Rethinking the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

  • Rethinking the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

    By Tim McCaffrey, posted June 6, 2016 –

    Does “I do—we do—you do” ring a bell? Well of course it does. Better known as the gradual release of responsibility, this model of teaching ensures that students have the right tools and thinking before attempting problems on their own. This post focuses on enhancing this model by doing one simple thing: reversing the order. Click here for a helpful diagram that shows the relationship between teacher and student responsibility.

    YOU DO

    Start the lesson by giving your students a task and see what they can do with it. Not just any task but a worthwhile task. In addition to the 10 principles laid out by Dan Meyer for engaging math tasks, I would add a few as well:

    1. Provide multiple entry points
    2. Allow for varied solution paths
    3. Focus on process, not necessarily the answer

    These types of rich tasks allow students to play around with mathematical ideas and use the math tools they currently have in their tool chest.

    WE DO

    After students have had an opportunity to work independently and have probably run into some roadblocks, they need time to work with their peers. One of the best collaborative structures I have seen is called complex instruction. There are four components to complex instruction:

    1. Student responsibility
    2. Multidimensionality
    3. Assigning competence
    4. Roles

    I won’t go through each of the four components in this post, but you can find additional resources from Jo Boaler and NRICH. One of my favorite components is the multidimensionality of the classroom environment. For instance, I asked 220 secondary students in my district, “What does it take to be successful in math?” and the top-three answers were not surprising:

    1. Do all your homework
    2. Pay attention to the teacher
    3. Study

    The same question was asked of a group of students who were engaged in complex instruction. They answered:

    • Asking good questions
    • Rephrasing problems
    • Explaining
    • Using logic
    • Justifying methods
    • Using manipulatives
    • Connecting ideas
    • Helping others

    The implications of each list are what are valued in the classroom. The second list had a breadth of dimensions on how students learned mathematics and how students were given opportunities to represent their thinking.

    I DO

    Now your students are ready to listen to you. You have given them a need for your direct instruction, and you have a ton of data to pull together to make a rich learning experience for your students. For example, some of the data you now have are the following:

    1. Students’ questions and inquiries
    2. Students’ representations and processes
    3. Student-to-student conversations
    4. Students’ misunderstandings and understandings
    5. Students’ responses to your questions

    In my next post, I will give concrete examples of what this entire process could look like in your classroom.

    2016-05 McCaffrey aupicTim McCaffrey is the founder of Agree or Disagree?, writes at, and tweets at @timsmccaffrey. He currently serves as the mathematics coordinator for grades 6–12 in Fontana, California. He desires to help coaches and administrators implement sound mathematical practices that will help students become deep thinkers.