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A developmental perspective on learning

From a developmental perspective, learning is conceptualized as a process wherein change unfolds through different stages. Change is a fundamental characteristic of learning that affects the beginning, middle, and late stages of learning (Alexander, Schallert, & Reynolds, 2009). Accordingly, learning is different at various points in and over time (Alexander et al., 2009).

Change can be understood as arising from the evolved and innate processing capacities of the learner. As Alexander et al. (2009) state: “Being alive means being a learner” (p. 178), thereby referring to learners entering the world in a helpless state but possessing innate capacities or a strategic predisposition enabling them to learn through experience.

Neurological and biological changes enable us to learn differently at different ages, and children generally use increasingly more and effective strategies with age (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2000). Although the course of strategy development corresponds to age and years of schooling, it is not strictly aligned with chronological age (Alexander et al., 1998). The fact that children of the same age do not simultaneously develop and use similar strategies (Pressley, 1979, 1986; Pressley et al., 1992; Pressley & Harris, 2006) implies an explicit need to acknowledge individual differences in learners’ strategic processing. Rather than with age or grade, the course of strategy development is closely related to learners’ experience (Alexander et al., 2009; Chen & Siegler, 2000). As children gain experience and become more competent, their initial signs of strategic behavior are gradually and continuously transformed (Alexander et al., 1998; Siegler, 1996).

In the following sections of this chapter, we elaborate on the developmental stages of strategic processing by presenting a framework that encompasses shifts in learners’ strategy use across the lifespan. To develop this conceptual framework, we build on the developmental stages within the MDL (Alexander, 1998, 2003). The presented developmental framework illuminates essential characteristics throughout the distinct stages of strategic processing for diverse individuals who are learning in markedly different contexts. It should, however, be noted that it is not our intention to capture the full nature of the developmental learning process in detail. Our framework provides a general road map of the course of strategy development and highlights important facets in this respect, but it is by no means all encompassing. Rather, it is a way of aligning aspects of learners’ strategy development within a coherent and comprehensive overview.

Strategic processing in a multi-staged framework

The developmental framework we present is multi-staged in nature and centers on the evolution in learners’ strategy use across time. Over the lifespan, learners’ strategic processing systematically changes (Alexander et al., 2009). In accordance with Alexander (1998, 2003), we perceive strategic development as a lifelong journey or process that unfolds across multiple stages: the beginning, middle, and late stages of learning. This continuing development is depicted in the three fusing stages in Figure 4.1.

The multi-staged framework of the lifespan development of strategic processing, entailing strategies

Figure 4.1 The multi-staged framework of the lifespan development of strategic processing, entailing strategies (cf., different building blocks) within three fusing stages of strategic processing (i.e., acclimation, competence, and proficiency) and four shifts in strategic development (i.e., availability, diversity, efficiency, and adaptivity) clustered in two major dimensions (i.e., quantity and quality)

Further, four main characteristics (i.e., availability, diversity, efficiency, and adaptivity) underlying learners’ global changes in strategic processing are incorporated in the framework (Figure 4.1). As mentioned earlier, these are derived from the main theoretical models on strategic processing (i.e., GSU, MSL, OWM, MDL) and can be respectively clustered into two major dimensions, wherein quantity refers to the availability and diversity of strategies, while quality refers to the efficiency and adaptivity of strategies. Over the typical course of learners’ strategy development, from acclimation to proficiency, learners’ strategic processing undergoes profound changes with respect to each of these four characteristics. More particularly, as learners gain experience and become more competent and proficient in a task or domain, their strategic behavior changes and is characterized by increased availability, diversity, efficiency, and adaptivity (Alexander, 2003; Pressley et al., 1987; Siegler, 1996; Weinstein et al., 2011). In other words, over time, learners’ strategy adoption will be characterized by a quantitative shift, referring to a more extensive and more diversified strategy repertoire (Alexander et al., 1998; Pressley et al., 1987; Siegler, 1996; Weinstein et al., 2011). Accordingly, a qualitative shift in strategic behavior will occur as well, referring to a more efficient, flexible, and apt application of available strategies (Alexander et al., 1998; Pressley et al., 1987; Siegler, 1996; Weinstein et al., 2011). It is important to stress that, although the abovementioned characteristics are considered separately in the theoretical framework, they are interwoven and interactive in reality. Hence, the development of one characteristic might enable the development of another, implying they might evolve symbiotically. We now turn to our framework and elaborate on the influential internal and external factors more in-depth.

As mentioned at the beginning of the chapter, learners can apply various strategies. These strategies are represented as different building blocks in Figure 4.1, which can take different forms or shapes according to how they are conceptualized or categorized (i.e., according to their nature, perceptibility, level of depth, and domain of application). As also can be seen in Figure 4.1, the configuration of these strategies can differ throughout different stages. In this respect, three fusing stages (i.e., acclimation, competence, and proficiency) represent the systematic transformations that unfold in learners’ strategic processing (Alexander, 1998, 2003). These systematic transformations occur both within and across developmental stages.

