Where is the metacognition ?

It is obvious that there are differences between these two groups working on a similar task. There are many things we could say about the degree of collaboration between the pupils, about the role of the teacher in each session and about the general behaviour of each group. We must remember that the pupils are very young, between 5 and 6 years old, and not all of them have English as a first language although all use and understand English at a functional level. They have all worked on Let’s Think! activities once a week since the start of the Autumn term in September, so by this time they have quite a bit of experience of working as a group.
At the beginning of each session the teacher sets up the activity and introduces the children to the materials. In the first example Mrs Miller states the overall goal of the session. She provides the pupils with the big picture. The aim is to make a story out of the cards. She stresses that it should be one story, that is, an agreed story and that it should utilise all the cards. The pupils are quick to pick up on the idea that they must collaborate, but also that they need a plan of how to do it. At this early stage the pupils are not working at the detailed level of each card, but at the bigger (or meta) level of how to achieve their joint goal. Rather than jumping straight in and moving the cards around, these children are stepping back and thinking about how they might approach the task. They demonstrate that they understand the goal and, by suggesting that they need a plan, Amy displays some metacognitive knowledge. She shows that she is aware of a global strategy that may help them to achieve the goal. Planning enables us to control and regulate our thinking. It can involve both the allocation of resources (for example, how much time and effort might be needed for this task) and the selection of strategies (for example, what might help towards completion of this task). Along with other self-regulatory skills such as monitoring and evaluation, planning is a metacognitive activity. Amy’s knowledge that planning may be useful in this group situation is something that she has built up over time and with practice in other similar situations. It may be that at this stage Amy is not fully aware of the reasons for or the benefits of planning how to do a task before beginning, but over time this knowledge can be developed. At this stage it is enough that she realises that tasks can be planned and that this is generally a good thing to do.

In contrast, it is unclear whether anyone in Mrs Turner’s group has this level of metacognitive understanding.The way that Mrs Turner sets the session up is to choose for the children how the task should be approached. Her method of going around the group and selecting individuals to perform the task tends to hamper both collaborative activity and the opportunity for individuals to display and practise regulatory thinking.
It is not uncommon for people of all ages to jump into a task without planning. Planning can be especially difficult for children for a number of reasons (Ellis & Siegler, 1997). Firstly, it involves inhibiting the desire to jump straight in. This ability tends to develop with age. Secondly, children tend to believe that they can succeed in a task without planning. Thirdly, planning risks wasting time and effort, especially if in the end the plan does not lead to success. Fourthly, planning can lead to losing sight of the actual task, especially in group settings, when all the effort may go on the planning rather than on the task itself. Finally, the effects of not planning are often ameliorated for children by parents, teachers or other adults.
In Mrs Miller’s class we see how the children go on to discuss different strategies for completing the task. Charlie and Andy use their knowledge of a strategy they have had success with in other Let’s Think! tasks. They are drawing on one aspect of their stored metacognitive knowledge or knowledge about thinking. Andy and Charlie obviously have some knowledge of strategies of categorisation, however Martha and Amy realise that this particular strategy is inappropriate for this task. They have begun to differentiate between strategies and to use their self-regulation skills to think about this particular task in relation to their stored knowledge of different strategies. Mrs Miller’s interjection asking Martha to explain her feeling that categorisation won’t work is important here. It enables Martha to refocus her thinking onto the overall goal — to make a story. If Mrs Miller had not facilitated Martha’s thinking at this point, she may have lost track all together and become stuck with the feeling that categorisation would not work without articulating for herself and the group why she felt that. Certainly, as we get older and more experienced much of this metacognitive regulation and control of thinking can become automatic and we may not always need to bring it to full consciousness, but in order for this to happen we must first have practised articulating our thoughts and receiving feedback on them.

Mrs Miller provides a similar function when she asks Sarah what made her think of jigsaws. This enables Sarah to anchor her present thinking in her own past experience, thus enabling her to build metacognitive knowledge about herself. Sarah articulates that she knows how to do jigsaws. This may not be a useful metacognition for this particular task, but it could become so for future tasks. Mrs Turner, too, provides a space for Issy to use her knowledge of a daily routine to explain why she has placed the ‘putting on clothes’ card first. Unfortunately, the lack of collaboration in this group makes it impossible for Mrs Turner to establish the usefulness of this type of thinking for the task. When later on Chloe talks about washing hands after touching animals, Mrs Turner tries to refocus the group’s thinking onto the task, but she misses the opportunity to comment on how drawing on past experience might help thinking in the present. In Mrs Miller’s group this seems less necessary because the children are engaging in thinking at this level anyway, but Mrs Turner’s group could do with some help in establishing individual metacognitive knowledge through group interaction.
Metacognition is often referred to as ‘reflective thinking’ and, of course, it is a reflection on different aspects of thinking as seen above. However, the notion of reflection tends towards a belief that metacognition should be found at the end of the lesson, when pupils are encouraged to reflect on what they have learned or on how they have met the learning goals. In both of the above Let’s Think! episodes the teachers attempt to facilitate this kind of reflection. Mrs Miller has the advantage of working with a group who collaborate well and who are capable of continuing with a task when she is not present. She asks the pupils to reflect on what made the task easy or difficult and what may have helped them. The answers she receives, while likely to be fairly standard answers in the mid to late primary years, show a good deal of metacognitive thought for Year 1.The children refer not only to their own thinking processes, but also to the familiarity of the task itself and to the collaborative nature of the group in order to account for their success in reaching an agreed story.
However, if we look further back into this episode we also see that the children are continually monitoring and evaluating their progress towards their common goal. Martha and Amy both evaluate Andy’s suggested strategies and Sarah’s task comparison. Amy also monitors the group’s progress and indicates why, when they have spent time on the task, they have not yet achieved their goal: ‘Look we still haven’t made a story ‘cos the bed is in the kitchen’. Thus, in the Cherry Tree example, metacognition occurs throughout the task rather than in a special reflection section at the end.
Mrs Turner may have intended to engage the group in a reflective episode at the end of the lesson and she does begin to by asking if everyone is happy with the story that Chloe has made. Unfortunately, time runs out and she is unable to pursue any more meaningful metacognition.

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Lets Think Handbook Copyright © by Alex Black. All Rights Reserved.

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