Practical Advice For Developing Metacognition In School (A Follow-Up Piece)
Last month, I wrote an article (see existing article here) about developing metacognition in our classrooms. This followed the publication of the latest PISA findings which recommended the use of metacognition programmes to maximise the achievement of disadvantaged pupils. The article unpicked what we meant by metacognition and considered how we could develop metacognitive strategies in the classroom. Following publication, school leaders shared with me how they developed metacognition in their schools. It is these practical suggestions which are the focus are are outlined below.
What Do We Mean By Metacognition?
You will recall that metacognitive strategies are the strategies learners use to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning.
In the classroom context, ownership of the learning process transfers from the adult to pupil so that pupils select the approaches to use, monitor the effectiveness of these approaches and reflect on which ones were successful and where else they might be applied.
Strategies Which Have Worked In The Classroom
Following our earlier publication, senior leaders have shared some of the approaches which have helped pupils think metacognitively in their schools. These are the strategies they have used:
Everyone in the school – head teachers, site manager, pupils – all learn a new skills during the week. Each person chooses their own skill: some might choose to learn how to play an instrument, others how to count in Welsh or build a bird box.
It doesn’t matter what the skill is as long as it is new to the learner. This is important because mistakes are to be expected when a skill is new. Pupils need to experience opportunities to struggle and overcome difficulties in order to develop metacognitive thinking. If they do not have these opportunities they would not have a need to monitor or evaluate their learning; it would be automatic.
The Steps Involved When Learning A New Skill
When considering how to learn the new skill (the planning stage) learners are encouraged to consider what they are being asked to do. They review which strategies they would use and whether there are any strategies which they have used before that might be helpful.
Whilst learning the skill, (the monitoring stage), learners reflect on whether the strategy they have adopted is successful or whether they might need to try an alternative approach.
Once the skill has been mastered, teachers ask learners to reflect on the effectiveness of the strategy they chose (the evaluation stage) in order to identify approaches which could be used in other, different contexts. Questions teachers might ask would include:
- ‘What didn’t go well and what could I do differently next time?’
- ‘What went well and for which other types of problem can I use this strategy?’.
Since everyone in the school is engaged in learning the new skill, adults can model out loud how to ask themselves metacognitive questions. Metacognitive questions can be displayed in classrooms and around the school. All adults can discuss the metacognitive cycle with pupils across the school and language stems can be provided to facilitate metacognitive talk, enabling pupils to learn from each other.
A Variation Of ‘Metacognitive Week’ Is ‘Metacognitive Assembly’
This is similar to the details above but rather than learners choosing a different skill, the same new skill (such as knitting or juggling) is introduced in an assembly. Everyone in the school learns this new skill together and the planning, monitoring and evaluation process above is modelled by adults in the same way. A second assembly is used to share strategies pupils used to learn the new skill and to discuss which might be useful in a different (academic) context.
Now that things are becoming more normal and the prospect of having external visitors seems possible, some school-based visits lend themselves to reinforcing the metacognitive discussions. For example, circus skills are opportunities for pupils to plan how they are going to successfully juggle. Monitor the success of the approach they chose (making changes if necessary) and reflect on the strategies they used, considering other contexts in which they might be applied.
Make Deliberate Mistakes
Deliberate mistakes are a staple in our teaching armoury. What may be different with regard to metacognition, is the teacher’s ‘thinking out loud’ centres around the choices which the teacher has made and which alternatives might be better.
For example, the teacher may share how they learned the spellings for the week. When spelling a word, the teacher would make a deliberate mistake. At this stage, the focus of discussion would not only be on the correct spelling, but also how the spelling has been learnt (for example, by using mnemonics). As well as this, which other strategies might be more successful (for example looking for words within words).
Mirror moments are weekly dedicated slots when pupils across the school have time with their teachers to reflect on the week’s work. In groups, pupils discuss work they found hard, which strategies they found helpful and in which other contexts might the strategy be useful. Initially, the group would be led by an adult. As pupils become more familiar with the process, some groups may be able to manage these conversations themselves and feed back to the teacher verbally, or in diagrammatical form.
Weekly Learning Frames
Similar to Mirror Moments, Weekly Learning Frames encourage pupils to evaluate their learning (as well as provide retrieval practise and opportunities to develop oral skills). Weekly Learning Frames follow the same structure each week. The class teacher asks pupils to consider the same series of questions every time. Questions might include:
- ‘What do you remember that you have learnt this week?’
- ‘Which strategies helped us to remember?’
- ‘Which strategies helped us to understand?’
- What did we try that was new this week?’
- ‘Which other strategies could we try?’
- ‘What can adults do to make it better next time?’.
In groups, pupils compare the strategies they used, and which worked for them. This is then recorded by the teacher on a mind map, which is dated and posted on the classroom door on top of the mind map from previous weeks.
Senior leaders said that the most challenging aspect of the metacognition cycle was encouraging pupils to engage with the monitoring phase. During this phase, pupils need to take stock whilst they are in the middle of completing a task. They need to decide whether to continue with the same strategy or try a different approach.
I am sure we can all think of pupils who just want to finish and who would find this hard.
This is where it is helpful for teachers to structure the lesson so that all pupils stop and take stock. One strategy might be to pause the lesson after about ten minutes in to independent or group work. Teachers ask pupils to mark their page with a colour dot. A green dot would indicate that the strategies used are helpful and pupils should continue with the approach. Red would indicate that another approach should be identified and implemented. After evaluating their work, pupils discuss their approaches with a partner and, if necessary, identify alternative approaches together.
For some pupils, getting started is the most difficult part of working independently. It is difficult to plan how to tackle a mathematical word problem, for example, from scratch. Teachers can help by discussing and displaying a range of strategies which pupils have used before such as using a model, breaking down the problem in to smaller parts or re-wording the problem. These strategies are not metacognitive strategies themselves, but they enable learners to choose how to tackle the problem. It is the choice which is metacognitive thinking.
If you are considering developing metacognitive strategies in your school, we hope the ideas above are useful. Thank you to all the head teachers and senior leaders who have contributed these suggestions.