Sunday, 30 August 2015

Metacognition : Jumping off the high dive board into a sea of ‘thinking about thinking’

Metacognition : how do we grow our knowledge and expertise?

For the last eighteen months I have been growing and developing my knowledge and understanding of metacognition, and how it can utilised across both primary and secondary classrooms.  My passion for metacognition is based on a conviction that it can deliver superb improvements in outcomes for pupils and enable them to become ‘leaders of their own learning’.  Of particular interest to me is how metacognition links to developing growth mindsets, aspirations and learner beliefs.  Recent research has shown that raising aspiration is often not enough to enable disadvantaged pupils to close the attainment gap.  In fact, it can lead to great frustration as their desire to improve increases, but is not matched by a rise in their ‘learning skills’ to enable them to achieve their goals.  Metacognition is the missing key for many pupils. Improving metacognition raises attainment for all pupils, but has a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged pupils, therefore being a proven method of closing the attainment gap. Developing metacognitive practices is needed if pupils are going to achieve the higher demands of the national curriculum, perform well in more challenging assessments and respond to the emphasis Ofsted places on children having ‘ownership’ of their learning.

Metacognition is a critically important, yet often overlooked, component of learning. In recent years there has been increasing interest in how metacognition can increase pupil performance, but harnessing metacognition in the classroom, and across the school as a whole school ethos, is not an easy task and as educators we still have a long way to go in utilising this powerful research and set of theories.  It raises three important questions : how do we develop solutions that are effective in large scale secondary schools, what does metacognition look like at different phases from birth onwards, and how do we share the emerging practice in schools?

Successful learners are highly metacognitive. They have an ‘internal dialogue’ that operates as they learn. They ask themselves questions such as ‘what am I trying to achieve?’, ‘where should I start?’, ‘do I understand this?’, ‘do I need to re-read that last paragraph?’, ‘am I on the right track?’, ‘do I need to change strategy?’, ‘if starting again, would I approach the task differently?’ They think about their own thinking. They take control of the learning process. They are reflective, self-monitoring and self-correcting. Luckily, we can teach pupils how to be more metacognitive. We can support them to make progress in how they learn and in turn help them to become more independent learners.

One way we can start to tackle metacognition is to break it down into more manageable chunks.  Schools, teachers, departments, etc., can focus on an element of metacognition, either with all pupils or perhaps particular year groups.  The majority of research leans towards metacognition being entwined within subjects as being the most effective way to develop pupil skills, but separate programmes can complement a  whole school approach.  The best way to train pupils is to provide them with challenging situations, tasks and learning activities that would naturally require pupils to engage in deeper thinking.  Metacognition is especially needed when faced with a task that requires planning beforehand and evaluation afterwards; where actions are both weighty and risky.  This is why metacognition has a higher impact when explicitly taught through naturally occurring learning activities within subjects, as pupils can see how and why metacognition helps them and there is a genuine reason to deploy metacognition. 

The long term goal is to ensure all teachers in the school fully understand the principles and theories of metacognition and weave this into their daily teaching, lesson design and curriculum, but this is perhaps too much to chew all at once. 

Metacognition: internal dialogue and self-questioning.
Metacognition and its role in supporting independent learning, e.g. increasing the impact of homework.
Metacognition and listening : improving skills
Metacognition and its role in plan, monitor, check.
Metacognition, beliefs, mindset and goals.
Metacognition and mathematics : e.g. problem solving
Metacognition and how it relates to accurate self-awareness, self-assessment and judgements of learning.
Metacognition and its link to using strategies for learning.
Metacognition and task variables: increasing independence, learning about learning, equipping pupils to take on greater challenges
Metacognition and reading : learning from complex texts
Metacognition and exam performance : e.g. exam wrappers, revision plans, revision knowledge and strategies.
Metacognition and person variables.


Focusing on individual aspects of metacognition provides a more manageable starting point for schools, whilst still acknowledging metacognition as a whole and its interlinking nature.  From the broad and fascinating field of metacognition research we need to hone in on specific aspects that are more likely to provide improvements to short term and long term outcomes for pupils.

Each of these segments has a body of research behind it.  One that can be linked to other important developments in areas such as cognition research, a growing understanding of why some pupils fail to make academic progress, neurology and wider aspects of psychology, such as Carol Dweck’s amazing work on growth mindsets.  Fitting the pieces together from a range of areas provides a comprehensive set of actions to support learners and increase the effectiveness of teaching.  We literally break up metacognition in order to dive down and get depth into each of these aspects.  I think the question is ‘what type of whisky would you like to drink?’  Too often schools are addicted to the quick fix rather than a quality, long term and sustainable approach.

There are a number of practical actions teachers can take to develop and emphasise metacognition.  For example, using ‘think alouds’ and modelling, providing scaffolding prompts and questions, giving pupils the opportunity to discuss their learning, and having structured, high quality reflection opportunities.  It’s important to turn research into very real tasks, resources and ideas that can be used in the classroom, providing a jumping off point from which teachers can develop their own solutions as their expertise grows.

This ‘jumping off point’ is exactly what I have been working on with a number of Leeds schools. The last twelve months have been very exciting, as part of my work as a freelance consultant has been working on a large scale initiative designed to expand expertise in the field of metacognition in Leeds secondary schools. The local authority offers the ‘Leeds Learning Partnership’ that enables subject and senior leaders to access a range of training and development opportunities.  The partnership is delivered by a team of local authority officers and school based practitioners.  A key theme this year, and for the next two years, is metacognition. The Leeds Learning Partnership is a brilliant model for growing expertise in this important area of educational development and enables there to be ‘many minds’ working on the same problem, trying out ideas, carrying out action research and sharing findings.  I am sure that not many cities in the UK are engaged in such large scale projects which considers how metacognition can be used to improve the performance of pupils and close the gap for disadvantaged learners.

The Leeds Learning Partnership engages over 28 school based practitioners, representing over 14 subjects, as ‘Learning and Teaching Specialists’.  As a freelance consultant, my work has involved creating and delivering training to this team, alongside key local authority advisers and consultants.  The Learning and Teaching Specialists have then used the metacognition training sessions to consider how it can be applied from a subject specific perspective.   This is a key ingredient in developing the city wide approach, rather than one message there is a growing body of teachers and leaders working together to develop and share subject specific metacognition knowledge and understanding.  This is a brilliant multiplier effect, like particles being heated, generating ideas as they move and collide.  The Learning and Teaching Specialists have used their expertise to develop subject training sessions that have then been delivered across the city, cascading knowledge and ideas, and encouraging school subject leaders to experiment.  This has led to some exciting trials in classrooms and fascinating ‘sharing practice’ sessions.  This year we aim to capture some of this amazing subject specific work to further expand school success with metacognition and start to get a depth of understanding that will lead to significant improvements. 

As metacognition is such a broach and complex area, it is essential that groups of teachers pool their findings and add to the growing base of published materials, resources and educational research.  I look forward to continuing this journey of development working with primary and secondary colleagues.

For those who like a more visual representation of how we might break metacognition into chunks, please see the ‘Tree of Metacognitive Thinking’ I have created.  In addition, I have created a jigsaw of basic ideas and subtle twists teachers can use as a starting point for exploring how they might develop pupils metacognitive skills.  I hope they provide a ‘jumping off’ point for your own exploration of metacognition.  I would love to hear from others about their work on metacognition.

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