Let learners take control

23rd February 2018 at 00:00
Techniques such as metacognition and self-regulation are levers that speed up students’ learning, say Lee Elliot Major and Steve Higgins

Some teachers were baffled by the technical sounding terms “metacognition” and “self-regulation” when we first presented the Teaching and Learning Toolkit seven years ago.

For those who may still be a little hazy on the exact details: metacognition simply means thinking about thinking or consciously directing your own thinking. And self-regulation concerns the way we manage our motivation and our feelings towards learning, persevering towards long-term goals and overcoming immediate distractions.

When properly embedded, these “learning to learn” approaches are powerful levers in the learning journey of pupils. Students can make an average of eight months’ additional progress over an academic year. So what do the approaches look like in practice?

These strategies encourage pupils to discuss with classmates three basic questions:

* How am I planning to meet my learning goals?

* How will I monitor whether I am on course to get there?

* How will I evaluate whether I have reached them?

One of the reasons that these strategies work is because they transfer control for managing a learning task from the teacher to the learner. Pupils take greater responsibility for their own progress and develop the habits that build their capability. They may even sow the seeds of successful independent learning.

That’s what every teacher wants. But it’s a tricky task. Too much support for pupils and they remain reliant on teacher’s prompts – too little support, and they can become disheartened and disengaged. If the task is too hard, then pupils cannot think about being strategic, if the task is too easy, there is no need to monitor progress.

Teachers need to use effective scaffolding, supplying prompts and help to pupils when introducing a new strategy; then pulling away when learners have established their own solid foundations.

This is a Goldilocks Problem – you have to get it just right. It needs considerable professional skill.

Four recent studies in English schools indicate what can be achieved, albeit at small scale.

Structured solutions

A 2014 study, Improving Writing Quality (bit.ly/EEFWriting), used a structured programme of writing development based on a self-regulation strategy for writing. The evaluation found gains, on average, of an additional nine months’ progress.

In 2015, three evaluations found gains of between two and five additional months’ progress. These included: an intervention based on “growth mindset” research by Carol Dweck, which aims to develop learners’ resilience in response to challenge; Philosophy for Children (see bit.ly/EEF_P4C) and a programme called Thinking, Doing, Talking Science (see bit.ly/EEF_TDTS). Pupils from low-income families particularly benefited.

Teachers need to consider carefully how to implement the strategies for their specific curriculum.

They should model the metacognitive strategy or approach using specific learning content. These should to be very specific in relation to pupils’ current capability in the area of learning being taught so that the habits of planning, monitoring and evaluation their own learning become embedded.

Teachers should also consider the prompts for the journey towards independent learning. What is the minimum support you can give, but still ensure pupils are successful? You have to judge this nudge really carefully. Should the focus be on planning or monitoring? How can you ensure evaluation actually feeds forward into future learning? Have you set up opportunities to observe what they can do to make sure the activity is sufficiently challenging?

It’s good to think about thinking, but it’s challenging to do it well.


Lee Elliot Major is chief executive of the Sutton Trust and Steve Higgins is a professor of education at Durham University. They authored the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, now the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit

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