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Teaching Opinion

Response: Metacognitive Skills put Students on ‘Road to Lifelong Learning’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 01, 2016 24 min read
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(This is the first post in a four-part series on the topic of metacognition in the classroom)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

Teachers hear the word metacognition a lot these days. We’re pushed to promote it among our students. But, really, what is it, why should we encourage it, and how do we teach it?

This five-part series attempts to answer these questions.

Today, 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.

Before we get to their contributions, though, I’d like to share my own thoughts.

Metacognition has been identified by countless researchers and educators (including the Council of Chief State School Officers) as a skill critical for student success. It has the common definition of “thinking about thinking.” In other words, it is the self-awareness to know our strengths and weaknesses. Plus, it’s knowing how and when to apply those strengths and compensate for those weaknesses. Explicit teaching of metacognitive strategies has been shown to lead to increased academic achievement for all students.

I use a simple lesson to introduce the concept to my students.

They enter the classroom to the word “Metacognition” on the whiteboard and a garbage can on top of a table in the front.

Students know I play basketball a lot (it’s not unusual for me to come to class with a black eye from someone’s elbow, or I might be limping), so I crunch up a piece of paper, throw it, and intentionally miss the garbage can. The paper falls to the right (of course, students love that I miss). I tell the class, “Okay, now I know that I have adjust my shot. I’m thinking about it, and maybe I need to adjust to the left. I think I’d have a better chance if I threw it underhand, too, because it would have a higher arc.”

I crunch-up another sheet of paper, throw it, and it lands short, hitting the front of the can (again, great jeers from the class). I say, “It looks like I’m getting closer. I think I’ll just have to throw it a little harder and it should go in.”

I get another piece of paper, and throw it -- bulls-eye!. I say, “Now, the next time I want to try to make a basket here, I’ll know to throw it underhand and aim better. That’s the kind of thinking I go through on the basketball court, and how we improve in lots of ways. We take the time to think about ‘Why?’ and learn from what we’ve done in the past to do better in the future.”

I then tell the class, “Let’s see how I do shooting the ball without using metacognition.” I crumple up three pieces of paper and just throw them one-by-one in the direction of the can. None got in. I tell the class, “I’m going to ask a question, and I don’t want anyone to call out an answer. Why didn’t those three balls go in? Tell a partner.” Students share and then I call on one, who usually responds something like this, “Because you didn’t think about it first.”

“Exactly, I told the class. If we don’t ‘think about our thinking,’ we won’t learn from our mistakes or from our successes. We’ll always start from scratch when we face a problem. By using metacognition, we’ll be able to more effectively apply what we learn from the past to the future.”

Next, we make a long class list of metacognitive strategies students can use to help them learn more effectively. Here’s a short excerpt:

The list is kept up on the wall, and students also copy it into their notebooks. Periodically, students also reflect at the end of the day about what strategies helped them learn the best, and that’s what they write about it in the listed “Learning Journal.”

You can also find additional resources at my post, The Best Posts on Metacognition.

Now, it’s time for today’s guests:

Response From Laura Robb

Laura Robb, teacher and coach, has written more than 20 books on literacy. She is the author of Vocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Complex Texts, Corwin, 2014:

Meta-cognition is often defined as thinking about thinking. However, a three-word definition does not explain the benefits of becoming meta-cognitive to students in elementary, middle, and high school. Three words--thinking about thinking-- are not specific enough to help teachers show students how to be meta-cognitive. When students are aware of what they understand and don’t understand, they can clarify their thinking on their own or seek their teacher’s help. The combination of being self-aware, taking action, and experiencing success leads to independence in learning.

Defining Meta-cognition

Meta-cognitive learners are tuned into how they process new information, what they do and don’t comprehend, and the emotions they experience while learning. Dr. Immordino-Yang and her colleagues at the University Southern California’s Brain Creativity Institute have drawn conclusions about the relationship between emotions and students’ learning capacity.

  • If students emotional associations with tasks are positive, feelings of “I can do this” and “I enjoy this” develop and accelerate their learning.

