Unleashing The Power Of Metacognition

By Nathan Burns

The first in a series of enlightening articles exploring metacognition, from its theoretical underpinnings to practical strategies, to enhance classroom practices and empower students’ cognitive development

I think that we’ve all got things that we love a little more than others, that are a little unusual. Some people love train spotting. Others love waxing their car. Some love colour-ordering their bookcase. For me, it is metacognition. I’ve shared my love of metacognition previously – blogs, podcasts, and recently my first book (with more in the pipeline). Excitingly, this piece marks the start of a series of articles on metacognition, walking you through from the complex theory and misconceptions, into strategies that you can use and apply directly into your classroom. These pieces, over the coming weeks and months, will hopefully give you insight into the theory and lead to improvements in your own classroom practice.

I’m going to start with the why of metacognition. Why should you change and hone your practice? Why metacognition and not something else?

Firstly, is the EEF. As you’ll be aware, the Educational Endowment Foundation summarise the impacts of dozens of different educational interventions. Of all these strategies, metacognition is the one with the greatest positive impact.

If that doesn’t convince you, then perhaps OFSTED will. In their recent summary of what makes high-quality CPD, coverage of metacognition is highlighted. This is important, and not just to tick an OFSTED box, but rather because OFSTED criteria are determined by educational research. If metacognition is an included criterion, it must be worth it!

Besides the EEF and OFSTED, there are of course numerous other studies from the last 50 years which support the positive impacts of metacognitive teaching across all educational stages and subjects, which aren’t hard to find.

So what is metacognition?

My favourite definition from the literature is from Flavell (1976):

“I am being metacognitive if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A then B; if it strikes me that I should double-check C before accepting it as fact.”

This definition provides such clarity – emphasising how metacognition is an evaluation of our thinking at all stages. I’ve also endeavoured to formulate my own definition, which is as follows:

The little voice inside your head that constantly evaluates and informs your actions.

The emphasis here is on the constancy of metacognition. This evaluation of cognition is constantly occurring and should also constantly inform future actions.

Metacognition is more than just ‘thinking about thinking’ – a commonly coined phrase of the early noughties. It involves a consideration of your planning and the outcomes of your cognitive actions. However, it is no surprise that pinpointing exactly what metacognition is is so difficult. If you are practising ballet, you have a huge, mirrored wall to see what you are doing. If you are learning to drive, whacking a kerb, or getting hooted will quickly make you know that you’ve gone wrong. Yet metacognition is invisible. Let us consider the planning of a lesson:

Before: What do students need to learn? What is their prior learning? What strategies have worked when teaching this topic previously? What behaviour management strategies work with this group and these students in particular?

During: Are students understanding as much as they should? Do you need to change the methods shown? Do you need to push students on or take a step back?

After: How far did students get and how do you know? What worked well in the lesson and what would need to improve the next time you teach the topic? What changes are you going to make in your approach to the next lesson?

Hopefully, this illuminates the metacognitive thoughts going on here. Equally, this scenario should highlight how metacognition occurs continuously. Much of what we are doing is already metacognitive and this is what makes metacognitive teaching so appealing. It is not a completely new strategy to implement, but really a tweaking of certain aspects to rapidly accelerate the progress of your students.

So, this is the what and the why. Now, it is crucial that you understand the nitty gritty of the theory. I really believe that the more you understand the theory, the better the implementation will be. Strategies are so specific to the situations that you are in – the year groups, subjects, and student behaviour, amongst other variables.

Firstly, you will need to understand the difference between the two sub-strands of metacognition. The first is knowledge of cognition, and the latter is regulation of cognition. The knowledge strand refers to the understanding we have of our own cognition, such as our knowledge levels, our content knowledge, and the approaches which we can take to completing a task or problem. The regulation strand references the control and monitoring of our own thinking – that is the evaluation of strategies which we use.

In turn, these two strands get broken down further. Let us begin with the knowledge strand, which is broken into ‘knowledge of self’; ‘knowledge of strategies’; ‘knowledge of task’. The knowledge of self is an individual’s knowledge of the content required to complete a task. Does the individual have the information that they need to be able to approach this question? The knowledge of strategies defines the different approaches that could be utilised to complete a task, as well as a strong knowledge of how to use them (i.e. not just knowing that the use of e.g. a Frayer Model may be helpful, but also knowing how to set it up and use it effectively). Lastly, knowledge of task refers to the individual understanding of the specific requirements of the task or problem that they have been given, such as key command words or outcome criteria.

The cognition strand itself is also broken down into three different areas, which are planning, monitoring and evaluation. These three areas complement the three areas of knowledge of cognition well, as will now be shown.

Firstly, planning refers to the consideration of how to approach a task, for example, including an evaluation of task criterion, the strategies available to complete a task, and their comparative effectiveness.

Secondly, monitoring refers to the ongoing evaluation of the progress being made towards the competition of a task. Here, an individual will be reviewing if things are going to plan, if changes need to be made or if they require support to be able to complete the task.

Lastly, evaluation is the consideration of the effectiveness of the complete task completion and will include reflection such as whether an alternative approach is required next time, gaps in knowledge of content and skills required and whether task criterion were effectively met. In turn, these evaluations should inform future planning, providing a continuous improvement loop.

I’m aware that this is quite heavy and can be quite confusing. I urge you to take the time to re-read and potentially summarise these key notes on metacognition. The strategies to be explored in future weeks will reference these areas of metacognitive knowledge and cognition, with each strategy supporting student development in one or more of the subset areas.

Final thoughts

To finish off this introduction to metacognition, I’ll briefly consider a few misconceptions. Metacognition is not something new, either as a theory (being traced back at least a century) or as a pedagogical tool in schools (having floated in and out of popularity in different guises over the last 50 years). Because of these reasons, plenty of misconceptions have evolved and embedded themselves into common opinions on the theory. The most concerning of these misconceptions is that metacognition is only for high-attaining students.

Though it is true that metacognition can only begin where cognition is cemented, this does not mean that it needs to be reserved for high-attaining students. It is also true that highly attaining students are more likely to have stronger metacognitive skills, but again, this does not mean that it is only these students who should have their metacognitive abilities strengthened. If a student is weak cognitively, or weaker metacognitively, and is not given the opportunity to develop their metacognition, then they will never actually improve their skills, and so will continue to be metacognitively weak.

This is an extremely negative loop, cemented through the belief that students aren’t able, whereas they actually are. In addition to this misconception are several others I have written about previously, including believing that boys cannot be good metacognitively, focusing on non-SEN students and that metacognition can only be improved in older students. The key point to come away with is that metacognition is for all.

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