Metacognition is a huge buzz word in the world of education currently, but it’s hardly news. Research on it has been published for decades; but, early on in my career I mostly remember it being a fancy word that meant nothing to me but looked great on a job application. I’m not afraid to admit that I spent a considerable amount of time trying to decipher some level of understanding of it as an educational concept. Almost everything I found encompassed the immortal phrase: ‘thinking about thinking’; but what does that even mean? I had to dig deeper and eventually found “An awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.” This was slightly more useful, but hardly made me a better practitioner. Quite the enigma.
In 2018 I was fortunate to attend a series of Research Schools Network training days, run by Huntington Research School on “Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning” and I finally developed a real insight into this mystical concept that had eluded me for years. It boils down to this:
“I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; if it strikes me that I should double check C before accepting it as a fact.” (Flavell, 1976).
Developing metacognition has long since ranked highly on the EEF’s teaching and learning toolkit and time and time again meta-analysis after meta-analysis shows that metacognition can improve a student’s outcome (currently at +7 months). Therefore, after significant analysis of our own school’s situation, further developing our students’ metacognitive abilities is the journey we set out on.
As a consequence, I have spent a long time reflecting on myself as a student, and think it’s fair to say that I am a far better learner now that I am a teacher than I ever was at school, college or university. Not because I didn’t want to learn, I was a massive geek, but I just lacked the skills to be truly effective and to make the most of my time. I would spend hours endlessly reading, re-reading and highlighting textbooks. The copious amount of notes I made, I am convinced, single-handedly, contributed to the deforestation crisis. But why didn’t I know better? Well, no one ever taught me to be a good student, it really was left to chance, which is a disservice I believe we should avoid at all costs for our students today.
As part of our school CPD model this year we have invested a significant amount of time to train staff in what metacognition is; why it’s important; what some of the research says; how the EEF guidance report is relevant to them; and what it looks like in their subject area.
Ensuring staff are up-skilled in their own comprehension of this was first priority, explicitly showing them the ‘what’ of cognition, metacognition and how both of these are intrinsically linked to motivation. We then set about the ‘what does this look like’ in terms of students planning, monitoring and evaluating their own work.
It was important that subjects took ownership of this; what it looks like in maths is very different to what it looks like in history, RE or DT. This involved them spending time observing students in their own or colleagues’ lessons, reviewing their curriculum and having departmental discussions to identify what the process of planning, monitoring and evaluating looks like for their subject area.
It is fair to say lots of staff struggled with this and lots of follow up sessions were needed to fully clarify what was meant by “planning, monitoring, and evaluating” until each subject area had a clear vision of ‘what this looks like for us?’ and more importantly, how could they ensure this was incorporated in what they do with students.
During this process we wanted to be very explicit that this shouldn’t be an arduous, add-on task, but something that is embedded into their day to day teaching (lots of which already was) and to be mindful of how to scaffold for those students where this process did not come as easily. Remember, metacognitive ability is not the reserve of older students or those who are “higher-ability” (shudder).
Our focus is to get all students ‘over the bar’ in every aspect of their education, their academic rigour and ability to learn: “Self-regulated learners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and can motivate themselves to engage in, and improve, their learning.” (EEF “Metacognition & Self-regulated Learning Guidance Report”, 2018)
In an expert learner, these processes are unconscious and automatic. ‘These learners are proactive in their efforts to learn because they are aware of their strengths and limitations and because they are guided by personally set goals and task-related strategies, such as using an arithmetic addition strategy to check the accuracy of solutions to subtraction problems. These learners monitor their behaviour in terms of their goals and self-reflect on their increasing effectiveness. This enhances their self-satisfaction and motivation to continue to improve their methods of learning.’ (Zimmerman, 2010).
In novice learners, however, it can be valuable to make them explicit, so we have introduced the following concepts (using Tom Sherrington’s “The Learning Rainforest” & Tom Sherrington and Sara Stafford, CTC, Aug 01, 2018)
Explicit Teaching of Metacognitive Strategies
Before I go any further, this is your friend, use it wisely, use it widely.
- Make your thought processes explicit to students, verbalise your thinking, show them how the expert tackles a problem
- Produce real-time examples
- Model, model, model! Use the visualiser, show them how to do it in the format they have, reduce their cognitive load!
- Explaining, questioning and giving feedback – make this a highly interactive process
- Check for understanding before moving to a guided practice phase; scaffold the support, guided by students’ needs.
Throughout this process explaining your decision making is key:
- Why you chose that strategy
- Why that is a good paragraph opener
- Why you chose that piece of equipment
- Why did you sequence your thoughts that way
By doing so you are truly articulating what it’s like to think like an expert, and they can replicate that process.
I vividly remember being an undergraduate, sitting in a cell biology lecture desperately trying to learn the functionality of Okazaki fragments (involved in DNA replication). It was a complex theory and one which I really struggled to comprehend (I still do now in all truthfulness), but, on reflection, there was no ‘strategy’ taught, no modelling of it as a concept, merely words that could have come straight from a textbook. No wonder it was difficult for me to understand. I had some metacognitive strategies, but they weren’t well developed, nor were they suited to the cognition that was supposed to be taking place in the room. For me, the cycle was broken.
This example, adapted from EEF guidance report, demonstrates how questioning could be structured to support a student in planning, monitoring and evaluating their work:
As the report highlights: “These prompts must accompany instruction in the relevant specific cognitive strategies […] In this example, pupils will only be able to consider these questions and approaches if they understand the importance of perspective and the different techniques”, ie the cognition (knowledge) is the overriding factor in the metacognition of the student.
These essential steps in explicit teaching of metacognition are the bedrock to this process; but my question remains: “Are we doing it justice?”
I still have students making endless notes for their revision, because they wanted to work hard and ‘look like they’re doing something”. They are not planning effective strategies, monitoring how they are progressing towards deep understanding or evaluating their effectiveness. Why?
I believe this lies in the societal expectations of effective study, instant gratification and how parents reflect on their own education. In order to crack this, it is imperative to encourage parental engagement in the process, but more importantly, parental faith in your expertise: Give parents the knowledge of how to do it effectively, the tools to support their child, and the why of its benefit and the perfect trinity is in place: teacher, student & parent. Thus making it a habitual process through all aspects of their life; it’s not just the classroom where this takes place. It’s entrenched throughout their everyday.
This is particularly true for those students who are our most vulnerable, who may not come to our lessons with this prerequisite. Let’s teach them to be students, good ones, all of them.
Developing the attributes of a successful learner is so important, we must do it justice and not allow this to boil down to some beautifully laminated posters that half hang off a classroom wall, or are stuck in teacher’s planner, never to be considered whilst actually planning. It should be entrenched in all that we do for our students.
Academically, I have been successful, I’ve worked hard but I’ve not worked smart. I look back on hours spent in the library, notes after notes after notes, and I shudder to think of how I could have been so much more efficient. It’s our responsibility to ensure our students do not have this same experience and have the cognitive and metacognitive ability to regulate their learning, make the right decisions for their method of working and have the best chance of success in this ever competitive world.