Jamie Balfour

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Practitioner Enquiry 2022

Practitioner Enquiry 2022

Does enforcing "3 Before Me" encourage inquiry-based learning and improve resilience and initiative in S1 and S2 Computing?

In an ever-changing world where technology is constantly advancing, the importance of computing and IT skills is becoming of paramount importance. Yet many of Scotland's younger population are still lacking simple skills and resilience that were once there. Why is this?

As technology keeps getting more and more advanced so too do the users. Take skeuomorphic designs that were commonplace even as late as the early 2010s - they have since been ditched for flatter, less descriptive interface designs. By moving this way, the software aims to move away from being representative of the real world to be representative of the action that is taken on the computer. The issue with this design shift is that it also brings about about a learning curve, which if the person didn't experience the shift personally, can lead to a lack of understanding.

A typical example of this is the use of the floppy disk icon as representing the save function in many software packages, which is commonplace across most software, but no longer all.

Many children have become accustomed to thinking that using a desktop computer is old-fashioned and see no benefit in using them. This is partly due to advances in smartphone technology but also due to the lack of computing resources at home (many families have tablets and a single laptop computer).

Children are often given instructions on what to do in a step-by-step process to help them learn, but sometimes step-by-step isn't the right way for one child to learn.

Pupils have become more disoriented with using computers running on the Windows operating system due to become familar with operating systems like iOS/iPadOS or ChromeOS, where saving, for example, is automatic. When they come to use computers at school, this becomes a problem, with many kids thinking that everything saves automatically on these computers too.

What change has caused this?

Over the years the population have been getting more and more computer-literate and the need for skeuomorphic designs has slowly diminished. Skeuomorphic designs were one of the "very useful concepts in design" (Interaction Design Foundation, 2020) and it was primarily designed to "help users through learning curves". Since the release of iOS 7.0 in 2012, almost all device interfaces have followed the simpler, albeit more difficult to understand, flat-design.

One of the other notable changes to computer software was the move from cluttered, yet easy to understand, menus to tabbed interfaces such as Microsoft's Ribbon UI. Again, this presents challenges for new users and leads to steeper learning curves (Dostál, 2010).

On top of all of that, we have experienced the COVID pandemic, which has mean a lot of children haven't had the exposure to computing-based learning for years. As a result, a lot of those pupils will have been using tablet computers to access their work, and when it doesn't work, simply give up. Had this been in a classroom environment, this wouldn't have been an option. This has led to a lack of resilience in the individuals that we teach.

What this enquiry is

In this enquiry, I intend to study how well 3 Before Me strategies work when trying to encourage pupils to research for themselves before asking the teacher. In 3 Before Me, pupils are expected to first of all check the instructions they have been given, then ask a friend for help, then check online resources before finally asking the teacher.

This will improve resilience but also the pupil's ability to research an answer for themselves.

The premise for this research came from Gordon and Brayshaw's research into how inquiry and discovery-based learning can be applied within a Higher Education setting. This research lends itself to a science-based subject like computer science well. From a personal point of view, I am a self-taught programmer, and inquiry-based learning was what I did to teach myself. There was no teacher to help me learn C# when what I was learning in school was very different, I learned through exploring and figuring things out for myself. I did this by trial and error and chose not to give up. The skill my teachers had given me was resilience and courage.

What is inquiry-based learning?

Inquiry-based learning focuses more on pupils figuring out things for themselves. In this case, it is all about using the resources available to inform them and help them to gain an understanding of what they wish to achieve. With inquiry-based learning "students are typically presented with a task to do and have to discover for themselves". What we seek to achieve here is encouraging pupils to 'think for themselves' and develop their own inquiry skills as well as resilience.

The result of this form of learning is that pupils will develop their own understanding of what is happening by experimenting with different features and technologies and using each other as resources too. According to Gordon and Brayshaw, "if they discover a concept for themselves they will have a better understanding of the thing being learnt rather than having third party model foisted upon them".

Inquiry-based learning isn't always the perfect model alone, and discussion arises around "how-open ended discovery learning can be and whether it is a good idea simply to abandon users to fate". As a result, a "mixed paradigm" approach with the main emphasis still on self-learning with a teacher continuing to oversee the learning process (Elsom-Cook, 1990).

