Tell Me and I Forget; Teach Me and I May Remember; Involve Me and I Learn

Benjamin Franklin? Confucius? Xunzi? Hsüntze? Native American Saying? Shuo Yuan? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following tripartite expression encapsulates an influential approach to education:

Tell me and I forget,
teach me and I remember,
involve me and I learn.

The U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin and the Chinese philosopher Confucius have both received credit for these words. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Benjamin Franklin crafted this expression. The earliest partial match known to QI occurred in the writings of Xunzi (Xun Kuang), a Confucian philosopher who lived in the third century B.C.E.

Several English renderings have been published over the years. The following excerpt is from “Xunzi: The Complete Text” within chapter 8 titled “The Achievements of the Ru”. The translator was Eric L. Hutton, and the publisher was Princeton University Press in 2014. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

Not having heard of it is not as good as having heard of it. Having heard of it is not as good as having seen it. Having seen it is not as good as knowing it. Knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice. Learning arrives at putting it into practice and then stops . . .

The word “it” above referred to the proper Confucian way of life. This passage from Xunzi clearly differed from the statement under examination, yet QI believes that the Chinese saying acted as the seed for an efflorescence that included several modern variants.

Another ancient Chinese source containing a partial match is a collection of stories called the Shuo Yuan (SY). The following excerpt was translated by John Knoblock and appeared in 1990: 2

The SY says: “The ear’s hearing something is not as good as the eye’s seeing it; the eye’s seeing it is not as good as the foot’s treading upon it; the foot’s treading upon it is not as good as the hands differentiating it.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The Xunzi saying entered English by 1928 when translator Homer H. Dubs published “The Works of Hsüntze”. The book title employed an alternate spelling for Xunzi: 3

Not having learned it is not as good as having learned it; having learned it is not as good as having seen it carried out; having seen it is not as good as understanding it; understanding it is not as good as doing it. The development of scholarship is to the extreme of doing it, and that is its end and goal. He who carries it out, knows it thoroughly.

In 1953 the U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare published “Public Health Reports”. The periodical included a compact instance of the saying, and the Chinese origin was acknowledged: 4

A student learns more by doing than by listening. The educational philosophy of John Dewey is certainly correct in stressing this generalization. So too is the Chinese adage:

When I hear it I forget it
When I see it I remember it
When I do it I know it

In 1954 an article in a Binghamton, New York newspaper about local elementary schools included a version of the adage which used the locution “I may”. No attribution was specified: 5

Instruction of youngsters in the first, second and third grades in the Binghamton School District is conducted on a plane by which children learn best.

Which is:
What I hear I may forget.
What I see I may remember,
But what I do I will know.

In 1955 the U.S. Department of the Interior published “Indian Education”, and the periodical included a different compact version: 6

The new type of summer session being planned is based very largely on the old Chinese saying:

“If I hear it, I forget.
If I see it, I remember.
If I do it, I know.”

In 1960 a newspaper in Pottstown, Pennsylvania ran an advertisement with a truncated version of the adage: 7

When I hear, I forget . . .
When I see, I remember
How true this Chinese proverb is in the realm of advertising!

In 1962 the same newspaper in Pennsylvania printed the truncated adage again. This time the words were tentatively linked to a famous Chinese sage: 8

Says Confucious?

A Chinese proverb says: “When I hear, I forget. When I see, I remember.”

How true! Talk so often is empty and misleading. The printed word is the one that lives!

In 1966 the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” of Missouri printed an article about changes in pedagogy for elementary school mathematics titled “The New Math: St. Louis Is a World Center for the Idea That Children Should ‘Understand by Doing'”. A three-part version of the saying was included: 9

A Chinese proverb explains much about the New Math itself, as well as the reason so many parents feel left out: “I hear it, I forget; I see it, I remember; I do it, I understand.” The new instruction has children doing things with solid objects, such as blocks, to get number relationships firmly in their minds.

In 1974 “Dixon Evening Telegraph” of Illinois printed a version with the word “involve”: 10

Teachers use many techniques to help learning take place. My personal teaching technique preferences would best be summarized through the ancient Chinese proverb:

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

In 1979 a newspaper in Ottawa, Canada published a version with the phrase “I may remember”: 11

He passes on an old Chinese proverb . . .
Tell me, and I will not forget — show me and I may remember — but involve me, and I will understand.

By the 1980s the adage had implausibly been reassigned to Benjamin Franklin. The 1986 book “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching” by Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers contained the following passage: 12

These premises are succinctly represented in the words of Benjamin Franklin:
Tell me and I forget,
teach me and I remember,
involve me and I learn.

