24 And Ammon began to speak unto him with boldness, and said unto him: Believest thou that there is a God?
25 And he answered, and said unto him: I do not know what that meaneth.
26 And then Ammon said: Believest thou that there is a Great Spirit?
27 And he said, Yea.
28 And Ammon said: This is God….
When we teach a new principle or introduce a new concept, it helps if we can relate it to something the student is already familiar with. In the passage above, Ammon is beginning to teach King Lamoni, who is receptive to his message and eager to learn but completely unfamiliar with the gospel. When Ammon asks if he believes in God, Lamoni tells him that he doesn’t even understand the question. Then, Ammon has an idea. He knows that Lamoni’s people believe in a Being called the Great Spirit, who created all things. After receiving the king’s assurance that he believes in the Great Spirit, Ammon says simply, “This is God.”
Is the king’s conception of the Great Spirit identical with Ammon’s understanding of God? Of course not. But it’s a place to begin. By recognizing that Lamoni believes in a divine Creator and by connecting that belief with the concept of God, Ammon can now begin to explain more about God to help Lamoni understand the gospel. In subsequent verses, Ammon explains that God dwells in heaven, which clarifies that God is in a specific location. Then, he explains that God’s Spirit has called him to teach and that a portion of that Spirit dwells in him. From there, he has the foundation to teach the gospel, beginning “at the creation of the world” and teaching about the Fall of Adam and Eve, the spiritual history of their people, and the future ministry and atonement of Jesus Christ (Alma 18:36-39). None of that would have made any sense without some recognition of a Supreme Creator, so Lamoni’s belief in a Great Spirit provided an effective launching point for an effective learning experience.
When Ammon’s brother Aaron teaches King Lamoni’s father, he follows the same pattern, telling Lamoni’s father that the Great Spirit is God and that He created all things both in heaven and in earth before going on to teach other key principles of the gospel. (See Alma 22:7-10)
I can think of two reasons why it is important for teachers to build upon concepts their students already understand and believe:
- Students are more likely to accept and embrace new concepts when some of their existing beliefs have been validated. Imagine if Ammon had said, “There is no Great Spirit. Everything you thought was true is wrong. Let’s start from scratch, and I’ll tell you about a completely different Being called God.” Even though Lamoni was willing to listen, that would have been a difficult message to accept.
- If we want students to incorporate new concepts into their lives, they need to be able to incorporate them into their existing paradigms and world view. If the students can relate the new concepts to beliefs which are already active in their lives, then they will be able to start applying these new principles more quickly and more productively.
Today, as I prepare for upcoming teaching opportunities, I will think about how I can relate the concepts I’m teaching to concepts that my students already know or believe. I will remember that, even if their existing beliefs are incomplete or only partially accurate, I will likely be more effective by building on those beliefs rather than by trying to introduce new concepts independently.