I received a big batch of e-mail, blog replies, and face-to-face feedback in response to my recent post on the confusions around so-called reading strategies. The good news: almost everyone thought the discussion of the difference between strategy and tactics was helpful. But most people wanted more specific examples to help them understand what to do and what not to do in terms of the implications of the schema.

Let’s summarize the argument I made. Most so-called strategies are a grab-bag mess of tactics, skills, and tools. A strategy is an overall approach in which many tactics are used to achieve a goal. Strategy, by definition, is an executive-control ability – strategy is the General’s or Coach’s prerogative – to use their wisdom to determine the best plan for achieving a complicated goal and using one’s resources appropriately to achieve it.

Being clear on the taxonomy of goal-strategy-tactic-skill-tool will help develop more effective plans, therefore. I mapped out a logical schema for how the pieces inter-relate, and I used soccer to explain it:

Goal. The Mission of the soccer program: play winning unselfish soccer in a sportsmanlike way (long-term), and achieve victory in this game against this team on this field, under these conditions today (short-term)

Strategy. To achieve the goal, play defensively, as if every game were going to end 1-0. Good defense with no mistakes tends to win most games; and many of the teams we are playing are stronger than we are. So, our strategy in games will be to constantly fall back, limit offense, push all the offensive play by the other team to the outside, and don’t let the other teams create “space” for dangerous offense behind us.

Tactics. Various tactics support the strategy: play a 4-4-2 alignment; double-team every player from the other team who has the ball in our half of the field; minimize fast counter-attacks by forwards not letting the other team set up quickly; use our backs to overlap our midfielders to make sneaky runs to try to generate some offense, play on a diagonal on defense to avoid getting burned in a fast break, etc.

Skills. Develop perception and body control to avoid being faked by opponents on defense, improve the ability to tackle and take the ball away, double-teaming skill, etc.

Tools. Use cones and grids and drills that have defenders a man or two down, to help everyone become more skilled in anticipating trouble and responding to it on defense.

To make the value of this schema clearer, I am going to respond to numerous requests that I link this idea to teacher professional development. (We’ll consider more analysis of reading afterward). Because by using this framework we can quickly see how most P.D. is doomed to be ineffective– no matter how well done any particular training might be.

So, let’s apply the schema to school-level professional development:

Goal. The Mission of the school: develop critical and creative thinkers who can use content to solve problems and make changes for the better. The Mission of P. D.: enable teachers to autonomously achieve School Mission by the most effective strategic thinking and tactics (i.e. strategies and tactics that transfer to teacher practice and become part of their repertoire).

Strategy. To achieve the goal, P. D. must be designed backward from transfer of learning: what autonomous abilities should result in all teachers from professional development related to Mission? So, one possible strategy might be: identify key Mission-related deficits and target them via job-embedded professional development; and design all P. D. related interventions “backward” from autonomous teacher use of a repertoire of tactics related to Mission. Implied but needing to be stated: teachers must learn via all P. D. to think strategically about how to use tactics to achieve Mission.

Tactics. Various tactics support the strategy: ensure that all goal statements for units include attention to critical and creative thinking; learn about essential questions to help you think through understanding-related goals and how they differ from content acquisition goals, use projects as formative and summative assessment in which the project must involve critical and creative thinking, etc.

Skills. Teachers will need to be skilled at designing projects, observing student strengths and weaknesses related to long-term goals, designing valid assessments, connecting “content” goals to “performance” goals, etc.

Tools. Develop templates with Mission-related goals, to be used for planning; develop and use worksheets for identifying critical and creative thinking possibilities in all content, Distribute copies of Understanding by Design, etc.

A number of important implications flow from the schema about what to do and what not to do:

  • P. D. should always target the school Mission (and related program goals) and performance deficits related to it. Anything else is random, this-year’s-new-thing kind of action.
  • P. D. is not about interesting activities on discrete topics. The goal is to improve strategic thinking related to Mission in each teacher, and to improve their independent selection of and effective use of relevant tactics. All training should thus not focus on the tactics. Thus we avoid saying things like:  “You will all learn UbD/differentiation/flipped classroom/etc. and all staff will use this tactic moving forward.” Rather, P. D. is built upon a broader strategy and training in such strategic thinking for teachers: “Our effort this year is on improving student performance by highlighting critical and creative thinking. We’ll help you see the value of thinking about content in this way, provide you with varied tactics in developing critical and creative thinking, and help you better decide which tactics to use when, based on what is working and what isn’t.”
  • The big idea from the previous point: until and unless staff are helped to think strategically about performance improvement related to Mission they will not grasp the need for or the value of the tactics learned in trainings. Thus, as so often happens now, they will either resist or fail to understand why and when such tactics might be useful. (e.g. people post Essential Questions on every wall as demanded or suggested, but never design lessons to have students address and argue them.)
  • P. D. is not about teaching how to use tools separate and apart from strategic thinking.  Far too many schools and districts just mandate a new Template and offer (minimal) “training” in how to use the Template. By unmooring the template from the goal, strategy, and tactics you then ensure literal-mindedness about the tool, a compliance mentality instead of a strategic mentality, and misunderstandings about the point of the tool. Worse, by mandating one tool you prevent other creative teachers from coming up with better tools to achieve the goal via strategic thinking.
  • P. D. is not primarily about trying out new “moves”.  P. D. is about transfer of learning, not the teaching and learning of discrete skills and tactics in workshops. The literature on transfer of learning should be used to determine how to structure P. D. as job-embedded learning that culminates in a better repertoire used independently and flexibly by teachers.  It is a means to Mission-related goal improvement (which must be front and center in all training). A tactical implication: looking at student deficits on assessments of critical and creative thinking should be a key tactic, used early and often. By contrast, if you just train people in “critical thinking” you are unlikely to cause the key transfer and strategic thinking in teachers that underlies success.
  • We should evaluate PD programs and personnel against the goal of improved student performance and teacher transfer of tactics and strategies learned. That will require far more feedback on what is working and what isn’t in terms of Mission-related goals. And it means that P. D. cannot be unilaterally proposed by trainers or staff development people isolated from the academic leadership (as often happens now in large districts).

