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Teaching Opinion

Response: Metacognition Is a ‘Catalyst for Action’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 03, 2016 24 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series on the topic of metacognition in the classroom. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is metacognition and why should teachers be concerned about it?

In Part One, Laura Robb, Teresa Diaz, Matt Renwick, PJ Caposey and LouAnne Johnson share their responses.

You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Laura, Teresa and Matt on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Dan Rothstein, Mark Estrada, Diane Friedlaender, Bena Kallick, Allison Zmuda, Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, and Amy Benjamin answer the question.

Response From Dan Rothstein

Dan Rothstein is Co-Director of The Right Question Institute. He is the co-author of Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions (Harvard Education Press) and the new ASCD book, Partnering with Parents to Ask the Right Questions:

I might ask the question this way:

What is metacognition and what can metacognition do for students?

Thinking about thinking. That’s the simplest definition of Metacognition. But, before looking more closely at the concept, and even before reading on, take 30 seconds, a mere half minute, and jot down questions you have about that notion of “thinking about thinking.”

30 seconds later...Have you written down your own questions? Review them and you already are practicing a form of metacognition as you can follow where your questions led you and how you got there. It’s a good example of Project Zero’s idea of Visible Thinking, especially as a catalyst for curiosity. Here are a few questions that could lead in different directions and make one more curious about “thinking about thinking:" How do you think about thinking? What do you think about when you’re thinking about thinking? Why should you think about thinking? Who does it? How do you learn to do it? Does it help you learn? Does it help you think better? How does it help you think better? What does it help you do?

Metacognition is a very powerful thinking ability. Unpack it a bit and there’s a lot to discover. In fact, metacognitive thinking allows you the opportunity to reveal to yourself your own thinking processes, monitoring not only what you were thinking, but also how you got to those specific thoughts and ideas and how you can use that knowledge to deepen your understanding of what might have seemed incomprehensible before. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching offers an excellent summary of research about metacognition. Much of the research cited has been done only in the past few decades and has contributed to a growing recognition that the ability to reflect upon one’s own thought processes and be aware of not only what is being learned but how it is being learned is a critically important element of intellectual growth and depth of understanding.

The relative paucity of research until recently is surprising for there is a long, venerable tradition encouraging ‘thinking about thinking. The tradition often relies too heavily on the most knowledgeable person in the room posing questions to stimulate student contemplative thinking and reflection. Socrates, who might have started it all as the wisest person in the city, got himself into hot water (well, more like a fatal cup of hemlock) for ‘troubling’ the minds of the youth of Athens 2,500 years ago. Too much thinking, apparently, is a dangerous thing, at least so thought the elders of Athens.

The tradition that became the Socratic one (the posing of questions, not the drinking of hemlock), troubling students to “examine” their own thinking, has been passed down now for millenia as a most honorable pedagogy, sometimes being seen as the very epitome of good teaching. The Socratic method is indeed an artful method, one that requires much preparation, training and...time. It relies greatly on teachers devoting significant amounts of their own precious time to develop just the right questions that will stimulate deep and reflective thinking.

Some teachers pose excellent and challenging reflection questions in the white space of students’ work, or pose questions pushing students to think about what they learned by completing a written assignment, a difficult reading, an exercise in problem solving or a classroom discussion. Such simple metacognitive exercises are meant to lead to deeper comprehension and greater student engagement. Student reflection, stimulated by a teacher’s questions, can become not a detour but a bridge to more informed action.

Teachers can, however, facilitate metacognitive thinking and greater engagement without having to stay up late thinking up all the questions to ask of students. We have seen teachers help students build their own bridge between metacognitive thinking and further engagement. They do it by making just one small shift in their teaching. They move from adopting the pose of Socrates, that is, posing the questions of students and shift to providing a process and opportunity for students to pose their own questions, and then work with their own questions and consider what they are learning by asking their questions.

