Last fall I got a little obsessed. I had been looking at the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and for Mathematics. Holding them alongside the Next Generation Science Standards and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies, I marveled at the vast differences in language, structure, and organization. 

As I looked past the discipline-specific content, I could see that they shared some implicit beliefs about learning processes.

I wanted to know, How do researchers, content specialists, and others in the field think about how learning happens? I set out on a search to identify a common set of fundamental building blocks of learning, thinking, and problem solving. reDesign has always promoted the use of learning strategies, largely derived from what are commonly referred to as literacy strategies. But, we also had a set of Math Habits of Mind, as well as guides to promoting student metacognition. Would it be possible to distill a teacher- and student-friendly common—and limited—set of foundational strategies that would be applicable across all the disciplines, bringing together both cognitive and metacognitive processes? 

My colleague, Rohan Menon, and I set out to collect models of metacognition, cognition, and executive function, as well as frameworks of strategies, practices, habits of mind, and other means of describing (and assessing) the processes and outcomes of learning across and within disciplines. 

In the end, we uncovered more than 30 models, including some specific to academic domains, such as the Scientific Habits of Mind and Eight Habits of Mind for Studio Art, some focused on self regulation, like the CASEL 5 social-emotional learning framework, and others intended to be more broadly applicable, such as Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind. (You’ll find a complete list below.) Listing out their component parts gave us a list of more than 400 (!) things that experts say human beings do when they learn, think, or solve problems.

After weeks of cross-referencing, sorting, categorizing, defining, and doing it all again, we discovered that, as we suspected, while the language varied, the underlying processes being described were, by and large, common. For example, while one framework used ask, another investigate, and the third pose problems, all three were essentially talking about the cognitive strategy of questioning. Similarly, overview, preview, set purpose, set goal, prioritize, initiate, choose and use tools, strategize became, for our purposes, planning.

By synthesizing the collected frameworks, we were able to identify cross-disciplinary agentic learning strategies:

Learners establish goals or intentions, appraise tasks and resources available, and develop plans for achieving them.

Learners notice when things are working or not, and when things make sense or don’t.

Learners modify their plans, shift approaches, and employ different strategies when necessary to continue progress toward their aim.

Learners move information from short term to long term memory, encoding for later retrieval with fluency and automaticity.

Learners pose questions of themselves, their experiences, tasks, content, and context.

Learners collect, sort, and manage information and manage tasks.

Learners prioritize tasks and information, and distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information.

Learners create and recognize links within and among prior experience, knowledge, perspectives, and tasks.

Learners create sensory images and other models and adopt perspectives outside of and beyond their own point of view.

Learners detect similarity and dissimilarity, as well as other interdependencies, correlations, and interconnections.

Learners use what they know to anticipate an outcome, formulate cause and effect, sequence, or other relationships, or create an explanation.

Learners use their experiences and understanding of concepts, ideas and phenomena to develop interpretations, draw conclusions, and make judgments, even when presented with incomplete information.

Learners construct new knowledge, complete tasks, explain phenomena, and create new artifacts using prior experience.

What do you mean by “learning strategy”?

In education and the cognitive sciences, the term “strategy” is ill-defined. Many strategy sets mix abstract processes, such as inferring and visualizing, with concrete activities, such as note taking or using spaced practice. Our Agentic Learning Strategies exclusively describe the foundational cognitive processes that learners use to learn new information and skills, and use to apply existing knowledge and skills to contexts. They contribute to successfully completing a broad range of tasks, both inside and beyond school. We call them Agentic because they are the key to building students’ capacity to apply existing skills and knowledge to new contexts. For example, across content areas, students infer when they use incomplete information to draw conclusions whether the task is “reading between the lines” in English-Language Arts, analyzing data sets in science and math, or applying historical empathy in social studies.

