Metacognition - Part 1 - What is This Thing Called Metacognition?

Earlier this week, I came across a Learning Scientists' post about Metacognition on Twitter. Metacognition is one of the buzz words du jour and I felt excited to think about how I could tap into these ideas, how I could create some Process Projects and possibly use some Growth Journals with my students.


Then I took a step back and thought, WAIT! What is all this jargon? Sounds like a lot of nonsense!

What is Metacognition? And do we need it?

The skills of self-reflection, self-evaluation, goal-setting and taking responsibility for one's own learning are all metacognitive skills. Cognitive skills are thinking skills. METAcognitive skills are thinking ABOUT thinking skills. 

One of the early claims of the article is that our goal as teachers is to create independent learners. To do this, students need to learn these metacognitive skills of self-evaluation, self-reflection, goal-setting and how to take responsibility for their own learning.

I considered this point for a while, thinking back to my time at school and university. I was what you would generally call a successful student, but I certainly do not remember thinking about the what, why or how of what I was doing. I just did. 

But I do, definitely, view myself as a lifelong, independent learner. On further reflection I realised that in fact I am now constantly self-reflecting, self-evaluating, setting goals and I certainly take responsibility for my own learning.

If I did not particularly engage in these activities at school then perhaps I was not as good a student as I could have been, had I applied these skills. But somewhere along my life's journey, I am lucky enough to have picked these skills up. I think I have learned most of these through teaching: through my PGCE course, through school placements and through ongoing CPD.

Some of these skills are also a natural consequence of who I am - I love lists and getting organised.

Starting to feel a bit cynical and jargon-ed out?

Well, consider this: If I cannot self-reflect, self-evaluate, set goals and take responsibility for my learning then either, I rely on someone else to do this for me (which is probably pretty much what happened for me at school and to some extent university) OR simply nothing will happen.

If I have no goals, what am I working towards? Aimless, unfocussed activity is not a good way to make progress. Without progress, we won't have motivation and ultimately will be very unlikely to continue learning.

If I cannot self-reflect and self-evaluate I will not be reviewing what I have done. I will not be trying to improve and again will not make good progress.

So, I became convinced that metacognition is a Good Thing. This IS something that we should teach our students so that they can continue learning even without us. This is not just from the perspective of for the time after they cease lessons with us, but also from the point of view of the times between lessons.

As a piano teacher I see most of my students on a weekly basis, for a maximum of one hour at a time. That leaves a LOT of time when I am not seeing my students (at least 167 hours, or 10020 minutes!). If they cannot apply metacognitive skills they will not make as much progress, especially if they encounter any difficulties.

It's easy to imagine scenarios in which students have lacked metacognitive skills:

  • "I got stuck on this passage / on this theory question." And that's it for the week until they see you again, because they can't think through how to solve the problem, how to set intermediate goals and move forward.
  • "I played this through a few times this week." But playing is NOT practising (see this recent post about practising for more on this) and does not lead to good progress. Practising (as opposed to just playing) requires goals, success criteria against which you can compare and self-evaluation to consider how you are doing.

Great! So we want metacognitive skills, right? BUT... I hear you say:

  • "I only have limited time within a lesson, I cannot fit everything in as it is, I cannot also teach metacognitive skills."
  • "With limited practice time, students are reluctant to do these things, they just want to play."

This series of blog posts is going to address these key areas:

  • Part 2 will look in detail into Effective Goal Setting and Growth Journals
  • Part 3 will delve into Self-Reflection and Self-Evaluation
  • Part 4 will consider Next Steps and Taking Responsibility

whilst carefully considering HOW you can teach these and how you can SQUEEZE this skills into your lessons without giving up anything else.

Can't Wait for Next Week?

Try some of these ideas yourself to start exploring metacognitive skills.

What are your thoughts?

Are you interested in metacognition? Do you have strong metacognitive skills? Are you convinced by the need for teaching such skills? I'd love to hear your thoughts - please share in the comments below.