5 common mistakes when teaching pupils how to learn

Metacognition is the new trendy thing in schools – but it's not as simple as it first appears, says Nathan Burns
8th December 2020, 3:00pm
Nathan Burns


5 common mistakes when teaching pupils how to learn

Metacognition: Five Common Mistakes Made By Teachers Trying To Bring It Into The Classroom

Teachers have always known intuitively that they need to focus on teaching pupils how to learn, alongside teaching them the content they need to learn. However, in recent years it has become more of an explicit aim in schools due to the rise in discussions around metacognition.

Metacognition, commonly known as 'thinking about thinking', is an area that has become increasingly popular, particularly since the release of the Education Endowment Foundation guide on Metacognition and Self-Recognition two years ago.

MIstakes with metacognition

The trouble is, this is an area that is easy to get wrong. Indeed, there are five key mistakes that are frequently made.

1. Picking the wrong strategy

The easiest place to go wrong with metacognition is picking the wrong teaching strategy to address an identified area of student weakness. There are three broad areas of metacognition: planning, monitoring and evaluation.

Before jumping straight in with a metacognitive strategy, is it crucial to identify:

  • a) What student's weaknesses are (such as difficulty in monitoring their progress);
  • b) Which metacognitive strategy would best support students in addressing this weakness.

If you don't take time to consider where students are metacognitively weakest, you won't be picking a suitable teaching strategy to help them to develop.

2. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

It's true of any activity, that if you fail to prepare, you may as well prepare to fail. Though much of high-quality teaching does support students' metacognitive development, highly successful student metacognitive development will not occur unless it is planned for and evaluated (much like the rest of our teaching).

Therefore, if you're wanting to develop your metacognitive teaching, make sure that you carefully consider which strategy you want to use, the purpose of this strategy, and ensure it is integrated into your lesson, and not just a bolt-on activity, question or discussion.

3. A lack of content

Metacognition is a hugely complex theory, and the strategies employed by teachers can often be quite confusing. If it's confusing for us, it can be even more confusing for students.

Getting students to just consider their "thinking about thinking" is likely to fall flat on its face. Metacognition needs to be integrated within the content of a lesson. Students can only begin to grasp the metacognitive ideas of planning, monitoring and evaluation where they are linking these requirements to previous/newly learned knowledge and/or experiences that they have had.

4. If at first you fail, try and try again

If at first your metacognitive teaching doesn't seem to work - students appear confused, questions remain unanswered and discussions are limited in depth - then don't give up. It will take some time for students to understand what you are asking of them. Gradually increase your expectations of students, and remember to scaffold and model any metacognitive strategy you are using (such as exam answer analysis, graphic organisers, exam wrappers and so forth). Students will slowly but surely meet the expectations you have of them.

5. They got it before - why don't they now?

It is often confusing when students appear to show good metacognitive understanding in one area, but then not in another. In one topic or subject, a student might be able to evaluate their strategies well, comprehend task requirements consistently, and evaluate their work effectively, but come another topic, they seem like they're back to square one. This is expected.

Unfortunately, metacognitive "ability" doesn't translate very well from one area to another. Metacognitive abilities are content- and strategy-dependent, and so in a new topic where content and strategies are different, so will a student's metacognitive ability be. Therefore, for each new topic, treat each student as a metacognitive novice, regardless of the previous prowess that they might have shown.

Nathan Burns is an assistant progress and achievement leader for key stage 3, as well as a maths teacher

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