Tyll Zybura

Read. Think. Write.

For strategies-based teaching

Tyll Zybura – 7 May 2017

Against the rhetoric of competency-based teaching, I set a rhetoric of teaching strategies which focuses on the resources that students already have rather than on their presumed deficiencies.

The German state school curriculum – and the Bologna system of higher education shares the rhetoric – currently prescribes the teaching of competencies, which students are supposed to accumulate over the course of their education. Competencies are (roughly) defined as a combination of skill and knowledge that enable students to successfully master complex problem-solving in specific situations. To have a competency means knowing how to do something.

There are various criticisms of competency-based teaching, many of which I find valid. My own objection against it is that I find the rhetoric of competency flawed: How we speak about education to our students matters! A rhetoric of competency is functionally unhelpful and even harmful for teacher-student relations. Instead, I prefer a rhetoric of strategies 1.

Competencies are binary and deficiency-oriented

When we speak about having a competency, we speak about a binary state: You either have it or you don’t. This binary rhetoric facilitates deficiency orientation toward students because, obviously, students don’t have the competencies we assume to teach them, they are by default incompetent. And it is difficult to speak about them in another way: Students cannot be ‘a little competent’ at writing academic papers. A student cannot be ‘more competent’ than another: One student is competent, the other is not. When we speak of competency-based eduction, we inevitably make it the raison d’être of all education to remedy a fundamental lack of competencies: We naturalise students as deficient creatures. I find this demeaning and divorced from reality.

The rhetoric of competencies is also demeaning toward teachers. The assumption that it only takes a certain modularized acquisition of competency (knowledge + skill) to be competent (knowing how to do it) at something is obviously simplistic. Speaking of the acquisition of competency implies detrimental consumerist notions of one-shot studying: You go through course of studies A, you come out with competencies X and Y. It implies that there is a finite, countable number of competencies that you can acquire in order to be a comptetent scholar or teacher.

Competent scholars and teachers would surely never speak about themselves this way, they would take pride in their experience, in their process, in their practice: Even if we had no problem with being described as ‘competent’, would we reduce our professional selves to a set of fixed competencies? If not, why would we do that to students?

Strategies are omnipresent, variable, and personal

Instead, from a constructivist point of view, learning consists in the subjective strategies you develop, hone, and adapt to deal with challenging situations. There are no one-fits-all strategies and there is no end-point when you know everything about all strategies you’ll ever need – just as there is no formal limit to situations.

Speaking about strategies avoids a deficiency oriented stance towards students: When you talk about strategies, it is clear that students already do have many strategies. Strategies are not binary, they always exist – even if they don’t always lead to satisfactory results. Realising which of the existing strategies already work well and which strategies don’t is the first step towards adapting and perfecting them.

In our teaching, we provide opportunities for trying out new strategies, for adopting those that work and discarding those that don’t work for the individual student, and for applying, practicing, and refining already know strategies. For students, the mere reflection on what strategies they already have can be empowering. So just by speaking of strategies, we tap into existing resources, we don’t construct students as deficient and incompetent. 2

Strategies are also not as simple as combinations of knowledge and skill. Yes, strategies for accruing knowledge on a certain subject, expressing arguments in a specific style, or debating a point in class are important in university education. But managing time, dealing with stress, and solving interpersonal conflicts are also strategies; gardening, telling jokes, making music all make use of strategies. So the rhetoric of strategies involves a more holistic view of what it means to be a professional – because being a professional is part of being a social human being.

This way of speaking also implies that strategies are subjective and manifold: There are many different ways to, for example, successfully solve a task, and one is not objectively ‘better’ than another. One strategy may facilitate quicker task completion but that only makes it ‘better’ if speed is of importance in the first place – which is not true for most scholarly work. Instead of handing out normative recipes to task-solving, we can encourage students to think about the adequacy of their strategies to solve a specific task in relation to their own priorities and our criteria of quality and then assisst them in honing their skills where necessary.

When we communicate to our students that university education is not fundamentally different from the acquisition of other life strategies, they learn to see themselves not as deficient beggars at the door of Academia which bequeathes learning upon them but as already proficient learners in a specific situation of personal and intellectual growth, a growth which university can facilitate but which will hopefully never be complete.


  1. On terminology: I’m aware that ‘strategy-based instruction’ is a thing in the teaching of languages, but the way I use the term here is more naïve. 

  2. On ‘incompetence’: In the rhetoric of strategies, “incompetence” is a meaningless word: There is never a lack of strategies, there may only be an unsuccessful usage of existing strategies. This shifts the focus away from the notion of needing to build up competency from scratch toward the notion of carefully tending and developing the resources that students already have. 


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