While I am out in the sunshine playing hooky after this long winter, Adam Fachler, a fine teacher in New York City, is guest blogging today as part of my ongoing consideration of strategy vs tactics in teaching.
Recently, I have begun to pursue connections between Grant Wiggins’ work and the work of George Hillocks, Jeff Wilhelm, and Michael Smith, who have influenced my understanding of the types of knowledge required to compose disciplinary texts (narratives, arguments, and informational writing) and the processes by which that type of thinking and writing happens. In this case, I want to compare the goal-strategy-tactic-skill hierarchy heuristic you provide with Hillocks’s Inquiry Square heuristic to clarify both.
In Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, George Hillocks argues that authors employ four (later five) kinds of knowledge to every writing task. First, he makes the familiar distinction between procedural and declarative knowledge: knowledge that must be performed versus knowledge that can be named. However, Hillocks then went on to further sub-divide the types by adding the dimensions of substance and form; thereby producing procedural knowledge of substance and form and declarative knowledge of substance and form. (Later, Hillocks appended knowledge about the context and purpose of the writing task.)
To summarize, Hillocks felt it necessary to distinguish between the skills of accessing, generating, and naming “stuff” (what you’re writing about) and the skills of shaping that stuff into a form recognizable to readers as an example of that type of writing. Formal knowledge requires the knowledge of conventions. The Inquiry Square is a four quadrant heuristic that organizes these types of knowledge with outer circles that represent the context and purpose of the writing in the real world.
For example, in writing a New York Times op-ed, the context would be responding to an editorial about a personally relevant issue, and the substantive work of conducting research (accessing) and selecting and warranting compelling evidence (generating) comes way before the formal considerations of limiting your word count to 250 words (or whatever the NYT’s limit is) or making a punchy claim somewhere near the beginning.
Similarly, in writing a narrative, a teen magazine contest might serve as the context, and the substantive concerns of generating empathic characters who face meaningful complications comes before the formal concern of punctuating dialogue or ensuring the clarity of the story. Hillock’s “strategy” towards writing is clear: context/purpose and substance come first; form comes after. After all, it’s silly to teach students to punctuate dialogue if their characters do not have anything worth saying, but once they know what they want their characters to say, it’s distracting if we can’t tell who’s talking because of their shoddy punctuation.
Accessing and generating the “stuff” for writing is what Hillocks called inquiry, the “gateway” into writing. This is where Graff and Birkenstein’s argument primer They Say/I Say falls a touch short; giving students sentence frames (helpful though they may be) can help them shape their higher-order thinking into a form recognizable as an argument, but it will not equip them with the substantive skills necessary to generate the best evidence or warrant evidence. I learned this the hard way a couple of years back by distributing sentence frames [a formal scaffold] without teaching the argumentative thinking necessary to fill them out [a substantive concern]. For my 7th graders who already knew how to marshal and warrant compelling evidence, their arguments were outstanding.)
To come back to the discussion at hand, on the topics of goal and strategy, I believe the two models are in complete alignment. In fact, the notion of “strategic” thinking (the “authorial” enduring understandings we discussed) serve as conceptual frameworks that guide the composition (or for a teacher of reading, the analysis and interpretation) of that text type. Putting this knowledge up front in a unit plan foregrounds its importance.
We might deconstruct a plan for a writing performance thusly:
Goal. What type of thinking should students be able to do independently? How can they demonstrate their thinking in a writing form that meets the “correspondence concept” for that discipline?
Strategy. What conceptual understandings guide practitioners who use this thinking/text form in the real world?
If it’s writing a narrative for a teen magazine, consider guidelines/understandings like:
- “Show, don’t tell.”
- “Leave them wanting more.”
- “Every character must want something, even if it’s a glass of water.” – Vonnegut (alternatively, “To be realistic, all characters need goals.”)
- Make your readers care about your main character (even if they don’t like him/her); they have to be invested.
If you’re an educational author with a diverse audience, consider guidelines like:
- Teachers love models. (a variant of “Show, don’t tell.”)
- Balance abstract theory with concrete practicality.
