From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 8|No 1|September|1998

 The Missing Piece: Strategic Teaching

by Jamie McKenzie




Technology zealots (those who push technologies for technology's sake) often underestimate and even ignore the crucial role of strategic teaching in improving the performance of students. They may focus on equipping schools, students and teachers with hardware and software while overlooking the "mindware" and "groupware" that could make all that equipment worth buying.

Mindware = thinking skills, learning skills and information literacy skills

Groupware = teaming and process skills

Zealots may also neglect professional development in their rush to be first or most networked. The consequences are quite serious.

To illustrate the fundamental role of strategic teaching, this section will focus on the impact of new writing technologies.

For more than 15 years now, students have been given opportunities to do all or part of their writing on computers. Many of us have argued that new writing technologies might enable more thoughtful and persuasive student expression. ("Accordion writing--Expository composition with the word processor." McKenzie, J., English Journal. September, 1984, 73(5), 56-58).

After many years of testing the impact of word processing on student production, the research verdict is unclear. We have no conclusive evidence that the current generation of young people are writing more powerfully, more thoughtfully or more persuasively than earlier generations.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports little improvement in student writing during the past decade despite the billions invested in classroom computers and the significant increase in students reporting use of computers for writing.

Percentage of students who reported using a computer, by grade and reason for use: Selected years 1984–94


Trends in Writing Proficiency

    Despite some fluctuations throughout the years, the average writing proficiency for fourth-grade students was about the same in 1994 as in 1984. Eighth-grade writing scale scores declined between 1984 and 1990, increased in 1992, and then dropped back down to their original level in 1994. Eleventh-grade scores were slightly lower in 1994 than in 1984.

    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress , Trends in Academic Progress: Achievement of U.S. Students in Science, 1969 to 1994; Mathematics, 1973 to 1994; Reading, 1994; Writing, 1984 to 1994, 1996.

A review of research abstracts in ERIC is also far from inspiring or encouraging.

In one 1990 study, "Does Word Processing Improve Students' Writing? A Critical Appraisal and Assessment," the authors found reason for caution . . .


A 3-year project examined the cognitive effects of word processing on writing processes and products. In particular, the project examined effects on writers' planning, reviewing, and revising in a series of six assessment studies. Among the most important results of the project were that writers using word processing alone--both student writers and more experienced professional writers--engaged in significantly less initial planning, conceptual planning, and total planning than when they used pen and paper, and that this phenomenon was related to the difficulty experienced writers report in getting a ""sense"" of their texts and recalling them when using word processing. Findings of the project suggest that student writers be explicitly taught how to exploit the benefits and avoid the weaknesses of both word processing and pen and paper media. Results and recommendations of the project have been disseminated in a series of conference presentations, technical reports, and publications in national journals.

(ED329994) Neuwirth, Christine M., et al, Carnegie Mellon Univ., Pittsburgh, PA. Center for Educational Computing in English.

It turns out that the critical variable when improving student writing is prolonged, intimate and highly strategic teaching. The work of writing instructors such as Lucy Calkins*, Peter Elbow* and Linda Flower* eloquently illustrates the extended journey required to achieve growth.

Writing improves when the writer internalizes an inventive process of reworking early efforts. Young people learn to be reflective and questioning about their own performance and efforts. They are both strategic and playful. They are versatile and fluent. They develop a rich palette. They fill their toolkit with writing skills. They generate a "bag of tricks." They learn to shed the lazy, the cheap and the plastic in favor of the authentic and the genuine. They develop a passion for editing and revision.

Great writing teachers may prove an inspiration. How? Dialogue. Extended engagement. Commitment. The process is commonly torturous and time-consuming. Teacher and student enjoy a highly personalized exchange that cannot be reduced to simple formulas or recipes. The process cannot be easily packaged or replicated. There is no compact twelve step program. It is an intensive human communion requiring persistence and devotion.

Teacher and student consider intriguing issues like these . . .

  • How can we capture meaning so that it still shines for others?
  • How can we weave and organize our thoughts so they flow with just the right amount of dramatic tension?
  • How might we extend our grasp of words and their meanings so as to avoid ho-hum, cookie-cutter sentences?
  • How do I find my voice?

Effective writing teachers show their students how to extend their own growth, showing them models like the Six Traits of Effective Writing (see example) approach to revision and then encouraging them to develop their own questions.

He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass

Many proponents of writing as process argue that teachers of young writers should be passionately engaged in writing themselves so that their own struggles and journeys will help to inform their communication with students.

The preferred model for teachers learning to support growth in student writing proficiency is the "writer's workshop" originally developed as the Bay Area Writing Project ( and eventually spread throughout the country until it grew roots in most states. Calkins* and Wilson* each provide extensive descriptions of the extended work required of teachers to learn this craft. Their works cited below outline a change journey for teachers which should be automatically "bundled" with any school laptop program if the school hopes to see benefits from the investment in equipment.

Placing laptops in student hands does not automatically produce better writers. In fact, they may even become more glib, more verbose and more apparently polished. Electronic information may encourage a new form of plagiarism. (See May issue of From Now On) But the development of strong writing has much more to do with good teaching than equipment.

Combined with appropriate instruction and tutoring, the word processor may become an idea processor. The ease of revision permitted by the computer may encourage an inventive composition process which includes ample attention to issues such as voice, word choice, fluency, content and organization.

Strategic teaching is the yeast necessary to make the student writing bread rise.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie. Some were also modified with Photoshop.
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