Strategies, strategies everywhere…NMP

***NMP – None Musical Post***

Although this blog is primarily focussed around music and music education, every now and then I like to remind myself of the fact that I am, first and foremost, a teacher and educator. I love thinking about education, reading, talking and debating. What makes teaching great is the diversity of ideas, directions and pedagogy avaiable to us to help us shape our own teaching personae. One such thing which has struck me recently is the idea of having a “strategy” for everything.

This post is merely a question about something that I don’t really understand; it is not in any way a criticism of the vocabulary surrounding strategies, more a call for help in better understanding why we teach “strategies” and actually use the word to help learners work through various work based scenarios.

TL:DR – my “strategy” for dealing with strategies is having a beer.

I had best start with some context.

When I started out in my first role as a teacher, one of the first things we had to do was spend the day learning strategies to help with stress management. These included the usual of taking a deep breath, counting to 10, and visualising the offending person dressed in silly clothes then becoming smaller and smaller until they disappeared.

Great.

We had the strategies to deal with stressful situations, apparently. Only, the training didn’t address the main issues at hand – why did we need the “strategies” in the first place? And how did we, if needed, select the right strategy for the right situation? Because of this uncertainty, I’ve always been wary of the term strategy when used in relation to dealing with various situations. I’ve very much been a “do what feels right in this situation” kind of person. But, does this mean I’ve been taught the right strategies throughout my life to deal with a variety of situation, or have I simply been taught well to think critically and work through various situations using common sense and logic? Or is this the same thing?!

Fast forward to now.

I was walking through my school recently and spotted a new display going up. Now, in Wales where I work, there is a really big push on Health and Wellbeing, meaning there’s lots of displays going up showing how Health and Wellbeing is being supported in school. One thing that caught my eye was a laminated/whiteboard type section which was labelled something along the lines of “This week’s health and wellbeing strategy is…” And it got me thinking – have we really reached a point where literally everything requires a “strategy” to be remembered and effective? Are we, as a nation, so incapable of dealing with everyday stuff that we literally need to delve into our bank of strategies to manage whatever it is we’re doing? Problem solving in maths has a ridiculous range of acronyms and variations on a theme (RUCSAC – vom!) yet we still teach these “strategies” in an attempt to score points of tests. (Let’s ignore the fact that going through every stage of a problem solving strategy step-list takes ages, far longer than you actually have in a test, to be effective.) Reading strategies, how to answer various questions using different techniques, rather than just showing we understand a text by simply talking about it competently?

In the real world, we don’t get given a problem involving maths and say to the team we’re working with “hang on guys, let’s RUCSAC this and make sure we know how many bags of rice we’re going to need to feed this family of 19. Simon, have you underlined all of the key information we’ll need?” We just get on with it. We don’t look at a list of instructions, or a menu, or a timetable and say “right, I think we need to skim and scan this text, what do you think, Susan?” We just get on with it.

I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something? Or is it that because of the strains of the sheer amount of pressure put on teachers to get results that we’ve resorted to this practice of teaching specific “strategies” as a way of trying to at least get some marks for certain types of questions? I understand that we need to teach a wide variety of skills, and that some are more difficult than others to learn and assimilate. But do we really need to use this language with the children we teach? What’s wrong with simply giving pupils a problem and asking them to work it out in their own way? What’s wrong with giving them a text to read and simply asking them some questions about it, without telling them what skill or strategy it is that you’re working on? When pupils have fallen out, or if they’re feeling down, why do we refer to different strategies about how to resolve the conflict or feel better? Why can’t we simply ask “what do you think would make you feel better?” or “What can we do to fix this situation?”

Or is that the same thing?

Please don’t get me wrong – I’ve taught, and still teach, plenty of “strategies” for working through problems etc… But rarely do I refer to them as strategies; I try to always refer to them as their methodology, rather than simply a “strategy”. I ask why things are done, not simply how they are done. If you simplify everything to a how, you don’t always show understanding.

Which brings me back to the start of my post. We were trained in how to deal with stressful situations and diffuse them in our minds at the point of them happening. We were never made to question why those situations were coming about, or how to avoid them in the future.

Any light that could be shed on this use of language would be welcomed! What’s the difference between a strategy and a method?

Comments welcomed,

Andrew.

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