Why is metacognition important ?

In general, pupils with effective metacognitive skills accurately estimate their knowledge in a variety of domains, monitor their ongoing learning, update their knowledge and develop effective plans for new learning. (Everson &Tobias, 1998)
We all hope that when our primary school pupils move up through school and on to college, work or university that they develop such skills and become independent and self-regulated learners. However, it is clear from the complaints we hear from employers, college and university staff that this is not always the case.

On closer inspection, we find that the highest achieving pupils have already developed metacognitive processing. They work strategically and when asked can explain how they are working. Understanding themselves as well as the tasks they are engaged upon helps with motivation and persistence. These are the pupils who have successfully negotiated the demands of the curriculum and developed their own learning to suit their goals. However, other pupils, including many at university level have never managed to develop this conscious awareness of learning. As learning becomes more self-orientated and less directed during higher education, it is these pupils who begin to suffer, with consequent loss of motivation and increased levels of stress.
Across all subject domains, experts or skilled practitioners have been found to have greater levels of metacognitive skills and knowledge than novices in those domains. In reading for instance, skilled readers are known to use a range of cognitive and metacognitive strategies including using prior knowledge, monitoring their own understanding, asking self-orientated questions, realising difficulties with understanding, re-reading or using other strategies to aid comprehension and summarising sections of the text (Hacker, 1998). Some of these processes are operating at the cognitive level, i.e. they are directly related to understanding the text, while others are operating at the metacognitive level and are designed to monitor and control the cognitive level strategies. Good readers are strategic readers (Pressley & Afflerback, 1995). They approach a text with an aim and they are aware of that aim and what it implies for their reading. They may be reading for pleasure and so know that time is not an element. They may want to savour every word or rush through the text, driven on to find out what happens next. Good readers make judgements about the length of the text, the time it will take to read it compared to the benefits of finding the required information and will then make strategic judgements about which parts of the text are likely to be most beneficial. They use their own knowledge and experience to relate what they are reading to what they already know. Metacognitive knowledge about reading strategies, understanding of oneself in relation to reading and conscious monitoring during reading are all essential elements of good reading. These metacognitive processes allow the reader to transfer this knowledge about reading across different kinds of texts, in different situations and for different purposes.

In science education, both understanding of scientific concepts and some understanding of how scientific knowledge is constructed are known to be important factors in moving beyond the most basic level of scientific knowledge. Young children often hold on to intuitive conceptions of natural phenomena that differ substantially from scientific explanations. They may believe that non-living things are in fact alive; they find difficulty in explaining cause and effect relationships and they are likely to approach a problem-solving activity without taking account of all relevant factors.

In the Let’s Think! activities, finding explanations for shadows or why different bottles containing differing amounts of rice roll or do not roll down a slope lead to speculation based on intuition rather than logic. Here is Elm Tree School again experimenting with a triangle shape, a torch and a piece of paper.

Teacher What do you think causes the shadow? It is reasonably easy for this type of task to become a guessing game until the correct answer is reached, usually by the teacher asking more and more leading questions until the pupils guess what is in her mind.
Leo The light.
Teacher Anything else?
Leo No.
Sam The paper.
Issy It’s not any of them, it’s the triangle. The triangle makes the shadow.
Cloe I know, it’s the batteries, the batteries make the shadow.
In the ‘Living?’ activity in Let’s Think! children have to decide how they are going to sort out a pile of 24 picture cards so that ‘those which are alike are together’. Here the difficulty is slightly different from the last example (Cherry Tree School).
Teacher Tell me why you have put them into these different piles. The problem here is that the children are both unaware of classification systems and unaware of how to decide whether something belongs to one category or another. They lack the metastrategic knowledge that will provide them with strategies for making these decisions. They also have beliefs about the sun, but are unaware that knowledge needs to be evaluated and tested against reason or scientific understanding.
Sarah Because these things are alive and these things are not.
Teacher Is the sun alive?
Amy Yes, it makes you grow.
Teacher Why have you put the jellyfish and the cooker over there?

Some of the pupils’ misunderstandings about the nature of things will naturally fade with age and with increasing knowledge about the world. However, misunderstandings of scientific concepts are highly resistant to change (Champagne, Gunstone & Klopfer, 1985). Even when people accept the agreed canon of understanding about scientific concepts they can harbour secret beliefs and opinions that counter this outward agreement and these inner beliefs may persist into adulthood. Science educators need to include an understanding of teachers’ and pupils’ existing beliefs about natural phenomena and an understanding of scientific knowledge and investigation. Metacognitive knowledge is aimed at understanding the nature of knowledge as well as understanding one’s own learning strengths and weaknesses, and its development is an important component of the general process of cognitive development.

In mathematics there is a need to solve problems logically and often using a step-by-step process. In the past the use of mathematical strategy was thought to be purely cognitive, involving retrieval of facts from memory and the automatic application of different calculation strategies. Children of all ages find it difficult to explain how they have solved a mathematical problem. Some of the strategies that they are using have become automated by middle childhood and are not easily articulated. However, children often fail accurately to judge the difficulty of a mathematical problem or accurately to predict whether they will be successful at solving it (Siegler & Shrager, 1984). A common assumption about teaching metacognitive processing in areas such as mathematics is that a limited working memory capacity in young children means that they have no room for reflecting on their thinking. Mathematics requires that children use all of their working memory capacity to solve the current problem.

More recent work on mathematics, however, has shown that children do possess and use metacognitive processing in mathematics to their advantage and that when evaluation and regulation strategies are taught, they improve their own monitoring of their problem solving (Carr, Alexander & Folds-Bennett, 1994). Metacognition, motivation and strategy use are linked and work together, so that pupils who use monitoring and regulating strategies while completing maths problems are more likely to believe that success in mathematics requires effort. This type of belief is known to enhance motivation to do well because pupils believe that they have some control over their own success. Contrast this with pupils who either feel that they are ‘naturally’ good at maths or ‘naturally’ poor at maths. Metacognition is thus linked to wider benefits than academic test results might show.


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

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