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Metacognition Could Improve Progress – But Thinking About Thinking Isn’t A Subject In Itself

"The claim is that each year you spend ‘doing’ metacognition in the classroom, students will gain an additional eight months’ worth of instruction. Sounds good, huh? Maybe we should get ourselves some of the metacognitive good stuff."

  • Metacognition Could Improve Progress – But Thinking About Thinking Isn’t A Subject In Itself

Metacognition is, according to the Education Endowment Foundation, one of the two most powerful interventions teachers can put into place.

The claim is that each year you spend ‘doing’ metacognition in the classroom, students will gain an additional eight months’ worth of instruction. Sounds good, huh? Maybe we should get ourselves some of the metacognitive good stuff.

Before getting overexcited, however, we should ask, what is ‘metacognition’ - and can we teach it? Back in the 1970s, John Flavell came up with the concept and defined it as the ability to consciously regulate and monitor our thoughts.

Obviously, we do this all the time but what Flavell meant was that we should do it intentionally, that it should be deliberate and goal directed, involving planning a sequence of actions.

It’s not natural

This is something teachers need to explain repeatedly. Students should know there are broad principles and general approaches that structure and colour detail, and that they should deliberately seek and consider these before getting bogged down in the detail. It seems novices don’t spontaneously figure out that what isn’t learned, isn’t learned.

Experts not only have extensive specialist knowledge, they have also learned to step back and think about how to proceed rather than plunging straight in.

As teachers, we become accomplished at finding the structures of our subjects and isolating what’s relevant; we learn to tell the difference between general understanding and the deliberate application of general understanding.

But we’ve had to be trained to do this; it is no more ‘natural’, no more an innate skill for us than it is for our students.

Make it explicit

The good news is, we can teach children to be metacognitive by modelling and scaffolding what it looks like. For instance, to model critical awareness, pupils need to see it in action. We need to make it obvious the set of techniques we’re demonstrating is genuinely useful. We must think aloud.

Providing a running commentary of your thinking might seem odd at first, but it’s the only way pupils can see what being metacognitive looks like. Actively model the questions and ideas you keep actively running in your mind.

Then, when they know what it looks and feels like, help them do it independently. Encourage them to step backwards; to think about what they already know; to take a deliberately wide, overall view and to think in general terms; to consider related issues; to recall similar instances and compare them with the present situation; to be critical of information; to consider an author’s supposed purpose and read in light of it, and so on.

These are not innate habits, and they don’t transfer well to new situations, so we need to go over them again and again.

Strategies that work

Here are some examples of metacognitive techniques you can teach:

Mnemonics: Teach students to spell difficult words like rhythm (Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move).
Word roots: Demonstrate that finding the meaning of ‘revolution’ will also shed light on the meaning of ‘revolve’ and ‘revolutionary’.
Evidence of improvement: Show how an essay becomes more focused and better written as it is redrafted.
Seeing from another’s point of view – subtext: “What we really need to think about is what the author is up to – where are they coming from?”
Self-reflection: “I approached the task this way because ...”
Self-monitoring: “Slow down sir! I can’t take it all in. Can you tell me bit by bit?”

So, can we teach metacognition? Yes. But it is not a subject! Making pupils ‘meta- aware’ should be part and parcel of the process of teaching the content of the curriculum. If we get this right, pupils might well make additional progress. Arguably, this is what expert teachers do already; we just need to be more explicit about what we’re doing and, crucially, why we’re doing it.

David Didau blogs at learningspy.co.uk and is the author of several books, including What If Everything you Know About Education Is Wrong?; you can follow him at @LearningSpy

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