We all know that metacognition – pupils’ understanding of themselves as learners – is important. But knowing how to develop it in the classroom, particularly when there are so many other competing demands on our time, is more complicated.
Metacognition: Teaching students to think about their thinking
For anyone interested in developing “thinking about thinking” in their own classrooms, here are some ideas that can help:
1. Talk more about less
Try considering fewer questions or tasks during a lesson, but talking about these in significantly greater depth.
So if we were looking at percentages in maths, for example, we might only consider two or three questions throughout a lesson, but we would invest a lot of time in unpicking these.
We would talk about what prior knowledge we might need before we began. We would talk about our initial thoughts about the question – did it look hard? Why? We would think of multiple different ways of finding the answer, and then compare these to say which we preferred and why, considering which was most efficient.
Talking about our ideas in detail means that the thinking taking place in the classroom becomes more visible. This has helped me, as teacher, to understand my pupils’ current level of understanding and how to address any misconceptions.
But it also allows pupils to hear how other children understood the concepts they were grappling with, and the strategies they used to overcome particular challenges, becoming metacognitive role models for each other.
2. Think out loud
It isn’t just written examples that can make a real difference in developing children’s understanding of what effective learning looks like. Thinking aloud while modelling writing, reflecting on a passage of text, or completing a written method in maths can also help to broaden children’s understanding of the types of thinking they can draw upon, and the strategies that we, as more advanced learners, use in our own work.
This approach can be particularly useful in modelling how to react to setbacks or errors: by trying a new strategy, proof-reading and correcting, and maintaining a positive, resilient attitude rather than becoming frustrated or giving up.
Recognising that adults make mistakes, too, can be a powerful learning experience for pupils, helping them understand that learning can sometimes take time, and that tenacity is an essential learning behaviour.
3. Make questions key
Developing metacognition means shifting emphasis from the answer or learning outcome towards the process used to achieve it. Questions such as “How do you know?” encourage children to explain their reasoning. This allows us, as teachers, or – even better – other members of the class, to then ask follow-up questions to dig deeper into their thought processes, as well as to offer suggestions where appropriate.
I encourage children to ask each other questions as they work. I initially give them question prompts to scaffold their interactions, such as “What could you do to improve?”, “What went well? And Why?” and “What helped you to be successful today?”
Over time, I found that children asked each other questions more naturally, and that the types of questions they used changed, shifting away from just asking each other for answers, and towards comparisons of their ways of working.
For me, one of the benefits of these strategies is that they can be incorporated into any lesson. They don’t require a lot of preparation or resources, but are more about changing our mindset and focus within lessons in order to emphasise the importance of thinking and talking about how we learn.
Even better, I’ve found that using strategies like these sets the tone for our conversations in the classroom, ultimately supporting children to take a more active role in their own learning.
Dr Kirstin Mulholland is a lecturer in education at Northumbria University