Thinking about thinking

Last week I posted about the importance of metacognition and reflection in the classroom. I’m a strong advocate of teaching children these essential thinking skills from a young age, and I believe this should occur parallel to instruction and be well-integrated into classroom practice. Today I’m going to further discuss metacognition and the benefits for emphasis active construction of metacognitive skills in the classroom.

Metacognition literally means ‘thinking about thinking’ or ‘knowledge about knowledge.’ Elements of metacognition include reflecting on the nature of thinking and learning; an awareness of one’s own limitations with respect to learning, memory capabilities, and time frames; an understanding of what strategies are effective and ineffective; capacity to plan and execute tasks; effectively employing strategies to acquire and remember new material; understanding when knowledge was obtained successfully; and monitoring comprehension.

Why should we teach metacognitive skills? Teachers are constantly under pressure to integrate more and more information into already crowded currricula and we’re constantly bombarded with the latest ‘holy grail’ for teaching. Metacognition, to me, just seemed like another thing I ‘should’ do, but would find difficult to actually implement. However, after trying it out in my own classroom I’ve found there are numerous benefits, and it can be seamlessly integrated with minimal ‘disruptions’ to regular teaching practice.

Students with more developed metacognitive awareness perform better academically. Improvements in metacognitive strategies are associated with an increased abilities to formulate internal questions. As a result students are better able to self-evaluate and hence improve performance. Students with poor problem-solving skills tend to have lower metacognitive awareness.

As students’ metacognitive skills improve they are better able to apply successful work habits, develop effective learning strategies and experience more enjoyment in the learning process. Strategic control of executive function is refined and there are increases in problem-solving ability and capacity for reasoning and self-regulation.

Students are motivated to learn when they believe they have more autonomy over the outcomes of their learning. Improving metacognitive awareness is an avenue to improve the sense of autonomy they feel over their learning, as students have more choices that they can make during the learning process and hence are more empowered as learners.

Research concerning metacognition has been applied to studies of literacy skills, reading, comprehension, problem-solving, language, communication, attention and perception. It has been proposed that students as young as three or four possess metacognitive knowledge and this knowledge can be used to improve academic performance.

Students with a wide repertoire of metacognitive strategies typically have better self-efficacy and higher perceived self-competence compared to their peers. This in turn can improve attitudes, motivations and dispositions about learning.

Generating a classroom environment that fosters student engagement and thoughtful discourse is a challenge all teachers face. Thoughtful questioning is one of the most powerful tool a teacher possesses.

Metacognitive strategies can be developed in a number of ways. Metacognitive knowledge is constructed, just like many other types of knowledge, supporting the constructivist approach favoured in most current curriculum documents (including the National Curriculum, NSW, QLD and Victorian curricula in mathematics).

I have found the most effective way for me to integrate development of metacognitive skills is through the style of question I ask.

Questioning allows students to plan their learning. Initially these questions will be teacher direct, but as students metacognitive proficiency expands they will be internalised and self-directed. These style of questions address where students are going (goals); how they are going (what progress they’re making towards their goals); where they are going next (sources for further action).

Alternatively questions can be divided into the categories planning, monitoring and evaluating. The planning stage occurs at the start of the task or lesson and assists students in prganising their thinking process and planning how they will attempt a task. The planning stage provides an avenue for students to link the task-at-hand to prior learning, thus providing a more integrated, contextualised, learning experience.

The monitoring stage occurs during a task. It is a process of constant re-evaluation, enabling students to work more efficiently to monitor progress and make any adjustments necessary to ensure they successfully complete the task.

Evaluating questions facilitate reflection on the learning progress, such as assessment of progress that was made, what was done well (and poorly), and what students would do differently where they to complete the task again.

In addition to integrating metacognitive strategies over the course of each lesson, at the conclusion of every lesson I ask students to reflect on the learning that has taken place that day. As I discussed last week students have been overwhelmingly supportive of my move to incorporate development of metacognitive awareness in the classroom. Students particularly spoke favourably of their increased capacity to plan and monitor their own learning, and their increased awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses. In addition, it supported the notion of ‘student-centred’ learning, and maintaining a focus on individual students’ achievements within the classroom.

Increased metacognitive awareness undeniably has a number of benefits for students. As a beginning teacher (I’m in my third year out of uni) I initially struggled to incorporate it in the classroom. It took me considerable time to understand the importance of metacognitive awareness and the manner in which it can be developed. Now that I have my head around it, and understand how easily it can be employed within my daily classroom practice, I can’t imagine teaching any other way.

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About madelinebevs

Mathematics teacher and researcher. Runner. I'm excited by mathematics education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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2 Responses to Thinking about thinking

  1. Well said! I have also written about the need to teach students metacognitive skills.

  2. madelinebevs says:

    I’ll check out your article! Thanks for commenting.

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