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Information about Strategic Teaching, Strategic Learning and Thinking Skills

Dr. Bob Kizlik

Updated March 17, 2014

Teachers, whether brand new to the classroom, or veterans of many years of service, are always looking for ways to make what they do more effective and more efficient. That even goes for students in teacher preparation programs, as well it should. Efficiency is a measure of what is obtained (results) in relation to what was expended (resources). Effectiveness is a bit more elusive. To be sure, effectiveness in anything, including teaching, can be difficult to describe and to measure. The following is a discussion about some fundamental principles that may lead to actual improvement of instruction. Please read on.

In order to use any instructional technique effectively, anyone who teaches must, of necessity, understand the fundamental principles and assumptions upon which the specific technique is based. There is certainly no shortage of descriptions or labels for activities that may be classified as pertaining to instruction. From the ever-popular lecture method to complex student-teacher, student-student interactions, instruction encompasses a broad range of teacher behaviors. At one end (the lecture method) the teacher is an imparter of information, and the students are the intended recipients of the information the teacher imparts. At the other end of the range of teacher behaviors are methods in which teachers interact with students in vastly more complex ways. Most researchers and experts in the field are in agreement that the most permanent and meaningful learning takes place at this end of the range. Strategic teaching, and, concomitantly, strategic learning are techniques in which significant student-teacher interaction and resultant learning and thinking are at the high end of the scale.

To learn strategic teaching techniques, and to foster the ability of students to engage in strategic learning, it is important to define some terms. In fact, one of the principles of strategic teaching is to define terms. Below are terms that are relevant to this process.

Strategic teaching describes instructional processes that focus directly on fostering student thinking, but goes well beyond that. Strategic teaching and strategic learning are inexorably linked. A strategic teacher has an understanding of the variables of instruction and is aware of the cognitive requirements of learning. In such an awareness, comes a sense of timing and a style of management. The strategic teacher is one who:

1. is a thinker and decision maker;
2. possesses a rich knowledge base;
3. is a modeler and a mediator of instruction.

Variables of instruction refer to those factors that strategic teachers consider in order to develop instruction. These variables, as the name implies, change, and therefore the teacher must be aware of the nature of change as well as the actual variables themselves. These variables are:

1. characteristics of the learner;
2. material to be learned (curriculum content);
3. the criterial task (the goals and outcomes the teacher and learner designate);
4. learning strategies (goal directed activities in which learners engage).

In teaching content at the elementary, middle, or secondary level, the strategic teacher helps guide instruction by focusing on learning strategies that foster thinking skills in relation to the content. In connecting new information to what a student already knows, learning becomes more meaningful, and not simply retained for test-taking purposes. There are numerous strategies that teachers can develop that accomplish this purpose. To give one information is not difficult, but to help one be able to develop the tools to both know what information is relevant and the means to acquire it, is perhaps the most important function of any social studies teacher. There are numerous techniques for engaging students in thinking about content.

Besides thinking skills, there are such practical matters as how best to present a lesson on weather, teaching map and globe skills, helping students work together in groups, how to question effectively, and how to answer student questions. The first and foremost criterion is that the teacher thoroughly know the content, the second criterion is that the teacher have a set of rules for classroom management that are understood and implemented, and the third criterion is that the teacher have the resourcefulness and knowledge to rehearse unfamiliar techniques, and more importantly, have the capacity to adjust any lesson plan to maintain academic focus. Many of these tasks are learned on-the-job. Nothing you can learn in any course is more valuable than learning what to do when you don't know what to do. When you can do that, you are well on your way to becoming a great teacher.