  • However, if associations are negative--"I’ll never be able to figure this out” and “I hate this work"--it becomes difficult for students to succeed. The replay of in-the-head negative thoughts prevents students from taking the risks that are characteristic of meta-cognitive learners. The possibility of failure negatively affects their lack of self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Meta-cognitive learners welcome new learning tasks and have life experiences that enable them to access strategies for learning. Taking risks and risking failure don’t affect their willingness to keep trying.

So, two big questions for us as educators to wrestle with are, How do we teach students to be meta-cognitive? How do we transform negative emotions toward learning tasks into positive ones? The answers may lie in encouraging students to do four things: plan work, monitor comprehension, confer frequently, and self-evaluate.

  1. Planning Work

When students plan their work--drafts, revision, book talks, projects, speeches, and group presentations, etc-- they think, select, discard, and research to learn more. The planning process supports thinking before taking action and reveals to students what they understand and don’t understand, and what they need to do and don’t need to do. Learners who grapple this way are using their meta-cognitive skills.

  1. Monitoring Comprehension

Students who read independently at school and home feel a range of emotions while immersed in a text. They also can step into the shoes of the person they’re reading about and experience life from his or her perspective. They visualize, predict, infer, and pause to savor words, phrases, figurative language, and their feelings about and reactions to texts. In a nutshell, those students are monitoring comprehension while reading. An effective way to determine whether students are monitoring comprehension while reading is through bookmarks.

Bookmarks for Monitoring Comprehension

Bookmarks help students track in-the-head-conversations they have during reading. To create a baseline bookmark, ask students to write what they think and feel while reading. Then, have them read and respond using a specific strategy such as predict and support, infer, visualize, determine important information, or name specific feelings they have about a person, character, event, or conflict. What students write or don’t write--offers a window into their thought process while they read. Avoid over using bookmarks or asking students to record their thoughts and feelings for several pages of text.

To make a bookmark, have students fold a piece of notebook paper in half, lengthwise. At the top of the bookmark, have them write their name, date, title and author of the book, and the numbers of two to three pages they’ll read and self-monitor.

When you assess students’ bookmarks and then coach them in frequent, short conferences, you can help students experience success with learning tasks and develop a rich and rewarding personal reading life. Kahmariah’s story below illustrates this.

Kahmariah’s Story

Fourth and fifth grade teachers at the Discovery Charter School in Rochester, New York, have been meeting with me on the telephone about using bookmarks and conferring to improve students’ instructional and independent reading. Fourth grade teacher Jean Hoyt recently emailed me Kahmariah’s story. A reluctant reader, Kahmariah, slightly below grade level with instructional reading, had difficulty making inferences and recalling details. During independent reading she would “fake read” and was unable to retell the text.

What helped Kahmariah begin to “real read” were the conferences and coaching sessions that followed Jean’s assessment of her bookmarks. Jean moved Kahmariah from quoting text phrases and “fake reading” to making predictions, showing empathy for characters, and connecting the story to her own life. Kahmariah now reads a variety of genres, has read five books during the third quarter, up from only one book the first half of the year. Kahmariah sees herself as a “reader” who chooses to read at school and at home. Independent reading combined with Jean’s support ramped up Kahmariah’s instructional level to mid-fourth grade!

The message here is that bookmarks alone won’t help students find meaning and joy in reading. Teachers must analyze students’ bookmarks to figure out how to support them. That means conferring with students, coaching them, modeling for them, pointing out their successes, and encouraging them to self-evaluate.

  1. Confer Frequently

Coaching students for three-to-four minutes during a conference enables you to help them apply a new strategy, concept, or task--and enjoy the feeling of success. During conferences you can show students who aren’t meta-cognitive how to reflect on their learning and point out any progress they made. Conferring with students briefly and frequently allows you to turn negative feelings and attitudes toward learning into positive ones--gradually.

Jean Hoyt told me that through continual but short conferences she was able to develop students’ self-confidence and feelings of self-efficacy--"Yes, I can reach that goal!” After several months of conferring and teaching students how to reflect on their work and progress, Hoyt observed that positive feelings toward reading and writing among students she coached outnumbered negative feelings. And equally important, students were able to express feelings of pride in writing and pleasure in reading.

  1. Self-Evaluate

Self-evaluating progress in reading comprehension invites students to call on their meta-cognitive skills. They study their readers’ notebooks and reflect on what they did well along with how to improve comprehension.