The Agentic Learning Strategies also help teachers to connect and communicate more clearly the various ways schools define learning outcomes. A high school US History teacher may be expected to teach students to:

An experienced teacher has both the subject-matter knowledge to see the connections among the different outcomes and the experience to identify the skills implied by the various verbs in them (i.e. grasp, explain, cite, act). Students, though, may not be able to make those connections, nor to see the connections between analyzing cause and effect in US History class and analyzing cause and effect in Biology class.  Explicit instruction in the Agentic Learning Strategies is the mechanism through which skills become transferable.

The Agentic Learning Strategies include both metacognitive and cognitive strategies under a single framework, making them more transparent to teachers and students. Teaching and learning about the Agentic Learning Strategies is metacognition and, research has demonstrated, strategy use and metacognitive processes can be strengthened through explicit instruction embedded into genuine academic tasks. Students should have repeated opportunities to see the strategies named and modeled, and to apply them to their own work.  

We’re going to have more to say about the Agentic Learning Strategies over the coming weeks, including more about how to provide that vital explicit instruction. Watch this space!

Sources for frameworks, standards, or other taxonomies for learning, such as habits of mind or practices. When authors had more than one version of a framework that we examined, we’ve only listed here the most recent publication.

Alvermann, D. E., Swafford, J., & Montero, M. K. (2004). Content area literacy instruction for the elementary grades. Pearson.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2009). Benchmarks for science literacy. Oxford University Press.

Botella, M., Zenasni, F., & Lubart, T. (2011). A dynamic and ecological approach to the artistic creative process of arts students: An empirical contribution. Empirical studies of the arts, 29(1), 17-38.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2020). CASEL’S SEL Framework: What Are the Core Competence Areas and Where Are They Promoted? Chicago, IL: Author.

Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (Eds.). (2008). Learning and leading with habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success. ASCD.

Dean, C. B., & Hubbell, E. R. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Ascd.

Hattie, J., Donoghue, G. Learning strategies: a synthesis and conceptual model. npj Science Learn 1, 16013 (2016).

Hetland, L., Winner, E., Veenema, S., & Sheridan, K. M. (2015). Studio thinking 2: The real benefits of visual arts education. Teachers College Press.

IDEO U. (2021) Design Thinking. Online.

Keene, E. O., & Zimmermann, S. (1997). Mosaic of thought: Teaching comprehension in a reader’s workshop. Heinemann.

Kryza K. (2014) Practical Strategies for Developing Executive Functioning Skills for ALL Learners in the Differentiated Classroom. In: Goldstein S., Naglieri J. (eds) Handbook of Executive Functioning. Springer, New York, NY. 

Mark, J., Cuoco, A., Goldenberg, E. P., & Sword, S. (2009). Developing mathematical habits of mind in the middle grades. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 1(5), 505-509.

Meier, D. (2003). So what does it take to build a school for democracy?. Phi Delta Kappan, 85(1), 15-21.

Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting executive function in the classroom. Guilford Press.

Mokhtari, K., Dimitrov, D. M., & Reichard, C. A. (2018). Revising the Metacognitive Awareness of Reading Strategies Inventory (MARSI) and testing for factorial invariance.

National Council for History Education. (nd). History’s Habits of Mind. Online.

National Council for the Social Studies. (2013). Social studies for the next generation: Purposes, practices, and implications of the college, career, and civic life (C3) framework for social studies state standards (Vol. 113). Washington, DC: Author

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. Washington, DC: Authors.

National Reading Panel (US), National Institute of Child Health, & Human Development (US). (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Online.

Owocki, G. (2003) Comprehension: Strategic Instruction for K-3 Children. Heinemann.

Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language Learning Strategies: What Every Teacher Should Know. Newbury House Publisher.

Pressley, M., & Afflerbach, P. (1995). Verbal protocols of reading: The nature of constructively responsive reading.

Sadler-Smith, E. (2015). Wallas’ four-stage model of the creative process: More than meets the eye?. Creativity Research Journal, 27(4), 342-352.

Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., & Braaten, M. (2008). Beyond the scientific method: Model‐based inquiry as a new paradigm of preference for school science investigations. Science education, 92(5), 941-967.