Major Teaching Myth: “Always ask before you tell”

Short post: Having seen this going on a lot, I tweeted this yesterday and it seemed to resonate with people:

There are no hard and fast rules in teaching and teachers need to judge when to ask and when to tell.  It can be useful to have a sense of students’ prior knowledge; it’s important to make them think and make connections.   However, the point here is that, very often, it is perfectly sensible to tell students things upfront and yet teachers feel weirdly inhibited from doing so.  I’ve lost count of the number of teachers who have told me they were trained to believe that this was wrong.

Let me just give a couple of examples.

Imagine you want everyone to know the names and capitals of the Baltic States and this is not something you have taught yet.  Typically, the exchange goes something like:

  • Does anyone know the names of the Baltic States?
    • Silence.
  • Anyone?  There are three of them.  Near Russia. One begins with L…?
    • Litchingstine?  
  • You mean Liechtenstein. No, close but that’s not right.  Anyone else? No?.  Ok, let me tell you.

The effect this has is to sow confusion.  It also sets up a culture where children think that bits of knowledge are meant to be just known – magically, as if it is just chance, luck, random.  And it rewards guessing.  Even if someone answers and gives a perfect response, listing all three countries, it sets up a problem in that the teacher might think this knowledge is widely held and then skimps on the detailed explanation.  It could be that other children are left impressed by their classmate but still  shaky in their own knowledge.  What was the third one? 

If a teacher determines that a set of information is likely to be challenging or new knowledge for the majority, then it is absolutely sensible to give the basic knowledge upfront and then invest time in probing it.

Something like this:

  • You’re all going to need to know the names of three countries called The Baltic States. Some of you might have heard of them.  North to South they are Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.  Here’s a map:


This gives everyone security in the knowledge at hand.  It’s not guessing.  The target knowledge is absolutely clear and laid out.  The point is that students now learn it.

  • Let’s say them together:  Estonia.  Latvia.  Lithuania.  Lith – you – ania.
  • Can you see the capital stars?  These are Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius
  • Now, use the map to match them up, then in your pairs test each other.
  • Michael – let’s hear your pairings, all three…..; Lisa – did he get them right?
  • Now, without looking them up, see if you can label this blank map of the region:


You get the point.  Go direct to the base knowledge, tell it, spell it out… and then use it as a platform for questioning around learning it and applying it.  This gets you much deeper, more quickly, with everyone. It also reinforces good learning strategies:  find out what you need to learn and put effort into the mental processes that secure that learning.

Of course, once you’ve taught something, asking recall questions later is absolutely right. And there is the issue of making students think.  It was always one of my teacher mantras with physics and maths:  I’m not asking you to know, I’m asking you to think.  Nobody ‘knows’ 13 x 37, they work it out.  Students need to get a feel for where the boundary lies between things you should be able to recall and thinks you need to work out.  So, let’s not get all black and white here.

See also:

Three powerful steps to deeper understanding and better recall. Specify; check; apply.

How not to misfire.. exploring the learning process with Henry VIII

Lessons that misfire. Good intentions + bad theory = poor results.



  1. There was a time when we had so many approaches to lesson planning one could not see the wood for the trees. We are now in that situation with myths I fear.

    I see repeatedly, people set up straw men as myths followed by a knocking down post or tweet. This for me is an example.

    Adding the word “always” makes the vast majority of teaching advice into a myths. I sincerely believe I see this more from alt trade. Consultants and alt trad consultants. It is generally unwise to add ” always”.

    Sometimes it is a good idea to ask a question rather than simply “telling”, but then the consultant often says “teaching” not telling.for many teachers, asking questions is a very effective teaching strategy. Asking brings many possibilities including including the identification of misconceptions and misunderstandings. Asking can be difficult as teaching groups get larger, but that is what teaching as a skill is all about.

    But having said that the post hasn’t said ‘asking before teaching should never be done’ it asserts it shouldn’t ‘always’ be done.

    I have taught for 25 years in UK system, US system and IB system and in my experience asked questions prior to teaching a concept or knowledge or skills can have tremendous benefits in both effectiveness and efficiency.

    No, the strategy should probably not “always” be used but that is, I believe, the domain of the consultants and the dogmatic teacher with a limited range of teaching skills.

    I would say however that I feel that as a general rule teachers should do what they find to be successful for them . I feel that such an approach would help with teacher retention as would less talk of ‘straw man myths’.

    Just my view.

    Ps.. i am not suggesting that straw man myths are the realm of all consultants but straw man myth is irrelevant for most teachers.


    • Three bad effects of asking for information that wasn’t previously taught were given. I agree and it makes this anything but a “straw man.” You asserted there were “tremendous benefits” to asking questions prior to teaching. You didn’t name one. The author did name one potential benefit, which was to probe the depth of prior knowledge int he classroom, which is negated by the fact that one student answering should not be taken to mean the class is at mastery. Yet classroom teachers believe they should “always” ask *before* teaching, and do so 80 to 90 percent of the time. It would be better to say never ask before teaching. You make the ones who don’t know feel bad, it may lead you to misunderstand what the students know, incorrect answers are likely to sow or reinforce misinformation among your students, and it does teach everyone that the game of school is to magically know things, instead of paying attention to learn things.


      • @Drdoncrawford, I can name one. In Make it Stick the authors draw on research that suggests answering a question incorrectly makes you more likely to retain (later when taught it) the correct answer. Having said that, I’m still in favour of the structure Tom has outlined. An addition might be to introduce a pre-unit test to find out what they already know and capitalise on the testing effect I just mentioned.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s