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Metacognition Series: 2 of 6

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This is the 2nd blog post of a 6-post series on Metacognition. You can find post 1 here.
(If you’ve read post 1, skip straight to the key themes below. I’ll keep the intro the same at the top of each post.)
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INTRO
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.)
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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.
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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.


8 themes from session 2:

  1. We recalled session 1 themes
    Teachers were presented with a challenging multiple choice quiz in order to familiarise themselves with themes from the first session, putting metacognitive strategies into action from the start. These were completed in silence (I know what a bunch of cheaters some of them are*). Following that, answers were shared in pairs and then “official” answers were revealed and discussed as a group.
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    *Joking. It’s all of them.
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  2. We grappled with the complexities of the pre-reading
    Engaging in a superb reflective conversation regarding the pre-reading material**, we discussed whether some of the research available on self-regulation might cause a teacher to feel somewhat impotent in attempting to promote metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies. One teacher questioned what impact we have as educators in developing a learner’s metacognitive skills, since the role of genetics appears to play such a significant part in this area. This was a heavy but fruitful discussion and, as the session progressed, many of the questions that were raised at the beginning were responded to in one way or another, thus leading us to resolve that we do have a big responsibility in this area – particularly with regard to:
    a) nurturing a calm, focused learning environment,
    b) modeling thinking strategies we expect our students to use, and
    c) continuing to establish effective teacher-student relationships, all of which can greatly enhance the learning journey.
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    **Pre-reading list:
    1. Daniel Willingham, Can teachers increase students’ self-control?
    2. John Hattie, Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, Ch. 9: Acquiring complex skills through social modelling and explicit teaching
    3. Education Endowment Fund, Metacognitive and Self-Regulation Strategies
    4. Research Leads Improving Students’ Education (RISE), “Metacognition Short RISE Case Study” (not available online)
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  3. We observed a metacognitive strategy in action
    Soon after the first session was over, one teacher informed me that they had completed the pre-reading and had planned to explicitly model a metacognitive strategy in their lesson the following day. Being the eager soul that I am, I requested that we filmed it and used it to share in Session 2, to which he kindly agreed. As a group, we watched a short clip of this strategy in action. The footage demonstrated the breaking down of a paragraph structure into smaller steps, with the students and teacher together verbalising the process before attempting to write. We considered the strengths of this model, with the teacher commenting on their lesson and expanding on details of the actions that followed.
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  4. We contemplated our current education system
    The question was posed to teachers regarding how much space we allow for thinking to take place in our education system. When we are planning and researching as teachers, we think. Of course we think. I’m certain that any half-decent teacher will be thinking when preparing for an upcoming lesson or series of lessons. I’m also pretty sure, though, that a good teacher will go one step further and think meta-cognitively about how to deliver an idea to a class full of pupils, structuring their lessons in accordance with that. Those good teachers are characterised by their initiative, prompting them to consider these questions when planning:
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    What should I teach? Why is this important? How will this connect to previous sessions? What prior knowledge do my students already have in order to make necessary associations with this new information, to enhance memory storage and future retrieval? What hurdles do I need to anticipate in the learning process? Which questions should I plan to ask that might lead to a greater understanding of this concept? What positive learning outcomes will we see if this is a successful lesson?
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    It is the difference in the thought processes between those half-decent teachers and those good teachers that matter.
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    As a profession, we need to be asking,
    ‘Does [our education system/my school/this unit of work/the lessons I plan] provide enough opportunities for learners to think deeply about ideas and concepts? Are we fostering a culture that recognises the value of independent thinking? Or have we taken the burden of thinking away from our students who wait at the ready, through no fault of their own, to be fed from the metaphorical spoon? <- Definitely a loaded question.
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    Two relevant clips from the same TED Talk by Dr Derek Cabrera, a cognitive psychologist in the US, were shared. The intention was to offer teachers an opportunity to contemplate how vital the process of deep thinking is for learners.
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    Metacognition Session 2b
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    Clip 1: Watch from 3.40m-5.13m
    *Spoiler alert*
    Clip 1 Summary
    Cabrera: “We are, as curriculum designers and teachers and educators, over-engineering the content curriculum, and we’re surgically removing the thinking so that our kids are simply following instructions, painting by the numbers and getting the grade.”
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    Clip 2: Watch from 7.45m-11.50m
    *Spoiler alert*
    Clip 2 Summary
    The 4 universal thinking skills Cabrera insists are essential for learners to engage in are:
  1. Making distinctions: the ability to define terms and create more sophisticated, nuanced ones. If learners can grasp definitions and take ownership of meanings and distinctions, they are “bringing something into existence”.
  2. Looking at the parts and the wholes of systems: the ability to identify the smaller parts that make a whole and that a whole is a combination of smaller parts – “they can construct new ideas and deconstruct old or existing ideas”.
  3. Recognising relationships: the ability to make connections between subjects. Our education system pockets learning into discrete subject areas, isolated from one another. Cabrera acknowledges the stark contrast between this format and the rest of the world. He argues that, “the world is a very interconnected place”.
  4. Taking multiple perspectives: the ability to view a situation/idea/relationship from a number of different perspectives. Cabrera suggests that, “everything looks different when you take a new perspective” and advises that this skill leads to increased empathy, increased compassion, increased pro-social thinking and emotional development.
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  1. We considered the infamous ‘Marshmallow Test’
    Studying the complexities of Walter Mischel’s notorious experiment on self-regulation and its findings, we acknowledged the vast contribution to education that this study and subsequent similar replications have made. Accepting the high correlation between those children who were able to deny themselves one marshmallow in the valiant effort to wait for another (after a substantial amount of waiting time) and their positive SAT scores/ healthy BMI scores/ lower rates of addiction or divorce etc., we agreed that this study did demonstrate plausible helpful findings in the area of metacognition. However, as a result of much research from later studies and the analyses of cognitive psychologists who have publicly critiqued the Marshmallow Test, it remains unclear whether we can safely assume that the results really did demonstrate different levels of self-regulation or not. Critics who find fault with Mischel’s early findings question whether the test revealed less about self-regulation and more, in fact, about an individual’s respect for authority or their response to a reliable stimulus. From this perspective, it could be argued that children who have greater respect or trust in authority are more likely to wait longer in a timed trial, in comparison with those who have lesser respect or trust for authority and are, therefore, less likely to wait.
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    In order to provide a balanced overview of the Marshmallow Test findings, one subsequent research study in particular was shared. In 2010, Rochester University in the USA replicated the study with one additional stage prior to the marshmallow test.
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    Metacognition Session 2aa
    Participating children were asked to sit in a room on their own, where the marshmallow test would be carried out later on. Before the test, each child was asked to wait in the room and decorate a piece of card that would be used to make a personalised plastic cup. All of the children were told by an adult that they could begin decorating the card with the few measly pencils available. The adult promised to return with a much better range of art materials in a few minutes, but the children were encouraged to make a start while the adult was gone.
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    Group 1 (the ‘reliable environment’): After a few minutes, children in this group received the better resources, as promised.
    Group 2 (AKA the ‘unreliable environment’): After a few minutes, children in this group were visited by the adult again but without the resources, apologising that they did not have the art materials they had promised.
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    It was after this additional stage that the original marshmallow test was then carried out. The findings were astounding. The average wait time in the marshmallow test for both groups are shown below.
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Metacognition Session 2 (1)

