Metacognition: Isn’t that just good teaching?

27 November 2018

One of the moral imperatives of education is personal empowerment. We must enable young people to take greater control over their learning and indeed their lives. It is not surprising that many of the low cost, high impact interventions outlined in the EEF toolkit centre on independence. And what better lens to view Independent learning than that of Self-Regulation – Motivation, Cognition and Metacognition.

Motivation – our willingness to engage our cognitive and metacognitive skills and apply them to learning.  Motivational strategies include convincing yourself to carry out a complex revision task now as a way of doing well in a future test.

Cognition – the mental processes involved in knowing, understanding and learning.  Cognitive strategies, such as memorisation techniques, are fundamental to acquiring knowledge.

Metacognition – the way learners monitor and purposefully direct their learning.  Metacognitive strategies are strategies we use to monitor and control our cognition, such as checking that our memorisation technique was accurate.

In this blog, I will consider the later and return to the others in due course.

My colleagues and I have been busy working on our Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning CPD programme that starts in the new year. I have to admit that I have been, at times, tied in a metacognitive knot. On the surface, it’s simple. Isn’t it just thinking about thinking or learning about learning? Not quite. Metacognition is a chaotic… I want to say process of thought, but that’s misleading… spiral of thought? It is fractal. Spirals within spirals. All clear? What if I just give you an example? What context would you like? Although there are some fundamentals that expand across disciplines, metacognition is not the same in all spheres of learning. At least the way in which we scaffold it often differs.

What is apparent from the EEF’s guidance is that while metacognition is certainly present in every classroom, it is not always referred to explicitly and certainly not modelled consistently. More importantly, it is our socio-economically disadvantage learners that stand to gain the most from having this implicit knowledge made explicit.

I am well aware of how privileged my children are in this respect. When my wife and I talk to our 3 and 4 year-olds, we often make the implicit explicit.

“Why did you hit your sister with the book? No, not why a book and not a shoe. Why did you hit her? What happened as a result of this? How did this make her feel? How did this make you feel? How will you behave differently next time?”

We have been “fortunate” to have had several variations of this metacognitive dialogue with our youngest children and are sure that it will be internalised, eventually. In the same respect, I have had conversations with my teenage daughter about her optimistic vision of her future-self.

“Have you created a revision timetable? Wow impressive! How has the first week gone? Oh! Is it your phone that is causing the distraction? Maybe we should restri… come back here while I am talking to you! Life is not fair!”

Whether we are talking about emotional intelligence or developing good revision habits, metacognition provides a mechanism for reflection and hopefully grow.

Expertise in any field is evident in how we plan, monitor and evaluate our path as we encounter new declarative knowledge (the facts). We climb metacognitive spirals in order to cultivate procedural knowledge (how to do something) and conceptual knowledge (our understanding). The difference between a novice and expert is not innate, it is the degree to which they have grown, and can continue to grow new patterns of thought. And expertise is evident in the experts inner monologue. Their metacognition.

In the classroom, we must strive for the same modelling with our students. Is it always easy? In the first instances, no. But, this pattern of metacognitive dialogue has a cumulative effect and a dialogue with any student in the class can have an impact on all the students who attend to it. Make it stand out. As well as this, we (the expert learners) must model out thinking. As we plan, monitor and evaluate, we must make explicit our knowledge of the task, possible strategies for success and of ourselves.

Before you start to slow-clap me while declaring that this is “JUST good teaching”, consider whether this is consistent across your school or department and if so is there a shared language? If not, who stands to lose the most?

In the next instalment we will discuss the interplay between motivation, cognition and metacognition. If you would delve deeper into self-regulated learning, why not sign-up to our 3-day CPD programme.

Posted on 27 November 2018
Posted in: Blog

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