Metacognition is becoming another buzzword in education that is ill-defined, poorly understood, yet uncritically heralded as the answer to life, the universe, and everything. My fear is that it will become a further distraction from the tough, unglamorous, but necessary work in the classroom that really helps students; especially the disadvantaged and the prior low attainers.
Leading English GCSE resits in a large college, I witness the biannual, heart-sinking, rage-inducing domino collapse of students at the hour mark in our mock exams. We run the full, formal mocks to feel as much like the real thing as possible, including permitting the professional invigilators to tell the students the bit about being allowed to leave after an hour. Of the many hundreds in the main exam hall, a small handful of resit veterans expectantly await the hour announcement and then make their exit.
They are the pebbles that start the landslide. Those who would have otherwise continued to work feel the lure of their friends leaving, hear the clank of chairs pushed triumphantly under tables, and the liberated chatter from outside. The temptation is too much and they also leave, adding to the growing pressure on others.
After the December round of mocks, I resolved to do something about it. As part of the feedback process, I explicitly discussed the issue with my students. We watched videos about the famous Stanford marshmallow test, an experiment where children are given a marshmallow and told they can have a second one if they resist eating the first one for fifteen minutes. In the 1990s, that ability to delay gratification was linked to greater success later in life.
I discussed with my students what they did in the time they gained from leaving the exam early, which was usually little more than sitting outside waiting for their friends who had opted to stay, and I asked whether the gratification of leaving early was worth sacrificing a few more marks that might get them the grade they wanted.
Echoing the Stanford trial, I placed sweets on their desks at the start of the lesson and promised more if they waited until the end of the lesson before they tucked in. This latter was partly tongue in cheek; of course, teenagers intellectually grasp delayed gratification and they could obviously wait a bit to double their sweetie haul. The problem in the exam hall wouldn’t be solved so easily.
Background and income
In fact, the original findings of the marshmallow test have been undermined anyway by a new study last week, as reported in Tes, that increased the sample size and controlled for factors relating to income and background. The researchers found that the children of wealthier, more-educated parents were better at controlling their impulses. So we’ve stumbled upon another serious educational barrier for the economically disadvantaged.
The advocates of metacognition will tell you that this is exactly why disadvantaged students need to explicitly learn how to learn. Metacognition, like homeopathy, has many enthusiastic adherents but very few who can explain how the properties of one thing magically transfer to another. Learning to wait for a second marshmallow isn’t the same as learning to use all of your exam time and the evidence for abstract metacognitive interventions improving academic ability is weak.
It was after our second round of mocks at Easter, where the domino effect was noticeably less than in the first, that I realised the necessary intervention was not the marshmallows and my patronising lectures, but the mocks themselves. The barriers for my students include their lack of confidence, their fears, and their undeveloped stamina for an intense, two-hour exam. Those are all addressed through practice in the mocks and also through the practice of extended tasks in class.
One of the deterrents to us providing useful practice is the misguided notion that learning is only possible if lessons constantly carousel activities, rather than provide extended focus on the skills learners need time to master. Ofsted has tried in vain to bust the myth that a “range of activities” defines outstanding teaching. I wrote recently that there should be a range of activities in teaching, but over time.
The danger of metacognition is that it has been hastily snapped up as a shiny, quick-fix, but it ultimately patronises and short-changes our disadvantaged students when what they really need is to benefit from the same expectations education has of their wealthier peers.
If the exam they are going to take requires them to write for an hour, then we should have a culture where writing for an hour is explicitly understood to be a valid activity in outstanding teaching, rather than a culture that hypes talking explicitly about how you might feel if you hypothetically had to write for an hour but that doesn’t actually make you do it.
At the time of writing, I don’t know how many of my students will make the best use of all the time they are given in the English exams this week, but those who do will have benefited from the calm, professional focus that a college environment offers and from practising extended tasks. They will have gained much more from mock exams than from marshmallows and metacognition.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity Shine.