What exactly is ‘metacognition’ I hear you say? Well, you’re not alone in feeling insecure around a definition, as even experts vary in their response to that question. A frequent translation is; ‘thinking about thinking’, but using that explanation doesn’t acknowledge ‘meta’ as a prefix, which means ‘going beyond’ or ‘transcending’ whatever follows.
In this instance, meta is followed by ‘cognition’, so we need to think about what that signifies. Cognition usually refers to all the mental skills required for learning, ie; gaining knowledge, appreciating it’s significance, and then being able to use it, either in real life settings or imaginary ones.
So, meta-cognition is when a mind turns attention on itself (and what has been learned), usually for the purpose of making changes to the thinking process in order get more productive results.
Cognition by itself is a natural unconscious process that we use from birth onwards to learn about our environment and our place in the order of things. We learn to walk and talk at a very young age without using any mental effort, driven by our own curiosity and without any real sense of ‘self’. It’s a very effective way of taking on board information (sometimes called primary learning), and serves us well in the early years as we pick up a great deal of information from our own experiences, whilst soaking up what happens in our surroundings.
Once we start in formal education however, the expectation is that we will gradually transition into using ‘secondary’ learning, the process of taking in information from being taught by someone else, rather than through our own experience. Now learning becomes ‘conscious’, requires mental effort, is driven by expectation rather than curiosity and a sense of ‘self’ becomes essential, because metacognition is what enables learners to make effective progress within education.
For a range of reasons, many children do not make a successful transition from one kind of learning to the other and very quickly fall behind their peers. Physical disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders, language barriers, executive function disorders, a poor self-concept, the impact of trauma and specific learning difficulties all have an impact that reduces a learner’s ability to use secondary learning effectively.
We also now have the impact of Covid19, which has taken a toll on the mental health of learners, disrupted education to the point of widening the disadvantage gap, and caused even previously confident learners to start struggling. When formal education is required by law, quite a large proportion of students feel that schooling is something imposed on them against their will, and as a consequence create a further barrier, that of passive engagement.
There are no quick fixes to any of these issues, but there is the opportunity to establish a new normal, where learners don’t have to feel lost or unable to engage, whatever barriers they face. There is a sustainable solution that lies within the power of teachers (who have also felt the draining impact of teaching during a pandemic), and which genuinely implemented in practice will lighten their load.
You’ve guessed it. We introduce students to their powers of metacognition.
The ten characteristics of a metacognitive learner are;
(#) Indicates a link with Mental Health
I hope you can see now why I state that we can support both mental health and academic outcomes for all learners through the use of metacognition. As teachers we have to recognise this as a process that goes on inside our learner’s heads, so the emphasis has to be on their learning, rather than our teaching. This means making slight adjustments to the way in which a traditional classroom functions, but as students develop a metacognitive approach to their learning, they become more independent, more motivated, more aspirational, and more responsible for their own progress, making life easier for the teacher. I therefore invite you to consider the following.
As a starting point, we must help students recognise that they need have an active role in the learning process! A fairly straightforward way to do this is to plan the kind of lessons where the students can learn from experience, rather than being taught. Let them find out what you want them to learn rather than telling them. That requires a bit more of the teacher at the planning stage, but if you think more about ‘how’ your students will learn something, ie; what activities you can put in place to help them, your role in the classroom becomes easier. The learners are more engaged and invested in the results whilst you are free to support them from the side-lines.
Another way to help learners play a more active role is to provide ‘whole brain’ experiences! The learning brain can be divided up in various ways, but however you choose to do it, the fact remains that the more of the brain that is engaged at any given time, the more memorable the learning will be. Consider the following three options;
Right and left hemispheres - one hemisphere focuses more on practical aspects of learning whilst the other is more facts based. Both halves however perform more efficiently if they are engaged at the same time! So, when planning, ask yourself; ‘Will this lesson involve physical activity of some kind for my students?’(Introduce some if not!)
Thinking and emotions (Frontal Cortex and Limbic System) - to ensure that both are engaged in the same activity, ask yourself; ‘Will this lesson engender some kind of emotion for students? (Their memory traces will much stronger if so.)
Conscious and subconscious - which means arousing the natural curiosity that comes with ‘cognition’ (even whilst following a curriculum). When planning, ask yourself; ‘Is this activity novel enough to arouse the curiosity of students so that they want to know more?’
As teachers we are responsible for creating an environment that is conducive to learning. If we want learners to be more metacognitive, then they need to become comfortable with the learning process. Are you providing a safe, non-judgemental space so that they can do that effectively?
Metacognitive learners are prepared to leave their comfort zone and face challenge, are happy to make mistakes and learn from them, and practice until they get it right! We need to help students embrace that natural, experimental way of learning from ‘experience’, by providing well planned activities, with the time, space and encouragement that empowers learners to achieve even beyond their own expectations.
Support your learners mental health and academic outcomes more effectively by introducing them to metacognition through your classroom practice.