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Insufficient time and space

For the sake of argument, let us assume for a moment that the translational and navigational barriers I just described have been addressed and the methods and procedures for facilitating strategic processing are available. There are still formidable obstacles that impede progress for those that this research are intended to help—students and teachers. Those impediments come in the form of adequate allocation of time and space within the learning environment. As with the other obstructions I have noted, the insufficiency of the time and space students and their teachers need to develop and hone strategies or to function strategically within the classroom context is a longstanding problem. In fact, Garner (1990) identified this situation as one of the reasons why children and adults fail to be strategic. As Garner convincingly argued, educational researchers and practitioners cannot expect to witness strategic processing in schools if the learning environment does not demonstrate a valuing of strategies and strategic processing by the time devoted to scaffolding those procedures or by the mental space allocated for thinking and self-monitoring. Instead, when there is too little time and mental space, students will naturally fall back on their habituated routines, rather than invest in planful, effortful strategic processing.

If anything, since Garner published that insightful review, classrooms have become even more focused on performance goals and school curricula have become even more information dense (Alexander, 2018a). Thus, if time and space are markers of the learning environment that value and support strategic processing, then we have made little, if any, progress in dismantling this particular barrier to optimal strategy use.

Inadequate Preparation

What 40+ years of strategy research has demonstrated time and time again is that effective and efficient strategy use does not simply happen by chance. It happens when learners have a rich repertoire of strategies upon which they can draw, an adequate base of domain or topic knowledge regarding the problems and tasks at hand, and intrinsic or extrinsic reasons to invest the requisite time and energy (Alexander, 1997, 2003). It happens when teachers and educational leaders understand the power of strategic processing not just for their students’ learning and development but also for their own pedagogical effectiveness and professional growth. Moreover, it is unlikely to happen spontaneously for either students or teachers, but requires orchestrated experiences, expert models, continuous feedback, and ongoing supports.

So, why is it still the case, after all these decades, that we expect students and teachers to somehow miraculously display efficient and effective strategic behavior when the aforementioned prerequisites have not been assembled? How can we expect students with very little relevant knowledge of the topic or domain, with little explicit instruction in strategies (surface or deep), and with little incentive to abandon their marginally useful approaches to learning or studying, to progress in this realm? How can we look to teachers to be the paragons of strategic behavior or expect them to invest instruction time and valuable curricular space to strategies when they have not been prepared to do so or when the educational climate, professional supports, or incentives do not exist? The simple answer is, we cannot. Further, until these aversive conditions are eliminated or greatly reduced, the landscape for strategies and strategic processing for these key players will remain littered with obstacles to optimal learning and academic development.

Outdated or Poorly Matched Equipment

In a special issue of the British Journal of Educational Psychology devoted to the complicated relations between depth and regulation of strategic processing (Dinsmore & Fryer, 2018), I remarked about the challenges of unearthing data about strategic processing (Alexander, 2018b). Measurement concerns have consistently complicated any journey into the domain of strategy theory and research. It was certainly an obstacle in the 1970s and 1980s, and required the pioneers into this territory to devise creative tasks that would afford basic insights into when students and teachers were being strategic and what they were actually doing when they were being strategic. Error detection tasks, ambiguous passages, embedded prompts, and other sundry tools were part of the strategy researchers’ equipment, along with think-aloud protocols and retrospective interviews (Flavell, 1979; Greene, Robertson, & Costa, 2011; Markman, 1977).

Over the past decades, it is important to appreciate that even as new data-gathering techniques and measures have become available, such as logfiles, eye-tracking, or fMRIs, the domain of strategies and strategic processing has itself expanded. Now, as I will discuss in the subsequent section, we must contend with multiple rather than singular texts, materials that are not just one-dimensional but also multimedia (e.g., print versus mixed media), and with an inundation of information to be processed that is both accurate and inaccurate. Consequently, we have progressed beyond simply struggling to disentangle strategies from skills to wrestling with issues of general versus domain-specific strategies, levels of strategic processing, and the conceptual and operational distinctions between cognitive, metacognitive, and self-regulatory strategies. Thus, it is fair to ask whether the methods, measures, or data-analytic tools required to accurately and richly identify, gauge, or track strategic processing will ever get us to where we need to go in this complex domain.

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