Facilitating metacognition

When John Flavell began to develop a model of metacognition in the late 1970s, he claimed that learning to think about and monitor your own thinking would not only be useful for academic purposes but also for making ‘wise and thoughtful life decisions’ (Flavell, 19791. He suggested that metacognition would be more likely to develop in situations which require a good deal of conscious thought, where there are no distractions and where there is some difficulty, i.e. cognitive conflict. All the Let’s Think! activities are designed to provide situations for pupils where they can experience this cognitive challenge and learn to work through difficulty in collaboration with others. The teacher’s role in facilitating these activities and challenging the children to discuss and explain their thinking provides a supportive model for developing metacognition. My own research has shown that, for teachers to be successful in provoking metacognition in their pupils, they need to develop and model their own metacognitive processing. Once teachers take on the development of their own metacognition, their attitude towards supporting the children’s metacognitive development changes.
One teacher told me:
I didn’t use to engage with my own learning at all, I just received the information and did the tasks. I have a very good memory so I could learn things by rote and that’s how I passed all my exams. But now I impress on my class that we are all learning together. My style has completely changed, it’s less focused on behaviour and much more on learning. Before I used to ask them why they had done things but I wasn’t really engaging with the answers. Now I tend to ask how they got there or how do they know that, and they ask each other those questions now. I don’t say, ‘Hey you’ve learnt something new’, but I do say, ‘Hey, great thought, we can use that thought’. I’ve done a lot of modelling about thinking too. Yesterday Melody had a good thought in RE and I said well that’s a good thought and that’s made me think of this and then I showed them how my thought linked to what Melody had said. I give lots of praise for thinking too, instead of just praising the right answers. If you do it because you really mean it, the children realise that thinking is valued in this class. We get just as much work done as before, in fact their behaviour is better than before, but the focus has changed and I think I’m learning about myself as well as teaching them.

Conclusion

Facilitating metacognition in young children begins with the teacher wanting to develop his or her own metacognition and then providing an environment which will give children metacognitive experiences. Although the environment of schools sometimes makes it difficult for in-school learning to transfer to the outside world, or for knowledge and skills learned outside to transfer into the school setting (Okagaki & Sternberg, 1990), the development of metacognition crosses these boundaries. Metacognitive processing is just as important in real life situations as it is for school-based learning.
Facilitating metacognition in the classroom requires that pupils get lots of practice in different contexts. Thus providing metacognitive experiences needs to be a whole school approach and run across all curriculum areas. Simply reflecting on what has been learned at the end of the literacy or numeracy hour will not provide children with enough different ways of practising their thinking. School-based work needs to provide the messy, open-ended and multiple solution tasks that real life presents and to challenge children to be aware of how they are thinking as well as what they are thinking.
As we found when developing the Let’s Think! materials, young children can engage in metacognitive thinking when given the right context, when they are provided with the language necessary to talk about their thinking, when they can collaborate and learn from others, when teachers give priority to thinking and model their own thinking and when tasks require planning, monitoring and evaluation.
Developing metacognition in young children is not only about asking the right kinds of questions or providing thinking skills lessons. Developing metacognition is a part of the way we attribute importance to learning, to how we understand intelligence either as fixed or as malleable, it is instrumental in motivation to learn and is important for understanding and taking part in the social world as well as the academic world. Teachers already know how to facilitate the development of metacognition but too often it is squeezed out by a perception of the curriculum as a body of knowledge that has to be ‘delivered’. Cognitive acceleration seeks a re-balancing of this perception.

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