In the early stage of learning (i.e., acclimation stage), when learners are first introduced to a task or problem, strategies are primarily used as tools for acquiring task-specific knowledge and for solving problems that are perceived by the learner as challenging and unfamiliar. As learners are just beginning to develop their strategies in this initial stage, their strategic processing is often inefficient, inelegant, and ineffective, whereas their strategy repertoire itself is relatively unsophisticated, limited, fragile, and, disorganized (Alexander, 1998, 2003; Berninger, Fuller, & Whitaker, 1996; Chen & Siegler, 2000). In the context of text-learning, for example, studies in both elementary and secondary education show that a fairly large number of learners possess a very limited initial strategy base (Merchie, Van Keer, & Vandevelde, 2014; Rogiers, Merchie, & Van Keer, 2019a). It was found that only 19% of late elementary graders and 33% of secondary school students respectively addressed a rich strategy repertoire wherein they succeed to effectively combine different text-learning strategies. Students at this acclimation stage apply strategies thus rather superficially (i.e., applying a limited number of strategies in a less efficient, flexible, or qualitative way), showing that their strategic processing is still in its infancy. In addition, learners exhibit minimal strategy transfer, which is restricted to new situations that are similar to the contexts in which these strategies were initially applied (Alexander, Jetton, & Kulikowich, 1995; Garner, 1990). In this stage, learners are mainly concerned with getting through the task, instead of developing competency or proficiency in the task. As such, their interest is classified as more situational (Alexander et al., 1995).

With increased exposure to the domain and related tasks and problems, learners will move to a stage of competence. Unlike the acclimated phase, learners in the competence phase have developed a richer and more integrated strategic knowledge base. As this knowledge base grows, their personal investment increases noticeably, and their interest begins to take on a greater role (Alexander, 1997). As learners gain more competence, their strategic repertoire is being expanded steadily and their strategic processing becomes more automatic, sophisticated, effective, and flexible. Existing strategies are modified, upgraded, and fine-tuned to serve new purposes, different strategies are combined in novel ways, and new strategies are learned and acquired (Chen & Siegler, 2000). As illustrated in Figure 4.1, the configuration of strategies becomes more stable and flexible during this stage. When it comes to learning from text, for example, a recent study of Rogiers and colleagues (2019a) shows that a strategy-focused program enabled learners to extend their strategic repertoire considerably. Both learners’ self-reported and observed strategy use pointed toward a more strategic and integrated combination of various text learning strategies. As problems and tasks that acquire a strategic solution become more familiar, competent learners approach these by combining a mix of diverse strategies. Finally, their ability to decide whether and when a strategic solution is needed, and which strategies are needed to accomplish this, is growing (Alexander & Judy, 1988; Siegler, 1996). Learners at this stage are more likely to transfer their learned strategies from one situation to another and become less reliant on strategic solutions for solving common problems (Garner, 1990).

Lastly, another shift in strategic behavior occurs as learners acquire expertise and enter the proficiency stage. This particular stage is considered the most advanced level of learning and only a few learners actually reach this stage (Alexander et al., 1995). To reach this stage, experts possess a solid and extensive repertoire of highly structured and cohesive strategies (Alexander et al., 1995). This is also illustrated in the configuration of the diverse building blocks - representing strategies - in Figure 4.1. Along with the well-organized strategy base, expert learners demonstrate a deep personal interest in the tasks and the broader field, and a high level of persistence. The shift from competence to expertise is associated with a qualitative shift in the types of strategies learners most commonly rely on. Here, deep-processing strategies become paramount in learners’ refined repertoire, while surface-processing strategies become fairly automated (Alexander & Fox, 2004). Even more than in the competence phase, expert learners are able to use the most suitable strategies to tackle problems or tasks as efficiently as possible. In addition, proficient learners exhibit maximal transfer of strategies to novel situations (Garner, 1990; Siegler, 1996).

To conclude, when learners acquire expertise in a task, a shift in their strategic behavior is taking place. This shift can be both quantitative and qualitative by nature, implying changes in the amount and the diversity of strategies becoming available in learners’ repertoire as well as in the way strategies are applied by them (Alexander et al., 1998; Siegler, 1996). As learners move forward in their journey toward competence or perhaps even expertise, their strategy repertoire becomes more extensive and their strategic processing becomes more automatic (Alexander, 1998, 2003; Berninger et al., 1996). Accordingly, learners’ strategies are configured differently and strengthened gradually across developmental stages. This global path in strategic development looks different, however, depending on both individual and contextual factors.

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