How can you help G&T pupils develop strategies for thinking about their work before rushing in? Peter Levin offers some solutions.

Many educationalists turn their noses up at the suggestion that school pupils should engage in thinking ‘strategically’. To them, this means ‘playing the system’, setting out to get the highest possible grades with the least effort – a reprehensible endeavour because it implies that the pupil is not motivated to seek learning for its own sake. Or, to put it another way, because it demonstrates that the pupil is playing his or her own game, not the one the educationalist or teacher wants them to play.

In other contexts, of course, getting most benefit for least effort is regarded as entirely praiseworthy. And if you have the ability to understand a system well enough to play it successfully, arguably you possess one of those valuable skills for life that are much prized nowadays. In my view, it’s time that ‘strategic thinking’ was reclaimed for education. Indeed, we ought to be teaching pupils to think strategically, in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of situations, and congratulating them when they succeed in it. And it’s something that more able pupils are very adept at picking up.

Defining strategic thinking

There is no one ‘right’ definition of ‘strategic thinking’, but its various forms are easy enough to recognise. The strategic thinker takes an overview as well as looking at details, asks how things fit together and looks for patterns and connections, and is proactive rather than reactive. He or she looks before they leap, and plans ahead rather than taking each day as it comes.

Do some of your G&T pupils jump too quickly into tasks, and consequently get them wrong, perhaps because they’re too keen to get on with displaying their knowledge? If that’s what they do, they probably haven’t been taught to think carefully about what they’re being asked to do. Contrast them with pupils who have been taught the strategic approach.
Faced with a new task, they don’t rush in. Instead they ask questions:

  • What am I actually expected to do here?
  • How does this task resemble or differ from others I’ve tackled in the past?
  • What different ways are there of interpreting this question?
  • What is the significance of the particular words used?

Perhaps some of your G&T pupils don’t rush in but display the ‘opposite’ behaviour: they struggle to get started and maybe engage in lots of displacement activities to put off making choices or committing themselves to anything. Again, the likelihood is that they haven’t been taught a strategic approach. No one has offered them a way of identifying a starting point.

The need, instead, to ask useful ‘beginning’ questions:

  • What do I actually know?
  • What are the facts here, as distinct from the opinions?
  • What information would I need to have in order to answer the question?

Then there are the pupils who infuriate their teachers by being casual in the classroom and handing in slapdash coursework, but then doing very well in unseen exams. Often they are bored out of their minds by the nitty-gritty day-to-day stuff but fired up when they can see the big picture and how details and small components fit into the whole.

A related category are those whose minds ‘race’. These often annoy their teachers by their untidy handwriting and poor spelling, but these are caused not by carelessness but by the fact that as a word goes onto the page the writer’s mind is ten or a dozen words ahead. For them, a strategic approach to writing would involve separating ‘writing as thinking’ from ‘writing as presentation’. They could be told: ‘Map your ideas out on a piece of rough paper first, then make a neat draft’.

A strategy for teachers

Most teachers will have a strategy for the courses they are teaching, even if it’s only a curriculum dictated from on high.

But how many, I wonder, start by revealing their strategy to their pupils – for example, by saying:

  • this is the ground we have to cover
  • this I think is the logical order to do it in
  • I think it would be a good idea to have review/ consolidation weeks here, here and here.

How many start by supplying their pupils with past exam papers, which are really helpful ways of providing overviews of courses? The norm is for the teacher to ‘drip-feed’ material lesson by lesson, a technique which keeps power in the hands of the teacher – only he or she knows what’s coming next – but is guaranteed to drive many G&T pupils up the wall. If teachers conceal their strategies, pupils will hardly be helped to pick up the idea that thinking strategically is a good thing – both useful and fun.

There is, of course, one ‘playing the system’ strategy that teachers employ that they are quite happy to tell their pupils about: spotting what questions are likely to come up in this year’s exams. Understandably teachers are very pleased with themselves when they get it right, and their G&T pupils will be quick to ask why, if it’s OK for their teachers to play the system, it isn’t OK for them too.

