In my recently-appointed role as a Lead Learner, I have been charged with delivering a series of six enquiry sessions for teachers on the theme of Metacognition*. Both a challenge and a privilege to lead such a great, diverse group of teachers with varying levels of experience and responsibility, I’ve been taking my research very seriously.
(*For more information on our CPD Programme, designed by my colleague, Phil Stock, see his blog post here.)
The sequence of posts I intend to write over the course of this year will 1. outline key areas addressed in sessions, 2. share questions that have arisen from our group discussions (sometimes as a result of the pre-reading that has been set), 3. offer points of interest from research studies that I continue to contemplate at each stage.
I should make it clear from the outset – I have no doubt in my mind that metacognitive strategies can significantly enhance the learning of an individual, be they 5 or 95. With a grandparent of 89 who recently completed a BA degree in Humanities, I (and I know he does too) fully adhere to the notion that a high dose of metacognition and self-regulation can vastly improve the educational journey for a learner. It is the whos and whys and whens and hows that I believe need further thought.
- We defined the term ‘metacognition’
Put simply, metacognition is ‘thinking about thinking’. It is the process by which a learner becomes aware of their own cognitive processes and, as a result of this, makes a deliberate response to any given stimulus.
- We considered the theoretical background
A summary of Jean Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development were shared, comparing the similarities and differences between this earlier work and the later work of John H. Flavell on the Theory of Mind; namely that Flavell perceived metacognition as a skill that occurs much earlier on in development than Piaget first thought.
- We acknowledged the distinction between cognition and metacognition
Cognition = all mental processes and abilities in which people engage on a daily basis such as memory, learning, problem-solving, evaluation, reasoning and decision making
Metacognition = thinking about thinking. It allows us to complete a given task well through planning, monitoring, evaluating and comprehending, making a person more aware of his/her cognitive processes
- We identified the two main strands of metacognition
a) knowing about cognition and b) regulation of cognition
We considered learning activities that would fall under each of these two headings, understanding that many cognitive psychologists would not consider metacognition to have taken place unless the regulation of cognition stage had been completed. If knowing aspects of one’s own learning does not lead an individual to adjust their working habits in order to lead to greater learning capacity, then the full process of metacognition has not yet finished.
- We analysed research ratings of metacognition
Sharing the Education Endowment Fund’s (EEF) Toolkit rating, we acknowledged the positive impact that metacognition can have on learning, aware of the low cost and high strength of evidence in employing metacognitive strategies in the classroom.
- We recognised the importance of teaching metacognition explicitly
As teachers, we cannot possibly assume that all learners possess an innate ability in metacognition, a skill often determined by inherited traits or exposure to various models witnessed in the home. There is a real need for us to demonstrate how to employ metacognitive strategies in order to enhance the learning journey. Back in 1999, the DfEE stated,
“There is a need to be explicit about what we mean by better forms of thinking. If students are to become better thinkers – to learn meaningfully, to think flexibly and to make reasoned judgments – then they must be taught explicitly how to do it.”
I then illustrated this by showing a video clip on John Tomsett’s blog post (the student-student clip at the bottom of the post), where a student verbalises his own thought process, which he undertook to reach a correct mathematical answer. It is this environment of sharing thoughts and strategic steps that will give students the opportunity to question and reflect on their own thinking.
- We considered effective formative assessment techniques
Drawing on the wisdom of educational researchers such as Dylan Wiliam, we looked at why and how multiple choice questions can act as a great metacognitive teaching strategy for learning, posing a demand on learners to adopt higher order thinking techniques to reach a particular answer.
- We learned that metacognitive strategies MUST be rooted within a subject domain
A tecnique that requires students to step back from the learning process and consider their own thinking can not be taught as a discrete tool, isolated from a subject area. The purpose of metacognition is to reflect on your own learning in order to enhance understanding and, by the nature of learning, this can only be attributed to a particular subject area at any given time. Without the foundation of subject knowledge, metacognitive tools could be considered somewhat redundant. As Joe Kirby, Assistant Headteacher and Head of English at Michaela Community School, Wembley, states,
“Over the last three decades, cognitive science has come to a conclusion that is scientifically robust: critical thinking skills require broad background knowledge. This is the reason why teaching abstract skills devoid of facts such as ‘evaluation’, generic strategies such as ‘skimming’ and unchallenging content like celebrities, TV, Twitter and Cirque du Freak doesn’t help academic achievement: the opportunity cost.”
He goes on to say,
“When my class struggles to think critically about a text, it’s often because I’ve starved them of the deep knowledge they need.”
Questions that arose during the session:
- Aren’t some of us employing some metacognitive strategies already in our classrooms?
- Do some learners already possess strong metacognitive strategies and therefore require little instruction on how to employ?
- Is there time to teach these strategies on top of curriculum content pressures?
- How great is the role of genetics and do we have much influence?
- What is the role of executive functioning in relation to this?
It was a super first session with a great range of contributions from the teachers present. Biased for sure, I struggle to think of a better way to enhance our own classroom pedagogy than through collaboration with other teachers who possess a wealth of knowledge and experience that is different from our own. Surely gathering as a group of professionals to wrestle with these complex but game-changing concepts could potentially have significant impact on the lives of our learners.