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Getting the right task to develop metacognition and self-regulated learning in early primary school

Written by: Shirley Larkin and Helen Lewis
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9 min read

There is now a good deal of evidence that developing self-regulated learning (SRL) and metacognition has a positive impact on student attainment, motivation and behaviour (Quigley et al., nd). Yet it is not always clear how different tasks and activities, including how teachers approach these, might enhance or hinder the opportunities to develop these skills. When Flavell (1979) first outlined his model of metacognition, he emphasised that metacognition arises from the interplay of self, task and strategies. In addition, theories of SRL such as those by Winne and Hadwin (1998), Zimmerman and Reisenberg (1997) and Boekaerts and Como (2005) stress the importance of task regulation and motivation. Below, we detail how in the early years of primary school, task design can facilitate or hinder the development of metacognition and SRL.

Task design

In this article, we explore what happened when teachers used activities from the ‘Let’s Think’ programmes. Originally created by Philip Adey and Michael Shayer, these are based on research evidence relating to child development and how to promote good thinking (e.g. REF, 2014; Venville et al., 2003). The programmes are structured around five ‘pillars’. These five pillars are: concrete preparation (i.e. setting the scene and establishing vocabulary); cognitive conflict (the challenge of tasks that confound expectation); social construction (discussion and sharing of ideas); metacognition (reflection on thinking) and bridging (making links with the real world and other subjects).

Observation

In order to demonstrate how different tasks promote different elements of metacognition and self-regulated learning, we first provide a coding system, based on Flavell’s (1979) model of metacognition and models of SRL. This can be used to observe what children do in a collaborative task. The examples can also be turned into teacher questions to facilitate the development of metacognition and SRL. It is important to note that you are trying to help develop children’s awareness of why and when we need to use these skills.

Phase Example Promotes* Element Code
Pre-task Do we know what we have to do? M Task understanding TU
What do we need to do this? M Task resources TR
I understand (don’t understand) it M Task/self understanding TSU
Is it like anything we’ve done before? M Task bridging TB
I think we need a plan M Task planning TP
During task What can we do if we get stuck? S Control C
How are we getting on? M Task monitoring TM
We could do it like this

 

S Task strategy TS
It is very difficult (easy) M Task evaluation TE
This is boring

Why do we have to do this?

I like doing this

S Motivation M
We need to speed up

We are running out of time

S Task constraints TC
We have got something wrong M Error Correction EC
End of task Did we do it? S Task goal TG
Did we do it well (badly)? M Task evaluation TE
What could we do better next time? S Transfer T
How did we do it? M Reflection R
*M = metacognition; S = self-regulated learning

What follows are three examples of how teachers implemented Let’s Think activities to promote SRL and metacognition.

1. The Cat and the Snail

A group of six five- and six-year-olds were asked to work together to agree how five picture cards depicting a snail eating food from a cat’s bowl could be ordered to tell a story. The card sequence is not simple to solve, since there is no correspondence between the snail’s trail and the amount of food in the cat’s bowl. This creates a cognitive conflict and a problem for the children to solve.

The students began by observing real snails and describing their trails. They thought about what animals need to be happy, and released the snails in suitable places in the school garden. The teacher bridged to thinking about the needs of other animals and children’s experiences caring for their own pets, adding authenticity to the task.

We have coded this extract to show how the children demonstrated task-related metacognition and SRL.

T: What do we need to do so we can solve this tricky problem? TU

Laura: We have to check… you know… you think about what picture you need. Then you check and see if it makes sense. TSU

T: That’s interesting. What do you mean by makes sense?

Laura: It’s kind of… um… kind of if the story works… you know, if it is right… um, if you can tell the story and it is a proper story. TSU

T: Okay, that sounds good. What shall we do first so that our story makes sense?

Aiden: I know – we could see which one goes first by seeing what the cat is doing. Then we can look at the rest. TP

Sean: Or we could look at the snail. Look at him, he’s going up the wall and his trail is getting… um… bigger. See, that goes like in order. TP

Discussion follows, and a sequence is created.

T: Are we all happy with our story? TE/TG

Frankie: Umm, well, it’s good here, but this bit is… it is… EC

Sean: It isn’t right ’cos of the snail… it’s [the trail] gone smaller. EC

The students demonstrated understanding of the task and how to tackle it. Midway through, Frankie and Sean showed some task monitoring and, as a result, the group revisited their story. The teacher encouraged task understanding, goal setting and task evaluation. At the end of the session, the teacher asked: ‘Why was it so difficult to put these pictures in order, and how did we solve the problem?’ The hardest part, according to Siobhan, was that ‘Sometimes my idea isn’t the same as other people’s. Then we have to talk about it and that’s hard ’cos, well, ’cos we have to try and do it together.’

2. Down My Street

A group of six-year-olds were asked to sort and count different picture cards, showing sheep, horses and people. Although the pictures of the sheep were smaller than those of the horses and people, there were more sheep. This meant that children needed to distinguish between ‘bigger than’ and ‘more than’. First, the teacher asked the students to talk about a recent visit to a farm. They discussed the animals that they had seen, before the teacher asked the children to sort out the cards. The following extract shows the metacognition and self-regulation that the children demonstrated when undertaking the task:

T: So, how could we sort out these cards? TU

Nicki: Yeah, animals and people.

Alfie: We live in a house and the others live in a field.

Amir: Yeah, but sheep and horses are different. Sheep are more small and furry.

