Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory.
Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. (Sun Tzu, The Art of War)

Why “strategy” vs. “tactics” in a blog about planning, assessment, and learning? Well, it has been my experience and observations throughout 25 years of teaching in both traditional and progressive schools that each system is focused on one of these two elements, either strategy or tactics, and that eventually leaves our students less capable than they could be had we combined the two approaches and enrich their learning, skill, and talent. Before you start defending either of these systems (traditional or progressive), keep in mind that I taught hundreds of students over more than two decades to see the problems in each approach; I am also an avid reader of research (see my other blog on education research, evidence, cognitive science and learning theories) and read dozens of books on education, trying to understand deeper why these two systems produce rifts and a synthesis of both is needed.

I made a chart that summarizes the main differences and problems with each, picking up the most dominant features that traditional and progressive education approaches rely on. While they are not reducible to these, nor do they come across this poignantly, there are features that cluster together to form these broader systems.

FOCUS conceptual understanding facts and memorization
  • In the absence of facts, the building blocks of knowledge, concepts are VAGUE and hard to access
  • Conceptual understanding is based upon and interleaved with factual and procedural understanding
  • Learning is an ITERATIVE process (each aspect – factual, procedural, conceptual – work together)
  • In the absence of a consistent effort to bring facts together, it is difficult for Ss to synthesize and eventually make sense of learning 
  • Teachers need to make concepts visible, explicit, and continuously invite Ss to draw connections between them and the factual knowledge
CURRICULUM coherence disciplinarity
  • While trying to see the “big picture”, the rigor of each discipline is left behind; each discipline has its own constraints, independent of the teaching system (see Neil Stephenson, “Intellectual Rigor”; or think of literature vs. physics and how each domain has its own metalanguage, strategies, foci and so on)
  • Ss do not master the tools to interact with specific content (e.g. the fallacy of teaching “reading skills” – see my post here)
LEARNER  seen as “expert” seen as “novice”
  • Ss are NOT experts in the domains they study – they are not historians, writers or scientists – so they are tackling complex subjects lacking the knowledge, tools, and habits of mind that experts have developed over years of study and practice
  • Ss are hardly ever given the chance to try out hypotheses, to wonder, to make deeper connections and experiment with their thinking
  • They mostly “do” given tasks, and move on to the next topic
IMMERSION in complex tasks and projects in sequential tasks, block practice, step-by-step procedures
  • Ss develop surface learning that is quickly fading
  • Learning is a relatively *permanent* change in cognition and behavior – so having Ss scrambling for facts on the internet (“Let’s Google the answer”) to put in a nice project undermines the very act of learning
  •  Many teachers are not aware of the Cognitive Load Theory, of the importance of memory and of systematic practice in developing deep understanding
  • While sequencing is essential to learning (we cannot learn everything at once), the emphasis on linearity prevents Ss from making complex connections between the facts they learn
  • Also, blocked practice hinders long-term understanding (see Bjork, interleaved practice, spaced practice and more)
  • Simple tasks are necessary only at some points in learning, but they are NOT reliable – they cannot be transferred to complex tasks (see Merrienboer and Hirsh) because “they require interactions between different aspects of task performance that are absent in a simple task”
AIM “critical thinking” “knowledge”
  • Critical thinking CANNOT, actually, be developed in the absence of solid knowledge that is practiced and refined over time; (see my post, Critical Thinking or Opening Pandora’s Box)
  • Critical thinking is DOMAIN-DEPENDENT, there is no abstract, fuzzy set of critical thinking skills – the thinking tools a historian employs are *different* from those of a mathematician
  • See my post, Who’s Afraid of Knowledge? for clarification
  • Knowledge, in and by itself, is inert unless it is manipulated in broader and more sophisticated ways (see my 2 posts, Where Direct Instruction Fails)
  • In traditional systems, Ss questions and inquiries are never brought to the front of learning, nor  is their creativity
  • Knowledge is only a “given” to be tested, never a co-construction of meaning
LEARNING excessive focus on collaboration too much focus on individual work
  • This develops group-think which triggers funneling of ideas, self-censorship etc. due o the need for consensus
  • Another negative effect is social loafing (Ss exert LESS effort individually when they work in a group)
  • Both decrease the individual AND group’s performance
  • Learning is partly social
  • Whether we are adults or children, we need to *exchange* ideas and to express our thoughts so we can build, refine and even reconstruct our understanding
  •  Ss in traditional systems are rarely, if ever, allowed to collaboratively work out a math problem, to inquire together into a novel
LEARNERS “active” participants “passive” participants
  • This is one of the fallacies that troubled me most because in the name of being an “active” learner, the focus was shifted towards shallow activities, towards “engagement” at any costs (see my post on that here) 
  • “Engagement” gradually turned into a proxy of learning which is false  and leads to false positives (see my post on the overuse of manipulatives, “authentic” tasks, ”doing” projects etc.)
  • While in reality a learner cannot be “passive” (even as they memorize something Ss *do* engage their cognitive faculties), the focus is on content alone most of the time 
  • Very little attention is paid to the psychology of learning, (see Making Learning Stick) namely:

