Pupils and staff alike should learn how they think

The modern world calls for teachers and students to take time to reflect, review and learn, says Simon Camby

Brain Editorial

These days, new ideas about “best practice” in the classroom are published every day. It is an indication that educators are increasingly taking ownership of their own destiny, and with social media making the sharing of ideas so easy, teachers have constant instant access to new and exciting suggestions from around the world.

Though this is exciting, there is an associated danger. The ideas badged as “best practice” are, more often than not, untested in any reliable way. This means that teachers could be implementing practices that do not impact positively. Worse still, they could be having a negative impact on learning.

Perhaps rather than “best practice”, we need to consider “effective practice”. Thankfully, we now have access to a body of research that helps us know what sits in the area of effective practice: the work of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is hugely accessible and allows teachers to see what works, and how much it costs.

Similarly, the work of John Hattie, from the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, helps us get to grips with what he terms “visible learning” – aspects of teaching that can be seen to makes a difference.

Both the EEF and Hattie cite the development of metacognition in our students as a highly effective approach to securing progress over time. Metacognition is not an instantly easy word to understand – people sometimes glaze over. But in my experience, once it is explained, people “get it", and “want it”. It is a powerful concept that can make a significant difference to our students.

At its simplest, metacognition is the ability to explicitly reflect on and think about your own thinking. The ability to stand outside yourself and look in. It is about understanding your own cognitive abilities, how these are used, and about the strategies that you employ. In turn, there is an evaluative element – asking, “How well did they work for me?”

This simple description sounds straightforward but can take some time to develop and nurture. The great thing is that there is a strong research base that leads us to believe that the development of metacognition is malleable; we can teach it, and people can get better at it.

The development of metacognition naturally leads on to the Holy Grail that most educators are working towards: self-regulation. The ability to self-regulate one’s own thinking and behaviour is a hugely powerful attribute, and an amazing gift for the lifelong learner.

Here is an example of metacognition in action in the classroom.

In practice: a Year 6 maths lesson

The pupils are working in groups as part of a summary of their unit of work in mathematics. The groups, of four to five pupils, are working on some challenging problems which have been set by group facilitators. The facilitators are aged about 10.

There are two strands to this learning: the correct completion of the mathematical problems using the strategies and language previously taught; and the development of metacognitive thinking.

Towards the close of the lesson, the pupils begin to evaluate their learning. It is apparent that this is entirely natural and routine for them. The stand-out feature is the absolute ease with which they talk about themselves as learners using advanced language. At the same time, the facilitators meet to discuss the performance of their respective groups.

Within the classroom, there is a complete sense of respect and trust. This is evidenced by the way the children readily talk about their successes alongside their struggles and failures.

The teacher invites the young facilitators to give feedback to the whole class and asks them to single out specific individuals in their groups for special mention. The feedback focuses on approaches to learning:

“[Pupil A] stood out because of the way they used their previous learning from two areas of maths. They got stuck but they persevered. At first, it wasn’t easy so we worked through the problem step by step.”

“[Pupil B] found ways to solve the problem by talking it through with a partner using several methods until they agreed on the best approach.”

Lessons learned

What this case study demonstrates is metacognition in action. It would be easy to suggest that these pupils are somehow different from the norm (though, of course, every school is different).

Perhaps the major difference is that this school has been focusing on the development of metacognition for a number of years. It is part of the induction for all staff, and they return to it and share effective practice.

The other stand-out feature in the class is the obvious culture created by the teacher; a culture of respect and trust.

You might be wondering what the teacher was doing in this example. She was moving around the groups and modelling, through dialogue, how to ask questions which promote thinking and reflection. She is hugely skilled, and two stand-out features are apparent: she has an excellent relationship with her students so can push and probe without them feeling uncomfortable, and she doesn’t appear to need to be the “expert”, or finish every conversation herself. She happily empowers her students in this area.

While only one example, it shows that metacognitive traits were developed through students planning, monitoring and evaluating their own thinking and processes. The real icing on the cake was the culture of trust and openness where students readily chose to be open about both successes and areas of weakness.

We know that academic success alone is not sufficient in terms of making a difference for students. Students are going to enter a world of work that is underpinned by ambiguity. They are going to work in jobs that do not yet exist. They are probably going to have a number of different careers.

As a result, students need strong academic outcomes alongside strong character development. Surely a central aspect of this character development is metacognition: being able to understand what has gone on in a situation, understand why you responded the way you did, and being able to then use that to self-regulate in future situations.

At its core, this is an amazing ability to possess in all walks of life. A metacognitive approach is not only beneficial for pupils and classroom, but for members of staff too.

Think about your everyday life at home and at work. Are you able to identify the people who you would suggest take a more metacognitive approach? I can. Metacognition isn’t about classroom learning, it is about life learning. Colleagues who can reflect, review and learn from it are demonstrating metacognition in practice.

So while the EEF and Hattie's research is compelling and a call to arms for all teachers, I would argue that it has a broader imperative – which is about helping to make our workplace and communities better places to be. A place where people consider others, take a moment to think, and learn from their own actions.

Simon Camby is group director of education at the Cognita group of schools.

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