Saying vs. Doing

img_2469Something I am continually working on as a teacher is saying less.  This became even more important last year, when, after teaching 4th grade for many years, I became a 2nd grade teacher.  The attention span of the 7 year old is pret-ty short.  And I quickly learned that they have little to no interest in long, thoughtful lesson introductions that connect what we’re going to study today to the previous day’s work. I wish I could illustrate for you the bored stares, the poking of the person in front of them, the taking books out of the classroom library baskets next to the rug and thumbing through them, the vehement “can I go to the bathroom?!” crossed-finger silent gesture that my sweet 7 year olds were throwing me last year as I fumbled my way through learning that I needed to get. to. the. point. Fast.  With 2nd graders, it’s all about shock and awe.  You have to jump right into it.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, this “say less” thing, as I move into the new school year.  The first few days of the year in my classroom have been filled with wordy explanations of classroom routines and procedures. Are you yawning yet? I am. As critical as I know it is to teach my students how to properly unpack and pack their backpacks, it’s extremely uninteresting to me, and to them.  I spent the first few days of school feeling a bit uninspired by all of this procedure-teaching.  The best moments of each day, I noticed, were when we were DOING: singing the Shark Attack song together, playing hospital tag during outdoor play, building patterns with unifix cubes.

I started thinking about math teaching.  When I teach math, I want my kids to DO — I want them to discover the way our number system works, explore the properties of operations, engage with each other, and wrestle with mathematical ideas.  It’s quite active.  It does not look like me telling them, “Here’s how you solve the problem.”  But when it comes to teaching classroom routines, I’m doing the opposite.  I’m telling them, “If we all go to the closet at the same time, we’re going to have a problem.  Here’s how we’re going to solve that problem…”  In my deep boredom with the teaching and practicing of classroom routines, I started wondering about what it would be like to let my students DO more, right from the get go, instead of teaching them how I want them to do it preemptively.

I realize this is classroom management 101 anathema.  Anyone who read The First Days of School by Wong and Wong (shudder) is thinking, “Disaster!”  But I honestly wonder.  Just as in math, I don’t teach my kids procedures because I want them to think about what makes sense, maybe when it comes to classroom routines and procedures, I could let them DO first and discuss what made sense and didn’t make sense later.

Taking an approach like this would definitely involve a higher tolerance for classroom chaos than I presently have.  But even that element is not that different from math teaching.  Over the years, I’ve developed a high tolerance for messiness when it comes to math teaching and learning.  I know I used to feel anxious when it seemed like kids weren’t “getting” what I wanted them to see in the math, but over time I’ve been able to develop the part of my teacher self that sees kids’ struggles as part of the road to making sense, and to not get freaked out by the chaos that sometimes ensues on that road.

I know that content-wise, classroom routines and procedures are not the same as math.  If kids don’t know how to move around the room or get their materials quickly, learning time is wasted.  Maybe it does make sense to teach classroom routines explicitly.  But I think doing so this year has brought out for me the tension around my desire for control versus my desire for exploration and sense making in my classroom.  So this is an important thing that I’m going to keep thinking about:  How can I continue to create a classroom where doing comes first, and saying comes later?


8 thoughts on “Saying vs. Doing

    1. Laura, sorry for the delayed reply but thanks for this comment! You inspired me. The next day I went back to my classroom and tried out developing some procedures with the kids for things like how to put certain materials away, how to line up, etc. I really liked it. One thing I’m still wondering about is how to develop these procedures when there are so many different ideas from the kids on how to do things! My 2nd graders are quite opinionated on the topic of how to do anything, it turns out. So I struggled a little with how to moderate all of their ideas and come to some kind of consensus. Will keep thinking about this. Thanks for setting me on this road!


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I wonder if you see more ownership in the learning when you start by doing? Or maybe you see that you can have richer discussions? Or maybe that your struggling learners do better?

    What do you notice?


    1. Mark, thanks for your comment. You ask a great question — what is the benefit of the doing over the saying? I think what I’ve noticed is engagement is higher when we start by doing. And also that the ensuing discussions are richer when kids have had the experience of doing first. Definitely I think my struggling learners benefit from doing something over hearing something. I also think that working with younger kids has helped me to see how meaningful doing is. Second graders seem to be right on the cusp of moving from concrete to abstract; in fact, in math, I feel like the whole school year of second grade is about going back and forth between concrete and abstract representations of mathematical ideas. The doing feels concrete to me, and at this point in the year, I feel like they need that a lot. What do you think?


  2. Hi, just found this after reading your thoughtful tape diagram post.

    The tension you described about saying vs doing is something I’ve felt and not really rectified. Especially with respect to beginning of the year (re: The First Days of School) so I am glad I’m not the only one. I see a disconnect between what’s advocated by ideas like those from Wong and Wong and Responsive Classroom for starting the year and the kind of classroom the students and I have built that has worked well. It’s not the philosophies as much as the approach they take to get there.

    It’s like they want you to do all of that stuff first, before getting into the *doing* of mathematics. I wonder if there’s a way to jump into the doing (and everything valuable that comes along with it), and weave the classroom building in throughout. That’s what I would like to explore more.

    I’m thinking from a 4th grade perspective where attention spans are a bit longer but no so much more that I don’t think your “shock and awe” philosophy doesn’t have value.

    This jumps to a broader issue I see in education where we get stuck on one model/philosophy/way of doing things. The organizations (and people) I have seen across industries and throughout history that find the most success are the ones that can do what Bruce Lee described many years ago “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” For companies, Toyota and ‘The Toyota Way’ is a well known example of an organization that did this while Charlie Munger and his judicious use of many mental models is a well known individual. I think we have a lot to learn in education from this line of thinking.

    BTW, love the title of your blog! Just about sums up my philosophy of learning.


Leave a Reply to Laura Duggan Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s