Journey to Excellence

Thinking and metacognition - Carol McGuinness

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Follow the views of Carol McGuinness as she outlines some of the main considerations for schools seeking to develop metacognition among learners.


There is another kind of thinking that has been increasingly recognised as being important in this effort to teach thinking. And it’s a thing we call metacognition or thinking about the thinking, because as well as doing the thinking all of those good things that I have outlined - we also have to recognise that we are doing it. And we are back to trying to be able to use those ways of thinking in new contexts. And unless those ways of thinking are made fairly visible and explicit to us – either just after we have done it or while we are doing it, we may not even know we have done it. So, therefore, we are not equipped to use it again in a new context, and that is really what this thinking about thinking is for.

How can we in a sense make learners more metacognate ... what kind of metacognitive prompts can we give to learners. The kind of things that I have worked on… we have worked with teachers on this - we have looked at metacognition in three phases in a sense: Planning - planning phase, monitoring and evaluation. Planning is in a sense before you do something, “How am I going to do it? Have I ever done anything like this before? Does it remind me of anything?” So, they are digging back into their learning history to see if this task…. So have they got a set of strategies and can they bring them to mind even before they start? Our jump to the evaluation ones are probably easiest, “How well did I do this? Could I have done it better? Did Johnny do it differently than I do? Is there anything I can learn from how somebody else did it? Could I explain it so that I could teach somebody else how to do it? If I ran into a cul-de-sac or if I made a mistake what did I learn from that?”

So, it’s digging retrospectively, but there is also a middle stage that you might call almost ‘help yourself’ by asking questions like. “Do I understand this?” In the middle of the… “Do I understand this?” If you get stuck, “I am stuck here”, you are recognising that you are stuck and instead of just staying there and abandoning your task – recognising that you are stuck and saying “What can I do to get unstuck?” So, there is little prompts and we have actually used cards – given learners sort of metacognitive prompt cards that relate to those three stages. And, teachers have used them around the room, “What did I do? What can I do now? What did I do last time? What can I do differently?” So, they are just … they are prompts and they don’t work all the time and indeed we’ve got learners to write their own prompts to begin to see what works for them.

An important question really is at what part or what stage in a lesson might you take the opportunity to do this evaluating or thinking about the thinking. And many lessons go through a cycle where they identify the learning intentions or what is to be learned and they launch into the main activity and there is a review and plenary … people use different words for that. Clearly at the end of a lesson, it looks like it - there seems there, a natural occasion for a review. But I do know that if you have had a good lesson, many teachers find it really difficult  - they are exhausted and the children  are exhausted so doing some of this thinking about the thinking can be quite demanding. When I have worked with teachers initially on the metacognition – I have to say it tended to be done at the end of the lesson. Increasingly however, as they become more confident and adept really at spotting opportunities for metacognition. They were quite able to intervene … if a group of children were working on something and that teacher just maybe partially listening to and they were struggling with - maybe trying to work through or figure out something. The teachers were able to intervene at that point and say 'What is that you are doing?', and 'Could you be doing it that way, and what does that mean?' It very much depends on the age of children because when you ask children to look over patterns of the work, you are depending a lot on their memories. So if you are working with little ones in a sense, the point between the reflection, the reviewing and the doing has to be quite short.

And indeed I have seen in some early years teachers actually take photographs - used to take with digital cameras in the middle of a lesson in order… while the children are working to remind them of… as a prompt for metacognition. To remind them of what they were doing maybe 20 minutes ago so that the children can begin to… so that you are not making extra demands as we might say on working memory. They haven’t got to both remember what they were doing and try to discuss it so there are techniques I think for younger learners that teachers can use in order to aid metacognition. And for older learners then clearly, the challenges are different, you can depend more on long term review.

Metacognition can be forward but it can be backward. It can be in a sense learning intentions is metacognitive, because you are actually trying to make explicit, work, the types of learning that you want, that you intend to happen. And then review, so that is kind of a forward metacognition. And a backward one is maybe is the review but then at the next lesson you are doing a review of reviews. And that I think goes with rather good teaching practice – it’s got nothing to do with the specific teaching of thinking. But if in your learning intentions you have identified thinking as one of your purposes then in a sense the thinking skills become part of your review and preview and whatever.


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