Why Teachers Should Give Students More Responsibility Over Learning

Rapid Release of Responsibility: You Do, We Do, I Do

I Do We Do You Do.jpgI Do, We Do, You Do has been a standard instructional model for years. The rationale for this approach is that students learn best through gradual release of responsibility. This begins with the teacher providing direct instruction (I Do), followed by guided instruction or practice (We Do), and finally independent practice (You Do).

I Do, We Do, You Do didn’t work for me as a student because it conditioned me to rely on teachers for information and modeling rather than develop self-reliance. The repercussions of this were evident when college professors assigned case studies, and I felt paralyzed. It was even worse in the workplace when my boss assigned projects and provided little or no direction.

I made it through those experiences well enough to salvage my grade or save my job. But I would have made it through with less dependence on classmates and colleagues, greater proficiency, and more sleep if my K-12 teachers had prepared me for this with learning tasks that began with You Do rather than I Do. Tasks that would have cultivated the skills and mindset required for post-secondary success including persistence, resilience, resourcefulness, and a view of mistakes as learning opportunities.

Yet even if college and career readiness weren’t a compelling reason for teachers to start with You Do rather than I Do, this switch would still be essential based on my observations in hundreds of I Do, We Do, You Do classes. Sure, some students (usually about one-third) take notes and/or answer teachers’ questions during I Do. But many others sleep, socialize, work on assignments for other classes, text, doodle, ask if they can go to the bathroom, etc.

This lack of engagement continues during We Do. You Do, in turn, becomes a one-on-one version of I Do, where teachers re-teach at students’ desks. By the time the bell rings, only a few students have had the “benefit” of this personal tutoring. Yet all of them are expected to practice the new skill for homework. And when they don’t–or they do but show a lack of understanding–teachers lament, “I taught this yesterday, and they’ve already forgotten how to do it.”

But if students can’t do something after teachers show them how to do it, can learning actually improve when teachers don’t show them how to do it? Definitely, and there are many reasons for this including:

  • people often learn best by doing, not by watching other people doing
  • the gauge of students’ readiness for a learning task isn’t whether they’ll complete it correctly, but whether they have the prior knowledge and/or skills to attempt it at the level of productive struggle
  • it’s stifling for students when teachers present one way to do something before students have a chance to discover and evaluate their own ways of doing it
  • mistakes are stepping stones to meaningful learning
  • new content often builds on previous content

This last point about the connection between previous and new content addresses common pushback from teachers when I suggest they start with You Do rather than I Do. In math, for example, teachers think I’ve lost my mind when I say there’s no need for direct instruction when introducing division with fractions.

“But how are students going to know to flip and multiply?” teachers ask. I then ask them, “Why does invert and multiply work for division with fractions?” And after a few seconds of blank looks, I answer my own question: “Because it works for whole numbers.” The point being that as long as students understand the relationship between division and multiplication when working with whole numbers, they’re ready to struggle productively with fraction division–no I Do required.

Math curriculum affords many other opportunities like this for teachers to start with You Do, as Steve Leinwand of American Institutes for Research asserted in a recent Hechinger Report article by Emmanuel Felton. “I, we, you sometimes makes sense.” said Leinwand. “But sometimes teachers need to turn it on its head with some version of you, we, I. That requires students to struggle, explore, share, justify, compare and debrief.”

But math isn’t the only subject where direct instruction can be unnecessary. Consider social studies, where students often need background knowledge in order to engage in an activity. If, for example, the class will be discussing and debating the social and political implications of various U.S. constitutional amendments, students would obviously need to know the gist of each of those amendments as well as other information. But why should the teacher be their go-to source for this information? I’m not saying we should abandon teacher-led discussion, but there’s a difference between discussing information and disseminating it. Leave information gathering to students, and let them develop their reading and research skills in the process.

In short, the You Do, We Do, I Do approach that I support reflects a rapid, rather than gradual, release of responsibility. This involves flipping I Do and You do, as I’ve described. But it also involves redefining We Do to mean students collaborating with each other instead of teachers guiding them, per my Hierarchy of Help. And lastly, the use and purpose of I Do depends on what teachers see as they assess and interact with students using perpetual proximity during You Do and We Do.

See my post, Less Lecturing, More Learning, for an interview with a science teacher whose students learned better when she left information gathering to them. Also see my post, Coaching Students Rather than Teaching Students, for an interview with a math teacher whose students learned better once he let them tackle problems without working through examples for them first. Maybe you’ll find these teachers so inspirational that You Do what They Do.


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