In 1989 an article in “The Daily News” of Lebanon, Pennsylvania ascribed an instance to Confucius: 13

You mean to say that Confucius might have been on track when he claimed, “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I will remember. Involve me, and I will understand forever.”

In 1990 “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania printed an editorial about an impressive new science museum in the city which had been created by the Franklin Institute, an organization which is named after Benjamin Franklin. The museum contained many interactive exhibits, and a descriptive brochure included a version of the adage. Interestingly, Benjamin Franklin did not receive credit: 14

The idea behind that philosophy is summed up neatly in a Confucian aphorism on the institute’s new brochure. “Tell me, and I will forget,” it says. “Show me, and I will remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

In 1993 the third edition of “The Harper Book of Quotations” contained this entry: 15

Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand. Native American saying

In 1999 the epigraph of an article in an Eau Claire, Wisconsin newspaper attributed the saying to Franklin: 16

“Tell me, and I will listen; Teach me, and I’ll remember; Involve me, and I will learn.”
— Benjamin Franklin

In conclusion, a multi-part statement about effective strategies for learning appeared in a collection of ancient Chinese writings ascribed to Xunzi (Xun Kuang), a Confucian philosopher. The statement’s meaning was not identical to the saying under analysis, yet the emphasis on experiential learning was similar. A translated version of the Chinese saying entered English by 1928. Many variants evolved during the following decades. By the 1980s Benjamin Franklin was incorrectly receiving credit for an instance.

Image Notes: Picture of three wise monkeys form Robfoto at Pixabay. The image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Andrew Old, Giulio Toscani, Simon Lancaster, Samuel LoPresto, Olivier K. Esclauze, Saul Singer, Meirav M. (Berale), and Naureen Khalid whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to previous researchers: Barry Popik and the volunteers at Wikiquote, Wikipedia, Quora, and StackExchange.)

Notes:

  1. 2014 Copyright, Xunzi: The Complete Text, Translated by Eric L. Hutton, Chapter 8: The Achievements of the Ru, Quote Page 64, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1990, Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works by John Knoblock, Volume 2: Books 7 to 16, Section: Notes, Footnote 99, Quote Page 289, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1928 (1977 Reprint), The Works of Hsüntze: Translated from the Chinese by Homer H. Dubs, Book 8: The Merit of the Confucian, Quote Page 113, Originally Published by Arthur Probsthain, London; Reprint by AMS Press, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1953 September, Public Health Reports, Volume 68, Number 9, The Teaching-Learning Situation by Gordon W. Allport, Start Page 875, Quote Page 877, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1954 October 17, The Sunday Press (Binghamton Press), Learning by Doing Emphasized In Binghamton Primary Grades by Kennett C. Johnson (Sunday Press Writer), Quote Page 3C, Column 1, Binghamton, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1955 April 15, Indian Education, Volume 18, Number 268, Edited by Hildegard Thompson, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Education Branch, Department of the Interior, Washington D.C. Published at Haskell Institute, Lawrence, Kansas. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1960 January 22, Pottstown Mercury, (Advertisement encouraging the reader to but an advertisement in the newspaper), Quote Page 12, Column 6, Pottstown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1962 November 1, Pottstown Mercury, Editorial: Says Confucious?, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Pottstown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1966 November 6, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Section: Pictures Magazine, The New Math: St. Louis Is a World Center for the Idea That Children Should ‘Understand by Doing’ by Frank Peters (Staff of Pictures Magazine), Quote Page 58, Column 2, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1974 March 2, Dixon Evening Telegraph, Teaching really art of student discovery by Merrill E. Hughes (Director of Curriculum Dixon Public Schools), Quote Page A1, Column 3, Dixon, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1979 March 24, The Ottawa Journal, Co-operative home: Y Men’s Club, Kinsmen come to aid of handicapped by Jim Waterton, Quote Page 44, Column 6, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1986 (Seventh Printing 1991), Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching: A Description and Analysis by Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers, Chapter 7: The Silent Way, Quote Page 100, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1989 October 8, The Daily News, Students step back in time by Susan Bucks (Palmyra School District), Quote Page 2B, Column 1, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1990 May 4, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Editorial: To the limit: The Franklin Institute’s Futures Center is a burst of light in a dark hour, Quote Page 18A, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1993, The Harper Book of Quotations, Third Edition, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Topic: Education, Quote Page 135, HarperPerennial: A Division of HarperCollins, New York. (Verified with scans)
  16. 1999 October 8, Leader-Telegram, Expert: Community needed for safe schools by Christena T. O’Brien (Leader-Telegram staff), Quote Page B1, Column 1, Eau Claire, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)