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Meta-Cognition in the classroom

Last year (2020) a few colleagues in the science department hosted a few meetings to discuss metacognition and retrieval practice. I love CPD, I am, almost obsessed with it, so obviously, I went along. We were told a bit about what metacognition was ‘thinking about thinking’ and a bit about what retrieval practice was. We paired up with a colleague from a different subject and began to think about how we could bring this into our practice…but that was where it ended, Covid struck and within a few weeks school was closed and this fabulous idea didn’t move forward. But it stuck with me, whirling away in my mind, what is metacognition? What thought processes do I actually go through as an historian? What thought processes do I go through as a teacher? What will it look like in my classroom? What might it look like in other classrooms? How can I use it to support the students I teach? Well, a year later, I think I know a little more.  

Metacognition started to fall into place a little more for me when I read the EEF paper on metacognition (Education Endowment Fund Metacognition). Reading this paper made me realise that the verbalisation of my thought process is something that can be really powerful. I understand (simplistically) about schemata and building those neuro networks to strengthen knowledge retrieval, but I was still a little stuck on how to verbalise this process. Reading the EEF paper was like switching on a light. Suddenly, I realised that actually it is something that I do but perhaps not to the extent I need to and really I should be doing it more explicitly.

I decided to try out verbalising my thoughts with Y9. I started with a retrieval pyramid (@katejones_teach) I explained the task to them and gave them five minutes to score as many points as they could. I told them that I wanted them to do as much from memory as they could, but then if they started to struggle, they could use their books to help them, but they needed to change to a green pen, so it was clear the bits they could remember and the bits they needed more support with. I made it very clear that not remembering everything was fine, and that I have to look some stuff up sometimes too. I looked around the room and as expected, many of them got straight on with the task, but a few just sat there, looking blank, fiddling with their pens, heads down but not actually writing anything. They had been in the previous lessons, and had done well previously, they had notes in their books they could use, so why were they struggling now? Why were they not doing anything? I encouraged them to use their books, and a few started to do so, and their confidence grew. But some still just sat looking blankly, they opened their books, they looked through previous work and still wrote nothing down. What was the problem? They were looking for the exact question from the pyramid – and they hadn’t answered the exact question before…I could finally see it! They had no strategies to call on when they couldn’t find the answer as they were expecting to see it.

This was where metacognition comes in for me, I need to model these coping mechanisms to the students I teach. In maths, when faced with a problem that you haven’t seen before, you have different strategies you can use to help you work it out, maths teachers remind students of these, if you have a division problem, remember its the reverse of a multiplication problem, this is enough for many students. In primary school, children are taught to sound out and blend sounds when they don’t recognise a word in a text. But what do we encourage in secondary history? How can we give these students a coping mechanism to support and scaffold their learning? How can we make them more independent learners?

I explained to Y9 how I think my mind works – I consider it a bit like a filing cabinet – in chronological order (of course). When I learn new information, I file it into a section based on the time period, it sits alongside other knowledge I have of that time period, and as I learn more, that section becomes more and more full. So if I am faced with something I don’t know, I go to my mental filing cabinet, and I search for clues that might help me. If its a picture for example, I might look at what I can see (source analysis). What clothing are they wearing? Can I see any technology in the picture? What are the surroundings? I then think, where have I seen this type of thing before? It helps me to narrow down the time period. When I’m fairly confident of the time period, I will start to look at what else I can get from the source, what is happening for example? Then I switch back to my filing cabinet, what do I know about this time period? What was happening at that time? What are the big stories of the age? Now I have dragged all of that out of my mind, I look back at the question, does it help me with the question? If not, perhaps I have a gap in my knowledge, where else can I get that information from? How can I add it to my filing cabinet? What resources have I got that I could use to help me? The whole lesson I kept coming back to this idea that if they are not sure, they need to think about what they do know, or what they might need to help them find out. It seems to have helped, When I asked a question towards the end of the lesson, I had far more thoughtful answers and I encouraged students to verbalise their thinking that helped them get to that answer. It’s certainly not a one off, it will need to be explicit until it is fully embedded and has become second nature for those students. I’m looking forward to watching how it goes.