Coaching students to be meta-cognitive requires us to raise students’ awareness of what they do and don’t understand about reading. This is a tough task for teachers and students, but one that’s important because meta-cognition creates independent learners who find pleasure in reading and writing about reading and have the fix-up strategies necessary to comprehend what they read. And after all, developing students’ independence in learning should be the goal of every teacher!

Independence in Learning

During conferences, engage students in planning, monitoring comprehension, and self-evaluating their work so they can pinpoint strengths and needs. Then, think aloud and coach them to show how reflecting on their reading highlights what they do well and points out areas that need improvement. In addition, help them be positive about their needs so they understand that learners take risks and work hard to make progress. By developing students’ meta-cognitive skills, you put them on the road to lifelong learning.

Response From Teresa Diaz

Teresa Diaz is currently a school library media specialist at “Tex” Hill Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, with 20+ years experience as a teacher and librarian in both public and private middle and high schools. Also a Google Certified Teacher, she’s interested in exploring the role Information Literacy plays in today’s digital world, and blogs at Curioussquid.net. Follow her on Twitter at @teresa_diaz:

What is it, & why do it?

Even though the term “metacognition” was only coined in the 1970s, its essence has permeated so many of the emerging and impactful educational methods and strategies currently taking hold nationally and globally---from Problem-Based and Blended Learning to Guided Inquiry, Genius Hour, and Design Thinking. The most common understanding of metacognition is “thinking about your own thinking.” Metacognition is more than simple reflection; it’s an internal dialogue between the self as thinker and the self as learner. It’s not just about asking yourself “What do I think?"---but moves beyond that basic layer of understanding into a cloud-like stratus hovering above our thoughts, where the more compelling questions then become “Why do I think that?”, “How did I get there?” and “Where do I go from here?”

Metacognition draws upon an awareness of our own thinking processes to help us become more independent and empowered learners. Metacognition also fosters a focus on learning as a process, something that is neither static nor closed, but fluid, progressive, and constant. When you think of it that way, it seems like a no-brainer to incorporate metacognition into everything we do with learners of any age. Yet often, as with reflection, teaching students “how to think” seems as if it’s already embedded in what we do, or deemed nonessential in comparison with other curricular standards and targets. Or it may be skipped over because of time constraints, a lack of know-how, or simply because it’s not tested, or testable. Yet, the other curious thing about metacognition is that by taking the time to teach kids not only how to think but how to reflect upon, analyze and strategize their own thinking, we ultimately expand time by placing more of the responsibility of learning directly---and albeit more transparently---onto the shoulders of students, without overly burdening them or ourselves in the process. As teachers, utilizing metacognition supports the concept of “working smarter, not harder” from two perspectives: the teacher is not doing the thinking for the student, and as a result, the student does the heavy lifting of deeper learning without realizing it.

As I mentioned earlier, elements of metacognition live within several current models and approaches; in fact, many of the skills and attributes we want to cultivate are actually embedded within metacognition, such as: making inferences and drawing conclusions, deductive/inductive reasoning, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, risk taking, creative problem-solving, openness, agency, curiosity, and even a growth mindset. Metacognition fosters open mindedness on top of mindfulness.

Ideas for Developing Metacognition

We’ve heard the catch phrase “location, location, location” when referring to the three most important things in real estate; in George Couros’ book The Innovator’s Mindset, he emphasizes “relationships, relationships, relationships” as the lynchpin to igniting change within your classroom or campus. I’d say that “transparency, transparency, transparency” is the meta-motto to remember when talking about metacognition with students. In fact, be open as to why you think it’s important, and how it has helped you develop your own thinking as a teacher and learner. You could even go as far as to share how you used metacognition to brainstorm ways to teach and develop it with your students, modeling the process via a Think-Aloud, a modified KWL chart, or even a revised “It Says...I Say...And So.”

In the book Making Thinking Visible, Harvard’s Project Zero fellow Ron Ritchhart, along with Mark Church and Karin Morrison, offer several “Visible Thinking Routines” that incorporate “thinking moves,” including metacognition. One simple routine to try is “I Used to Think...Now I Think.” In Creating Cultures of Thinking, Ritchhart outlines these “thinking moves” in more detail, which could be adapted into a classroom infographic poster or laminated foldable for students to refer to when identifying and analyzing their own thinking.