Strategic Learning

Strategic learning is, in effect, a highly probable outcome of effective strategic teaching. Reduced to its essentials, strategic learning is learning in which students construct their own meanings, and in the process, become aware of their own thinking. The link between teaching, thinking, and learning is critical. As a teacher, if you are not causing your students to think about what you are presenting, discussing, demonstrating, mediating, guiding, or directing, then you are not doing an effective job. You must be more than a dispenser of information. You must create conditions and an environment that encourages thinking, deepens and broadens it, and which causes students to become aware of how they think. The process of thinking about how we think is referred to as metacognition. In helping students create knowledge, it is useful to think of knowledge as occupying space that can be thought of as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid is declarative knowledge, or knowledge of "what is." Declarative knowledge is akin to awareness. One step up on the pyramid is procedural knowledge, or knowledge of "how something works, or functions." At the top of the pyramid is conditional knowledge, or knowledge of "when or why" a particular procedure will work. Conditional knowledge is closely related to the predictive function of knowledge. When students develop a broad and deep system of conditional knowledge, they are able to predict more accurately, solve problems more efficiently, and in a sense, are more free because they can identify and articulate more options from which to choose. Strategic learning is a valuable system to help your students develop conditional knowledge.

Content Connections

The creation of knowledge is, in the most practical and profound sense, a primary and direct result of learning. As teachers, we must strive to assist our students to develop intellectual tools by which they can create knowledge. Any knowledge, once created, becomes a part of a larger system that enhances learning and is capable of integrating and accommodating new information with greater efficiency and reliability. Each person creates knowledge in similar, yet uniquely distinct ways. Connecting information provided or described by others in novel and personal ways is a key to learning and developing knowledge. The more one "knows," the more one can know. The idea of content links or connections is not exactly new, but offers some unique opportunities to chart your own course, learn, and add to your knowledge system. Enter the idea of Constructivism. Constructivism is a philosophy as well as a psychology of education. Constructivism is about how knowledge is created.

Here are some links to sound information on Constructivism in education:

University of Denver:
Drexel University:
Mathematical Association of America:

Thematic curriculum is about relating content for specific intended learning purposes. Relevant instructional variations and different concepts of thematic curriculum abound in education literature. A classroom that incorporates thematic principles in engaged in content links. Thematic units provide an organizing structure. Caine and Caine provide an excellent description of the power of a thematic unit:

Teachers can begin by designing a thematic unit. Thematic units engage emotions, social relationships, and complex cognitive processing through intellectual challenge. [Italics mine]. Look at the curriculum guide and organize what is to be taught by finding an object, picture, or work of art that represents the subject matter on a broad level. If the subject is history and you are studying the Industrial Revolution, for example, begin by finding a provocative painting about this time in history. Imagine what it was like to live then and intrigue students with the reality of these times. Perhaps you begin by reading a brief story, or telling one. How would their (the students') lives be different if they were living at that time? How did democracy help people in the Industrial Revolution? Find a story about a union boss, and have students rewrite it as a brief play. Find a poignant part of a poem or story and read it to music. Engage students' imaginations and understanding and allow them to reconstruct this time period through group and individual projects., demonstrations, drama, and collections of art and music, which say more than a textbook can ever say. What you will find is that students will be thinking and talking about the Industrial Revolution not only in class but at lunch and at home. You will also find that your students will be teaching you (Cain & Cain, 1994, p. 192).

The saying "Give a man a fish, and he is fed for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and he is fed for a lifetime," is at the heart of the thinking about strategic teaching and learning. As a teacher, you must first learn  "how to fish," and only then will you be able to teach your students to do the same.

The following references are excellent resources to help you do this.

Baron, J.B. and Sternberg, R.J. 1987. Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Caine. R.N. and Caine, G. 1994. Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain. Menlo Park, California: Addison Wesley/Innovative Learning Publications.

Jones, B.F., et. al., Eds. 1987. Strategic Teaching and Learning: Cognitive Instruction in the Content Areas. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Laughlin, M.A., and Hartoonian, H.M. 1995. Challenges of Social Studies Instruction in Middle and High Schools. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace & Company. (Chapter 11).

If you have the capability, there are many excellent resources available on the Internet. Keywords to search include thinking skills, cognition, curriculum, teaching, and lesson plans. Search for information, think about what you find, learn, and create something new for yourself -- KNOWLEDGE! is a writing company specializing in providing sample essays, research papers, lesson plans and other written tasks.  

ADPRIMA is a privately owned and operated website and is not affiliated with any educational institution or organization. The information and opinions contained in the site are, except where noted, those of the sole site developer and operator, Dr. R. J. Kizlik

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