Research School Network: The teacher as learner: how narrating our challenges can push forward students’ metacognition Helen Thorneycroft on using metacognition in the history classroom


The teacher as learner: how narrating our challenges can push forward students’ metacognition

Helen Thorneycroft on using metacognition in the history classroom

The importance of modelling

Teachers have long understood the critical importance of modelling to help students understand a new aspect of learning, whether that is a tricky maths problem in primary school or learning how to answer a question in geography.

When we model to students how to apply their knowledge to a particular task, we are giving them metacognitive strategies to be successful, such as checking that our memorisation technique was accurate or selecting the most appropriate cognitive strategy for the task we are undertaking. Teachers have many strategies to do this within the classroom, with a well-known example being I do, we do, you do’.

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However, there is a challenge in teachers modelling best practice in the room. The teacher is always the expert – they retain a certain mystique’; they are just good at it through some kind of mysterious learning power. But as we know, just like the students, we as teachers do face challenges regularly where we too have to approach a new task for the first time and act metacognitively in order to be successful.


A recent event brought this to the forefront of my mind. During the first day of our current metacognition programme, we set the task of completing an anagram in under a minute. Afterwards we discussed how we approached it and there was a spectrum of answers. Some people couldn’t think of any strategies, others had a multitude of ways that they tried in rapid succession. Others found anagrams so frustrating they didn’t even attempt to engage with the task and waited quietly for the answer. The answers were enlightening; it was a microcosm of the classroom.

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More specifically, it felt like a microcosm of my A level History classroom only a week previously where students worried about the challenge of weighing up the interpretations of different historians in limited time. Some felt confident, whilst others fretted that it wasn’t achievable to plan an answer, monitor and reflect on it within the timed conditions that had been set. I reflected on this in relation to the EEF’s Guidance Report on Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning that to move from novice to expert, our pupils need to know how an expert athlete, artist, historian, or scientist habitually thinks and acts. We need to make these largely implicit processes explicit to our novice learners”.

Being a student

So, the next lesson, after careful reflection on how I would approach this type of exam question, I completed the question within the timed conditions to model my approach. But there was a twist. I narrated the entire time out loud what I was doing and why I was taking these decisions. They listened to me dismantle the question by physically annotating the components of it and putting it briefly into my own words. They watched me read a historian’s interpretation twice over to myself and mutter it quietly to myself as a strategy to help me comprehend it. They watched me make decisions as to which parts of the historian’s viewpoints I just wouldn’t have time to talk about and how I was weighing up that decision. It was challenging to be explicitly discussing all my metacognitive thinking as a stream of consciousness in timed conditions, but it was honest and got them to see my sense of self and the monitoring strategies I was using under time pressures to keep myself on track and motivated.

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I managed to complete it in the time I had set myself, but the point was made to them – I wasn’t born simply good at it’. I had the same trials and tribulations as they did when planning, monitoring and evaluating my work. The simple difference was that over time I had built up many strategies to grapple with the challenges as they came up and I was now passing many of those explicitly to them by talking through the challenges as I faced them. The students said in earnestness how this had been a very useful process, and would I be able to do this again as a process before the next timed exam? It feels a strange paradox, that in my role as teacher, an empowering strategy for them is me being a student!

To find out more about modelling, see Recommendation 3 from the EEF's metacognition guidance report

For an example of the EEF's modelling framework, see this blog.

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