Some other favorite methods that have built-in metacognition are the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique, Carol Kuhlthau’s Guided Inquiry, and Ken Macrorie’s classic I-Search approach to the traditional research paper.

Another simple technique I’ve used is to build in reflection-style questions that move beyond the “what” to the “how” and “why” into any activity or project:

What did you learn?

How did you learn?

What [thinking] strategies did you use?

Why did you use those strategies?

How has your thinking changed? Has it?

What worked or didn’t work?

What do you want to do differently next time?

More possible “meta-hacks” of familiar strategies and graphic organizers:

  • Exit tickets, blog post prompts or personal narrative essays that ask students to explore a reflective or metacognitive question instead of sharing learned content

  • Annotation Symbols Chart of “thinking moves” that students use to label their own writing about their thinking

  • Modified “It Says...I Say...And So” or dialectical journal that charts what they learned to how they learned it, and asks them list any lingering questions or strategies to explore

  • Add metacognitive elements to a project rubric, similar to building in creativity assessments
  • Have students design their own graphic organizer that can be adapted to chart their metacognition

Response From Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Mineral Point, Wisconsin and author of multiple books, including 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD, 2015). Learn more about Matt on his website, mattrenwick.com, and by following him on Twitter @ReadByExample:

Metacognition is defined as “awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes”. Education leader Dr. Linda Darling Hammond describes metacognition more succinctly as “thinking about our own thinking”. The ability to be self-aware and to reflect upon our mental processes is a critical skill that should be taught and reinforced in schools today. When we are intentional about being metacognitive, we are more likely to clear up misconceptions, understand how we operate as a person, and make smarter decisions about the future. However, with how fast paced education seems to be considering all of the curriculum to teach and the standards to cover, teachers can feel overwhelmed to take even more time for this.

This should be a concern of teachers. Metacognition is important beyond the schoolhouse. Questioning and reflecting about our experiences is a cornerstone of becoming a lifelong learner. Consider the most recent presidential election and everything that led up to it. From what I read, most people who made public comments online about the race spoke in absolute terms: “Trump is a narcissist.” “Hillary is a liar.” I did not comment on how true these statements might be when I read them on social media. Yet I did wonder how informed each person who made the statements was about the issues. What types of questions might have been asked to help a person become more aware of what they were saying and why? Would the online conversation have led to moments of reflection? If the questions were not asked, was that the best decision? Critical thinking usually leads to smarter decisions.

When we teach students to facilitate a deeper discourse about their lives using metacognition, we help make the world a better place. Insults are replaced with questions. Criticisms are couched in appreciative observations. People live their lives more informed and more open to the possibilities. As an educator, I cannot imagine better outcomes for our students.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, author of two books (Teach Smart and Building a Culture of Support), and sought after speaker and consultant specializing in school culture, principal coaching, effective evaluation practices, and student-centered instruction. PJ currently serves as the Superintendent of Schools for Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illinois and can be reached via twitter (@MCUSDSupe):

The brain is an egotist. It loves to think about itself. This is one of the many things we are learning about the brain as this ever-deveoloping science continues to provide educators with new windows into learning. The science is evolving at a rapid pace that can and (hopefully) will impact education significantly in the future - if we allow it to do so. The term and concept of metacognition, or thinking about thinking, however, is not new. In fact, the term was coined in the late 1970s and the value to instruction and student learning has been apparent for some time.

To (potentially over-) simplify the difference between cognition and meta-cognition is to think of basic root words for questions:

Cognition: The What: What are you thinking about?

Metacognition: The Why or How: How did you think about that or Why do you think that?

By simply looking at metacognition in that manner it is clear that asking students deeper questions such as why and how anything works is more likely to cause higher order thinking and therefore true cognitive engagement. It goes beyond this simple look, however. Here are 5 reasons teachers should be leveraging what we know about metacognition to better serve their students.

1) It works

  • Hattie’s meta-analysis (2011) of hundreds of educational research studies found that the instructional strategy with the most leverage or impact on student achievement deals directly with students’ expectations for and beliefs in themselves. In order to foster this belief, students must be involved in predicting or self-reporting their grades. As a result, teachers must provide opportunities for students to be involved in predicting their performance - in order to do so students must know what benchmark they are performing against.

