Journey to Excellence

Metacognition - Dylan Wiliam

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Watch Dylan Wiliam talk about the importance of young people being able to reflect on their learning and how teachers can utilise these insights.


We’ve always known that the best performing students acted metacognitively - they planned, they thought halfway through the essay about whether they’re running out of space or time to finish it off, so whatever they’re engaged in they’re always thinking at a higher level about managing their own thinking and any kind of thinking about thinking is metacognition. So, if you are aware that this task is slightly harder than the last task, if you are aware that this task has a connection to something you’ve done previously, then you’re acting metacognitively. And we've always known that the best learners, the best students, have acted metacognitively.

What we didn’t know was which was causing which, and recently there’s been a build up of research evidence that actually training students in thinking about thinking - what scientists call metacognition - actually can work. So metacognition can be taught, we can train students to be better observers of their own learning so that they actually take more ownership of their own learning and it comes back to this notion that we talked about earlier, this notion of students owning their own learning and managing their own learning.

So metacognition is, really, managing your own learning to make sure you’re actually using your brain in the most effective possible way, checking that you’re actually on track, being aware of the fact that this isn’t going as it should, thinking about how to get help, thinking about resources... all the things that you do to manage your thinking most effectively.

What we are learning is that students have tremendous insights into their own learning from a very early age. Most teachers think that students don’t know what their learning and they don’t know how they’re learning and they don’t know what works for them. And when teachers open up their classrooms to listen to the students, they find that students as young as 5 or 6-years-old have tremendous insights into their own learning processes. And so, the most successful teachers are those who have managed to find ways of harnessing students’ ways of insights into their own learning in order to help the teachers do a better job of teaching.

So, it’s almost telling the question I had really, most teachers try to cause learning without the students' help. If you actually started from the other side, where the students are actually motivated to learn, they’re autonomous learners, they’re acting metacognitively and then the teacher can ensure that the students are doing what it is the students need to do to maximise their own learning.

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In association with Education Scotland