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  • Nathan McLean

3 Before Me

If you're familiar with Tick, Boom! you'll know that the basic premise is I help students with the math problems they are struggling with. My presumption has always been that if a student sends me a question it is because they have already tried (unsuccessfully) to work it out themselves. It is coming close to a year since I answered my first question, and my impression is that for most students they are indeed genuinely struggling with whatever they send me. But the blunt truth is I don't really know for sure. It is entirely possible that students are simply outsourcing their homework to some dude willing to work it out for free, which obviously is not conducive to good learning.


Recently I was listening to a podcast called Rethinking Education which was recommended by one of my university lecturers. The particular episode was an interview with Guy Claxton titled Learning to Learn, and amongst the many interesting things he had to say about teaching and learning, one in particular jumped out at me. It was a simple strategy called 3 Before Me, where the idea is that before a student can ask the teacher for help they are expected to try 3 different approaches first. For some teachers, this manifests as the student asking three peers before going to the teacher. Other teachers encourage using what is called the three Bs: your brain, your books (or browser for more modern times) and your buddy. Whatever way it is adopted, the underlying aim is to encourage students to become more independent learners. In some ways it's an extension of Mary Budd Rowe's concept of "wait time" (the idea being when teachers wait longer for students to answer a question, learning and inference can dramatically improve).


To adopt the 3 Before Me strategy implies a belief that learning shouldn't be easy, and when a student is caught in the midst of an intellectual struggle, it is ok to let them dwell in the discomfort for a little while (or as John Dewey would say: "sit with the suspense"). Allowing students to take shortcuts and effectively outsource their thinking to someone who can spoon feed them the answers (whether it is the teacher, a tutor, or anyone else) is arguably doing them an injustice. This really struck a chord with me and I thought it would make perfect sense to incorporate it into the Tick, Boom! process.


Naturally, I felt I should do a bit of research first to make sure I wasn't jumping on some bandwagon, so I hopped onto Google Scholar and went down the rabbit hole. Most of the articles I found consider this technique in the context of primary school, which isn't particularly pertinent since most of the students who send me questions are in their later years of high school. Other articles focus on classroom management, which is certainly not what's motivating me here. There were a few articles advocating for the technique when teaching online, which is not far off what I do with Tick, Boom! But most importantly, I didn't find anything that trashed the idea, providing me with enough comfort to give it a go. So henceforth whenever a student sends through a question on my website, my first response will be: what 3 things have you tried so far?

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