The Lesson Aim: How to select it; How to develop it; How to apply it

by David O. McKay

The Juvenile Instructor April 15, 1905

[242] If we were in a botanical garden, and I should ask you, dear reader, to select a tulip from the flowers around, what would be your state of mind? I fancy you would be trying to form a mental picture of the thing named, so that you might search intelligently and recognize the tulip when you saw it. You may not be able at this moment, to recall what a tulip looks like. If so, think how useless it would be for you to try to select this flower from hundreds of others around you. It is no less difficult to select an aim if we do not know what to look for. So by way of introduction, let us understand what the Lesson Aim means.

The aim is the general truth that the lesson proves or illustrates. Taking the [243] circumstances as the substance, the aim is the immaterial something that strikes the soul, as the aroma of the orange does the sense of smell. In the preparation of a lesson an aim is an end; the lesson a means. To illustrate: what follows are a few paragraphs taken at random from "The Simple Life."

"Another source of light on the path of human life is goodness. I am not of those who believe in the natural perfection of man, and teach that society corrupts him. On the contrary, of all forms of evil, the one which most dismays me is heredity. But I sometimes ask myself how it is that this effect and deadly virus of low instincts, of vices inoculated in the blood, the whole assemblage of disabilities imposed upon us by the past -- how all this has not got the better of us. It must be because of something else. This other thing is love.

"Given the unknown brooding above our heads, our limited intelligence, the grievous and contradictory enigma of human destiny, falsehood, hatred, corruption, suffering, death -- what can we think, what do? To all these questions a sublime and mysterious voice has answered: Love your fellowmen. Love must indeed be divine, like faith and hope, since she cannot die when so many powers are arrayed against her. She has to combat the natural ferocity of what may be called the beast in man; she has to meet ruse, force, self-interest, above all, ingratitude. How is it that she passes pure and scatheless in the midst of these dark enemies, like the prophet of the sacred legend among the roaring beasts? It is because her enemies are of the earth, and love is from above. Horns, teeth, claws, eyes full of murderous fire, are powerless against the swift wing that soars toward the heights and eludes them. Thus love escapes the undertakings of her foes. She does even better: she has sometimes known the fine triumph of winning over her persecutors: she has seen the wild beasts grow calm, lie down at her feet, obey her law.

"At the very heart of the Christian faith, the most sublime of its teachings, and to him who penetrates its deepest sense, the most human, is this: To save lost humanity, the invisible God came to dwell among us, in the form of man, and willed to make Himself known by this single sign: love.

"Healing, consoling, tender to the unfortunate, even to the evil, love engenders light beneath her feet. She clarifies, she simplifies. She has chosen the humblest part -- to bind up wounds, wipe away tears, relieve distress, soothe aching hearts, pardon, make peace; yet it is of love that we have the greatest need. And as we meditate on the best way to render thought fruitful, simple, really conformable to our destiny, the method sums itself up in these words: Have confidence and hope; be kind."

The impression these paragraphs make upon you might be expressed in a single sentence: The noblest attribute of man is love. This is a general truth, which might be a Lesson Aim.

But some lessons have many truths. The one I just read has. It is the duty of the teacher to select one and so present the circumstances that the children will have a general single impression of it. In the theological department the lessons are argumentative; and it is often no easy task to select a truth that will be the "aroma" of the recitation. Instead of making an impression of orange flavor, or of apple, or of peach, or of tomato, as the case should be, we frequently make one -- a compound of all these. And yet even in our theological lessons, with their dozen or more divisions and their hundred or fewer references, the principle of the gospel considered can be proved reasonable [244] or scriptural and at the same time impress the class with a moral truth that should always be associated with the principle discussed. Take for example, Repentance, Lesson 10, S. S. Outlines. Here is the "botanical garden," but instead of your being asked to select a particular flower, say the tulip, you are asked to search, examine and name what you think is the choicest one. To do this intelligently, it is necessary to familiarize yourself with all the passages, to study the lesson as a unit, then express the impression it has made upon you. It may be that two or three truths have come into the mind, all of equal importance. Then choose, not so much with the lesson in mind as with the class. Which truth does your class need? This element must always enter into the selecting of an aim.

In the lesson mentioned, a suggestive truth is, "A man is what his thoughts and feelings make him." This aim or any other can be selected only by carefully studying the lesson, and by contemplative thought.

How to Develop an Aim

If after discovering the most beautiful flower in the garden mentioned above, you desire a friend to see it, and to admire its beauty, you would direct him or lead him to that flower in the most direct route possible. Let us change the figure. A builder accumulates all the material needed in the erection of the house he has in mind. The bricks, the lime, the rock, the lumber, the casings, are on the ground promiscuously. From this conglomeration, he selects that which he needs for any particular purpose in hand. When he is through, the waste material and debris are hauled away to be used for something else. Lumber unfit for a dwelling might be used to build a coal house.

So it is in the development of an aim. Choose from the accumulated thought material, only that which is needful -- that which is thrown aside today might be needed another time. The student will get it as he correlates his ideas.

In the development of an aim it is well to note that to study what not to put into your lesson is as necessary as to know what to introduce into it. That teacher is the most successful who eliminates all non-essentials. When it is decided what matter is needful for the lesson aim, then group the ideas around three or four main topics.

For instance, the paragraphs read above may be grouped as follows.

I. The power of love.

II. Love the embodiment of Christian faith.

III. Blessings of love.

Each of these may be divided and subdivided at pleasure. This grouping should be done in the mind as well as on paper. Such preparation will prevent a teacher rambling in his presentation from Adam past John the Revelator, probably to modern revelation.

How to Apply the Aim

It is not enough to know what is good, we must do good. A child may be taught in the Sunday School obedience to his parents, and go home and say, "I won't do it." He may be taught reverence for houses of worship, and at the close stand near the sacrament table with his head covered. It is possible, too, that this child means to be obedient -- means to be reverential. There is something lacking in his teaching. The teacher failed to apply the lesson aim. She failed to show the child how he could introduce the truth into his life -- into his life today, not at some indefinite to be.

This opening up avenues for expression, for doing, is the application. It is not a moralizing on the truth; it is not [245] saying, "Now if we are good, God will love us." It is the pointing out of the path for action. It is the use to which the "tulip" may be put. It is the knowledge of the real value of the flower, an incentive to own it, to feel its value, to be blessed by it, or better, to bless others with it.

Suppose the following aims to have been developed:

Virtue brings its own reward.

A man is what his thoughts and feelings make him.

True greatness lies in living for others.

How might each be applied to the child? In the first, the question to answer in the application is, How may I be virtuous? In the second, How may pure thoughts and noble feelings be engendered? In the third, How may we live for others?

This aim, then is the vital part of the lesson, the spirit; the lesson is but the body, wonderful even itself, but lifeless without the soul. The aim is selected by a careful preview of the lesson and by contemplation and thought, with both lessons and pupils in mind. It is developed by using only the necessary points in the lesson, and by what is as important, by grouping these points in a logical manner. The aim is applied by leading the pupils into avenues of action.

The aim is a beautiful flower found by the teacher in God's garden. The development is the leading of the child to it, and the showing of the beauty the teacher sees in it. The application is the using of that flower for the happiness of self, and what is infinitely more noble, the happiness of others.

David O. McKay. AThe Lesson Aim: How to Select It; How to Develop It; How to Apply It.@ The Juvenile Instructor 15.8 (Apr 1905): 242-245.