2) It is transferrable to other classes/life

  • Students who learn to think about how they think and why they think in the manner they do instantly learn a transferable skill. There is nothing unique in how our brain processes material depending on whether a student is in Period 4 or Period 8. Engaging students regularly in a process that allows them to understand the most important part of their human anatomy is something that will benefit them well outside the four walls of that class.

3) It is the epitome of a student-centered strategy

  • Student-centered learning is a buzzword right now, that is giving way to personalized learning. Philosophically, I could not possibly agree with this transformation more. The issue is moving from a traditional classroom to a more progressive classroom is hard work. Learning simple techniques to teach kids to think about thinking, track and predict their own progress, and to learn about themselves as a learner are simple tools to begin this transformation.

4) Complex problems cannot be solved without it

  • Students must be able to solve complex problems in unpredictable situations when they leave school. The reason - life is full of situations that call for this skill-set. If students do not have the training and ability to practice deep thinking they will not be able to handle some complex problems that will throw at them. To use a simple metaphor - we cannot only teach kids the Chicken Dance and expect them to be able to waltz. We must understand and embrace the complexity with which the brain can process when called upon to do so.

5) It should be a basic student right

  • I cannot imagine school a very fun place at the cognitive level of thinking alone. The imagery that comes to mind is the filling of a pail versus the lighting of a fire. Metacognition not only lights the fire, but gives the fire fuel to burn without the direct stimulus of a teacher or particular content area. Simply put, I believe metacognition is not only the highest yield strategy to employ to increase student achievement, but also to igniting a love of learning causing the birth of lifelong learners.

Response From LouAnne Johnson

LouAnne Johnson is a former US Navy journalist and the author of ten nonfiction books including the award-winning YA novel Muchacho, and the memoir My Posse Don’t Do Homework which was adapted for the hit movie Dangerous Minds. A long-time high school English teacher, at present LouAnne is an online instructor in the Teacher Education Department at Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico:

When I first suggest to my high school students that they learn to practice metacognition -- thinking about thinking -- invariable, somebody asks, “Is this going to be on the test?” My response: “No, it won’t be on the test and that’s exactly why metacognition is so important, because tests don’t teach you how to think more effectively, learn faster or know yourself better. Metacognition can do all those things.”

As a student, knowing how your brain works gives you the ability to tailor your study time to maximize your academic success. Some people are highly tuned into color, for example, and highlighting a text helps them remember important details. Other people find highlighted text to be distracting and disruptive to thinking. Reading aloud helps some people process information better. Others need silence in order to comprehend what’s on the page. Which study methods work best for your unique brain?

Brains, like car engines, have their own performance specs. How long can your brain perform high-intensity maneuvers before it needs a break to avoid overheating? Understanding your own brain’s capacity for intense focus can help you avoid wasting hours while prepping for exams or working on important projects. Brain research shows that the human brain needs a break now and then. A five-year-old brain can focus for about five minutes before it demands a distraction. A ten-year-old brain can fire away for about ten minutes. As you age, your focus time increases -- to a maximum of about twenty minutes. If you try to force your brain to focus for extended periods of time, your brain will still take mental breaks without telling you. You won’t even be aware that you were daydreaming. According to Dr. David Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, studying intently for 80 minutes results in about 20 minutes of lost “downtime” when your brain checks out, whereas if you divide your study time into four 20-minute sessions with short breaks in between to listen to music or some other relaxing activity, you will experience just 5 minutes of “downtime” and higher retention. This concept applies whether you are cramming for an algebra test or trying to do your taxes. Focus hard for a while, then take a break.

Metacognition is a life skill that continues to help you long after you finish school. Thinking about thinking helps you learn from your mistakes in personal relationships and on the job. Taking a few minutes at the end of each day for self-reflection can help you tune into your passions and dreams, so you won’t be sidetracked by peer pressure. Self-knowledge helps you achieve your life goals and avoid wasting time or energy on things that really don’t matter to you. Best of all, metacognition is free. It doesn’t require an app or an update or a license. All it requires is a brain and the courage to think for yourself.

Thanks to Laura, Teresa, Matt, PJ, and LouAnne for their contributions!

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