Metacognition consists of a number of different kinds of thinking and reflecting but they all have in common a concern with cognition. The distinction between cognition and metacognition has been made in different ways by different theorists, but most agree that cognitive skills enable us to perform a task, while metacognitive skills enable us to understand, monitor and evaluate our progress in a task (Garner, 1987). Metacognition can be divided into stored metacognitive knowledge built up over time and experience, and regulation and control of thinking.
Metacognitive knowledge may be declarative, which would include everything we know about ourselves as learners and thinkers and everything we know about thinking in general. This includes what we know or believe about memory and our capacity to remember different things (metamemory), what we know or believe about our levels of concentration and attention and what we know or believe about our ability in different domains (Flavell, 1979). It is metacognitive knowledge about ourselves, about tasks and about strategies that enables us to use our cognitive skills in different tasks and domains.
Procedural knowledge is knowledge about how to do different tasks (Schraw, 1998). We build up a stock of cognitive strategies and heuristics (problem-solving methods) through practice on different tasks. Our knowledge of these strategies and our awareness of knowing them allows us to employ them appropriately.
The third aspect of metacognitive knowledge built up over time is often called conditional knowledge (Garner, 1990). Conditional knowledge refers to knowledge about how to use our declarative and procedural knowledge.
Metacognitive knowledge is thought to be stable and stateable (Brown, 1987), that is, it is knowledge that is stored in long-term memory and is available to conscious thought. Most adults can and do articulate metacognitive knowledge about their own thinking or about themselves as learners. However, it is possible that we may build up negative metacognitions about ourselves as learners in a particular domain and this can lead to problems with motivation and a desire to give up on certain subjects. Year 1 pupils are at an early stage of building this metacognitive knowledge, so it is important that they experience success in different types of thinking and different types of task.
In addition to stored metacognitive knowledge, we have seen how children as young as 5 and 6 years old can begin to monitor and evaluate their own thinking and that of others. It is these skills that are most often taught in thinking programmes. Improving children’s planning skills may improve other types of regulation such as monitoring (Schraw, 1998). Enhancing these skills by encouraging children to verbalise their thinking may improve their ability to regulate their thinking across different tasks and ultimately to achieve success in different tasks.