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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 8|No 4|December|1998

Strategic Teaching

in Concert with New Technologies

Good teaching is more important than good hardware.

by Jamie McKenzie

About the Author


Recent FNO articles have decried the failure of many technology proponents to address the central importance of strategic teaching. The drive to network schools too often focuses narrowly upon cables, hardware and software. Without a stress upon strategic teaching and professional development, districts are unlikely to see a return on their investment. Good teaching is more important than good hardware.

Strategic teaching requires thoughtful choices. An effective teacher employs a toolkit of strategies which can dramatically modify student performance provided the choice of tool fits the situation and the individual student. The best teachers are great at "sizing up" a student's learning and problem-solving patterns in order to figure out how to "jump start" improvement.

Intervention for Growth

Timely intervention is required in order to boost performance. Left undisturbed, most students routinely apply what they already know to tasks. But it is these routines - like flat tires - which often need changing.

The effective teacher steps in at the right time - intervenes - to bring about a burst of newly directed activity.

Wrong routines lead to wrong answers . . .

Answering comprehension questions, the student may apply the following routine to the task:

"The main idea is always found in the first sentence."

The effective teacher steps in at the right time - intervenes - to bring about a burst of newly directed activity. The new direction radically improves performance. The student steps out of the bog, exchanges hip boots for running shoes, sprouts wings, sprints at top speed and finally lifts off the ground. The line graph tilts up and to the right. The score is higher. Life improves.

In a society which opens and closes doors based upon test performance, strategic teaching creates more opportunities and richer choices. It confounds predictions based upon background. It supports upward mobility and provokes the blooming of talent. Strategic teaching frees potential from the grip of tradition, low expectations and apathy.

Four Types of Intervention

Not all teacher interventions are appropriate, helpful or timely. There are four interventions which hold the greatest promise, however, especially when they are applied in a customized fashion as a combination to match a student's profile.

1. Adds to the student toolkit as needed

As students pass through life and school, adults often hand them tools and show them new ways of doing things. Unfortunately, the timing of these adult gifts may not coincide with student need or readiness. Rather than grasping the gift and putting it to good use, the student may drop it on the way out the classroom door or may ignore its presence entirely. Later when the mental saw or drill might be most helpful, the student stands helpless and ill-prepared . . .

"What am I supposed to do with this mess?" they complain.

Just as rain may fall so heavily in a single hour that the ground cannot absorb it fast enough to prevent flooding and run-off, schools may bombard students with skills before they are ready to absorb and apply them.

One antidote to "skill run-off" is the teaching of skills in the context of real problems so that students see their value. But strategic teachers take this responsibility a step further. In addition to ongoing efforts to expand student toolkits in a developmental manner, they frequently monitor the toolkit of each student to see which tools have "slipped through the cracks." They intervene to provide each individual student with enough support to make essential tools a permanent part of the toolkit. They time intervention and support to match the challenges at hand.

2. Untangles wrong thinking

When students fail to perform, select wrong answers and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, their difficulties may often be traced to tangled thinking and wrong rules. They approach the problem or challenge with the wrong operating procedures and the wrong strategies. Given more practice on the same kinds of problems, they are apt to keep right on with the tangled thinking and the wrong rules.

Effective teachers ask students to reveal the patterns of their thinking . . .

"How did you come up with that answer?" they ask.

This diagnostic process is central to the intervention process. If teachers do not take the time to ask, it is unlikely that they will be able to match interventions to individual students. Remedial programs become parking lots instead of repair shops.

Once the teacher knows how the student is approaching the problem, the teacher may help to untangle the thinking and may suggest some better strategies to apply in the future.

Looking over one student's shoulder at a huge list of irrelevant "hits" on a search engine, it becomes apparent that the student is not applying good search strategies.

The teacher asks, "How can you target your search to focus on just the right information?"

The student shrugs, not understanding.

The teacher then launches into a brief mini lesson in "Telling Questions" and Boolean Logic so the student will search more skillfully. Even though she knows this student has been taught these skills previously at the opening of the unit, it is clear that the skills never took root. She hopes that their value will prove more obvious in context.

Even as she leads the student through the mini lesson, the teacher is making a mental note to include the student in some small group tutorials on search strategies with other students who have been showing a need for follow-up sessions.

3. Empowers independent problem-solving

The effective teacher rarely picks up the student's problem and rarely touches the student's mouse or track pad. The emphasis is firmly placed on developing independence and autonomy.

Noting that a pair of students seem stuck on their research path, spinning wheels without going any place, the teacher stands close by, listens in to the conversation and actually abstains from intervention until 15-20 minutes later, knowing that some frustration is basic to the creative process. He knows that he must not jump in too quickly, thereby robbing the student team of authentic learning. He is aware that synthesis often requires some incubation and struggle. Content that the students are wrestling with the challenge in an earnest manner, he moves along to monitor the progress of other groups.

"Mr. Frederico? How can I get some decent information on crime?"

A student is tugging at his elbow, insistently. He could simply tell the student to visit the Bureau of Justice. He could supply the URL. He could share some statistics already downloaded. But he wants this student to gain independence.

"Remember the strategy we discussed, Going to the Source? How do you think that might help here"

The student frowns at first, a bit irritated that the request has been turned back around. "You mean, like, figure out where it might be? Who might have the information?"

Mr. Frederico nods. "Sure. Who do you think has the best information on crime?"

The student's frown deepens. "The cops?"

Mr. Frederico smiles. "Keep going," he says. "In fact, I'd like you to go back to your laptop and make a list of six possible sources and then test them out on the Net. See which one proves most helpful."