         – ELABORATION (understanding and mastering material  by connecting it connect it to real-life application, by explaining it to someone else, or by relating it to what you already know)

          – GENERATION (attempting to solve a problem or answer a question *before* being shown the solution strengthens the cognitive process, even if errors are made at first)

TEACHING “student-centered” “teacher-centered”
  • This is a somewhat unfair criticism brought by progressives, but it does hold some truth in the sense that Ss are engaged mostly with the textbook content and rarely are they asked to go beyond that
ORIENTATION process-oriented product-oriented
  • While the process of learning itself is important, in progressive schools what Ss produce (may it be a literary essay or a science report) is given less attention and, directly or indirectly,  the curriculum expectations are lowered 
  • The emphasis on the product alone leaves out the learner who doesn’t receive quality feedback *forward* oriented – with hints or explanations that would actually help the learner improve
TEACHER “guide on the side” “sage on the stage”
  • Ss are partly novices at the beginning of every teaching sequence and need the teacher’s expertise and direct teaching
  • It is NOT a matter of “power” but of expertise 
  • Ss are capable of interacting with knowledge deeper provided that they are given the tools and strategies to do so
  • Limiting Ss opportunities to have a say in their learning affects teaching, too – the teacher’s awareness of student difficulties or high abilities is reduced
EMPHASIS relationships behavior
  • The emphasis on relationships undermines the teaching-learning itself if brought to extremes (“We teach students, not curriculum” fallacy; see failure of “restorative justice” programs)
  • Ss need boundaries to thrive (see my post on Behavior)
  • Excessive focus on codes of behavior and strict teacher-student interactions can also undermine Ss interaction with the content because teaching is not happening in a vacuum: both the teacher and the students are part of a dynamic, organic  process
focus: STRATEGY focus: TACTICS

Now going back to my initial Sun  Tzu’s quote it is easy to see the relevance of strategy vs. tactics analogy. Broadly speaking, each education philosophy tends to focus on either strategy, the big picture (progressivism) or on detail, tactics (traditionalism), both of them affecting student learning. Other analogies (i.e. “forest” vs. “tree”) or even visual metaphors are missing the complex nature of learning, which is why I disagree with all for each has limitations.

The reader might be left with two major questions:

  • What is then the best representation of learning?
  • How does that relate to the practical aspects of planning and assessment?

I will develop the answers to these two questions in my next two blogs and go beyond theory by showing class examples. While they could potentially make longer posts, I am trying to synthesize years of reading, of interactions with other teachers, and of my experience to offer what I think is a better alternative to thinking about the way we view teaching, learning, and education in general.

*Thank you for reading so far (if I haven’t managed to make you yawn and jump off to another, more interesting web link!).