Metacognition is linked to a natural development of children’s cognitive ability often called ‘theory of mind’. Theory of mind is the understanding that people other than oneself think and that different people think differently. As children grow older they become more aware of their own and others’ psychological processes. When asked about the self, younger children concentrate on the overt and the visible, while older children are more likely to respond in terms of their interior world (Rosenberg, 1979). This development continues into adolescence with teenagers often showing a fixation on introspection. Older children and teenagers become more attuned to their own and other people’s inner worlds. If children of different ages are asked whether an adult sitting quietly was thinking or not, only 15% of 3-year-olds claim that the adult was thinking, whereas 80% of 6-year-olds said the adult was thinking. In a similar experiment the researchers asked children if a particular child could go for three days without thinking if they tried really hard. In this study 50% of the 5-year-olds said the child could go for three days without thinking, whereas only 10% of 9-year-olds thought that this was possible (Flavell, Green & Flavell, 1993, 1998).
In classic ‘theory of mind’ tests children are asked to predict whether another child will answer the same way as themselves given a limited amount of information. So in the Smartie° tube test the child is first shown a closed Smartie tube and asked to guess what will be inside. Naturally the child guesses Smarties, but the researcher then opens the tube and shows that it really contains pencils. Then the child is asked to say what she thinks a friend would say was in the tube, if the tube were closed again and she came into the room. If the child answers ‘Smarties’ then it shows that she understands that the friend does not have the same knowledge as she does about the contents of the tube. However, if the child answers ‘pencils’ it indicates that she cannot imagine someone not knowing what she knows. She is unable to differentiate her own perspective from that of others and is said to lack theory of mind. Interestingly, whenever this study is carried out, very few 3-year-olds are successful, whereas almost all 4-year-olds answer correctly, and by the age of 5 all typically developing children have this level of theory of mind.
While theory of mind is seen as a precursor to metacognition, it is by no means clear what the developmental path of metacognition looks like. It is clear that many adults never develop a level of metacognition — either knowledge of their own thinking or monitoring and control of that thinking —to be of use to them in either academic or social life. It is evident that metacognition requires some form of support or even direct instruction if it is to develop to a sufficiently useful level.