Why we keep getting disappointed by student work

I continue to try to make sense of the whole learning strategy piece; what they are exactly, how we help students to develop them, and where they fit in planning and learning cycles. My colleague and I have spent days reading about them, talking about them and, ultimately, developing workshops for teachers so we can explore them as a Division. I feel like they are one of the most important parts of learning over time but they are so enmeshed in all the other pieces of learning (memory, assessment, engagement to name a few) that I am still wrestling with how to look at them under a magnifying glass while gazing at them from a mountaintop. So, once again, blogging is an attempt to articulate swirling thoughts so I can begin to help my teacher colleagues piece this topic together in ways that are meaningful to them in their teaching context.

First of all, the literature is very confusing around this topic. Some sources clearly articulate a difference between learning strategies and instructional strategies and others use the term interchangeably. I sit in the former camp – I think there is a strong difference between the two, although they are very connected in a school setting. I think learning strategies are those strategies that humans apply inside their heads in order to either make sense of their world and all the things they encounter, or create their own responses and express their own ideas. Everyone has strategies that assist them in fully engaging in these activities but how each of us does this is pretty unique. In contrast, instructional strategies are those techniques and tools that teachers (for example) employ to expose students to various ways of learning, so they can better develop and access their learning strategies. For example, the learning strategy of activating prior knowledge can be done using the instructional strategies of Think-Pair-Share, or K-W-L. One helps with the other, but the difference is important when thinking about how best to equip students with ready-to-access learning strategies.

The challenge in schools is that we make a business of creating a steady stream of stimuli and demands for creation and demonstration by students and we don’t always check to make sure that students have all the strategies internalized in order to be successful. We linger in content and ask for opinions and responses from students and are surprised when they do not give us products or ideas that we would deem adequate (and I won’t even get into authentic assessment here).  To get more to the point, students would do better if they knew how. To make matters worse, society has a very all-or-none view of learning in many subject areas. We are good at math or we aren’t; we are artistic or we aren’t; we are athletically gifted or we aren’t.  Sadly, this view impacts engagement and resilience and results in very little strategy use in many situations. This is why I think learning strategies are so important – without them, we cannot learn deeply.

So, what do we do about this? This is where I am situated at the moment. It is clear from my research and experience that explicit instruction of learning strategies is important. The continuum of strategy instruction is also well-documented: I do, you watch; I do, you help; You do, I help; You do, I watch. What isn’t quite so clear is how to balance strategy instruction with content work. I mean, you cannot get to content without applying strategies but I worry that we just motor through content and hope students catch it through reading, discussions and other instructional approaches.

I suspect one of the essential components of enhancing this aspect of learning is to acknowledge that many students do not have the requisite strategies to engage in the content in the ways we are asking them to do so. I also suspect that learning preferences tie into strategy use. I wonder how often we invite students to engage in content, using instructional strategies that do not align with a student’s existing skill set. For example, asking a student to make sense of a video through a written graphic organizer when they have language challenges is not the best way to access learning or meaning-making for that child. When a student is supplied an option that does not invite them to access an established learning strategy, there is immediate challenge. Variety in approaches is essential but even more essential is ensuring the variety we provide is meeting the needs of individual students.

The key in all of this, I suspect, is increasing the amount of metacognitive work we do every day. Asking students what a text says is different than asking a student how they know what a text says. If they dwell on the latter question, teachers can identify strengths and challenges and can supply explicit instruction on strategies that will help students to make sense of the text in question. For example, spending time discussing author’s purpose, looking for clues as to what it might be in a given text and talking about all the ways we can determine author’s purpose is essential. It is important for teachers and students to understand that determining author’s purpose is important to critical engagement in texts. In addition to teaching this learning strategy, we have to explain why this strategy is so important when engaging in texts. Without talking about the reasons for engaging a strategy, we are left hoping students intuitively absorb its importance and apply it in new situations…and we know this does not always happen.

I suspect the reason we do not do more explicit strategy instruction in schools is partly because we feel “crunched for time” and partly because, as adults, we are strong strategy users and are not even aware of how often we apply strategies. Because of our own lack of awareness about how we make sense of our world and our responses to it, we feel challenged to assist students with developing these skills. I also suspect that many teachers feel that strategy instruction rests with ELA teachers (it is in their curricular document after all). However, I am convinced that all teachers must engage in strategy instruction if they want their students to experience success in their classes. It is for all these reasons that I accept the privilege of working with others to make sense of how this will actually be lived out in classroom spaces. I don’t have it all figured out, but I have a start. Now I am ready to invite others into my learning space (besides my fabulous early learning colleague who lives there with me!)

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