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A Teaching Strategy: Tell Me, Show Me, Involve Me

Jordan Catapano

I remember my father trying to teach my how to tie a tie. “Dad, could you teach me how to tie this?” was followed by his wrapping his hands around the tie and working it into a knot around my neck. “Watch this,” he said. I watched many times, but my understanding of how to tie my own tie didn’t increase at all. Finally I told him, “No, teach how to do it … don’t do it for me!”

Stories like this make me recall the old saying:

“Tell me and I forget; show and I remember; involve me and I understand.”

This simple statement has large implications for how anyone retains and applies knowledge. The more we focus on involving students in learning as a teaching strategy – and the less we simply show and tell – then the more likely we are to create a lasting educational experience.

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The Flaws of Telling and Showing as a Teaching Strategy

School – “a place where young people go to watch old people work.” This humorous description identifies a big problem with traditional models of education. Teachers first work hard to learn and master their material, and then later work themselves into a flurry broadcasting that information as thoroughly as possible to their students. But what are students doing this whole time? In many cases, they are sitting, listening, maybe taking notes, and then later, they are asked to reproduce the content on an exam. The teacher was the one who did the learning, and then they proceeded to “do the thinking” for the students.

This is “telling”— a recitation of what a teacher knows with the prayer that students will somehow absorb that content. “Showing” students is a little better than telling, in that it reveals a process that children may potentially emulate. In either case, it’s not the most effective method—pupils connect best when they’re allowed to actually manipulate the material with their own hands and minds. So what does it look and sound like when we “show and tell”? Ask yourself:

How often do you:

  • Focus on students getting to “The answer” rather than struggling through the process?
  • Let your “They must learn this today” list interfere with the organic conversation we could share?
  • Accept short, non-descript answers from students and expound the answer ourselves?
  • Cringe when students take a task in a new direction and seemingly “mess it up?”
  • Model thinking and producing without giving students an opportunity to emulate?
  • Expect students can accomplish something perfectly the first try?
  • Get excited about a particular topic and share a lecture or forced discussion?
  • Require that students be “good listeners” only?

Why Involving Works

When we remember something, it goes into one of two different types of memory banks in our brain, the first storing facts and figures—declarative memory. This is where the details of our course content often reside … if in fact they end up there at all.

The second, and in many ways the more effective bank, is called procedural memory. Ever hear that phrase “It’s like riding a bike” and wonder what it meant? Once someone learns how to ride a bike, they don’t forget. It’s not that they’ve memorized a series of facts and formulas to achieve coordination. Their body automatically remembers. Once they’ve physically engaged in the task, their brain is permanently reconfigured to perform it.

This is as true for academics as it is for bike riding. The more students are involved in the learning process, the more of their minds and bodies are reconfigured to retain that knowledge. I finally learned how to tie a tie when I told my dad to stand next to me and tie his tie. I had my own tie and slowly imitated his movements. After about 10 minutes of practice, I had the basics down. And after a few more tries, I nailed it every time.

I try to bring this same mentality to my classroom as well. How involved are my students with their own learning? How long before I entrust content to their own hands and minds, and facilitate their material manipulation? Am I expecting them to “tie the perfect knot” the first time, and if not, how much practice am I allowing?

What Involving Looks Like

The first and simplest way to involve students is to set up your class with a basic, “I show, you do,” structure. Here, a small portion of your class time is devoted to sharing a new piece of information (or skill) with your kids. The rest of the time is devoted towards application, removing the teacher as the centerpiece of the classroom. Sound familiar? It also serves as the foundational layout of the flipped classroom.

But involved learning can go further, too. The key difference is a distinction between just giving answers or directions versus letting them personally take part in their learning process. Look at these examples of “telling” and try to think of your own “involving” phrase to replace it with.

  • “Do this.”
  • “Use this technique.”
  • “We’re all learning this same thing.”
  • “Here’s your grade. That’s it.”
  • “We can’t do that.”
  • “Follow these steps.”
  • “Listen to me.”

Each of the above phrases places the teacher at the center of learning, dictating the content and process step-by-step with little input from the class. Try replacing the above phrases with phrases like these:

  • “What do you think?”
  • “Which technique would you like to use?”
  • “What are you interested in exploring?”
  • Your homework is practice.”
  • “Let’s do it. Let’s go there.”
  • “Design a process that yields the product you’re looking for.”
  • “Create, build, invent.”

These phrases allow for students to engage their bodies, hearts, and minds into the material. It’s a welcomed departure from the “learn and do exactly this” methodology of and produces a vastly superior result. By being involved in the process, students become masters of the material, encode the content into their procedural and declarative memories, and have an applicable understanding of their learning.

They Can Teach

One last way that involved learning looks different than merely showing or telling is that students can now teach others. When I was in junior high I tutored a friend in algebra (yes, she was cute, but that wasn’t the point). By tutoring her, my algebra scores skyrocketed because I was forced to sit in the driver’s seat and be able to explain the concepts to someone else. When students are given the opportunity to take the wheel and explore the content on their terms, their learning too will skyrocket.

What does involved learning look like for you? In what ways might “telling” and “showing” play a role in your classroom? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

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Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com