Research School Network: Revelations! Unveiling the mystique of a super learner Andy Brumby on three key insights into metacognition

Revelations! Unveiling the mystique of a super learner

Andy Brumby on three key insights into metacognition

by Kingsbridge Research School
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i) An instructive incident

During his discussions with school leaders and teachers, my friend and colleague Marc Rowland often describes an incident he once witnessed in a classroom, and each time I hear the incident recounted it sets my thoughts racing and grows in significance in my mind. It goes something like this:

A teacher informs her Year 8 class that they are going to be learning about Civil Rights in the USA over the course of the next few lessons, and then goes on to introduce the topic by telling the pupils about segregation and the legacy of slavery. As the teacher pauses for a moment, Christine*, a female pupil puts up her hand and proceeds to give a fluent and informative talk on Rosa Parks and her involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1956. The rest of the class listen attentively, and two or three pupils even clap spontaneously as Christine finishes speaking.’

At this point Marc invites colleagues to reflect on how they would respond if they were the teacher in this situation. This always generates some great discussion around tables as almost every teacher in the room is likely to have experienced something similar during their career. Inevitably the conversation turns to the other pupils in the class. What are they thinking? What did they make of Christine’s contribution? How do they think she was able to make such a high-quality contribution to the lesson? Do they put it down to hard work, innate talent, the possession of special but mysterious learning powers or some other factor of their own imagining?

All too often, me included, we miss the opportunity to unpack and reveal what sits beneath the polished outcome of an accomplished learner. We celebrate the harvest but forget to ask questions about the ploughing, planting, weeding and pruning that came before it. Marc recalls the teacher praising the quality of Christine’s contribution but then neglecting to ask any questions which could have provided the other pupils with hugely valuable insights into the thought processes, strategy choices, motivation and effort that led to such an excellent outcome. Without these things ever being revealed, a mystique can develop around learners like Christine which prevents others from seeing how they have achieved success. That’s Christine for you. She’s amazing. I really don’t know how she does it. She just does! I’ll never be that good.’

ii) Unveil, unpack, reveal

Imagine the difference for the other pupils in the room if Christine’s teacher had thanked her for her splendid contribution and then asked:

-How did you get so interested in Rosa Parks?

-Where did you find your information about her?

-How long has it taken to build up the knowledge you have?

-What techniques did you use to remember the key facts?

-Did you rehearse your talk in your head before you spoke?

-Are there any questions you still have about Rosa?

Had questions like these been asked, they might well have helped to reveal that Christine is an increasingly self-regulated learner who has developed a repertoire of different cognitive and metacognitive strategies and is able to effectively use and apply these in a timely fashion.’ She will self-regulate and find ways to motivate herself when she gets stuck. Over time, this can further increase her motivation as she becomes ever more confident in undertaking new tasks and challenges.

‘These learners are proactive in their efforts to learn because they are aware of their strengths and limitations and because they are guided by personally set goals and task-related strategies, such as using an arithmetic addition strategy to check the accuracy of solutions to subtraction problems. These learners monitor their behaviour in terms of their goals and self-reflect on their increasing effectiveness. This enhances their self-satisfaction and motivation to continue to improve their methods of learning.’

However, the EEF’s Metacognition and Self-regulation Guidance Report (2018) reminds us that the extent to which children develop metacognition and self-regulation can vary markedly:

‘While all children develop metacognition to some extent—and this will continue to develop further as they mature—the extent to which this happens differs significantly between learners; most will not spontaneously develop all the strategies they need or would find useful and therefore require explicit instruction in key metacognitive strategies. There is some evidence to suggest that disadvantaged pupils are less likely to use such strategies and are, therefore, most likely to benefit from the whole range of approaches to supporting metacognitive and self-regulatory skills, including explicit teaching.’

iii) Telling traits

EEF Evidence Lead in Education, Freya Morrissey, shared an extremely useful strategy during the 3‑day Metacognition and self-regulation training course I attended recently. Firstly, Freya asked us all to identify and reflect upon specific traits that our more effective learners regularly exhibit. Next, she asked us to identify and reflect upon the traits we notice in less effective learners. Finally, we were encouraged to think about the actions we as teachers and school leaders need to take to help less effective learners become more effective. This was a thought-provoking strategy in-as-much as it really made us think hard about (and attempt to articulate) what it is that our most effective learners actually do. Around my table, it was agreed that we all needed to get better at noticing these often small but nonetheless highly significant actions, behaviours and choices in order to reveal and teach them to less effective learners.

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Acknowledgement: Freya Morrissey, Evidence Leader in Education, Research Schools Network

Taking careful note of the learning habits of Year 10 pupils in an English class, for example, might reveal that the most effective learners – in this particular context – frequently draw upon a common set of strategies over time, which when used individually or in combination give them a definite edge in the subject. These specific actions and strategy choices might at first glance appear to be relatively inconsequential, but their significance grows through repetition and practice. So, this year, Jez’s use of the highlighter has developed from highlighting the occasional key word or phrase in a text to highlighting prefixes, suffixes and root morphemes. Kelly’s use of spider-grams has evolved to incorporate the colour-coding of characteristics, themes and concepts. Tariq’s bubble notes in the margin remind him of what the teacher said about the etymology of a certain word and to use it in the conclusion to his essay.

None of these actions or strategy choices need to be the exclusive preserve of a minority of more effective learners. They are all eminently teachable. We need to end the myth that metacognition is somehow higher order than other forms of cognitive activity. This myth can prevent us seeing that metacognition often manifests itself in small specific actions and adaptations that can be taught and replicated.

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Having listened to (and learned from) Freya, I turned my attention back to the EEF’s Metacognition and Self-regulation Guidance Report and amongst its online tools and resources came across the four levels of metacognitive learners described by Perkins (1992): tacit; aware; strategic; reflective.

  • Tacit learners are unaware of their metacognitive knowledge. They do not think about any particular strategies for learning and merely accept if they know something or not.
  • Aware learners know about some of the kinds of thinking that they do such as generating ideas, finding evidence etc. However, thinking is not necessarily deliberate or planned.
  • Strategic learners organise their thinking by using problem-solving, grouping and classifying, evidence-seeking and decision-making etc. They know and apply the strategies that help them learn.
  • Reflective learners are not only strategic about their thinking but they also reflect upon their learning while it is happening, considering the success or not of any strategies they are using and then revising them as appropriate.

My thoughts drifted back to Christine and her classmates. Where would Christine fit on the continuum above? What about some of the other individuals in the class? How could the teacher help some of the tacit/​less effective learners to become a bit more strategic and reflective? The answer surely lies in noticing and making explicit many things that currently operate at an implicit level in Christine’s class.

Last word

Wouldn’t it be fine if Marc Rowland was to return to Christine’s school one day to find that it had begun implementing a plan to help all staff develop their pupils’ self-regulatory skills and that as a result of specialist coaching (linked to Recommendation 2 of the EEF’s Metacognition Guidance Report – see below) Christine’s teacher had become confident and skilled in the use of questions that encourage pupils to talk about how they learn and think as they work towards their goals. Whenever she is debriefing a cognitive activity, she now also seeks opportunities to encourage reflection and evaluation about the metacognitive strategies used.

-Tell me why you have chosen to do it that way?

-Can you foresee any problems with the strategy?

-Would you choose the same strategy again?

-What might you think about doing differently next time?

-What advice would you give someone who was about to start the challenge you’ve just completed?

-How did you deal with that dip in your motivation?

-Did you spend the right amount of time on…?

So, Christine turns out not to have had mysterious powers after all. She did not learn about Rosa Parks and the bus boycott as if by magic. The reality of the matter is that she drew on a rapidly developing set of cognitive and metacognitive strategies. And, thanks to a growing interest and expertise in metacognition and self-regulation in our schools, the good news is that Christine’s secrets are out in the open and being made accessible to many more pupils!

Seven practical, evidence-based recommendations for metacognition from the Education Endowment Foundation.

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Andy Brumby is a Director of Cornwall Associate Research School, linked through its partnership with Kingsbridge Research School to the EEF Research School Network


*All student names have been changed to preserve anonymity.


Marc Rowland, Unity Research School

Freya Morrissey, Evidence Leader in Education (Metacognition), EEF Research Schools Network, Kingsbridge Research School

Perkins, D. (1992). Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. New York: Free Press

Zimmerman, B. J. (2010) Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview’, Theory into Practice, 41 (2).


Perkins 4 levels of metacognitive learners:

EEF Metacognition and Self-regulation Guidance Report (2018)

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