Some strategies will apply across many composing opportunities (i.e. “Know thy audience”) and some will be specific to the form (i.e. for an argument, “A claim is only as strong as the warranted evidence that grounds it.”). Awareness and experience with these strategic guidelines is why it’s important that teachers of anything (and literacy especially) have at least foundational content knowledge. If teachers do not know the strategies linked to the cornerstone performances of their discipline—if a science teacher does not know how to conduct experimental inquiry and document it, or the ELA teacher does not write, or the art teacher does not create—it is unlikely that they will be able to design or lead students through an instructional sequence that culminates in these types of strategic performances. (Schooling by Design made this abundantly clear.)
Tactics/“Crux Moves”/Skills (here’s where I see the Inquiry Square applying)
Substantive tactics. How do people access and generate the “stuff” of this type of thinking/writing?
- For a extended definition, students must learn how to generate and test criteria and apply them to borderline cases.
- For an interpretive argument, students must generate/select the best evidence from a text and use it to formulate a tentative hypothesis about a character’s behavior or an author’s message.
- For a narrative, students must access a wide variety of narrative texts to develop a sense of them. They must also collect and generate storyworlds, characters, and narrative perspectives (Seymour Chatman’s notion of “slant” and “filter”).
Formal tactics. How do people shape the “stuff” into conventional, recognizable forms? What expectations would an audience expecting this type of text expect?
- In the scientific journal, the editors require authors to include a background section before launching into the hypothesis guiding the experiment.
- Comic book artists use panes of different sizes to shape scenes/moments. Students should have multiple opportunities to experiment and play with the effects of changing them).
- To express a warrant/generalization in an argument, use the material conditional construction (“If…then…”/”When…then…”) to show how a certain behavior materializing results in a contingency kicking in; this is a rule of sorts and can serve as a warrant. See below:
Claim: You should not eat that mushroom.
Reasons with Evidence: It’s of a poisonous variety. This nature book says so.
Warrant: If you eat poisonous mushrooms, then you become ill. When you eat toxic foods, then you get sick.
When drafting, which requires using both substantive and formal tactics in concert, the guiding principles become the ones enumerated in the “Strategy” section above. You ask yourself, “How well am I using these substantive and formal tactics in light of my overarching goal of executing on the strategy or a component of it?”
“Am I really going to capture my audience with this intro?”
“Will teachers be able to take-away significant learning from this chapter?”
“Is this a valid, concise argument? Have I supported my claims? Have I left any holes in my logic?”
Perhaps in the soccer example, the distinction between substance and form is like the distinction between tactical training (form) and physical conditioning (substance). (Isn’t that why athletes begin with training camp? Substance is the foundation.) And just as some players’ tactical decisions make up for their lack of conditioning while others’ conditioning makes up for their tactics, sometimes student work has a great deal of substance but not the formal pieces that make it truly effective while other students are able to produce polished, conventionally sound narratives with less compelling storylines. Obviously, as teachers and coaches, we need to help students develop both types of tactics in a manner that allows them to do it independently by the end of the cycle or unit. To me, “not being faked out by defenders” or “executing a crossover dribble” is a substantive tactic/skill whereas learning the specific offense your team runs strikes me as a formal tactical dimension of soccer.
To me, adding in this distinction to your framework made me more of a “high-level user” of UbD. When I distinguished between all the types of knowledge I had to help my students construct, I began to conceptualize sequences in a more effective way, first allowing them to generate lots of substance before asking them to put that substance into a form. As a result, students are writing more than ever, but most of it is practice and preparation. By the time they get to the culminating task of the unit, they have already had a great deal of practice with the tactics. In my last unit, it was inspiring to see examples of student work that exhibited alignment across its substantive, formal, and strategic dimensions. In other words, students wrote effective narratives because they put thoughtful, substantive characters into properly punctuated scenes featuring dialogue and internal monologue while staying true to tenets of storytelling, i.e. “showing, not telling,” among others. It is equally empowering to see examples of student work that miss the mark and have a precise vocabulary for discussing substantive, formal, and critically, strategic concerns about a piece with my students.
7th Grade ELA Department Chair/Grade Team Leader
Bronx School of Young Leaders