One of the moral essentials of education is personal empowerment. We must enable young people to take greater control over their learning and indeed their lives. It is not surprising that many of the low cost, high impact interventions outlined in the Education Endowment Fund toolkit centre on independence. One of the best approaches in the scientific literature, developed through action research and from meta-analyses of pilot studies in schools, is the development of independent learning through Self-Regulation – Motivation, Cognition and Metacognition.
Motivation – our willingness to engage our cognitive and metacognitive skills and apply them to learning. Motivational strategies include convincing yourself to carry out a complex revision task now as a way of doing well in a future test.
Cognition – the mental processes involved in knowing, understanding and learning. Cognitive strategies, such as memorisation techniques, are fundamental to acquiring knowledge.
Metacognition – the way learners monitor and purposefully direct their learning. Metacognitive strategies are strategies we use to monitor and control our cognition, such as checking that our memorisation technique was accurate.
The Sutton Trust/EEF recognise associated techniques as being high impact relative to other interventions and very cheap to employ. Another beauty of the techniques is that they are embedded in quality first teaching and therefore develop all attainment levels and needs.
What is Metacognition?
In brief, metacognition is about the ways learners monitor and, purposefully, direct their learning. It is often referred to as ‘thinking about thinking’ and/or ‘learning about learning’. While there are frequent references to neuroscience and many of the terms associated with metacognition appear complex, the concepts and strategies are quite simple.
Both teacher and learner need to be clear about the task, in terms of prior knowledge and the strategies the can be employed to be successful. The teacher and learner also need to be self-aware in terms of what is known and unknown and habitual aspects that prevent or encourage learning.
What is the science behind it?
As a prefix, meta- means ‘after’ or beyond’ and therefore, metacognition concerns the often abstract background to cognition; i.e. the way that we need to think in order increase the efficacy of learning. When faced with a new task, we have choices regarding how we use our habits and experiences. We can apply what has worked before, rather than repeating mistakes. Also, when we have completed a task, we can reflect on it and think about what we can change or apply the next time we are faced with something similar. These are simple examples of applying metacognition.
Recent work in neuroscience has demonstrated that the brain has ‘elasticity’. It can expand and contract. When we employ skills to a task, neuronal connections form in response to the thoughts, actions, and sensory input that occur during learning through a process known as synaptogenesis. Pathways are generated that can be re-used. The more we use these neural pathways the more habitual the approaches to a task or impetus. Because the brain- and intelligence- is not static, it means that we can encourage successful neural pathway development and discourage the one’s that are not successful. We can learn the best ways of learning and be more efficient!
Teaching and Learning with Metacognition
Teaching metacognition should be quite straightforward as, in it’s simplest and most effective application, it involves the teacher being explicit about the thinking behind tasks and how to achieve them. In simple terms, it’s ‘good’ teaching and learning where both teacher and learner are clear about the knowledge and skills required. We aim to incorporate metacognitive approaches into lessons, with the aim of encouraging learners to employ them and, with time, become more independent, resilient and effective learners.
Role in our curriculum
Knowledge and strategies are at the core of metacognition. They encourage mastery in mathematics, reading and writing. Some strategies are subject specific, some are transferable. Thus, metacognition and the Mantle of the Expert are complimentary and success in one area leads to success in the other. The fundamental purpose of the MoE approach is learning in context and children are required to learn how an expert habitually thinks and acts- which is at the core of metacognition.
In both areas through teaching and learning strategies we:
- Activate prior learning
- Explicitly encourage metacognitive strategies
- Model learning
- Develop memorisation strategies
- Guide practice
- Promote independence
- Provide ample opportunities for reflection
As a result, we aim to develop habits that help learning in children at school, in future academic settings and provide vital skills for life-long learning and the work-place.