Metacognition and ability

A few years ago I talked to a Year 1 teacher about the numeracy hour and what happens in the plenary session at the end. She said that she used this part of the lesson to ask the whole class questions about the lesson: ‘What have you learned today?’ or ‘What do you think I wanted you to learn?’.
She went on to describe the response of her class of 5- and 6-year-olds:
My more able children really like thinking that they have learned something. The less able don’t know what they have learned and don’t know how to answer that question. It’s too cryptic for them.
Is metacognition just for the able? The research evidence shows a correlation between metacognitive skills and giftedness. In a study of the metacognitive knowledge of gifted 6- and 7-year-old pupils in an American elementary school, researchers found a significant difference between gifted and non-gifted children (Schwanenflugel, Stevens & Carr, 1997). However, it was on specific aspects of metacognition that gifted children scored highly. While both groups of children understood many aspects of metacognition including how different strategies might help them to remember, the gifted children were more likely to infer causal and contextual attributions. For instance they were more likely to understand not just that it can be hard to stay concentrated on a task, but when and why it might be difficult to do so. It is this type of metacognitive understanding that is likely to influence conditional knowledge, that is when, why and how to make use of metacognitive knowledge and strategies. High ability children tend actively to seek out strategies for learning regardless of the teacher’s presence, thus acting on their internal metacognitive awareness.
However, while gifted children do show greater awareness of their own learning and the strategies that they can use to achieve their goals, it is not clear whether it is their higher ability which allows them to reflect on their thinking, or whether reflecting on their thinking enables them to learn better and thus achieve more. It is likely that metacognition and cognition form a positive loop, so that greater awareness of self as learner and self in relation to a particular task will enable these children to realise the gaps in their knowledge and give them the strategies to seek out the information necessary to fill these gaps. This is likely to lead to more self-knowledge and positive feelings of being able to affect their own learning, thus developing more metacognitive awareness and skills. It is this positive loop that we should be aiming for all children to achieve.
A Year 2 teacher I spoke to about children learning to write said:
My high ability children don’t want to slow down and think about how they are doing their work. They don’t see the point, because they can already do it. The less able though find rehearsing their sentences out loud first really helpful.
So teachers may be up against challenges with both low and high ability pupils when they try to incorporate teaching for metacognitive development into their lessons.
The link between metacognition and intelligence is a complex one. Metacognitive skilfulness is related to intelligence but has a value over and above intelligence level. Recent research studies show that metacognition contributes to performance on a set of inductive learning tasks over and above intellectual ability. Only 2.4% of the difference in performance on these tasks could be accounted for by intellectual ability, whereas 14.4% could be accounted for by metacognition (Veenman, Wilhelm & Beishuizen, 2004).
Regardless of the intellectual ability of pupils, development of metacognition can improve performance on academic tasks. Bear in mind, however, that metacognition is not directly measured by normal assessment methods and so is often a hidden component in academic achievement.

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