Strategies, techniques, and tricks

Why have I been surprised at the way that many teachers use the word “strategy”? And why does it bother me when teachers refer to “tricks”?

Well, I’m glad you asked, so I’ll tell you why I believe that in both cases these teachers should say “techniques.”

First, let’s talk about strategies. This blog is called Learning Strategies, because that is the name I gave to my part-time consulting business 22 years ago. I conceive of strategies as big-picture ideas. Maybe it’s because of my training in ancient Greek, where στρατηγία is what the general does, not what the sergeant does. It’s something significant that will help you achieve your goals. When planning a course, the idea of beginning with the end in mind is a strategy; putting an agenda on the board is merely a technique. So I was taken aback to discover that many teachers call the latter a strategy.

How does Google define the word?

A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.

OK, that sounds right to me. Now let’s try the American Heritage Dictionary:

A plan of action resulting from strategy or intended to accomplish a specific goal.

Still pretty close…though the recursive use of “strategy” bothers me. Finally, we’ll check the Advanced English Dictionary:

An elaborate and systematic plan of action.

Fine…so why do so many people say “strategy” when they mean “technique”? It’s confusing and misleading!

But let’s move on to “trick.” Too many math teachers say things like “The trick here is to isolate the variable on one side of the equation.” But that’s not a trick, which makes it sound like a bit of magic that will fool you into solving the equation. It’s a technique, not a trick! (In fact, it’s a technique that’s close to being a strategy, but it’s not worth arguing about where the line is.) A trick will lead you to say “Where did that come from!?”; a technique will lead you to say “Yes, I understand that step, including how it works and why I’m doing that.” You might, of course, not say that right away, but eventually it’s what you should be saying. Every time we say “trick,” we undermine what we’re doing; we make mathematics look like a collection of magical methods that work in incomprehensible ways. Words matter. Let’s use the right ones.

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning