Teaching metacognitively isn’t a new phenomenon

2 November 2018

Author: Justine Paton

“An outstanding teacher uses metacognitive techniques naturally. They are not add-ons, they are part of effective day to day teaching” – ­ Kate Atkins Head of Rosendale School.

The Research Schools Network recently held a day collaborating and engaging with research evidence on metacognition. This session was thought-provoking for a number of reasons; in particular the need to ensure metacognition is embedded in all elements of the curriculum and into the essence of our day to day lessons, in order to be effective. An in-depth look at the Education Endowment Foundation guidance report on Metacognition and self-regulated learning stimulated a range of ideas of how we could effectively apply the evidence in classrooms.

Before metacognitive strategies can underpin effective teaching, initially it is of paramount importance that all staff have an adequate professional understanding of how to develop the metacognitive knowledge of their pupils. However, once this has been established the question is what does metacognition look like in the classroom?

The research evidence: our starting point

After the release of the Sutton Trust-EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit, Rosendale started to explore how we could implement the metacognition strand successfully into a primary school setting. Our first task – to find out what metacognition looked like at a primary level – was a challenge in itself. The majority of research centred round older children with very few articles examining the metacognitive abilities of young children. An obvious starting point from a research evidence point of view was Flavell’s work. Other reading that provided a host of ideas and information included Brain and Behaviour – Thinking Differently by Jonathan Sharples and Susan Greenfield and the work of Professor Robert Fisher. We were also particularly drawn to the ideas in Carole Dweck’s article You can grow your intelligence (2008), her piece on growth mindset in Education Week (2015), and her book Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development (2000). Also, around this time, we were fortunate enough to have Barry Hymer present at Rosendale Research School, and we attended John Hattie’s Visible Learning conference. Both of these speakers commented on the importance of metacognition and sowed the ideas of how it could be implemented in the primary environment. Our engagement with this range of sources was the catalyst for changing our practice.

What does metacognition look like at Rosendale Research School?

Engagement with this research resulted in us creating our own programme of teaching metacognitive strategies tailored to primary aged children. Our ReflectED approach (currently undergoing a second round EEF trial involving 140 schools nationwide) aims to create an immersive, metacognitive learning environment. It is made up of two strands. The first focuses primarily on equipping children with metacognitive ideas and developing a language of learning, while the other teaches the children how to reflect on and evaluate their work purposefully and effectively.

As well as following our own programme of work, we as a school we have chosen to focus on three core elements of the guidance to ensure that metacognition is embedded in the curriculum – namely challenge, modelling and metacognitive talk.

The aim of any practitioner is to achieve the ‘Goldilocks amount’ of challenge – “not too hard, not to easy, but just right”. Our working memory is small and we can only handle a few bits of information at once. Therefore we have made it our aim not to overload the children’s cognitive functions. This takes the form of presenting new material in small steps and proceeding only when these are mastered. Another example of how this might look in the classroom is getting the children to focus on writing an already familiar story so they can focus on other elements such as enhancing description.

The importance of teacher modelling is also paramount. We believe that experienced learners watching an ‘expert’ model techniques is invaluable, as pupils need cognitive support to help them learn how to solve problems and identify the specific steps involved in learning. This could take the form of demonstrating moves in PE or worked examples in maths where the teacher demonstrates whole examples before breaking it down into its component steps.

Finally, metacognitive talk has become an important area of development. This is the idea that we can model metacognition by working through a task or activity out loud. The point of this is to verbalise our thought processes and therefore help pupils to understand how effective thinkers solve problems. This doesn’t just have to be teacher to pupil talk and vice versa, but can be pupil to pupil. Thinking out loud with their peers can help ensure children are actively engaged in a lesson; if they are given time to think about a question and properly formulate an answer they are more likely to be more engaged in the learning process.

Matt Ellis a Year 1 teacher at Rosendale, and strong advocate of teaching metacognition to children in EYFS, had this to say: “The area of key importance for me, is that of modelling and talking about learning – showing at the granular level how learning feels in front of our young learners.  We need to not be afraid of showing our learning fears, worries and excitement about the learning process.”

People often ask how does all of this benefit pupils and how do you know if you are doing it right? These questions really have the same answer. Children will become more able to discuss their learning, less afraid to make mistakes; they will ask more questions and consequently become more independent, reflective learners.

Visitors to our school regularly comment on how articulate our children are about their learning and how unafraid they are to take risks, experiment with their learning, and learn from their mistakes through reflection and evaluation. Local secondary schools comment on how our children stand out as independent resilient learners.

To conclude the aim of most schools must surely be to send children out into the world who possess the skills to tackle any obstacles  and are ready for life’s challenges: metacognition taught right is certainly a tool that can help children achieve this goal.

Dweck, CS (2000), Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality and development, 1st Edition. London: Routledge

Dweck, CS (2008) You can grow your intelligence, accessed from https://behaviourbuddy.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/You-Can-Grow-Your-Intelligence.pdf

Dweck, CS  (2015) Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’ in Education Week , 22 September 2015,

Education Endowment Foundation (2018), Metacognition and self-regulated learning. London: Education Endowment Foundation

Education Endowment Foundation (2018), Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit. London: Education Endowment Foundation: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit

Madeline, “Metacognition (Flavell),” in Learning Theories, April 6, 2017, https://www.learning-theories.com/metacognition-flavell.html.

Posted on 2 November 2018
Posted in: Blog

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