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The Future of Strategy Theory, Research, and Implementation: Roads Less Traveled

Since the 1970s, my academic life has been intricately intertwined with strategies— text-processing, cognitive, metacognitive, problem-solving, learning strategies, and more. I was drawn to strategy research because I saw these intentional, effortful, and planful processes as a part of the answer to the question that brought me to graduate school in the first place: How can I help students who struggle to learn, especially when learning requires them to make sense of written language? By serendipity, I became intrigued by this question at a time when certain forces aligned. The Center for the Study of Reading led by Richard Anderson was in its heyday (Anderson, Reynolds, Schallert, & Goetz, 1977), John Flavell (1979, 1987) and Ellen Markman (1977) were unfolding their theory and empirical work on metacognition, and Ruth Garner (1987), my advisor, was a young, brilliant Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland exploring the boundaries between cognitive and metacognitive strategies. When I completed my PhD and headed to Texas A&M, more elements fell into place. I began to collaborate with Claire Ellen Weinstein (Weinstein, Goetz, & Alexander, 1988), a key player in learning and study strategies, along with colleagues like Diane Schallert and Ernest Goetz (Schallert, Alexander, & Goetz, 1988), who were alumnae of the Center for the Study of Reading. In a matter of a few short years, I was set on a path that I hoped would lead to deeper understanding about the very nature of strategies and the component processes they entailed—a path I continue to follow today.

However, this journey since the 1970s has been proven more challenging than I would have initially assumed. Before long, I came to appreciate that what appeared to be a fairly direct and well-demarcated road to understanding in concept was, in reality, meandering, obstructed, and even perilous at times. Nonetheless, the journey has been enlightening and has allowed me to contribute to a more detailed and, I trust, more accurate mapping of strategies and strategic processing than the one that guided myinitial foray. Along the way, I have attempted to chronicle my journey through the realm of strategy theory, research, and interventions (Alexander, 1997; Alexander & Judy, 1988; Alexander & Kulikowich, 1991; Alexander, Pate, Kulikowich, Farrell, & Wright, 1989). Now I have been given another opportunity to relive that 40-year journey, by reflecting on the diverse and informative collection of chapters populating this Handbook dedicated to strategies and strategic processing.

What I feared the most was that the obstacles to significant progress in strategy theory, research, and intervention that I repeatedly encountered in years past would still be visible, and that the road before me would likely be much the same as the one I had been trekking. Instead, what I discovered in this comprehensive volume was a panoramic and more unimpeded view of strategies and strategic processing. With this clearer vista, I could discern new roads being carved in the landscape of strategy research, and I could envision where these less trodden paths might carry future travelers. Despite these positive developments and the promises they hold, there are still cautionary signs that must be heeded and barriers to progress that have yet to be removed.

My mission in this final chapter is to revisit the impediments to significant progress in the strategy domain that I and others have charted (Dinsmore, 2017; Garner, 1990; Harris, Alexander, & Graham, 2008). Then, I will turn to the contents of this Handbook to illustrate how its contributors have either successfully navigated the barriers that have created problems for others in the past or have actively worked to dismantle them. Finally, with this analysis as the background, I project where those less traveled roads could carry the strategy researchers of today and tomorrow.

Strategy research’s meandering and circuitous course

What are the persistent or re-emerging barriers within strategy’s topography that have hampered progress for theorists, researchers, practitioners, and learners alike. Let me detail six that I have found to be most persistent and problematic.

  • • conceptual haziness;
  • • entrenched pathways;
  • • absence of navigational supports;
  • • insufficient time and space for maneuvering;
  • • inadequate preparations;
  • • outdated or poorly matched equipment.

Conceptual Fogginess

Let us take as a given that individuals’ progress will inevitably be thwarted if they cannot determine where they are or where they are headed. Yet, that is precisely one of the more fundamental problems plaguing the terrain of strategy theory, research, and implementation. The conceptual fog that permeates the domain means that those journeying in this area are often operating with only a vague and sometimes distorted sense of what strategies are and what processes they encompass. Why this situation has persisted for decades is an enigma. Even in the 1970s and early 1980s, leading scholars like Ann Brown (Brown & Smiley, 1978), John Bransford (Bransford & Franks, 1976), and Merle Wittrock (Wittrock, Marks, & Doctorow, 1975) were attempting to clear the air as to the nature of strategies and their importance to learning and academic development. These early trailblazers into memory, information-processing, learning, cognitive, and metacognitive strategies took care to specify that what they regarded as strategies were intentional, planful, and effortful procedures that aided learners’ progress when their default, automatic ways of functioning proved inadequate. In effect, strategies were NOT habituated modes of operation or skills.

Despite these early efforts to map the boundaries between strategies and skills, the conceptual fogginess continued to invade the literature and confound instructional practice. This remained true even with repeated attempts to remind the educational community that strategies and skills were not synonymous terms (Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008; Alexander, Graham, & Harris, 1998; Paris, Lipson, & Wixson, 1983). However, these periodic efforts have seemingly had limited effect. Moreover, this problem of conceptual fogginess is not isolated to the boundaries between strategies and skills. It has occurred, as well, in the demarcations between cognitive and metacognitive strategies (Brown & Campione, 1996; Flavell, 1979, 1987; Garner, 1987, 1990), and between metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies (Brown, 1980; Dinsmore, Alexander, & Loughlin, 2008).

Why has this conceptual fog not lifted after so many years and after such concerted efforts? Clearly, there are multiple reasons why this phenomenon persists. Among those reasons, I have argued, are neglect or disregard (Alexander, 2018b). The neglect comes about, in part, from those who are experienced travelers within this realm who simply fail to chronicle the meaning by key terms, perhaps under the mistaken assumption that those terms represent common knowledge. I have witnessed such neglect far too often in the literature (Alexander & Dochy, 1995; Alexander, Schallert, & Hare, 1991; Dinsmore et al., 2008). The consequence of this neglect is that there is increased opportunity for researchers’ intentions to be misinterpreted and for actions of those who follow to be ill-informed and misdirected. On the other hand, the problems I am describing may also reflect the disregard of the conceptual markers or explicit linguistic signs that have been put into place. I cannot help but wonder, how many of today’s educational researchers and practitioners are aware of the rich history on strategies and strategic processing that exists? Sadly, the lack of such a panoramic view of landscape that encompasses strategy and strategic processing means that obstacles that could have been needlessly avoided continue to impede forward progress.

 
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