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Metacognition – Everything you need to know

Alex Quigley, senior associate at the Education Endowment Foundation, describes what metacognition is, and isn’t, and how it can help students…

by Teachwire
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Teach Secondary readers will be familiar with you as our ‘resident word wizard’ – but what’s your actual job title, and what does it mean?

My official job title is ‘senior associate’ at the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), which I realise sounds pretty vague.

My role takes in a few different things – I support research schools, and the development of resources, and I manage communication around topics like metacognition.

I do like the variety; there is a good mix of quiet work, and being around large groups of people at conferences and in nurseries, schools and colleges.

How much of an understanding of metacognition did you have when you were teaching?

I think my understanding was quite limited at that point, and I suspect that’s fairly typical.

I’d heard of the term, and had a vague memory of it being covered somehow during my teacher training, but I couldn’t do much with it in the classroom.

Later, when I dug into it more, I started to realise the importance of things like monitoring and evaluating – teaching pupils how to plan.

But how I taught was largely tacit; I didn’t use explicit terminology, for example, which would have made a difference.

What are the actual advantages for students in understanding more about their own thinking processes?

The crucial advantage is that they gain key knowledge and skills that allow them to approach their end goals strategically – including sitting in an exam hall and performing at their best.

Managing your own thinking, and being well organised and good at planning, gives you the armoury to do well in that context, as well as in others, including beyond the school gate, in the workplace.

And we shouldn’t underestimate the potential emotional impact, either.

The self-regulating aspect of understanding metacognition offers concrete strategies for developing resilience and coping with all kinds of high stress situations.

If a teacher wanted to understand more about metacognition, what books or websites would you recommend for starters?

Well, although I might be accused of bias, the EEF guidance report is genuinely a really good place to start – its based on well over a thousand research papers, and does a great job of simplifying the concepts and providing concrete strategies and tools.

Cambridge International also has a good website, ‘getting started with metacognition’, and Dylan Wiliams explains it very well, too.

There aren’t many books and documents available, surprisingly – but Metacognition, by John Dunlosky and Janet Metcalfe, is definitely worth a look.

What do you think is the most common misconception people have about metacognition.

That you can be ‘generally good at it’; that if you are able to plan a trip or sort out your bedroom, you’ll automatically be great at problem solving in maths.

Whereas in fact, metacognitive skills need to be subject specific.

You need a set of strategies to plan and write a good essay; and that will be different from the set you need to conduct a sound physics experiment.

And finally… what is the single most important thing you think every trainee teacher should be taught before standing in front of a class of teenagers for the first time…?

That’s a really hard one! But ultimately, it’s about good classroom management and organisation; and asking really great questions.

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