14

I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. - Confucius

What is the origin, and evolution, of this popular quote? It has a nice air of pseudo-profundity to it; one problem though: Confucius never said this. Quite understandable, since he's like the Chinese version of Einstein when it comes to quote misattributions. There's also a bit of absurdity in the first two sentences - why is sight, rather than sound, vital to memory?

Most Chinese sources would point at this alternate phrase as the origin, not by Confucius but by Xunzi, which is pretty close as he was a big Confucian:

不闻不若闻之,闻之不若见之,见之不若知之,知之不若行之;学至于行之而止矣。

A rough translation: "Not hearing is not as good as hearing, hearing is not as good as seeing, seeing is not as good as knowing, knowing is not as good as acting; true learning continues until it is put into action."

The two quotes are very similar; they both argue for the value of learning by doing, but you can see the slight differences in the process: the misattributed English quote talks about memory (forget/remember), whereas no such thing exists in the Xunzi quote.

This leads to two possibilities:

  • It was from Xunzi, just liberally translated and slightly misattributed.
  • It was from someone else; after all it's a pretty common sentiment to express.

What was the first instance of this phrase in its current form or similar, and who said/wrote it? Are there any earlier forms of this phrase that hint towards an origin?

  • Ngram shows that it became popular from the mid-sixties, the context appears to be 'school teaching': books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Feb 11 '15 at 7:41
  • I think it is related to 'active learning':"They must read, write, discuss, or be engaged in solving problems. It relates to the three learning domains referred to as knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSA), and that this taxonomy of learning behaviours can be thought of as "the goals of the learning process" (Bloom, 1956)".en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_learning – user66974 Feb 11 '15 at 8:03
  • I never heard this -- it seems profound. How can you be sure Confucious never said it? – Greg Lee Feb 28 '15 at 15:05
  • On the sight/sound thing, I think the meaning is that is better to see something done, than to be told how to do it. – Neil W May 27 '15 at 8:25
  • Clearly, it's a quote from Yogi Berra. He said everything. ;) – Hot Licks Oct 10 '15 at 12:36
8
+500

As Josh61 observes (in a comment above), the saying seems to have emerged in the middle to late 1960s in the context of education. A Google Books search finds seven occurrences between 1966 and and 1968—virtually all in the context of education—and nothing prior to that. I get the impression that the quotation, unearthed from an ancient Chinese source or not, was adopted as a slogan by the "learning through experience" movement in pedagogy.

Here is how the first seven Google Books matches look. From John Williams, Mathematics Reform in the Primary School: A Report of a Meeting of Experts Held in Hamburg during January 1966 (Unesco Institute for Education, 1967) [combined snippets]:

It makes the case for change and refers to such matters as classroom organisation in helpful detail. The title is taken from the Chinese proverb: "I hear, and I forget/I see, and I remember/I do, and I understand."

From Froebel Journal (1967) [combined snippets]:

A group of scientists went to the river yesterday. Where there was a shrimp among the collection in the aquarium, there is today a collage in shades of blue and green, a graph measuring the flow of the river, a section of the river bed, leaf and stem rubbings of water-side plants and a clay image of a shrimp. The separate threads of art, mathematics and science have merged. The resulting yarn is stronger and more lasting — learning through experience.

I hear and I forget, I see and I know, I do and I understand. This was the theme of this year's course. Yes. We heard and forgot, we saw and we knew. And the breath-takingly vital work to be seen in the studio today proves conclusively that we did and understood.

From Official Report of the Semi-annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (1968) [combined snippets]:

May I challenge you in the words from the epistle of James to be "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (Jas. 1:22), remembering: I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I learn. Second Day Others then will follow your example. Teaching will improve. Commandments will be lived. Lives will be blessed.

From Triad: Official Publication of the Ohio Music Education Association (1968) [combined snippets]:

As always, this proverb is an excellent teacher's guide: I hear and I forget/I see and I remember/I do and I understand.

