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Tectonic Shifts

There is absolutely no denying that the ground upon which educational researchers and practitioners stand has shifted significantly since the 1970s. The picture of this shift I have tried to paint in words cannot do justice to those tectonic movements nor to the seismic effects on learning and development they engendered (Alexander, 2018a). Students populating todays classrooms have never known a world without readily transportable technology, social media, and smartphones that have more computing capacity than the full size computers of past generations. Also, the population of post-industrial countries are truly awash in all manner of information 24/7—a good portion of which can be flawed or intentionally misleading.

Of course, one could argue that inaccurate or misleading information has always been part of human existence and has inevitably contributed to misunderstandings or misconceptions. While that may be true, the situation today is significantly different for various reasons. The first is an exponential increase in the amount of information individuals encounter, and thus a concomitant increase in the amount of erroneous information being communicated. Second, because there is far greater ease and speed of access to information for those living in post-industrial societies, and far fewer filters in place to monitor the quality of that information flow, even young children can be exposed to false, biased, or malicious content. Third, with the enhanced technological savvy that exists and the “innovations” that savvy has produced, such as bots, there are even more opportunities for individuals or groups to intentionally fabricate or distort information for the purpose of misleading or misdirecting others. For these reasons, the need for effective strategic processing seems even greater for those who want to become more knowledgeable and more competent and who, therefore, want to be able to cull the distorted, malicious, and clearly incorrect information from that which is less biased, more factual, and better substantiated (Alexander, & the Disciplined Reading and Learning Research Laboratory, 2012).

Within the pages of this Handbook, there is evidence that many contributors are attuned to these topographical shifts, which is encouraging for the future of strategy theory, research, and interventions. I saw traces of it when Braten et al. (this volume) were describing the intelligent systems that can be applied to analyze verbal protocols. But, there were several chapters in particular that gave the contemporary nature of strategic processing notable attention. For one, List (this volume) specifically addresses the strategic processing of multiple texts rather than a single text, which is an increasingly common occurrence in students’ lives. The very description that she puts to multiple text use (MSU)—a complex, challenging, effortful, goal-directed, and contextualized process—parallels the conception of strategies framing this Handbook. The six core questions that List poses are revealing in terms of what strategies seem especially relevant to MSU and about the nature of strategic engagement when more than one document must be accessed and processed. While the empirical literature and theoretical models of MSU have abounded of late, there is still much to be learned about students’ strategic processing of multiple texts that are most often multimedia (text plus pictures or video) in nature.

One reason I feel that the field has only begun to scratch the surface of strategic processing in MSU studies is because current findings have come almost entirely from highly orchestrated studies. In effect, participants are not only presented with specific task parameters and a prescribed topic that researchers deem controversial, but they are typically given a library of more or less credible sources that forward pro and con positions on the topic. Thus it is unclear how students free to select their search topic and to locate relevant sources would be engaged strategically. Even in the study described by Cho et al. (this volume) that the researchers labeled an “authentic” task involving “authentic reading,” students were expected to research the topic of mountaintop mining the researchers viewed as controversial. Students participating in the study were required to verbalize their thinking over the course of one hour. Why this qualifies as an “authentic” task encompassing “authentic” reading was not apparent to me. Consequently, until more naturalistic studies of students’ processing of multiple documents are undertaken, the what, when, how, and why of strategic processing of multiple texts remains an open question.

In their contribution to this Handbook, Lawless and Riel (this volume) share research on what they refer to as technology-mediated strategies with a particular eye toward extracting meaningful patterns from “big data” about students’ strategic processing. Such a topic would have been alien to strategy theorists and researchers 40 years ago, but is in keeping with today’s world. As these authors explain it, so much human activity in contemporary society leaves behind digital footprints. When these thousands upon thousands of footprints are amassed for the purpose of examination, they are referred to as big data. While the commercial and sociopolitical power of big data is becoming quite evident in this age of bots, trolling, and phishing, the potential value for investigating strategic processing is still underdeveloped. I was especially taken with the authors’ statement that: “Education has yet to fully leverage the plethora of data available on students’ learning and strategic processes in instructional environments as a means to automate and leverage the adaptable affordances of technology for teaching, learning, and assessment in situ.” The authors then set out to illustrate what that leveraging could encompass. The result was a glimpse into the possible future for strategy theory, research, and intervention.

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