Tell Me and I Forget…

XunziThere is a common saying about teaching that goes:

Tell me and I forget.
Show me and I remember.
Involve me and I understand.

It is attributed it to Confucius (Kong-fu-zi, aka. Grandmaster Kong) in some places and to Lao-zi in others. I know for certain that neither of them said this. I’ve done a JSTOR search for the phrase and the earliest instance I can find was from Jack Richards and Theodore Rogers, Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (1986). There is a similar version attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

Tell me and I forget;
Teach me and I remember;
Involve me and I learn!

Again, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Franklin. I have looked through his autobiography and through Poor Richard’s Almanack and couldn’t find it in either place.

When I asked colleagues on the POD Listserv, Li Wang quickly identified it as being from Xun-zi (荀子, 312-230 B.C.) and gave the quotation as:


I found a translation of this in Homer Dubs’ The Works of Hsüntze (1927, 1966), page 113. The section was from Book 8 of Xun-zi:

“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 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.”


“Therefore, he who has heard of it but has not seen it, will certainly err, even though he be widely learned. He who has seen it but does not understand it, will certainly be led astray, even though he has memorized it. He who understands but does not carry it out will certainly stumble, even though eh regard it as important. If a man has not learned it nor seen it carried out, although his actions should be correct, he would not be benevolent (Jen); every hundred of his actions would only be a hundred failures.”

That first section is pretty close to:

Tell me and I forget.
Show me and I remember.
Involve me and I understand.

I’d still like to find where the English version came from, so please leave a comment if you know.

About dakinburdick

Dakin Burdick has a Ph.D. in U.S. History and American Studies and has worked in educational and instructional development since 2000. Most recently he was the Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Endicott College in Massachusetts. He is an Assistant Professor there and teaching undergraduate history and is a graduate faculty member in the Homeland Security program and in the Educational Leadership program.
This entry was posted in Critical Thinking, Discussion Methods, My Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Tell Me and I Forget…

  1. josephtyw says:

    Having received a Thank you card with this quote, I did a search and landed at your post. From my own reading of the entire section, it seems the common English version is a hybrid of two parts: “闻之而不见,虽博必谬;见之而不知,虽识必妄” (first two sentences of your second translation quote) and “行之,明也” (last sentence of your first translation quote). Is that why you dropped the translation in between (which Dubs did translate)?

    • dakinburdick says:

      No, my Chinese is just not that good. My colleague Li Wang gave me the Chinese version. Do you have the complete Chinese for Dubs translation? I’d love to be more accurate!

  2. . says:

    Reblogged this on writing for life and commented:
    edu didactics

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