From The Photographic Journal (1968) [combined snippets]:

let me remind you of the Chinese proverb: "I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand."

THE NEWER VISUAL AIDS AND THEIR USES

The overhead projector might be looked upon as the twentieth century version of the old chalkboard. Because it offers a wide scope for invention, while providing a basic service in the classroom, the...

From Independent School Bulletin (1968) [combined snippets}:

Patricia Davidson opened her talk by emphasizing that a Math Lab is not a place but an approach to the teaching of mathematics, and that a school should not feel that the lack of a spare room should prevent its undertaking Math Laboratory work. She quoted Joseph Zimmerman in a statement in which he said that a Math Lab is a state of mind which is questioning and exploring: a state of mind in which the teacher is seen as the catalyst. She also quoted the Chinese proverb which the Nuffield Foundation Mathematics Project has adopted as its motto: "I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do and I understand."

And from Edward Buffe, Ronald Welch & Donald Paige, Mathematics: Strategies of Teaching (1968) [combined snippets]:

How, when, and why sensory-perceptual materials are used by teachers must be an important consideration in planning for instruction. We would all do well to remember the old Chinese motto: I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember; I do, and I understand.

At least in the Google Books search results, Confucius doesn't enter the scene until 1972. From John Ingalls & Joseph Arceri, A Trainers Guide to Andragogy (1972) [combined snippets]:

The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius expressed his belief in the importance of learning from experience when he wrote: "I hear and I forget/I see and I remember/I do and I understand[.]" Confucius related the acquisition of understanding and knowledge directly to living and experiencing. "I do and I understand."

It's not unimaginable that someone preparing for an education conference in the mid-1960s chanced upon a translation of the saying by Xunzi cited in the OP's question and decided to incorporate it in a presentation, at which point other educators latched onto the saying as an expression of ancient wisdom. Alternatively someone might simply have made the saying up (with or without citing it as a Chinese proverb), and it caught on just the same. Either way, once any saying becomes known as a Chinese proverb, it will almost certainly end up being attributed to Confucius before many moons have passed.

  • 2
    Confucius said, "One wan (ten thousand) monkeys creating proverbs will eventually speak all wisdom." Later that day, Confucius bought ten-thousand monkeys. – hunterhogan Feb 27 '15 at 20:21
4

And after the 60s, the quotation has evolved to

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

According to American etymologist Barry Popik, the quotation has been accredited to Dr. Herb True in 1978 in 29 March 1978, Dallas (TX) Morning News, Earl Wilson syndicated entertainment column, pg. 16A, col. 2

and to Benjamin Franklin in 1985 in A Philosophy of the Practice of Dentistry By Lindsey D. Pankey and William J. Davis Toledo, OH: Medical College Press (1985) Pg. 198

The Harper Book of Quotations (Revised Edition) By Robert I. Fitzhenry New York, NY: Harper Perennial even claims the quotation is of Native American origin.

I agree with the post author that the first two sentences of the original quotation raise eyebrows. Are they making fun of music student and any oral tradition in teaching? If the exact wording of the quotation was invented merely to emphasize the importance of "doing", the idea is not new, and Confucius did appear to say something similar under the (bush) pen of later scholars of Confucianism.

In the Doctrine of Middle Chapter 6 (dated 6th century), Confucius appeared (or was imagined) to go a little beyond.

知之者不如行之者,行之者不如安之者

Roughly, "Knowing is not as good as acting/doing; (merely) doing is not as good as doing it as naturally as in habit".

According to Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (2005), 21:9, Aristotle, later than Confucius but earlier than Xunzi, also said something similar.

For the things we have to learn before we can do, we learn by doing.

Finally, for this etymology exercise, I would like to demonstrate you can easily invent questionable phrase pertaining to old wisdom.

I hear and I forget until I listen; I see and I forget until I watch; I do and I forget until I concentrate.

I just made that up.

protected by Community Jan 22 '16 at 9:37

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.