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Average wait times:
Group 2 (the ‘unreliable environment’):   waited 3:02 secs
Group 1 (the ‘reliable environment’):      waited 12:02 secs
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This is big stuff.
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If these studies reveal what they appear to reveal, this depth of understanding of our learners could offer some serious insight into the influences that shape self-regulatory behaviour. It is this contextual information that teachers could then lay as a firm foundation on which to establish the most effective pedagogical approach for a particular group of students.
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  1. We learnt that self-regulation is not inherently individualistic
    According to John Hattie, educational researcher and author of ‘Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn’ (2014), one’s capacity for self-regulation is not predetermined by their genetic make-up, but is more a result of the social constructs to which they have been exposed.
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    In his book, he states,
    “What has emerged over recent years is a conception of the individual placing self-control, determination and willpower, at the core. But there is a twist: the ability to use self-control is not an inherently individualistic matter. It is neither stoicism nor moral rectitude. Instead, it is a matter of social development and learning.”
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  1. We identified four possible categories of self-regulation
    A meta-analysis of self-regulation studies carried out in the Netherlands (2012) identified four key headings under which a plethora of self-regulation strategies could be grouped.
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    These are:
    1. Cognitive
    2. Metacognitive
    3. Management
    4. Motivation
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    Metacognition Session 2aaa
  1. We compared ‘self-regulated achievement’ with ‘self-regulated learning’
    Acknowledging the pressures of an education system where teachers have been continually judged on student performance rather than a more natural, steady progression of a much deeper learning, we engaged in a very civil but stimulating debate, where contrasting perspectives on the overall purpose of education were discussed.
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    I’m paraphrasing, but this was the general gist:‘What is our ultimate goal as educators? Are we teaching self-regulation simply for our students to then reach the work force and become exploited by employers? Or do we have a responsibility to guide and support them in their thinking as independent and mindful citizens?’
    ‘But don’t you have to demonstrate compliance in order to fit into the social construct of a workforce?’

    ‘Is an understanding of social norms, then, the same as churning out factory-educated children who are incapable of thoughts?’

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Questions prompted by this session:

  • In light of the research around the huge influence of those early formative years, what strategies can we employ to enhance the self-regulation habits of our learners?
  • How can the social constructs within a school environment (adult-student, student-student, adult-adult) positively model the power of metacognition and self-regulation?
  • Do we allow our learners enough time to think deeply about new ideas and concepts on a daily basis?
  • Do we offer opportunities for learners to make distinctions/ identify the parts of a whole and the whole as parts of a system/ recognise relationships/take multiple perspectives?
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    It was another energising session, fuelled not only by the research but also by the minds and experience of the teachers present. Following next week’s session (3 of 6), each member of the group – myself included – will have roughly six weeks to trial a number of recommended strategies, deeply rooted within their own subject domain, ready to share feedback on early observations when we meet for our 4th session in February.