Laurie Gaughran shared, for example, why she made that change in practice in her New York City high school history classroom. For years, she would try to get students to “think more about” their papers by placing “all kinds of questions - squeezed inside the margins of their papers...” Eventually, she shifted her approach, realizing that “it would be better if the students could look at their own work and learn to ask the kinds of questions I’m asking and some I am not thinking about.”

Her realization that she could help students learn to think about their own thinking and writing when they are able to ask their own questions led her to another discovery. When students ask their own questions, they become more excited about learning. They “own” the questions, and create a learning agenda rather than go through the paces of responding to a teacher’s assignment. They become more eager to get answers to their own questions. Nothing will make the case for metacognition more strongly for teachers than the prospect of a classroom of self-directed learners, excited about getting answers to their questions.

Students become adept at metacognition quickly as they notice the changes in themselves brought on by asking questions and thinking about their thinking. In Hayley Dupuy’s 6th grade Palo Alto, CA classroom a mile or so from the Stanford University campus, one of her students said that “just when you think you know all you need to know, you ask another question and discover how much more there is to learn.” A full continent away in Ling-Se Chesnakas’ classroom in a Boston (MA) public school summer remedial program, a student at risk of being held back in 9th grade, observed that by learning to ask his own questions he felt “smart, asking good questions and getting good answers.” This change in how he felt about himself as a student, now as a “smart” student, points to the profound importance of giving all students, and, perhaps especially struggling students, the opportunity to think about their thinking, to reflect on what they learned and how it changes them.

We need to begin to see metacognition less as an activity residing solely in the interior regions of the mind and see it more as a catalyst for action. Naming what you know and what you understand helps lead to more informed action. In many community-based workshops my colleagues and I have facilitated in low-income communities around the country, we often use this simple reflection question after learners go through a process of producing their own questions, improving them and strategizing on how to use them: “What do you understand differently now about the (topic/ subject/ problem) than before you asked your own questions?”

This question offers them an opportunity to reflect and name specifically the change that has taken place in the interior space of the mind, and that becomes a catalyst for action.

An inspirational example of this connection between thinking and action can be found in the courageous work of Septima Clark, one of the great unheralded educators of the 20th century. Fired after 18 years of teaching by the Charleston, S.C. Board of Education in 1955 for the “crime” of being a member of the NAACP, Clark set up “Citizenship Schools” to teach illiterate adults in the Afro-American community how to read and write. She saw her work as more than teaching basic skills that would help them obtain jobs, not be cheated out of wages and be better able to help themselves and their families. Her initiative became an integral part of the Highlander Education and Research Center‘s quiet and behind the scenes role the emerging Civil Rights Movement. The Citizenship Schools recognized the urgent need for people to question and challenge what had been accepted for decades. The people they were reaching out to needed the opportunity to think about it all; not only about what they were observing and thinking but also about what they could do.

Septima Clark, reflecting on what she had learned and observed through her courageous work, summed it up in this way: “We need to be taught to study rather than believe, to inquire rather than to affirm.” She underscored the educational imperative to learn how to study, but beyond that she made the strong case for being taught “to inquire.” Living squarely at the intersection of thought and action, she knew that thought, and the chance to think about and question what was being learned and perceived, is directly tied to actions that follow.

There’s a striking photo of Septima Clark sitting together with Rosa Parks at the Highlander Education and Research Center that is on display at the Martin Luther King National Historic Site in Atlanta. These two remarkable women shared their own prodigious ability to think for themselves and challenge conventional thinking around them. They then figured out how to advocate for new ways of thinking and built a bridge from thought to action.

Building this bridge from thought to action represents the great potential of metacognition for all students.

Students need the opportunity to think about what they are learning, to reflect on what they understand and to name, in the form of questions, what they do not know and want to know. It builds a pathway to greater curiosity, more engagement and deeper learning. Students who learn to stimulate their own curiosity get more excited about learning and teachers gain more joy in teaching. That’s a good deal both students and teachers richly deserve.

