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Show, Don’t Tell

Updated: May 26, 2021

When instructors set up their first Yellowdig Community, they often ask: “What should I tell my students to do?” This question is motivated by legitimate concerns about one’s responsibilities as an instructor and one’s role as a discussion facilitator. But it belies two unspoken assumptions. The first is that, in a discussion between peers, students need to be told exactly what to do. The second is that telling students exactly what to do will yield the educational outcomes you want. While these premises are facially plausible, I don’t think they hold up under scrutiny. Indeed, if these premises were true, then LMS discussion boards — which leverage highly prescriptive approaches to discussions — would be all we’d need to achieve great educational outcomes in online discussions. And if we thought LMS discussion boards were sufficient, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.

What’s the alternative to telling your students what to do? Show them what you're looking for in your online learning community.

"Show, Don’t Tell” is an old adage. You might catch a high school director citing it to a teenager mugging his way through the role of Romeo. In the context of theatre, the adage means, roughly, “Don’t indicate what you’re thinking and feeling. Exemplify what you’re thinking and feeling.” The difference is subtle but crucial. To indicate is to telegraph your character’s thoughts and feelings to the audience. To exemplify is to reveal what you (as your character) are thinking and feeling — to embody your character and leave it to the audience to discern your thoughts and feelings.

Photo by Gwen Ong on Unsplash

We intuitively understand that exemplification, or showing, is a more authentic means of communication than indication, or telling. Yet instructors tend not to apply the same principle to discussion management. (Full disclosure: during my years as a college instructor and discussion facilitator, I did a lot of telling and only a little showing.)

You might think there’s nothing wrong with a “tell, don’t show” approach. The sage on the stage tells, after all. Isn’t it the sage’s job to tell everyone what to do and say?

There is a place for telling in education; that much is beyond doubt. But showing plays a crucial role as well. That’s because learning isn’t just about gaining factual knowledge; it’s about developing the skills and competencies that allow one to acquire, understand, and retain factual knowledge in the first place. To borrow an example from mathematics, if you’ve memorized Cantor’s theorem but are unable to reconstruct Cantor’s proofs for it, you haven’t truly learned Cantor’s theorem. That’s because fully understanding Cantor’s theorem requires more than knowing what the theorem says; it requires having the skills necessary to prove its truth. We can better appreciate the difference between learning a fact and learning a skill by unpacking the concepts that underpin them: knowledge-that and knowledge-how.


The distinction between knowledge-that and knowledge-how occupies a central place in my academic subfield. To know-that is to know a fact — to know, for example, that water is H20. To know-how is to have a certain sort of capability or competence — to know, for example, how to tie your shoes. Both knowledge-that and knowledge-how can be taught. But you don’t teach knowledge-that and knowledge-how in exactly the same way. You’d be hard-pressed to teach someone that water is H20 without telling them something. And you wouldn’t teach your child how to tie her shoes by reading aloud from an instruction manual; you’d show her how to do it.

putting on a shoe