Now let’s apply the schema to reading instruction:

Goal. A Mission of the literacy program: be able to independently comprehend (and persist in trying to comprehend) author purpose, main ideas, and the value of any text (long-term), and achieve understanding of this text today (short-term).

Strategy. To achieve the goal today, keep constantly focused on author purpose and the question: What’s the author’s message, be it implied or stated? Why do I think that is the message? What text evidence supports the idea of that message? This means that any specific tactics or skills highlighted have to be seen – by the reader, not just the teacher – as many possible approaches for getting at one result: understanding author purpose. This also means that students must be moving toward complete independence in internalizing and thinking through the implications of this strategy for the tactics they choose.

Tactics. Various tactics support the strategy: Ask students to re-read the text once an author message has been identified and state evidence in support of message, Question the Author, Decide What’s Important, QAR, etc.

Skills. Fluency in de-coding, ability to draw inferences about likely meaning of new words and challenging sentences, etc.

Tools. Graphic organizers that help students identify key themes, issues, conflicts; and draw inferences about the message communicated. (Main idea tables, main and subordinate ideas worksheet, etc.)

By making a clear distinction between strategy and tactic we thereby highlight what has to occur in instruction: students have to internalize a strategy we propose as their ‘coach’ (along with other strategies that we and they also propose over the course of years), and use a strategy to make efficient and effective decisions overall about which tactics to use when, and which tactics to use when a tactic doesn’t work.

That means that student readers, like student soccer players, have to have daily practice in independently trying to decide which tactic to use in the service of the goal of overall comprehension, to self-monitor which tactics work and which don’t, and be able to offer such a self-assessment once the work is over. Merely teaching them a new tactic and getting them fluent in that tactic is insufficient to cause transfer based on strategic thinking.

Over the long haul students would be asked to reflect on which overall strategies make sense for different kinds of text and different degrees of difficulty of text. For example, a focus on author purpose makes a great deal of sense when reading fiction in which the author is implying a moral of the story. A focus on main idea with outlining and summarizing tactics will perhaps make more sense in a dense piece of non-fiction in which the purpose is stated (e.g. any lengthy adult essay).

Without such an overall goal and strategy, the reader will have no decision criteria for which tactic to use when – especially in starting to read and even more so if they get stuck. And thus they will have no sound basis for reflecting on what worked, what didn’t and why (since that reflection should be couched in terms of goal and strategy) except at the tactic and bit of text level. Asking students to simply use another tactic when the one they are using is not working is both unhelpful soccer and reading instruction: it’s inefficient and ineffective.

If we are totally focused on helping students understand that most stories have a moral of some kind, then a key tactic would be to ask students to propose a moral of the story about 2/3 of the way through the reading of the story, test their theory at the end of the story (revising as needed), and then re-read the story to see how well their theory not only stands up but is supported by clues the author gave as to that message that we may not have initially seen. This would then replicate at a low level what much older students are doing in terms of developing a thesis and justifying it with evidence from the text and analysis of that evidence.

I was in a 5th grade classroom this past week where the teacher did a great job of this. As she read a below-grade-level picture book (Enemy Pie), she asked students to note on post-its their ideas as to how the lead character was changing his views about enemies and friends and why. She also did a great job of steering kids away from just predicting and re-telling, to stay focused on inference about character change and its relation to the moral of the story. By the time she got to the end, most students were able to write down and share a very astute statement of a moral of the story. Then, it was their turn to do so with another text – either in small groups led by her, pairs, or solo (based on her sense of who needed or didn’t need scaffolding).

Bottom line: without a goal and an overall strategy for reaching a goal, the use of tactics is random, unlikely to lead to successful transfer, and likely to cause fixation on the tactic instead of the goal and strategy.