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Metacognition: books, resources and teaching tips to help students know themselves as learners

Written By: Anoara Mughal
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Here is a selection of reading on metacognition and how I have used it to teach writing

I first developed an interest in metacognition when I studied neurology as part of my degree. Since then, I’ve incorporated it into my teaching practice as I think it helps pupils make progress.

Metacognition is described by Tarrant and Holt (2016) as thinking about how we learn and how we think. In the classroom, metacognition helps students know themselves as learners; they understand how they learn and are aware of the processes and actions they use during learning. By teaching these skills explicitly, we create more awareness and greater understanding among pupils to help them engage and embed their learning more effectively.

I also think metacognition goes hand-in-hand with growth mindset. This theory, developed by psychology professor Carol Dweck, is the belief that our abilities are not fixed. Dweck found that the way pupils perceived their abilities (Dweck, 2015) had a direct impact on their achievements: those with a growth mindset achieved significantly more than those with a fixed mindset. Although results of studies since have been more varied, well-designed and implemented approaches seem promising.

I think one way to develop a growth mindset among your students is through self-regulation, reflection and metacognition. I see it as a virtuous circle: self-regulation and reflection help students to develop confidence, which boosts their metacognition; metacognitive skills help students understand how they learn, which also develops their self-belief and, in turn, their self-regulation.

With so much potential, teachers might be interested in further reading and how I have tried to use this when teaching writing. I have outlined a few helpful resources and some of my strategies below:

Metacognition in the Primary Classroom

Tarrant and Holt use their book, Metacognition in the Primary Classroom, to explore how young children can start to develop these skills. They say the first step is being able to talk about metacognition and how we learn. For this, pupils need critical thinking skills – they have to be able to articulate their thinking to engage in discussion.

Tarrant and Holt say that the ability to talk about how we learn is something that many primary pupils can find challenging so it needs to be explicitly taught. ‘They do not always have the language of learning, they cannot communicate this knowledge,’ (Tarrant and Holt 2016 page 9). They suggest that the thinking process needs to be scaffolded using word banks, modelling the thinking process and verbalising it to your pupils.

This book also has an interesting discussion on the benefits of metacognition for pupils and teachers alike. These include:

  • That as children understand how they learn and apply this, ‘their self-esteem can be improved and barriers to learning can sometimes be identified and overcome’ (Tarrant and Holt, 2016 page 4)
  • A metacognitive approach helps teachers ‘keep a sharper focus on the learning process when planning’ and ‘get greater insight into each child as a learner’ (Tarrant and Holt, 2016, page 5). This can help support differentiation and individual assessment.

Rather than teach metacognition as a separate subject, Tarrant and Holt call for it to be ‘incorporated’ into a teacher’s plan and ‘embedded into the language of the classroom’. Such explicit use of it in the classroom can make it a very powerful tool.

The book also contains great examples of displays and gives practical ideas, as well lists of words to develop the language of metacognition.

Teaching metacognitive strategies can lead to pupils making up to nine months of additional progress.

Thinking about Thinking

This book, published in 2015 and written by Stephen Lockyer, is a great insight into what metacognition looks like in everyday situations (within and away from the classroom). It is packed full of practical strategies for teachers, which are well thought out and can be used straight away.

Although teaching metacognitive strategies can lead to pupils making up to nine months of additional progress (Lockyer, 2015, page 43), Lockyer says it can be tough to ‘justify and actively develop’ in schools. As metacognition is a teaching strategy, there are few implementation costs (Lockyer, 2015, page 44), although training would be one I would flag.

This means that metacognition’s success relies on ‘a teacher buying into the concept, using it correctly, and if necessary demonstrating the difference it makes to their students’.  As Lockyer points out, this can be difficult ‘especially those who for a number of reasons may be entrenched in their pedagogical belief’ (Lockyer, 2015, page 44).

‘Metacognitive Strategies’ Inclusive Schools Network

This article about metacognitive strategies states that explicit teacher modelling is great for maths instruction – and I think the same can be said for writing. Like Tarrant and Holt, the authors say that thinking aloud strategies help to develop metacognition as it helps students ‘consciously monitor and reflect upon what they are learning’.

They go further and suggest that the most effective way to do this is for teachers to  ‘periodically stop whilst teaching to verbalise their thoughts’, especially when reading out aloud. This enables pupils to sequence their own thinking processes and helps them to ‘create their own strategies’ to develop understanding in comprehension.

In this article, checklists and rubrics are suggested as great resources for solving word problems. The rubric can also be used for all lessons from processes to more creative subjects, such as art and writing.

My teaching strategies for metacognition

Here are some ways in which my reading about metacognition has influenced my classroom practice:

Metacognitive marking

My marking is most effective when it has an impact on pupils’ understanding of the metacognitive process. With this in mind, I avoid simply correcting the mistakes myself, and instead encourage my pupils to think about where they have gone wrong and self correct.

For example, if a pupil makes a spelling error, I ask, ‘Where have you gone wrong?’ This gives them the chance to think about the steps. Then I ask them to verbalise the response first, scaffolding with sentence openers and key vocabulary, before getting a written response. This helps me to understand their thought process and pinpoint next steps for them.

This also helps pupils to develop a growth mindset. When we allow pupils to be challenged in their learning, their brains create new neural pathways, leading to elasticity. Teaching pupils about this process helps them believe they can achieve anything.

Writing targets and explicit use of success criteria

Using a combination of writing targets and explicit success criteria has had a huge impact on my pupils’ progress in writing. The writing target must be visible in the writing, and I ask them to underline where they have met it.

Teacher modelling

The best way to describe this is through examples. If I wanted my pupils to start writing a story with a setting description, we would have previously read a selection of texts which start with setting descriptions and analyse the use of vocabulary, sentence structures, imagery, atmosphere and impact. We would also be ready with our plans.

In the lesson, I would read through the learning objectives and success criteria with the class and recap each skill and the purpose. I would then write two writing targets on display. I would then model writing a sentence on the whiteboard. If, within that sentence, I had already met a writing target or a skill on the success criteria, I would say the following out aloud:

‘Oooh, I can see that I’ve already included an abstract noun in my first sentence, so I’ll tick that writing target off.’ I would physically walk over to the whiteboard and tick it off.

The conversation would continue as follows:

‘Have I drawn in the reader? If not how can I do this? How can I create this in my writing?’

At this point, I would stop and re-read the sentence:

‘I am now going to re-read the sentence. Oh, this bit doesn’t make sense. I wonder what I would need to do here? What if I moved this word over here or that word over there? I’ll wipe this word off and change this word.’ I would physically demonstrate this process. ‘Do I need a more precise word here? Does that make sense? Do I need to change the ending of the word?’

‘Now I need to see if my sentence makes sense. I am going to read it again. How does this sentence make me feel? This word makes me feel really scared. Is that the effect/impact I want it to have on the reader? Have I met my other writing target or a skill on the success criteria? I can see that I’ve met my second writing target and so I can tick that one off too.’  Then I would physically tick it off in front of the class.

The thinking out loud process written above explicitly models the use of writing targets and success criteria, as pupils are shown clearly how to spot where improvements can be made.

Although I have focused on writing strategies, through my practice and research, I have found that it is possible to teach metacognition through every lesson rather than as an add on. I hope you find the strategies above useful.

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