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Cognitive Strategies vs. Instructional Routines

In our work on this book, we have followed the advice of others who have carefully chosen words that convey precisely (there’s that word, again) the meaning intended.  Ross and McDaniel (2004) draw a distinction between the cognitive strategies that teachers expect students to employ and the instructional strategies that teachers employ to encourage cognitive activity on the part of students.  For example, a teacher might use an instructional activity known widely as KWL (Ogle, 1986) to enhance a lesson that calls for activating background and prior knowledge (a cognitive strategy students should use in order to make sense of reading).  So, in this portion of the book, we will use the term “instructional routines” to characterize the tools and techniques that teachers use to encourage cognitive strategies on the part of students.  In section two, we used the term “strategy” to refer to the cognitive activities expected of students.  While we believe that using the term “strategy” to refer to both instructional routines and cognitive activity is all right, it is equally important to know exactly what is meant, to know exactly what the distinctions may be, when using the term.  For that reason, we have used two different terms in this book.

Instructional Routines That are Evidence-Based

Our first challenge to you is to think about which strategies and routines fit with your students’ needs and which might be most beneficial to students in other classrooms.  The second challenge is fairly straightforward, if not a bit more difficult to implement.  In current educational parlance, the terms “research-based” and “evidence-based” are used with increasing frequency.  Both terms are used to describe instructional routines teachers use and the textbooks that claim to employ such routines, yet often those that employ the terms cannot state with any certainty what research supports that routine.  We challenge you to become familiar enough with the research that supports using an instructional routine and where the gaps in that knowledge base exist.  In other words, if you say that something is “research-based,” we encourage you to be able to identify research that supports the routine and why that routine may or may not be valuable.

Theorist Neil Postman (1992) explained that a scientific theory is only scientific to the extent that is can be shown to be false; in other words, a theory that is stated in absolute terms is not a scientific theory.  Applying science, Postman contended, to social institutions is problematic, at best, because such institutions are situational, bound by time and the unique experiences of the observers.  Those conceptions that cannot be tested cannot be characterized as scientific.  This does not mean that a conception is not true or that it cannot tell us something about the enterprise of education; it only means that the conception is not scientific—it cannot be tested.  We bring this up here because sometimes teachers know “what works” and what does not.  The danger, we believe, is that a theory of what works is too often generalized (Sagor, 2000) and accepted as good for all students in any instructional situation. Such a generalization is sometimes applied in ways that are not beneficial to the actual students sitting in one’s classroom and justified as “research-based.” To elaborate on our challenge, we think that teachers should constantly ask themselves and their colleagues which instructional routine is most appropriate for the students they serve, and which cognitive strategies are most beneficial (and why they are most beneficial) to those students.

As you read the following sections of this section, ask yourself what research supports the concept, how it helps your students (or not) and what new research must be done to add to the discussion about the utility of the instructional routine.  We present two routines to facilitate modeling of students’ cognitive strategies, two routines that support prediction through related cognitive structures, and seven routines that promote prediction directly.

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