Why “I Do, We Do, You Do” Is NOT Always Best Practice for Teaching Math

If you’re like me, you likely were exposed to the gradual release model early on in your teaching career. You know… the “I do, we do, you do” lesson plan template most of us were given at some point by professors in college or administrators during our first few years teaching. The longer I taught and the more students I worked with, I eventually learned that “I do, we do, you do” is NOT always best practice for teaching students math. 

Because there is no ONE RIGHT WAY to teach math all of the time, I was intentional in adding that it is not “always" best practice (notice I didn't say it's NEVER best practice). Truthfully, there may be times where that model is beneficial. But, really, quality math instruction and deep mathematical understanding cannot be achieved when "I do, we do, you do" is the basis for structuring the majority of our math lessons.

i do we do you do.png

3 Reasons "I Do, We Do, You Do" Is NOT Always Best Practice

To make this easier, I am going to refer to "I do, we do, you do" by it's actual name--the gradual release model. You may have learned it another way as well... I do, we do, few do, you do? Something like that. Essentially they are all variations of the same thing.

1. The gradual release model makes the teacher the "holder of all knowledge."

Think about it. With the gradual release model, the teacher holds all of the knowledge. The teacher makes the decisions on how and when to gradually give over pieces of that knowledge to students in a way that they can gain understanding. 

Honestly, if this is the only way you know to teach math, it makes some sort of sense!

But what happens when students are no longer with the teacher? Maybe they are working independently, or have moved on to another class, or graduated from school entirely. Do they have the ability to gain new knowledge without being spoon fed (for lack of better terms) the information? What if the teacher didn't teach them how to do [fill in the blank] in this exact situation?

If the teacher holds all of the knowledge and all we are doing with the gradual release model is transferring this knowledge, then students have no reason to believe that they have the ability to learn something that hasn't yet been given/released/transferred to them.

This is not the mindset we want our students to have. I want to empower learners who are eager and able to learn with or without me.

2. The gradual release model limits students’ opportunity to make sense of math.

Let me tell you a very quick story…

I once sat in a curriculum implementation meeting where the specialist explained that in order for students to master the math, they needed a great deal of time seeing the teacher do the math first so that they could then practice doing the math that they saw the teacher doing on their own.

I want you to think about that scenario for a second. Who is doing the sense-making in that classroom? Are the students making sense of the math themselves or are they simply copying the end result after the teacher has already made sense of the problem?

Students are not robots. They are not meant to copy our ideas. Our students have brilliant, diverse, creative minds that are capable of big things. They have it in them to face a challenge and reason through it. They have the ability to deepen and grow their understanding of a concept they do not yet grasp.

There is minimal risk or struggle in copying steps that a teacher has demonstrated for them. There is very little connection to be made when you haven’t made sense of a problem for yourself. If there is no connection, the likelihood of learning actually sticking is slim.

When our math instruction is just the “I do, we do, you do” process, we are undervaluing the power of the process, the struggle, and the thinking of our kids. We deprive them of the deep, long-lasting understanding that comes from making sense of the math themselves and exchange it for surface level understanding that is easily forgotten and rarely meaningful to students. When we give students the opportunity to think for themselves, we are shaping learners who can persevere, challenge ideas, and change directions to reach a result.

3. Conceptual understanding cannot be modeled. It needs to be developed.

Most definitions of conceptual understanding ultimately come down to these two things: 1) understanding a mathematical concept or idea AND 2) being able to apply it in a variety of contexts. In order to apply a concept to a new situation, you have to really understand the concept yourself.

Think about making a fire. If someone were to give you specific directions and the appropriate supplies, you probably could figure it out. But what if you were stranded in the middle of nowhere with none of the supplies you were given before. Would you be able to figure out how to make a fire (assuming you were never a boy scout or girl scout)? Probably not.

Now what if you truly understood why you were given those specific supplies in the beginning? What if you knew why each supply was necessary and how these supplies worked together in making a fire? You’d likely be able to find alternative supplies that had the same function and produced the same result. I think you would be much better off in our hypothetical stranded in the middle of nowhere scenario!

The gradual release model is very similar. We give students the directions and the supplies. We show them how it’s done. We have them practice over and over again until they can do it on their own. But what happens when they are faced with a new context? Do they understand the concept deeply enough to figure out how it connects to this new situation?

Unfortunately, “I do, we do, you do” does not give them the space to develop their own understanding. It only allows them to mimic the thinking of the teacher.

Conceptual understanding has to be developed, and for it to be developed students have to do the thinking. They have to fail a few times to understand why something eventually works. When they understand why something works, they are no longer limited to a specific situation where their understanding is useful. They can learn new and harder things because they have the ability to think deeply and make connections to previously learned skills.

Making the shift from “i do, we do, you do” in our math instruction

At this point I’m sure you may be wondering what our math instruction should look like if the gradual release model is not always best practice.

Mike Flynn, a math educator and author I really respect, has a quick two-minute video that answers this very question! If the structure of your math instruction has always been the gradual release model, then try flipping it!

Check out the video to see what I mean.

additional resources

I understand all of this can be slightly overwhelming if this is different than the way you have currently been teaching. It is even more overwhelming when administration expects you to regularly teach using the gradual release model because that is all that they know!

As the wife of a principal, I know it is unreasonable to expect administration to stay 100% on top of best practices for every single content area AND do all the things that administrators do to lead a school.

I highly recommend if this is something that you feel passionately about that you share this article written specifically for administrators about this very subject! Not only will it benefit your administrator to learn something that may be new to them, but it also could give you additional support as you begin moving away from the gradual release model to teach math.

If you are looking for more information on this topic, we have been having some fantastic discussions in our Upper Elementary Math Teachers Facebook group about teaching math in a way that promotes questioning, inquiry, conceptual understanding, and developing the minds of mathematicians. I'd love for you to join us! 

TeachBrittany Hege