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4 Easy Steps to Passing on Knowledge

Jordan Catapano


Imagine a master and apprentice working side by side. The master is a seasoned veteran, having spent the majority of his lifetime becoming an expert at his trade. He is older, wiser and far more experienced than the youth beside him. But he knows that his time runs short, and eventually the apprentice will need to become the master, capable enough to perform the job without him and able to train future apprentices. How will the master accomplish this?

All kinds of situations are reflective of the master-apprentice relationship, where the knowledge and experience of the master must be passed onto the apprentice. My mother reminded me many times that a parent’s job is to “work themselves out of a job” by training their child to be self-sufficient. In the same way, teachers occupy the role of “master” – possessing a wealth of experience and knowledge – that they attempt to pass on to the next generation.

When we take our students under our wing and spend a year passing on our expertise to them, there is a simple method we can follow that masters and apprentices have shared for centuries:


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I do it. You watch.
I do it. You help.
You do it. I help.
You do it. I watch.

What this model represents is a steady, progressive transfer of knowledge and responsibility from the teacher to the students. As I teach, I attempt to structure my year’s curriculum to reflect this transfer of knowledge and increase students’ independence.

What the Steps Look Like

I do it. You watch. The end-goal is to have students perform skills for themselves. But they can’t get there unless they’ve witnessed what the skill is, how to employ it, and what outcomes are achieved. The first step in the process is modeling and observation, allowing the students to see a “master at work” and experience what their learning goal is.

I do it. You help. After observing their teacher, students can get engaged in the task. Students have seen the skill modeled already, so now their instructor can provide them with specific actions they can take to participate. The students are only the “helpers” at this point, so the teacher is still responsible for the outcome of the task. Yet the students’ participation ensures that they are learning the basics of the skill alongside the teacher.

You do it. I help. The next step involves a switching of roles that increases the independence and responsibility of students. This time, they are responsible for the successful completion of the task, and the teacher is on their side, coaching and assisting. The teacher relegates himself to a smaller role, allowing the students to take the lead.

You do it. I watch. The final step of the process is where students take full responsibility and independence, with the teacher no longer serving as a coach or assistant who has a “hands-on” stake in the process. Instead, the teacher is the sidelined encourager, allowing students to apply their previously obtained experience. Here, though, they get to follow their own judgment, make their own decisions, and earn their own outcome. Students may even make their own mistakes here, too. But that’s part of their continual learning process.

It’s rare that a student would be deemed as a “master” by the end of a single school year on any particular skill. However, this steady process allows for the slow, guided gathering of knowledge and experience. But at least students have obtained a grade-level degree of competency that can carry them through to the next step of expertise.

The Four Steps in Action

I find throughout the year that no two tasks I teach are identical. Some of the materials I work with students at the beginning of the year are less complex than materials at the end. In reality what ends up happening is that I can’t follow these four steps exactly. No teaching or learning ever happens in a nice little formulaic way. Instead, I find that at times I need to go back to modeling or need to decrease the amount of independence I give students. For other materials, students are going to learn better by trying something on their own without me in the way.

So as you’re working at turning your little apprentices into masters, use these four classic steps as a guideline to slowly transfer independence and responsibility to students.

What ways do you apply these four steps to your specific grade level or discipline? What other strategies do you use to guide your students to independence? Let us all know what you think in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also sits as the District Leader for the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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