T: That’s lots of ways we could sort them out.

Amir: So, these and these [moving sheep and horses separately]… and the persons [sic].

Katie: Yes, that’s right. TM

T: Okay, shall we decide on one way to sort them? TP

The children discuss and agree to sort the cards into three groups: sheep, horses and people. TP

T: So, what can we say about these groups?

Katie: I don’t know.

T: Well, what about if we talk about how many there are in each group?

Nicki: Need to count them then, count them. TS

The children count out the pictures in each set and the teacher encourages them to arrange them in lines.

T: What do you notice about the number of sheep and horses?

Amir: Double. Double five is 10.

Nicki: But the sheep are little.

T: That’s really interesting. There are more sheep, but the horses’ line looks taller. I wonder what we could do to solve this problem?

In this extract, the teacher encouraged the children to discuss each other’s ideas, and used these ideas to support them to look closely at the different sets. However, in comparison to the first example, the teacher here appears to have her own goal in mind, rather than facilitating the students to establish the task goal for themselves.

3. From a Story to a Sum

The third example comes from a research project in which teachers worked with experienced mentors to improve their teaching of thinking. They videoed episodes of their teaching, and used these as the basis for professional dialogue and reflection. Skilful questioning, active listening and a willingness to stand back and give children time to think and puzzle is crucial for developing metacognition and SRL (e.g. Siraj-Blatchford, 2009). The following extract shows what can happen in an activity where the teacher found this difficult.

The task was to explore word problems and to see how a story can produce different problems.

T: What’s that vegetable?

Carys: Ummm…

T: What vegetable is she working with?

Carys: Ummm…

T: What’s the vegetable? Look at the picture.

All other children have hands up.

T: What’s she going to cook with?

Carys: Um… Errr…

T: What is the vegetable in these pictures? What is it called? Rabbits like them.

Carys: Um… carrots.

T: Good. Carrots. So it might be carrots in the bag.

At the end of the lesson, the teacher reflected on the lesson with her mentor. It is also very important to remember that what the teacher did is also a crucial element of creating opportunity to self-regulate and be metacognitive. This teacher selected this extract because she felt that she could improve her questioning in future sessions to facilitate the children’s opportunities to think.

Mentor: What did you think was important about this clip ?

T: I can see what I am doing here. I’m so caught up in getting that answer from the child – and I know that there is a right answer – that I just keep going until I get there. On and on!

Mentor: Do you think that has an impact on the lesson?

T: I suppose that’s okay to have an answer in mind – but in a session about thinking I need to make sure I give them time to think.

Mentor: What difference do you think that would have made?

T: Well… Umm… There wasn’t much chance to reflect, to be metacognitive at all. I need to ask better questions that they really have to think about. And maybe not ask so much so fast. They can’t really think more if they are answering lots of questions.

Mentor: When you say think more, what do you mean?

T: I mean that they are just answering me, but this was supposed to be an activity where they learnt from each other. Maybe if I had kept quiet they could have done more thinking.

Conclusion

All the tasks above are useful for developing metacognition and SRL. This is because they have features known to create metacognitive experiences. Flavell (1979) defines metacognitive experiences as full of emotion. They might be feelings of puzzlement, confusion, boredom or positive feelings of confidence, motivation or interest. The tasks are also open-ended, with more than one answer, and involve an element of cognitive conflict. Whilst the Let’s Think programme provides such tasks, it is not difficult to create your own using the same principles of authenticity, complexity; open-endedness and novelty. It is also very important to remember that what the teacher does is also a crucial element of creating opportunity to self-regulate and be metacognitive. We can track progress and development by creating even more complex tasks and using an observation scheme similar to the one above. If we can enable students of any age to create or choose tasks and monitor their own progress towards a self-directed goal, then we will also facilitate self-regulated learning and thereby provide our students with the skills required for a changing world, where the tasks facing us are likely to be different and complex.

Note: Dr Shirley Larkin is a trustee of the Let’s Think Foundation, which promotes the development of pupils’ thinking processes through programmes created by Shayer and Adey. Dr Helen Lewis is a member of the Let’s Think Forum.

References

Boekaerts M and Corno L (2005) Self-regulation in the classroom: A perspective on assessment and intervention. Applied Psychology 54(2): 199–231.

Flavell JH (1979) Metcognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist 34(10): 906–911.

Quigley A, Muijis D and Stringer E (nd) Metacognition and self-regulated learning: Guidance report. Education Endowment Foundation. Available at: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports (accessed 20 October 2019).

Research Excellence Framework (REF) (2014) Impact case study (REF3b). Available at: https://impact.ref.ac.uk/casestudies2/refservice.svc/GetCaseStudyPDF/41265 (accessed 21 November 2019).

Siraj-Blatchford I (2009) Conceptualising progression in the pedagogy of play and sustained shared thinking in early childhood education: A Vygotskian perspective. Educational and Child Psychology 26(2): 77–89.

Venville G, Adey P, Larkin S et al. (2003) Fostering thinking through science in the early years of schooling. International Journal of Science Education 25(11): 1313–1331.

Winne PH and Hadwin AF (1998) Studying as self-regulated learning. In: Hacker DJ and Graesser A (eds) Metacognition in Educational Theory and Practice. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 277–304.

Zimmerman B and Reisenberg R (1997) Becoming a self-regulated writer: A social cognitive perspective. Contemporary Educational Psychology 22: 73–101.

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