Reponse From Mark Estrada

Mark Estrada is the principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, Texas. Mr. Estrada has experience as a middle school social studies teacher, middle school instructional administrator, and elementary principal. Mr. Estrada is an ASCD 2014 Emerging Leader and Doctoral Fellow at The University of Texas--Austin Cooperative Superintendency Program (CSP):

Metacognition is an important skill that students should be explicitly taught and developed throughout a student’s educational career. Metacognition refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition is often described as “thinking about one’s thinking”. This skill has applications across many facets of learning and schooling. Teachers of all grade levels should be concerned with it but I would like to highlight the importance of how we teach metacognitive processes during the middle school years.

During middle school, students are rapidly developing cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically. Compound all of these changes with the changes in the structures (or lack of) and supports provided to middle school students. This is why schools and teachers should be keenly cognizant of how they are teaching skills, such as metacognition, that transfer across all content areas and are dependent on the developing adolescent brain. Google metacognition and you will quickly become overwhelmed with the thousands of strategies and techniques suggested for teaching metacognition. I contest that middle schools should name and teach metacognition with a solid level of uniformity in order to provide and build routines with how middle schoolers think about learning and content comprehension. Why do we often teach in silos and teach students the same thing in different ways? It is an inefficient use of instructional time and a missed opportunity in secondary schools.

One model that I recommend is the Strategic Instruction Model (SIM), based on research from the University of Kansas and the KU Center for Research and Learning. SIM is a whole school approach to adolescent literacy that incorporates routines and strategies that all teachers, in all subject areas, use to develop critical thinking skills and supports students with learning how to learn. SIM Content Enhancement Routines are dynamic teaching tools that use powerful teaching devices to organize and present curriculum content in an understandable and easy-to-learn manner. All of the routines promote direct, explicit instruction to facilitate problem-solving and critical thinking skills for students. While there are many ways to teach students metacognition, it is my belief that teachers and schools should collaborate on how the school will approach teaching metacognition and systematically and uniformly teach this ever important skills that will help all students access and comprehend content and be prepared for high school, college, and life.

Response From Diane Friedlaender

Diane Friedlaender, PhD, is a Senior Associate at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE):

Metacognition is the ability to reflect on and build awareness of your own learning process to improve your learning. Teaching metacognition enables students to take an active role in their own learning process. This is particularly crucial for students who have not previously been given the opportunity experience success in school.

Our research illustrates examples of student-centered schools that focus on metacognition as an essential component of the learning process. Although, used as a daily strategy for student learning, it is particularly powerful when used through portfolio assessments. The schools in our study ask 10th and 12th graders to defend their work, dissertation-style, in front of a panel of teachers, as well as in front of their peers and family members. In addition to demonstrating their learning using evidence from English, social studies, science and math, students reflect on what they have learned and how they learn through a cover letter. As a 12th grade student reflects,

“I think that college success portfolio is really like the ultimate self-reflection, like where was I at point A and where am I now at point B and why am I now ready to go off and be a successful person?....You’re spending 4 years of your life constantly reflecting and thinking about how you can make yourself better. And I think they’re trying to get us into the habit of that so then when we go to college we’ll already be thinking, “This is good, but for my next paper how can I make this better? This was great but for my next class, this discussion, this presentation, how can I make it better?” And so I think they’re trying to get us into the habit.”

As this quote illustrates, taking a metacognitive approach is essential to helping students develop an academic identity.

To learn more about this approach and student-centered schools, please go to //edpolicy.stanford.edu/publications/pubs/1200

Response From Bena Kallick & Allison Zmuda

Dr. Bena Kallick is an international consultant providing services to school districts, state departments of education, professional organizations, and public agencies throughout the United States and abroad. Bena Kallick co-authored with Art Costa Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind and Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum (ASCD 2008). She is co-authoring a new book, Students at the Center: Personalized Learning and Habits of Mind with Allison Zmuda that will be published by ASCD in January 2017.

