I, Thou, It – THOU

This is the third in a series on frameworks. The introduction to I-Thou-It is here. The post on IT is here.

“Without a Thou, there is no I evolving. Without an It there is no context, no figure and no heat, but only an affair of mirrors confronting each other.” David Hawkins http://hawkinscenters.org/exhibitmu/i-thou-it

Me  Myself   I, You  You guys  ThouThe Syllabus  The Material  It

I wonder if Hawkins did some preliminary brainstorming to figure out just the right combination of words for his I-Thou-It concept. Did he think about the connotations of each word before putting them together? I would be very surprised if he didn’t.

One reason that I like “I, Thou, It” is because Hawkins chose to use the word “Thou.” Unless we’re singing hymns in church or watching a Shakespeare play, we don’t really come across “Thou” very often these days. For me it is a word that has some important connotations for teachers.

Thou = respect

“Thou” is a word that implies that you view the other person with dignity and respect. The teacher does not look down on any student, but respects each student for who he or she is. Every student is a human being with a unique combination of skills, abilities, and the potential to learn.

Thou = unconditional positive regard

“Thou” implies an attitude of accepting the students where they are on their language learning journeys and supporting them as they work to reach their goals. They are doing the best they can and if they need second or third or fourth chances, then that’s all right.

Thou = love

Is it too risky to use this word? Love in this sense is a verb. It’s when the teacher is always working for the good of the students in his class. It’s when he meets the students where they are at and helps them make connections between what they already know and what they need to learn. It’s when he works to create a secure environment where mistakes are not failures, but “portals of discovery”.*

Thou is a wonderful word that represents a much healthier way to think of the teacher – student relationship than one that seems all too common – Us vs. Them.


* “portals of discovery” is a cool way to think of mistakes. I discovered it in Peter Buffett’s book Life is What You Make It.

I, Thou, It — IT

This is the second in a series on frameworks. The introduction to I-Thou-It is here.

I, Thou, and It – a three-way relationship in which “I and Thou” are the people (often a teacher and child, though not always) and “It” is the content that compels both.     http://hawkinscenters.org/exhibitmu/i-thou-it

A lot of what I’m doing in this blog is thinking through beliefs that I’ve held for a long time and ideas that I may not have challenged for awhile, if ever. This process of clarification means that I might write something this week that contradicts what I posted last week (or will post some time in the future). I don’t have all the answers but I will be honest about what I believe and think.

A couple of things struck me as I read about David Hawkins’ philosophy on the Hawkins Centers of Learning website linked above. I used to think of the “It” as simply the subject matter that the teacher and students come together to focus on. In that case the subject in the model could easily be switched with any other subject. But I-Thou-It isn’t a model for the efficient delivery of content. Instead it is a framework that sees education as exploring a common interest or passion. The last part of the quote above says, “…”It” is the content that compels them both.”

So the content is something that is compelling to both students and the teacher. In such wonderful classes the teachers have a keen interest in their subject and the students are intrinsically motivated to learn that subject.

At this point some teachers might be thinking that this framework has nothing to offer them because their students are unmotivated or their curriculum is prescribed and not compelling to either them or their students.

It seems that most models for teaching describe the ideal situation – in this case teachers and students who come together to study something that’s compelling and that they love. Not all of us teach in those ideal circumstances. No matter the circumstances, I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to help students make connections between their own lives and interests and the content of the course. It is the teacher’s responsibility to help their students overcome less than ideal situations. But that doesn’t have to mean that the teacher doesn’t have the opportunity to be a reflective teacher.

Carol Rodgers offers an expanded way to think of the “It” from the teacher’s point of view.

Whatever the circumstances, with motivated or unmotivated students, with prescribed curriculum or lessons based on dogme principles, there is always something for the teacher to do. We need to thoroughly know the content we are teaching, understand how the learners are learning that content, and observe how our teaching is affecting their learning.

It seems that I-Thou-It provides a framework for the reflective work necessary to deeply understand all that is going on between the these elements in the classroom.


Rodgers, C. (2002) Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking, Teachers College Record. Vol. 4, Number 4, pp. 842-866.



Framework, noun; the basic structure of something : a set of ideas or facts that provide support for something (From: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/framework)

Frameworks are useful tools for organizing our ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning. Without a framework for reference, we can find ourselves with a random collection of beliefs that don’t seem all that connected with each other. A framework provides a system for organizing and testing our beliefs. It can also serve as a way to share with others what you’re thinking and doing.

One of the basic frameworks that I’ve used since being introduced to it in my master’s program is David Hawkins’ “I-Thou-It.” This framework focuses on the three main elements in the classroom: “I” is the teacher, “Thou” are the students, and the subject matter is “It.”

“I, Thou, and It – a three-way relationship in which “I and Thou” are the people (often a teacher and child, though not always) and “It” is the content that compels both.” 

“Without a Thou, there is no I evolving. Without an It there is no context, no figure and no heat, but only an affair of mirrors confronting each other.”

Both quotes by David Hawkins and found at: http://hawkinscenters.org/exhibitmu/i-thou-it

One of the reasons why this simple framework is so important for me is that Hawkins envisioned it as a way to show that each element needs the other in order for learning to occur. The teacher needs her students to evolve and grow as a teacher. The students need the teacher to help them learn and both sides need an It, the subject matter, to provide the context for the learning. It is simple, but not simplistic.

One way this framework has been helpful for me has been as a graphic representation of different methods or styles of teaching. For example, the following could represent a teacher-centered class where all access to the subject matter is controlled by the teacher.

Thou ————– I ————– It

Maybe this could represent a student-centered classroom?

I ————– Thou ————– It

For me these models (and the teaching theories they represent) are limited because they cannot contain all of the learning that is happening in the classroom.

The following illustration reflects my belief that all of the learning that occurs in the classroom, in the interactions between the teacher, students, and material, is of primary importance.


Graphic organizer

When I wrote out my teaching philosophy recently, I used a mind map based on the “I-Thou-It” frame to brainstorm my ideas about teaching and learning.

The first section is “I”, or the teacher, not because it’s the most important, but because the teacher must know and understand herself before she can truly deal with the other two.

When brainstorming I focused on questions like these. Who is the “I” that teaches? Who are my students (my “Thou”) that I’m working with? What is the “It” that we’ve gathered to focus on?

phil mindmap pic

 After my brainstorming I didn’t edit the mind map but simply used it to explore the ideas and topics that had been generated. Even now, two months later, there are things that I’d probably add or change if I was to do this again. But it’s useful to have this mind map as a refection of my thinking when I was working on my assignment.

This is the first in a series of posts on frameworks. In future posts I will examine each aspect of the I-Thou-It framework more closely.


What does your model of I-Thou-It look like?

What would you include in a graphic organizer about your teaching philosophy based on this framework?