On ‘That’ Annoying Benjamin Franklin Quote

Somewhere on the internet you have seen it, probably in a ‘viral’ image. It’s attributed to bad-weather kite flier and slave owner Benjamin Franklin, and goes like this:

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

“Ooh, Marc, can you please tell us why this gets on your nerves so much?”

It would be a curmudgeonly pleasure!

  1. It is used by teachers to talk about ‘learner centredness’ but dismisses teachers.

  2. While my wife may tell me to clean the bathroom and I may forget, remember that this is not a classroom situation. The classroom is a place for learning. It may be a social construct but it is one that has been reached by some kind of social consensus based on an agreed location. People go there to learn, whether by listening to teachers or watching them or whatever. This whole “Tell me and I forget” essentially negates anything said by anybody in a classroom or anywhere else.

  3. It smacks of the dreaded Learning Styles hydra that refuses to die.

  4. “Tell me and I forget” suggests that Ben Franklin was not an auditory learner. So perhaps he was a ‘naturalistic’ learner, or an ‘experiential’ learner, what with the story of the kite and the thunderstorm. Absolute rubbish! If a bloke is clever enough to wheedle his way to the top of a puritanical yet hypocritical wealth-driven society he’s clever enough to pay attention to what someone is telling him.

  5. “Teach me and I remember” tells us nothing about the method.

  6. Are we teaching through mime? Diagrams? Song? Guided instruction? Ben, someone just told you what to do. Couldn’t you have taken notes? That would definitely help you remember. While multi-modal instruction is useful to really hammer home a point, there is not always time for it.

  7. “Involve me and I learn” is just baseless.

  8. I’m all for learner-centredness and even moderate a Google Plus community about it. The thing is, you can involve learners in any activity but if it isn’t thought out in a principled way to develop emergent skills (language use or skills in reception) then learners are only learning that busy work and jumping through hoops pleases teachers. It’s why I hate unprincipled use of games in teaching. It’s pure filler!

  9. It is also a mistake in attribution and a poorly summarised translation.

  10. Like the struggle against pseudo-Einstein by Russ Mayne, the Franklin quote is likely not to come from Franklin at all. It’s just a snappy soundbite badly translated from Chinese.

So, that’s why. I must state that this is not a post to say that you are a bad person if you have shared this quote. You may have used it to support an argument about learner-centred classes versus a droning teacher and a PowerPoint. However, you’d be better of not supporting your argument with an incorrect attribution when there’s a perfectly good Chinese quote to support your view.


5 thoughts on “On ‘That’ Annoying Benjamin Franklin Quote

  1. I could agree that this a quite a simplistic slogan that belongs more on a teenager’s diary than on an educational blog. I’ve used it myself in a former blog, with some poor marketing purpose I must confess. Maybe I should have picked Churchill’s “I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught” instead, I’m sure you would have been delighted. 🙂

    Where I agree to disagree, though, is as soon as your 1/, and not just because of the domestic situation you describe. I believe that many people don’t go to classroom to learn, but because they’re told to, and usually forced to. In many countries classrooms are places where a whole age group is deprived for its freedom during many hours a day, with very sophisticated ways to make sure they don’t escape and will come back the next day. Usually they are given the opportunity to *listen* to a teacher in there, which may or may not result in them acquiring some knowledge and know-hows. They listen to an insane quantity of facts during many years, and I think we know how much they end up remembering. In other words, I don’t believe there’s anything magic about classrooms.

    I like the contrast between “teach me and I remember” and “involve me and I learn”, because it reminds us that’s there’s more to learning than mere memorisation. You suggest to take notes to help remembering stuff, but I’m afraid this throws us back to a very classic and vertical way of teaching, with a teacher feeding students with knowledge that they should somehow try to remember. For me, that’s something the quote’s try to leave behind. Just because someone is teaching inside the classroom doesn’t mean learning is happening.

    And finally, I don’t believe that in the context of that quote (if it can even be called a quote!), “involve me” is a synonym of “keep me busy”. It’s all about engagement and presence, and describes an action done by the teacher to create a link between the student and the content. Then maybe learning will happen…


    1. Cedric, thanks for your well-thought out comment. I am sure that you have a principled approach to learner involvement but how much enlightenment can a viral meme bring us? “Involve me and I learn” just sounds so superficial. It also plays down any sense of autonomy that learners may have. Surely anything worth learning will have learners involving themselves; anything not worthwhile leads to pens and notebooks put away.

      I also think there is a way of speaking that is useful and one that is not so useful. Simple telling with no follow-up would be the latter.


  2. “Tell me and I forget” throws me back to a parent teacher meeting when my now adult children were at school. The teacher was so insistant on her “I told them…. Look it’s on the photocopy they had to paste themselves into their exercise book ..” that I came to the conclusion all by myself (there were no memes because of course, no internet at that time) that telling is most definitely NOT teaching.
    I totally agree with Cedric that most of the people do not go into the classroom to learn unfortunately, so without the teacher creating motivation, i.e. getting the students involved, there will not be any learning – which to me means that there has not been any teaching…. whatever (s)he told them.

    Not a very helpful comment I guess, but I remember I wrote a whole article entitled “telling is not teaching” some 20 years ago (and even that’s forgetting how time flies LOL)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your comment, Eanne. I agree with you, not all telling is learning but to dismiss all telling as fruitless is, especially for language teachers, a bit silly. If nobody told anyone anything in our classrooms then that would be a natural use of language dismissed.

      That’s not to say all classes should be teacher-centered all the time; I just think telling learners things does have its place, alongside learning through discovery.


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