Teaching Students to Think Strategically

When I begin working with a student, whether he or she has ADHD, dyslexia, or no learning difference at all, I like to start with a question: “What is the difference between a strategy and a tactic?

Over the years, I’ve heard such answers as “Strategies are big, and tactics are small.” “First you think of a strategy, then a tactic to match it.” “Things that you need to think about to win.” All pretty good answers if you ask me!

Strategy and tactic come from military history; a strategy is a way to win a war, while a tactic is a way to win an individual battle. (For more on this distinction, take a look at this post by the Strategic Thinking Institute). Ideally strategy and tactics are aligned. Once military leaders understand the overall path to victory (strategy), they can take steps (tactics) to achieve that end.

If you look up strategy and tactics online, you’ll see that this distinction is a popular one for business strategists, marketing professionals, investment companies, and more. But what about education?

When students are young, their ability to think in terms of strategy is limited. I’ve had elementary students tell me that, “I’m good at math, so I don’t have to show my work,” or “If you have to study for the test, you’re not that smart.”

Not showing work on arithmetic may save students time at first, but over the long run, it will hurt their performance. As students get older, they will need to adopt increasingly strategic approaches to academic tasks. If a student can recognize their overall goal (e.g., to do well on a unit test), then they can begin to formulate the strategy that will get them there (make sure they understand the material, take time to meet with the teacher, and develop study materials throughout the unit). A clear strategy will help them to utilize tactics to achieve that strategy (such as taking notes or creating flash cards). This process may seem to take more time up front but will save time down the road and help them attain their long-term goals.

In SMARTS, we believe students must develop their own definition of a strategy so that they can move forward confident that they can both set goals and develop strategies to attain them. If a student sets a goal of improving their essay writing, they need to develop their overall strategy to achieve this goal before selecting their tactics. They may decide that they need to use more active reading strategies so they have better evidence when they write, meaning their tactics should include purposeful highlighting or skim and scoop. They may decide that dedicating enough time to read will be essential, meaning that they should identify their production time.

Whether our students grow up to be business professionals, military generals, or just really good at board games, the ability to know the difference between a strategy and a tactic will be crucial.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director