Breaking Skills Into Strategies


The last several posts have been devoted to unpacking skills and strategies.  I have used Jennifer Serravallo’s definition of strategy: “step-by-step how tos that lead toward skilled performance”.  When I think about strategies, the question that always pops into my mind is, “How can I break this down?”  If a learner is struggling with a skill, it may be that the skill needs to be broken down into manageable steps. 

So how do we break skills down? This can be more challenging than it might seem. If you have been reading this series of posts, you may have already watched the baseball video clip.  If not, please take 30 seconds to watch it now:  


We have already talked about how the father in the video told Max to “use two hands” while Drew modeled it. Why do you think Drew was more strategic in his teaching?  We can only speculate here, but one idea I have is that the father learned to catch a ball a long time ago, and Drew’s learning was more recent.  The father no longer needs to think about each step as he catches a ball—he does it automatically.  In other words, the strategies have gone underground.

I think this is one of the things that makes teaching so hard.  We are teaching children to do things that we are already proficient or skilled at.  We don’t need strategies anymore.  But our students still do!  That means we have to put ourselves back into the shoes of a novice reader, writer, etc. and think about the steps we take. I find that it helps to “spy on myself” as a reader and writer, and while listing across my fingers, say,

  1. “First I…”
  2. “Then I…”
  3. “Next I…”
  4. “Finally I…”

If I can break my steps down in this manner, I am well on my way toward providing the strategic supports my learners need.

Let me give you are real-word example of what this might look like.  Last week I took a class at the Apple Store called “Going Further with Your Mac”.  One part of the class was devoted to using shortcuts.  I already use a number of shortcuts on my computer, but this teacher taught us some cool ones that I didn’t know existed. Some people in the class were becoming frustrated because he was showing us so many and we couldn’t memorize them that fast. Then the teacher stopped and said, “Now don’t get overwhelmed.  Let me give you a tip and show you how I have become proficient at using these shortcuts.”  Here is how he broke it down for us:

“Whenever you find yourself executing a task on your computer, stop and notice if the menu gives you a shortcut. If you see a shortcut, take a second to look at it. Instead of completing the action the long way, force yourself to use the shortcut.  Do it two or three times in a row right then to get some muscle memory. Work on memorizing and automatically using just 3-4 shortcuts at a time.  Once you have mastered those, set a goal for yourself to learn another set.  Before you know it, you will have a whole repertoire of shortcuts!”

Do you see what the teacher did?  First he recognized his students’ frustration. Then he thought about how he learned to use shortcuts himself.  Finally he shared these step-by-step tips in a way that seemed manageable for his students. The students’ next step will be to practice—the critical step in mastering a skill as described in a previous post.

Before I close out this post, did you notice what I just did in that last paragraph?  Let me write that paragraph below in a different format: 

Do you see what the teacher did?

  1. First he recognized his students’ frustration.
  2. Then he thought about how he learned to use shortcuts himself.
  3. Finally he shared these step-by-step tips in a way that seemed manageable for his students.

See? Anything you are trying to teach can be broken down into step-by-step strategies—even teaching someone how to break something down into a strategy!

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