Ancient Scripture at BYU. He has also written several books with Deseret Book. Besides being with his family, his favorite hobbies are learning Chinese and doing humanitarian work. For more information


What is the role of agency in learning the gospel?

By John Hilton III


President Thomas S. Monson taught, “The goal of gospel teaching . . . is not to ‘pour information’ into the minds of class members. . . . The aim is to inspire the individual to think about, feel about, and then do something about living gospel principles” (in Conference Report, October 1970, 107) In this same talk he emphasized the importance of taking action as it relates to learning, saying, “I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I learn.” Thus a key responsibility in the role of parents and teachers to help students do things as a result of what they learn in the classroom. President Howard W. Hunter explained one of the reasons why this is so: “Action is one of the chief foundations of personal testimony. The surest witness is that which comes firsthand out of personal experience [see John 7:16–17]. . . . This, then, is the finest source of personal testimony. One knows because he has experienced.” (Howard W. Hunter, in Conference Report, April 1967, 115–16).

Similarly, in a roundtable discussion sponsored by Seminaries and Institutes, Elder Kim Clark said:

“How do you create an environment where students can exercise agency and act in order to authorize the Holy Ghost to teach them? That means that for teachers—as they think about the question ‘How can I help the students have the Holy Ghost more powerfully in their lives?’—it becomes a question of ‘Well, how can I create an environment or experiences where they can exercise their agency?’

“One of the things that I think is so powerful, and we see it in the way missionaries are taught to teach, is teachers inviting students to make a commitment, to take some kind of purposeful action. It happens even when you’re teaching calculus—really anything—when you invite the student to make a commitment, to act in a certain way, or to undertake a certain set of activities by committing to do it. In that action the students then open their minds both to the Spirit and to the experiences that they are about to have. That’s how they learn. . . .

“I think when we give the students the opportunity to exercise their agency, it sort of opens them to change in their hearts and in their minds. It’s an amazing thing to watch because you can really see the work of the Lord going on in that person.” (Kim B. Clark, Seminaries and Institutes of Religion Satellite Broadcast, August 2009, 2.)


How can we help students act as agents in the learning process?

One fun way I like to introduce this concept is to ask if there is a student in the class who would like to eat a donut (it’s usually not hard to get a volunteer). So a volunteer comes up and I show him my donut. I then say, “Here’s the trick. I want you to be totally passive in eating this donut. You can’t do anything. Instead I will call up another volunteer to help you.”

So I’ll call up another volunteer who will break off a piece of the donut and then hand feed to first volunteer (I even have the 2nd volunteer physically moved the other persons jaws up and down to chew the food. Everybody involves quickly sees how difficult it would be to have somebody “do all the work” when it comes to feeding them. I then help them see that it’s equally ridiculous for us to think that a gospel teacher can “do all the work” and have serious learning take place. I share with student this quote from Elder David A. Bednar: “Only as [a learner’s] faith initiates action and opens the pathway to the heart can the Holy Ghost deliver a confirming witness.” This object lesson provides a nice opportunity to explicitly talk with youth about their role as acting as agents in their gospel learning.

Let’s focus next on two ways that you can help students act as agents.

Preach My Gospel states, “Rarely, if ever, should you talk to people or teach them without extending an invitation to do something that will strengthen their faith in Christ. . . . People will not likely change unless they are invited to do so.” In every class we can provide students with an invitation to act. For example, at the end of a class on the plan of salvation, you might invite students to teach a family home evening on the subject of the plan of salvation. At the end of a class on media, you could invite students to carefully analyze the media they take in over the next 48 hours and consider whether it pulls them closer to, or further away from Christ.

An important part of inviting students to act is following up on their commitments to act.

Preach My Gospel states, “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. Without the completed action, the commitment is hollow.” Texting reminders to students during the week, and following up in the next class can greatly increase the odds that students will take seriously the invitations to act.

Another important way teachers and parents can invite students and children to act as agents is to provide opportunities for students to ask questions.

Consider these two quotations: In the 2007 worldwide training broadcast on teaching, Sister Julie B. Beck observed, “The more questions we can get from the learners about something, the more they are engaged in the learning…But that to me is a challenge as a teacher—not so much the questions I am asking but what is happening that is helping other people to ask questions so the Holy Ghost can teach them.”

In this same broadcast, Elder W. Rolfe Kerr, Commissioner of the Church Educational System said, “What more exciting environment in the classroom is there than [when] the children or the adults in the class are asking questions?”

How can we get youth to ask questions? Sometimes it can be difficult. Here are two ideas you might try. 1. Ask students to search for questions ahead of time. For example, you could say, “Next week we are going to study Moses 1:1-22. Please read those verses and come prepared to ask three questions about these verses.” 2. If you are teaching a sensitive topic such as sexual purity or dating, you could try having students anonymously write down questions that pertain to the topic.

In this article, I’ve just begun to explore the concept of helping students act as agents. I would love to hear from you.


– Why do you think it’s important for students to act as agents in the learning process?

– How do you help students act as agents?

– What difficulties do you have in helping students exercise their agency?

Please share your comments, questions and insights!


John Hilton III’s latest book, The Big Picture, provides parents and teachers with several ideas of how to teach teenagers about the Plan of Salvation. John has also written several articles on teaching and learning (some particularly focused on the importance of helping students act).


6 thoughts on “The Role of Agency in Learning the Gospel, by John Hilton III

  1. I just used the object lesson with the donut for my class yesterday, and they LOVED it. We were all hysterically laughing, but it really made sense to the kids about how they need to work on learning the gospel too.

  2. One of the biggest challenges in getting students to think and to act is that they are just not used to active learning. In school, it is generally thought that the teacher has all the information, the student is expected to memorize it and then regurgitate it on a test. Many young people are totally unaccustomed to being asked “What do you think?”, and they often have a hard time formulating responses because they are so rarely given the chance to express their opinions. In my Sunday School class I have found that if the kids are given time to read and ponder something, and then share their thoughts, they come up with some amazing insights. My team teacher and I like to let them sit in the teacher chair while they share what they have learned. As they teach, they are often testifying of truths they have learned, and reinforcing their own testimonies.

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