As I'm exploring a research topic for a grad school application, I continue to notice that there is a misalignment between words we tend to use in educational settings and those that we likely mean. This might not surprise you if you read my previous blog on Pedagogy vs. Andraogogy, which spurred from this friction I feel as I mature in my career between words that people use in the profession and the ones we should be using. While I don't think it's on purpose, I also don't think that we really explore concepts or ideas very well - sometimes we hear one person say it at a conference or read it in a book and accept that it must be true. With that in mind, I've started to consult the literature when I come across language that I question is accurate or at the least the best fit for what we are trying to do as educators.
Once I was in a meeting on curriculum mapping, and someone used the term “learning strategy" to define a field course. As this is language that is used a lot on the co- and curricular realm of higher education, I hadn't ever thought twice about it until that moment. I’ve tried to reflect on my own experiences talking about strategies with colleagues or faculty members, and I continue to find the conversation consistently focusing on the ‘what’ and 'how': learning strategies help us deliver what we want our students to learn; strategies are the ways in which we educate students; strategies allow us to implement our approach to education. And the list goes on. So that led me to two questions: 1. Is ‘learning strategy’ actually the best use of language to accomplish what we are trying to do as educators? 2. Does 'strategies' imply we are creating a meaningful experience for students? The more I reflected on it, doodled about it, wrote it down, and colour-coded my thoughts, the more I realized that I don't think it does accurately depict what we do as educators, and it is not andragogical ... in my mind, we should be striving to create learning experiences.
To better understand why 'strategy' might not be the best language to use, I consulted the literature. According to Schumaker and Deshler (in Protheroe & Clarke, 2008), a learning strategy is defined as “an individual’s approach to a task. It includes how a person thinks and acts when planning, executing and evaluating performance on a task and its outcomes” (p. 34). Mayer (1988) considers strategies to “…be defined as behaviours of a learner that are intended to influence how the learner processes information” (p. 11), while Mariani (2002) defines them as “any action which you may have to take to solve a problem in learning, to help you make the most of your learning process, to speed up and optimize your cognitive, affective and social behavior”. What appears visible in all of these definitions to me, and I believe is clearly articulated by Mariani, is that learning strategies belong to the learner. She even goes on to state that we need to disentangle strategies from our own teaching , otherwise students do not perceive them as tools that belong to them. Consider the example of study skills, which are learning strategies that a student is in control of and can choose to apply to their own development at any time. Study skills are not a strategy that we have asked them necessary to do; rather, it is a tool in their own learning toolbox. Furthermore, learning strategies are most often discussed as a tool to help support struggling learners, including students with disabilities. Thus, our roles as educators are to help students implement effective strategies that support their own independent and improved learning efforts (Protheroe & Clarke, 2008), but the work we do in creating spaces where students can learn these tools are not strategies. Otherwise, we would be in control of their personal toolbox and we shouldn't be.
So, if strategies are actually tools that learners can implement themselves in the future to improve their own learning, then why do we talk about the learning experiences we are trying to create for our students as ‘strategies’? Because if we choose to run a workshop, facilitate a meaningful conversation, or require a laboratory assignment, these are not strategies that students may use again in the future to support their own learning. We can’t expect them to recreate a workshop next time they are struggling with resilience, for example. Instead, I feel like we should be taking advice from the experts in curricular design and use the terminology “learning experience”, which suggests that it is an intentional and well-designed opportunity for student engagement, development and learning. According to the Glossary of Educational Reform, a learning experience refers to “any interaction, course, program, or other experience in which learning takes place, whether it occurs in traditional academic settings (schools, classrooms, or non-traditional settings (outside-of-school locations, outdoor environments), or whether it includes traditional educational interactions (students learning from teachers and professors) or nontraditional interactions (students learning through games and interactive software applications).” Furthermore, the glossary emphasizes the importance of using this language because it is demonstrated to be more "accurate, preferred, or inclusive” than other language in the field and helps reinforce educational goals.
This change in language is in large part due to the continuous innovation and change in education, particularly in regards to technology. As shifts have occurred over the last few years in the way we think about innovative education, the growing use of learning experience by educators notes the change in the way we are designing and delivering our education to students and the various ways in which learning takes place (Glossary of Educational Reform). Furthermore, this change in language has also been sparked by continued criticism at educational institutions’ inability to provide learners with the appropriate experiences and spaces that learners require today (Mantei & Kervin, 2009). In hopes of addressing these changes and concerns, researchers such as Herrington and Oliver (2000) have spent many years defining what authentic learning experiences are to help educators incorporate these principles into their work.
The framework developed by Herrington & Oliver (2000) suggest the integration of 9 key principles to help learners demonstrate their knowledge and skill while making connections to broader communities:
Woah – my head is spinning. Not only do I think this is valuable language for us to use as educators when we are thinking about designing authentic learning experiences (and not using the language of learning strategies), I also think this is an important tool to be thinking about our own development as educators. Do our learning experiences meet these principles? Are we examining our own professional development and lifelong learning through these principles? If we aren’t, how are we expected to role model these to our students and learners? Furthermore, if we are truly leading from an andragogical approach, we should not be trying to direct learning through strategies; rather, we should be creating authentic learning experiences that help students identify, strengthen and implement their own learning strategies to be more successful in the future.
I thought long and hard about what this could look like, and the example of doing laundry continued to come back to me. We are not using a strategy to teach students how to do laundry, rather, we are creating a learning experience where they learn to do laundry which helps them develop that as a strategy in their life skills toolkit. In turn, they can use that tool in the future to successfully do their laundry independently. The strategy is their ability to apply that tool to be successful; the learning experience is creating a space with support where they can practice and master that tool.
So, next time you are thinking about 'strategies', I would urge you to ask yourself: Are you actually trying to have control over a student's toolbox, or are you trying to create a learning experience that achieves your goals and outcomes? In my opinion, those are two very different things. A student cannot always recreate a 'strategy' like a workshop, lab, or conversation, but they can acquire a strategy for their toolbox by engaging in that intentional learning experience.
A creative educator striving to enhance the holistic student experience and committed to exploring personal strengths and fulfillment.