Evaluators who observed our Learning About Learning Lab school in the 1970’s repeatedly remarked on our metacognitive approach to education. In 1980 (35 years ago), I wrote my dissertation about metacognition and how it might connect to the play of young children. I was anxious to see how other researchers and practitioners were extending our knowledge of this important concept. For years I looked up metacognition in dictionaries and the indexes to educational materials to no avail. Now metacognition is becoming a buzz word.
So, in this blog, I would like to share several meanings for metacognition and explain how we interpret it in the New World Kids (NWK) program.
Metacognition is literally “cognition about cognition” (thinking about thinking) and can refer what you know in general about cognition. For example, even young children know that it is (usually) harder to memorize a long list of words than a short list.
Metacognition can also mean what is going on in your head at the moment. (Consider that right now—what are you thinking about?) This can refer, for example, to your knowledge that they way you are solving a problem is not working and you need to go “back to the drawing board.” This meaning of metacognition has also lead to studies of the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon. Think of the last time you couldn’t remember a name or word. Usually people know that they know it (even though they cannot recall it) and may even be able to remember some of its characteristics; e.g., “it starts with an ‘s’.”
A third definition calls metacognition executive functions. These are cognitive processes that help guide thinking or learning. These include reflection, planning, monitoring, selecting strategies, evaluating, and so on. Some researchers have studied these as self-regulating functions that help us solve problems, make decisions and improve our thinking and learning.
A fourth definition of metacognition was inspired by the work of Lev Vygotsky. He proposed that all learning went from an interpersonal interaction to an intrapersonal interaction. For example, imagine a child trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle for the first time. The adult interacting with him will do most of the work at first and carry on a one-sided conversation. “What piece goes here? Let’s see…It’s a round shape…Oh, look the red piece is round. Let’s put it here and see if it fits…” As the child learns to solve the puzzle, he takes on more and more of the actions and dialogue. Then he can do it on his own, but still internalizes the dialogue to support his thinking. Finally, the puzzle is so easy no dialogue is necessary. As another example, think of yourself trying to put together a toy or piece of furniture for the first time. Many of us support our thinking by talking out loud: “Let’s see…piece A fits into piece B…etc.” This dialogue can also be called metacognition, wherein the director or supervisor guides the actor or worker to complete the task. This dialogue can occur between two people, such as parent and child or teacher and child or within the child or adult’s own head. It provides a scaffolding for thinking.
NWK incorporates several of these ideas into its programs and extends them further. The idea is for the teacher (or parent) and student to reflect on the child’s thinking and find the unique strengths of each individual. The idea is based on neuroscience that assures us that we all have unique ways of thinking and learning. We want the child to understand and develop authentic confidence in his own strengths, appreciate the differences in his strengths and those of others and deliberately apply his strengths to solve problems and innovate ideas—both alone and in groups.
Unfortunately, most of the programs I have seen that purport to have a metacognitive approach are actually talking about study skills, especially how to memorize and recall material more effectively.
We believe that we need to give children a stronger base than just dealing with the curriculum as it is now. They need to be prepared to face a rapidly changing world that we adults can scarcely imagine. Change is the new normal and we want our kids to be well prepared for “whatever”.
To this end, we ask teachers to broaden their role—to be scientific observers who look for clues as to each child’s strengths and to share what they see with the kids and their parents. We also ask teachers to ask students to reflect metacognitively on their own thinking—for in the end, they will have to determine what their strengths really are. We adults will just make our best guesses and use that data to improve our lessons. To older students, we ask them routinely to reflec t on what they are learning about themselves as thinkers and learners. To help the youngest students who are not ready for metacognitive analysis, we ask them to reflect, “What activity did you like best today?”
To facilitate these discoveries, we use the Sensory Alphabet as a bridge between the creative products of a child and the unique characteristics of his mind. Notice, however, that we do not constantly engage in metacognition. Play and other activities are also important and should not be engaged in self-consciously!
Adults in NWK begin by looking at their own strengths. Here are some examples of teachers creating similes to express “My Mind at Work” at the end of a lengthy investigation of brain and mind.