Three Before Me

[by Natalie Brennan]

As a teacher, I love questions. I like to think that the questions my students ask in class are the result of curious, interested minds working over time, digesting information, internalizing learning and forging new synaptic links across the hemispheres of their brain, whilst simultaneously furthering their thinking beyond the scope of the exam specification and producing a corker of a question that I cannot answer on the spot. This does happen. Occasionally.
But there is one question I absolutely loathe.
“Miss, is this the right answer?”
This question, or a similar format, is the most frequently asked question in my lab. Students ask this question for a variety of reasons, but rarely do they believe their answer is incorrect. More often than not, the students are looking for reassurance from the omnipotent teacher, or a quick fix because they do not wish to expend effort constructing a solution. Usually they are seeking empirical answers which simply require recall of knowledge. As we know, some learners are less resilient than others and these students pose this question more habitually.
Often, I answer these questions. This is not particularly good practice. My response to these questions does not always model an effective learner or focus on strategies to promote learning. I answer the questions to save time, to keep the lesson moving or to meet the students need for reassurance. It would be more beneficial for learning to address with students how to answer their own question, sharing effective learning strategies within the classroom.

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After one particular day, when lower school asked a version of this question repeatedly, a sixth former posed the question and instead of answering, I stopped. I wanted to break the demanded student-teacher interaction cycle, freeing my time for more efficient teaching methods and promote independent thought and responsible learning.
So I resolved then and there to stop answering these questions.
However, this is difficult as I do not want to stem valid, creative, genuine curiosity – just to provide a more meaningful way for students to begin to recognise which are questions of understanding or wonder which need to be explored within a framework I could help to provide, and which they already possess the tools to answer.
The aim of this exercise is to encourage students to take ownership of their learning, to critically reflect on their own work, and to progress along the path to autonomous learning. Also, maybe they’ll stop asking me that question!
I have adopted the “Three before me” strategy, which I last used on teacher training nearly 10 years ago. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it is:

If you are unsure:

1.  look in your notes

2. still unsure, look in your text book

3. finally ask your friends.

Only then can the student can ask the teacher.
At first, students were not comfortable with the shift in classroom culture. They need a great deal of encouragement to become independent learners, suggesting they are not exercising the skills they need to do this frequently. This may be a result of the spoon fed school culture/education system as a whole. Students focus on performance goals of high grades, with little intrinsic motivation to learn and a fear of failure and not being “right”. It has also required resilience on my behalf, sometimes it would be much easier just to answer the “Is it right?” questions. However, as students become more familiar with the concept, and realize I am not going to do the work for them, most adhere to the “3 before me” rule. I like to think this approach fosters effective, responsible study habits and it does shift the emphasis of learning back to student centered. And I hear less of that awful question.


2 responses to “Three Before Me

  1. We have used a similar system at school for several years under the guise of using the 4 Bs;
    Brains – Books – Buddy – Boss
    It has helped the students to become more aware of different ways of finding a solution and becoming ‘unstuck’ rather than waiting for the ‘boss’ to come and tell them! It also stops the little trick of a student saying I couldn’t do any work because I had my hand up waiting!


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