Allison Zmuda is an education consultant specializing in learning that is challenging, possible, and worthy of the attempt. Zmuda began her career as a public high school teacher in Newtown, Connecticut. Her passion for her students combined with her innovative spirit resulted in the writing of her first book, The Competent Classroom (2001). She continued to write, penning nine more books including Students at the Center: Personalized Learning and Habits of Mind that will be published by ASCD in January 2017. In addition to her books, Zmuda provides personalized learning insight on her website, Learning Personalized, which features ideas, resources, and interviews to inspire at the classroom, school, and district levels:

Educators constantly ask how they can measure the development of “soft skills.” We contend that we cannot measure these skills the same way we are measuring academic skills because they are among the hardest skills to develop.

Persisting in the face of messy problems, listening to someone else with understanding and empathy when you disagree with their point of view, and remaining open to continuous learning when you believe you should have received an “A” are all much harder compared to readily reproducing black-and-white information.

So, how do we adjust the way we observe students as they develop Habits of Mind essential for their learning?

Students must become:

1. Self-Managing

Learning how to be aware of thinking (metacognition) and how to strengthen capacity to be self-observing is critical for using good feedback for improvement. Metacognition helps to make thinking more visible.

Although we may have many observations not at the conscious level, when we are asked to put those observations into words or visuals, we find we know more than we thought. Students must be encouraged to pay attention to their planning processes:

- What choices and decisions do they make as they plan for a particular project or work assignment?

- How do they manage time?

- How do they work with others?

- What will they do when someone is absent?

- How will they keep on track?

2. Self-Monitoring

Students must pay attention to the ways they monitor their progress as they work within a particular project.

- How do they solicit feedback?

- How frequently do they check against the standards by which they will measure quality and success?

- How do they deal with feedback to make certain they are paying attention to what really matters in their projected performances?

3. Self-Modifying

Students need to be invited to reflect at the end of a project.

- What have they learned?

- How will that learning transfer to other situations?

- What do they know about themselves as learners?

- How will they modify what they did to make their performances even better than the previous ones?

Thinking about one’s own thinking -- metacognition -- is at the core of the Habits. Our goal is to help students be as self-observing and self-regulating as possible. They can then find success in a rapidly-changing world once we are no longer there to guide them.

Response From Donna Wilson & Marcus Conyers

Dr. Donna Wilson is an author and psychologist who conducts professional development internationally for teachers, administrators, and policymakers. Donna’s blog can be found here and she can be contacted directly at Donna@brainsmart.org.

Marcus Conyers is a doctoral researcher at the University of Westminster and founder of BrainSMART, Inc. Donna and Marcus are the developers of the Drive Your Brain® program and their latest book is Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas, published by ASCD:

A truly rewarding aspect of teaching is educating students in valuable strategies they can apply to improve their academic performance and lives outside of school. One such strategy is learning how to wield the powerful thinking tool of metacognition, or being able to think about one’s thoughts with the aim of improving learning and thinking.

Students apply metacognition when they plan strategies to get organized to complete an assignment, monitor their learning progress, and review test results with an eye toward improving future performance. Teachers also rely on metacognition in evaluating how a lesson is going and slowing down or changing course to ensure understanding, for example.

Teaching for and with metacognition is vital for educators who espouse a growth mindset. Teachers who believe that learning capabilities can be improved through hard work and persistence wisely choose to teach students that they can “drive their brains.” We developed this metaphor as a concrete and engaging way to encourage students to take charge of enhancing their knowledge and abilities.

Metacognition is an essential, but often neglected, aspect of 21st century education that teaches students how to learn. Students who are not taught how to learn as they proceed through school experience more setbacks, become discouraged and disengaged from learning and disruptive in class, and tend to have lower academic performance.

The good news is that metacognition can be learned when it is explicitly defined, taught, and practiced often across academic content, career, and social contexts. Even young children can begin to think about their thinking at basic levels and use simple metacognitive strategies to regulate their behaviors and thinking. Nearly all students can be taught how to learn and think at higher levels, including those with learning challenges and across all socioeconomic strata. Applying these strategies can help integrate teaching about metacognition into existing lessons:

Define metacognition, and ask students to describe the benefits and supply examples of “driving their brains.” Extending this metaphor, sometimes they might need to slow down (e.g., reread a paragraph to check understanding), step on the gas (e.g., organize notes for an essay rather than getting stuck on how to start it), or change directions (e.g., try a different problem-solving strategy).

