Research School Network: Why Metacognition? by Will Smith, Metacognition Evidence Lead in Education and Deputy Director of West Somerset Research School


Why Metacognition?

by Will Smith, Metacognition Evidence Lead in Education and Deputy Director of West Somerset Research School

by West Somerset Research School
on the

Why Metacognition?

By Will Smith, Deputy Director of West Research School and Metacognition Evidence Lead in Education.

When the EEF first released its Teaching Toolkit, I remember immediately sorting by impact and reading all about the top 5. I still like the simplicity of it: if we get these things right, there is a good chance our students will be successful. The top five has changed a bit but Metacognition has consistently remained at the top.

As well as the appeal of being low cost and high impact, Metacognition also sounds the most interesting. It sounds like something clever people say.

Alas, unlike the toolkit, metacognition is far from straightforward. You cannot simply stand at the front of your classroom and say, Right kids, today I want you start thinking about your own thinking!” and expect them to make an additional seven months progress.

Likewise, you cannot stand in front of other teachers and say, get them to be metacognitive!’ and expect staff to be able to do it.

This however should not put us off. After all, teaching is not simple. But, for the purpose of introduction, in rest of this blog, I’ll try to simplify.

First, you need a useful definition of Metacognition and Self-regulation.

Thinking about thinking’ is too simple because it is not useful in a classroom setting. For teachers, we want our students to reflect on their learning, but also to be able to direct the next steps.

Students A could say to themselves: I don’t’ understand what I’ve read.” We could define Student A as being metacognitive. They are thinking about their thinking after all.

Student B says, I don’t understand. I’ll ask my teacher to come over and help.” They are acting upon their reflections and far more likely to be successful in their learning.

But that’s a little simple still. We cannot get students to be metacognitive by sticking a sheet in their book that tells what to do when they get stuck.

Metacognition is the ability to use prior knowledge to plan a strategy for approaching a learning task, take necessary steps to problem solve, reflect on and evaluate results, and modify one’s approach as needed. 

Here is the thing: you need to teach students to be metacognitive. They need support on all parts of this definition.

Could I cover how to do this in one blog? Well, no. But again, that shouldn’t put us off.

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The simple fact is we should not expect all our learners to manage the next steps of their learning without our support and guidance. We have to show them different ways and means to become more independent learners and thinkers. Oftentimes, how to take the next steps is not obvious. Moreover, they will find situations where they cannot simply ask for help. If one of my students get a tricky passage in an exam, I want them to know how to approach it, to have a plan of attack that will help make sense of it. 

Student A might say, I’ve read it. I don’t understand it. I can’t answer the questions.” Student B would say, I’ve read it. I don’t understand it. However, I’ve been taught what to do in this situation. First I will…” We’d need a whole other book on how to support reading, but you get the idea. Student B would also be likely to come out of the exam seeking strategies to improve their performance next time.

Also, students can be metacognitive in one area of their learning, but not another. Student B may struggle to come up with strategies for a tricky maths question because they’ve not been shown how to in maths. Whilst, some strategies may have links or crossovers to other subjects, we cannot teach thinking skills discretely and expect students to be able to apply them to different disciplines.

The EEF Guidance Report: Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning is a great starting point for those wishing to know more.

I have to say that, in delving into the delights of metacognition, I found something that I draw upon every day. It’s nearly as multifaceted and interesting as teaching itself.

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Metacognition and Self-regulated learning, EEF Guidance Report

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