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Set Pathways

In the early 1980s, at a point relatively early in my career, I had a somewhat contentious encounter with a very prominent strategy researcher. This established researcher was sharing results of a strategy intervention study at a national conference, and had presented her findings for participants by grade level. When the chair called for questions, I posed what I regarded as a rather benign question to this researcher. I asked whether she had examined her data to see if any groups of students who received the training demonstrated little or no effects or even some decrement in performance. The researcher responded in a rather terse manner that testing for differential impact of the strategy based on learner characteristics was not of concern to her. Such a statement struck me as illogical given what was known about the power of prior knowledge at that time.

In that researchers defense, however, the prevailing belief at the time was that strategy training should benefit all students, and that the more strategies students reported using during task performance, the better their outcomes would be. Personally, I was not convinced. After years of teaching middle-schoolers from very diverse backgrounds and with wide-ranging abilities and interests, I had witnessed important differences in why, when, and how they operated strategically. As I saw it, the more knowledgeable certain students were about a specific topic or how familiar they were with a given task, the less they need to operate strategically. Also, the more that students’ individualistic approaches to addressing a problem or task were working well, the less likely they would benefit from training in what would be a more rudimentary strategy. For these reasons, I set out to explore the relation between domain-specific knowledge and strategic processing (Alexander & Judy, 1988; Alexander et al., 1989; Pate, Alexander, & Kulikowich, 1989). What I was able to establish was that students’ relevant knowledge impacted their need for certain strategies, the manner in which strategies were implemented, and whether training of specific strategies would prove advantageous or disadvantageous.

A survey of more recent strategy training studies suggests that with relatively few exceptions (e.g., Harris & Graham, 2016; Murphy et al., 2018), researchers still cast strategies in rather algorithmic, non-strategic language. Even when individuation or personalization are mentioned, they are infrequently incorporated into the experimental design. Instead, this facet of strategies is relegated to either the limitations or future directions.

Absence of Navigational Supports

Perhaps you have experienced the phenomenon of trying to find your way in some unfamiliar locale equipped with only a rough map of the area to guide you. Navigating the locale can prove quite challenging for you depending on the quality of the map, the complexity of the surroundings, your orientating skills, and your urgency of getting from point A to point B. Personally, if it were not for my GPS, I would find myself hopelessly lost in many cases. Analogously, such navigational problems have been a reoccurring theme within the realm of strategies and strategic processing, especially for novice researchers and practitioners who must rely on often sketchy and incomplete depictions by which to navigate the domain. This unacceptable situation arises in part because those conducting strategy research and devising interventions do not produce renderings of their work that are sufficiently detailed and precise for replication or implementation. There is only so much detail that can be inserted into a research article, after all. So, inevitably, anyone attempting to retrace the steps of strategy researchers will have some unmarked territory to navigate.

Also, there is a scarcity of individuals who are willing and able to serve as the navigational guides that educators require to put strategy research into practice. This scarcity has long existed because of the unique qualifications required of effective navigational guides between empirical research and educational implementation. Specifically, those who play this invaluable role must be quite knowledgeable about strategies and strategic processing and well versed in the academic domain or tasks involved (e.g., mathematics and working fraction problems). These guides must also be quite familiar with contemporary school cultures and skilled at speaking the language of teachers. If the qualifications required of these guides were not enough of an obstacle, there is often little professional incentive or institutional support for those who might take on this demanding role (Murphy, 2015).

One other reason that this navigational problem persists is because too many researchers are not expressly invested in communicating directly with teachers or school leadership. Their audience tends to be members of the research community, their peers. Even those engaged in intervention studies carried on in classrooms rarely leave behind the cache of materials, comprehensible guides, or continued supports that would allow teachers and school leadership to pursue strategy interventions on their own. This situation represents a true paradox. This is because these educational practitioners who are not the primary audience for strategy researchers will be the very individuals responsible for ensuring the success of the interventions these researchers have devised. Thankfully, there are rare exceptions in the field of strategy research, such as Graham and Harris (2016) dedicated work on Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) or Murphy et al.’s (2018) more recent classroom-based studies of Quality Talk, that serve as models of what can be done to dismantle this imposing barrier. Whether others would be willing and able to assume this mantle of both researcher and navigational guide remains to be seen.

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