Model metacognition in action by thinking out load. Students can learn a lot from listening to their teacher using higher-order thinking strategies. They may laugh when their teacher makes “mistakes,” but they learn--and remember--how to recognize and correct miscues. This method also reframes mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve thinking.

Apply metacognition across core subjects. In teaching this topic, Donna asks students for examples of how metacognition might be useful in academics, in interactions with friends and family, and for older students, on the job.

Learning to be more metacognitive is both practical and inspiring. Following a session Marcus led, a student told him, “Thanks for helping me to see that it’s up to me to get smarter and smarter.” We have seen this dynamic in our personal and professional lives and believe that teachers who embrace teaching for and with metacognition can, too!

Response From Amy Benjamin

Amy Benjamin taught high school English in Westchester, New York for 30+ years. Her upcoming book is Infusing Vocabulary Into the Readers-Writers Workshop. Amy’s website is www.amybenjamin.com:

Education is more than learning facts and skills. An essential purpose of education is to help students understand themselves as learners, to give them guidance in reading the Owner’s Manuals of their own brains. Metacognition is about awareness of one’s needs and tendencies as a learner. It involves stepping outside of oneself to observe what works and what doesn’t, in what circumstances.

Metacognitive habits of mind are essential for transforming children and adolescents into independent learners. The “leaky pipeline"--the disconcerting number of college freshmen who don’t make it to graduation--is due in part by a lack of metacognitive practices. Any transition in life--and the transition from high school to college is one of the major ones--comes along with surprises, distractions, and disappointments. These events call for a quality we are hearing so much about these days: grit. Grit--the ability to marshal the inner strength to overcome adversity--and metacognitive habits go together. While we can’t yet say for sure why certain individuals triumph over hard knocks while others get knocked down and don’t get up again, we can attribute at least some of the resilience associated with grit to the use of metacognitive strategies: “OK, now I’m stuck. What can I do about that? How can I give myself what I need to meet the demands of this task? How can I learn from my mistakes?”

Some of these needs and tendencies are universal, or nearly so: Writing-to-learn activities such as graphic organizers, listing, free-writing, journaling, and marking a text during reading--even following the formal writing process of prewriting, drafting, conferring, revising, editing, and publishing (making one’s writing public in some form) are proven methods for generating and refining ideas. Countless well-known writers have affirmed some version of E.M. Forster’s rhetorical question, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Informal “writing-for-the-self” activities can lead to a lifelong productive habit of mind if we offer students a safe (non-critical, unevaluated) space in which to dip into their minds, uninhibited by the anxiety that comes with having one’s writing read (judged) by others, especially a teacher.

Another close-to-universal metacognitive behavior is conscious time management. Actors need to memorize lines. You won’t see a successful actor procrastinating until the night before a performance and then pulling an all-nighter. The actor learns lines by linking units of meaning, systematically, and over time. And he knows the cognitive value of sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress-reducing, mind-clearing routines. We can help students budget the time needed for reading and major projects expected to be completed outside of school. We can and should help them set up schedules that work backward from a due date.

Other learning needs and tendencies are idiosyncratic, i.e., specific to the individual. Car mechanics and surgeons are known to listen to music while they work (on you or your car). For some people, music (particularly classical music) improves task focus. For others, it’s just the opposite, and whether ambient music is a productive or distractive practice depends on the music, the task, and the individual.

Self-regulation: time management, setting up an environment that promotes concentration (eliminating distractions, resisting the temptation to multi-task), seeking and evaluating feedback from others, goal-setting are all metacognitive practices essential for successful life-long learners.

Thanks to Dan, Mark, Diane, Bena, Allison, Donna, Marcus and Amy for their contributions!

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