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.



5 Responses

  1. Thank you for your continued clarification on the use of language for design planning. As a teacher in a jurisdiction that has utilized UbD for years, the teaching of reading is one of the last areas of the curriculum to be “re-designed”. Unfortunately so, however curriculum documents have only led to further confusion for teachers wanting to backwards design such a complex learning process. Learning to read and reading well to learn have numerous interrelated skills, strategies, tactics and processes. Articulating what really matters is essential, with focus on the ultimate transfer goal(s) at all times. The random use of unrelated tactics is indeed a false, yet far too often familiar approach. Developing readers who can read well (identify words easily and comprehend deeply), and want to read (engagement) are straight forward goals. You have emphasized the need to include the ability to self-determine and reflect independently what works for individual readers, which will now be added purposefully to my own design planning.

    • Thanks for your kind words. I do not consider myself an expert on reading, but I know enough and have observed enough to see that there is typically an unsystematic approach to reading instruction in classrooms. The most telling sign of the problem is that reading scores remain relatively untouched at any but the lowest levels of performance on most tests, including NAEP which I trust. And you can see why from the terrible scores on questions that relate to Main Idea or Author Purpose (where fewer than half of US students get such questions right): students do not know how to strategically use tactics to get at deeper meanings. The so-called strategy work is too scaffolded and superficial to translate into cold readings of new challenging texts.

  2. Your description of professional development seems so far removed from actual teaching that I can see why teachers would zone out on such vagueness.
    The teachers whose blogs I read (mainly math and physics teachers) seem much more excited about new tactics, skills, and tools. They’re all pretty clear on the their mission and most are pretty clear on their strategy—it is the details of executing that strategy that they are looking for new ideas on. And they are generally looking for and sharing very specific tactics and tools for particularly difficult parts of the content or for combating particular student misconceptions, not generic stuff like designing backwards from the goals.
    Professional development that lumps together all the teachers in a school probably has so little useful content for any specific teacher that it is a waste of their time.

  3. Grant,
    I fully grasp and appreciate your argument regarding the strategic deployment of tactics being an overarching purpose of a program, be it in soccer or reading. Once students have a heuristic, it is up to them to use it thoughtfully (with our support and guidance, initially, then less so over time). Breaking down what is essentially a Stage 1 into even more detail undoubtedly strengthens practice around planning.
    QUESTION: Would you apply your heuristic to unit planning? Is unit planning too small in scale? I’m attempting to distinguish between skills and tactics since they are both necessary to enacting an overall strategy.
    For example, instead of applying to reading, let’s apply to narrative writing:
    Goal: produce detailed, engaging, clear, and conventionally sound narratives.
    **Note: I have internalized the concept of “strategy” as the key strategic questions, understandings, and contexts in which this goal is pursued; the conceptual (not thematic) frame through which narrative writing is explored; if authorial readers ask “What does this text mean to the audience for whom it was written and what evidence/warrants support/explain my interpretation?” then writers ask:
    How do authors shape characters? Which details will bring my characters to life?
    – Show, don’t tell (detailed).
    How can I hook my reader psychologically and emotionally?
    – Hook the reader early and often (engaging)
    How can I ensure that my reader follows my character’s journey?
    – Begin with the end in mind. (clarity)
    Tactics/”crux moves”: (these have to be taught and used strategically):
    – using a balance of description, action, dialogue, state of mind, and exposition to shape characters
    – using a variety of devices (I.e. in media res, backstory, narration) to engage the reader
    – resolve scenes ambiguously to create suspense and tension
    Skills (these should be practiced to automaticity):
    – punctuating dialogue
    – paragraphing
    – offering peer feedback aligned to criteria of quality
    – revising to incorporate feedback from teachers and peers
    Are skills just the tactics broken down discretely? Is this the distinction? Are tactics more heuristic in nature (I.e. deciding when to use dialogue and when to use exposition to reveal a character) whereas skills are just enabling, the specific sub-tactics that one needs in order to execute the tactics (I.e. you can’t use dialogue if you can’t punctuate it).
    Do you see them working that hierarchically? I’m operating under the assumption that there should be perfect alignment throughout all four levels.
    Furthermore, does not the scope of the goal factor in greatly? If we look at the organization level, “designing assessments and monitoring student performance” is a skill. But if we looks at the classroom level, might these actions be considered tactics (that need to be used thoughtfully) to support an overall strategy of teaching for understanding/transfer in the classroom? I’m having trouble understanding how something decidedly less heuristic (i.e. punctuating dialogue) could be the “skill” in one deconstruction (my narrative example) whereas it is something as complex as “designing assessments” in your PD example.
    Thank you in advance for the clarification. I find the delineation a powerful addition to my planning work.

    • This is very thought-provoking – and timely. I have in the past 8 months begun to think through the whole challenge of unit design as a design process (with help from my work with IDEO people at Riverdale School), based on the nagging feeling that people were simply approaching the task as a fill in the boxes issue or doing it somewhat randomly.
      I am not yet ready to comment on all your particulars – let me ponder further – but I think I can say with confidence that an overall strategy in writing means that you are thinking backward from the goal, the purpose/audience/situation, to derive the most productive and efficient strategic approach to the writing task. In my case, my general strategy as a writer of educational books and articles, writing for a 4th grade teacher in Iowa or a US history teacher at a prep school in NH, is to focus on a blend of a big idea with practical take-aways that each can use – while keeping the big ideas open and trying to make practice reflective. My writing skills play almost no role in the early stages. I only worry about what’s on your skill list once I have a clear direction and a rough draft because I don’t want to fixate on clarity until I know what I’m saying.
      Show don’t tell is indeed a key strategy in narrative writing; so is “Leave them wanting more”; so is “Raise questions and delay the answers” (David Hodges famous line in his columns on how to write for the WaPost).
      That reminds me of a basic strategy difference between Jay and me. I tend to write to find out what I really think. Jay tends to write to share effectively what he already knows. That’s part of why we are a good team.
      I’ll make my next blog an extended reply, if it’s ok with you to begin with your reply. (If you’d like to amplify some of this in the next few days, do so!)
      Thanks for this! Great provocation!!

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