Inquiry-based learning is particularly suited to "electronic learning environments" (Pedaste et al.) that aren't as structured as a normal lesson would be. The idea is that pupils will lead their own learning rather than depending on a teacher. This can be broken down into several stages that Pedaste et al. describe as:

  • Orientation - the idea of introducing an idea or piece of research/theory.
  • Conceptualisation - the process of generating a rough idea
  • Investigation - the process of researching existing literature and concepts to establish a better understanding before proceeding to build
  • Discussion - the stage of discussing the newly obtained knowledge and seeing what other ideas other people have

Within a computer science context

Computer science lends itself to the concept of inquiry-based learning. For example, a very obvious case with this is when learning to write Python code a pupil may choose to see how to do something by looking at code that performs a similar task. They then try to understand what the code is actually doing before going and attempting to write the code themselves. This is actually commonly been carried out by teachers in Higher Education institutes, so why has it not carried over to secondary-level education?

Within the domain of computer science, the Discussion step discussed by Pedaste et al. could be considered the same as the Development stage, particularly when talking about computer programming.

Three Before Me

Three Before Me allows for inquiry-based learning to take place rather than simply relying on the teacher for help. It encourages the pupils to check the instructions over and over again, ask each other (something I've been trying to encourage more and more in my classes), and to research the Internet. All of this leads to more resilience.

How this enquiry will be carried out

This enquiry will focus on two areas:

  • Learning through doing and discovery (inquiry-based learning)
  • Learning through instruction (teacher-led learning)

The comparison will be based on how many pupils complete the work and how well the work is completed. Further to this, the number of questions or assistance requests will be counted to see whether pupils learning on their own requires less teacher intervention than those who follow instructions.

Four periods will be allocated to this with two classes (both S1 and similar levels). The first two classes will be with the usual support in class and help from the teacher as before, but the other two classes will enforce 3 Before Me rules within the class.

The number of questions will be counted in each class that are directed at the teacher.


For this study to be successful, the pupils involved need to know that this is happening. In order to achieve this, several posters are placed around the classroom.

Three Before Me Poster


Whilst I did encourage pupils to use peers as their first point of contact when they needed help, this very quickly began to disappear as the relationship that I built with my classes improved, which then encouraged them to ask me to provide assistance first. I also believe that since all pupils had taken part in blended learning during the COVID19 pandemic have ultimately had their resilence and questioning skills hindered.

The results were very clean cut. Enforcing the Three Before Me rule really helps the pupils to build up their own confidence. It also helped in classroom management as pupils spent less time waiting (idling) and thus less time where the potential for distraction occurs in the classroom. A further unmeasured effect of this research was that pupils paid more attention when the instructions were being handed out, as they also realised that to get the teacher's attention to ask a question would be far more difficult under the conditions of the Three Before Me rules. A final observation about the enforcement of this rule is that type of questions when the rule was enforced were far more complex than before. As a result they reduced the number of questions where I was asked the same thing over and over again.


The most obvious metric than can be an indicator of this method succeeding is how many questions are asked of me when teaching two classes. The classes were picked because of their high and questioning habits.

The following graph shows the number of questions asked in each of the lessons, comparing both before (grey zone) and after (red zone). The green bar shows the first class (1.4) to try this out and generally are better at helping each other than the second class (1.8). Finally, the thid bar shows the only S2 class who were tested (2.1) who are very good at asking each other, but perhaps not looking back at instructions.

Without rule
With rule
Number of questions asked (fewer is better)

Pupil responses

I also asked pupils in the class if they felt the instructions given were fair, easy to understand and actually helped them understand better. Several pupils responses were picked to show a wide range of different responses that were received. When the classes were asked if they felt the rules would help in the classroom, the responses were generally positive with 75% of all pupils asked responding that they think the rules help. Below are some comments:

It means you can get different perspectives

It means they might learn to research before asking for help, helping them in later life

It helps people to not just go to the teacher

Because there is only one teacher

Over 85% said that the rules were fair and again 75% said they were fully understandable.

One message that stood out was this one:

Asking someone a question always leads to a conversation then we get told to stop talking

Other comments reiterated what was said in each of these comments.