The student is not entirely happy with this exchange. Instead of finding a short cut to his information, he has been asked to hone his search skills. If the teacher had handed over the answer instead of returning the responsibility to the student, he would be supporting a dependency relationship which would deprive the student of authentic learning.

4. Encourages invention of new tools & skills

Independent problem-solving often requires the invention of new tools and strategies. Sometimes it simply requires new ways of using old tools. One way or another, students must learn to modify their toolkit, making new tools and bending the old ones to the new tasks at hand.

"This isn't fair! They haven't taught me how to do that."

In times of rapid change, the unexpected is expected, the unthinkable is common, and the anomaly is commonplace. Students will need a "change ethic" in order to manage the inconsistencies and surprises which are so typical of life and learning in the Age of Information. (

A change ethic involves a spirit of welcoming change and surprise along with a toolkit of strategies to manage those surprises. Effective teachers work on developing both the spirit and the toolkit, showing students how inventiveness pays off in the world they are inheriting. ( see Chapter on Inventiveness in Parenting for an Age of Information

Networked schools must place a premium on students inventing new ways of doing things because so many encounters with technology involve learning new rules, new procedures and new operating procedures. Because many sites are "interactive," the visitor actually invents the visit by combining various features and exercising certain options.

Search engine sites are a good example of this phenomenon. They are so chock-full of special features, that each visitor might search in very different ways.

HotBot's Super Search ( is a prime example.

When typing search words into the search box, the student may select from a menu of seven choices directing how HotBot should treat those words . . .

1. all the words
2. any of the words
3. exact phrase
4. the page title
5. the person
6. links to this URL
7. Boolean search

Unfortunately, few users seem to use or understand the power of these choices.

The list of choices goes much further . . .

1. You can limit the choice to a specific language.
2. You can limit the choice to a range of dates.
3. You can limit the choice to a specific location or domain.
4. You can limit the choice to pages containing specific words or not containing certain words and phrases.
5. You can enable "word stemming."
6. You can ask for as many as 100 or as few as 10 "hits."
7. You can specify page depth.
8. You can specify that pages must contain certain media types.

Each time the visitor conducts a search, the page offers a chance to invent a unique combination of words and features to optimize results.

For one search, features 1, 4, 7 and 8 might combine for the best outcomes. For a different search, features 2, 3 and 7 might be best. Using the right syntax, the searcher combines words, logic and features into a rich "search stew."

If the searcher relies upon nothing more than the simple search box, considerable power is lost. The results are more likely to be information swamp than information stew.

The effective teachers shows students these search features and models good searching. But more importantly, the effective teacher makes clear that inventive use of the features is required to match the special characteristics of each search for information. This is not a situation where recipes will suffice. Students must learn that effective searching is something like cooking from scratch without relying upon a cookbook.

A Professional Development Strategy

Teachers can learn to broaden and deepen their repertoire to include more strategic teaching strategies. Bruce Joyce has published extensively on the value of teachers mastering multiple models.

Too little attention has been devoted to the challenge of equipping teachers with such strategies. In the rush to wire schools, the focus has been overwhelmingly upon the hardware and the electronic infrastructure.

Professional development for strategic teaching would combine five elements . . .

1. Reviewing Techniques

Whenever we hope to encourage more mindful teaching with consistent and deliberate practice of challenging and rewarding strategies, we might begin by creating a clear picture in each teacher's mind of the techniques we hope they will employ. We need to offer models of good practice and invite teachers to add these techniques to their own repertoire.

In the case of strategic teaching, many good teachers already employ some of the interventions outlined above, and they will quickly recognize their value. These same teachers are likely to view the other interventions with interest and take a serious look at how they might prove beneficial.

The first stage in this professional development strategy, then, might be called an "awareness" stage which is meant to acquaint teachers with the menu of opportunities. The goal is to spark interest while outlining possibilities.

2. Critiquing Video Models

The next stage "puts flesh on the bones" of the methods introduced in the first stage by engaging teachers in critiquing videotaped classroom sessions. Some of these will be outstanding examples of strategic teaching. Others might be the antithesis (or opposite) of good practice. The goal is to engage teachers while sharpening their appreciation of key elements in successful teaching.

3. Practicing Techniques

We have research evidence which suggests the value of teachers testing difficult strategies with small groups prior to attempting their use in regular classroom settings. Micro-teaching is a method which has been used with success for several decades now as a way to acquire and hone new skills. After each session, the teacher may review a videotape of the lesson to consider what worked, what aspects fell short and what needs to be done to enhance technique.

4. Learning from Feedback

Some teachers welcome feedback from a trusted colleague or suggestions from a skilled expert. Others are quite reluctant to participate in such programs. One way to handle this difference in style is to offer feedback as an option to those who request it. While some teachers can add to their repertoire without any outside feedback, the act of teaching requires such intense focus that it is difficult to notice all that is happening in a classroom and a second pair of eyes can deepen our understanding of our impact.

5. Enjoying Support

The work of Joyce, Showers and others has demonstrated that sustained, lasting change in performance is most likely to occur when teachers participate in a support network with partners. Since it may take more than a year to blend these strategic teaching strategies into daily practice, the participating teachers gather periodically (biweekly or monthly) to swap stories and techniques. In addition, refresher sessions and updates are planned throughout the 18-24 month learning period to augment the introductory sessions. We know enough about pacing new material to steer clear of massive introductory doses. It works better to spread the new material out over time so teachers can adopt and adapt new skills at a comfortable speed.

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