5 myths about metacognition that we need to banish

Metacognition may sound newfangled and complicated, but it's actually the opposite - and something we should all be on board with, writes Nathan Burns

Nathan Burns

Profile of schoolgirl, with image of brain superimposed on her head

Metacognition has been a buzzword in the profession since the 2018 Education Endowment Foundation report on the theory. However, metacognition theory isn’t new.

In fact, educational theorists have been writing about the ideas of metacognition – the process of thinking about thinking, and assessing your own understanding – for well over half a century. 

But, as the years have gone by, this complex theory has been rewritten, re-explained, retaught and, unfortunately, confused. 

Therefore, despite the amount of recent high-quality literature on metacognition, there are a number of misconceptions that have developed. 

Here are five of them:

Metacognition is for the highest-attaining students

This myth has likely come about as higher-attaining students will typically be better metacognitive practitioners (due to having greater understanding of the subject content and more strategies with which to complete given tasks). 

However, it is actually often lower-attaining students who can show the biggest metacognitive development following high-quality metacognitive teaching. 

Lower-attaining students typically have fewer metacognitive skills, and so have more to gain from metacognitive teaching. But this does not mean, however, that the higher-attaining should be forgotten: metacognition is for students of all abilities.

Metacognition is not for boys

This myth has likely developed from the belief that only girls can revise well (and the further misconception that pretty notes and highlighted work equate to effective revision). 

Not only does an individual’s ability to revise not affect their metacognition, but their gender also has no impact. All students can improve their metacognitive abilities; their gender (or colourfulness of their revision notes) makes no difference.

Metacognition doesn’t suit my subject 

This misconception may have come about because much of the research into metacognition over the past 60 years has concentrated on science, mathematics and English. But metacognition is developed where there is cognition.

Where we think, consider information, utilise different strategies and so forth, metacognition can and will occur. All subjects require cognition, and therefore, metacognition can and does occur in all subjects.

My students are too young/old for metacognition

As metacognition often appears complicated, there is a presumption that only secondary school students can access it. Primary students are too young, and older learners have got it. This is completely incorrect. 

As soon as an individual starts using a range of strategies, they can be metacognitive. Therefore, metacognition is something that can be developed in a child as young as 2. 

Meanwhile, there is no upper age limit to developing metacognition. All individuals are constantly planning, monitoring and evaluating their cognition. Therefore, there is no age group that is not being metacognitive, and so all individuals deserve the opportunity to develop their metacognitive abilities through our teaching.

Metacognition needs standalone lessons

The final myth is that for metacognition to be developed, it needs to be taught separately from the curriculum and subject content. “Learning to learn” time is needed, and if it isn’t available, then metacognition ought to be forgotten.

However, metacognition can only be developed within subject- or content-based lessons, and not separate to them. 

Metacognition is reliant upon cognition – strategies and content – that we can use to plan, monitor and evaluate. Developing metacognition without cognition is an abstract and thankless task. Instead, metacognition needs to be developed with your subject lessons. 

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

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