Giving G&T pupils mixed messages is a sure-fire way of losing their trust and alienating them.

Examples of how to think strategically

Here are some examples of how you can equip students to think strategically. What they have in common is that they all involve demonstrating how to think at a ‘meta-level’ – that is, how to think about thinking.

Ways of looking at the world

Whatever your subject, it will involve a particular way of looking at the world. If you are a natural scientist you will see the world in terms of phenomena; if you are a sociologist or historian you may well see the world in terms of themes; if you are an economist you might see the world in terms of processes of production, distribution and exchange; if your subject is English literature your world is made up of the body of writings, within which you will discern certain schools or genres. However you see the world, it will help your pupils immensely if you make your perception explicit to them, rather than take it for granted and expect them to do so too.

Methodology

Every subject has its own tools, its own questions, for ‘interrogating’ the world as it sees it. Make these explicit to your pupils, and try to bring out the differences between them.

Take a locality near your school and spell out the different questions that would be asked by – say – a botanist, chemist, economist, geographer, lawyer, sociologist about it, and the different methodologies they would employ to answer those questions. Spell out the techniques that would be used for analysis, and show how they complement one another (or not), and rather than just pass critical judgments make explicit the criteria for evaluation that you are using.

Causation and explanation

What do we mean when we say that A caused B? Does the term ‘explanation’ mean something different to physicists and historians? When can we say we have a satisfactory explanation of a phenomenon or event? What, if anything, do a physicist’s, an economist’s and a lawyer’s concept of a ‘law’ have in common. Many G&T pupils will be engaged and provoked to think by these and similar questions.

The general and the particular

It is a characteristic of academics and consequently of academic thinking that they can shuttle very rapidly between two levels, the level of ‘detail’ and the level of ‘principle’, the general and the particular. They come across a particular empirical observation and immediately ask how it fits into the big picture, and what its wider – general – implications are. Their approach to gaining an understanding of an event, say, is to first place it in its context, against its background. Offered a new theory, they work from the general to the particular, asking what particular observations could be made that would test its validity. This habit of shuttling to and fro between the general and the particular, of working from theory to observation and back again, of shifting focus between principle and detail, is a way of ‘making sense’. It is a very useful one for aspiring university students to get into.

Reading

Give your pupils a demonstration of how to read a book or an article. Show them what strikes you as significant, and why, and what you pass over on a first reading. Show them how you relate what you read to what you already know, and how you read critically, between the lines rather than taking the words on the page at face value. Students who arrive at university having learned to read questioningly, and to regard reading as a ‘treasure hunt’ rather than as a means of absorbing every word of every item on their reading lists, will have a flying start.

If your subject is a quantitative one, you can similarly give your pupils a demonstration of how to ‘read’ a table of figures, a graph, a diagram or an equation. Just as with a piece of writing, there are skills of inferring and questioning that you can illuminate and pass on to your pupils.

Language

Every subject has its own specialised language, its ‘academic-speak’. When it comes to learning this language, university students find it enormously helpful to treat learning it in the same way as they would learning a foreign language such as Spanish or German. This works even with quantitative subjects such as maths, statistics, economics and accountancy. If your pupils have already had the experience of learning a foreign language, they will probably recollect that when they started, if someone asked them a question in Spanish (say), they would translate the question into English, find the answer in English, and translate the answer into Spanish. Then, one day, someone asked them a question in Spanish and they immediately gave the answer in Spanish, without going through the round-the-houses translation process.

If they have had that experience, they can be told that that is the level of fluency they need to have with the particular academic-speak they are grappling with. With that understanding, and that experience at school behind them, they will find learning at university that much easier.

Dr Peter Levin is an educational developer at the London School of Economics, specialising in providing one-to-one study skills support for students. He is the author of Write Great Essays! and other books in the Student-Friendly Guides series, published by the Open University Press.

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