An Introduction to Metacognition
Effective teaching and learning are not always intuitive. The illusion of knowledge becomes the difficulty of metacognition. Consider the illusion of encouragement. The common view that “just do the best you can” is encouraging and useful does not stand up to scrutiny. According to American psychologist and pioneer in goal-setting theory Dr Edwin Locke, “just do your best” goals consistently underperform in comparison to specific and challenging goals. The problem is: 1) it is unclear what the target is, 2) any result can fulfil the claim “I did my best,” providing a ready excuse and an easy out for lack of accomplishment, and 3) it is perceived as a low expectation of student ability.
Likewise, teaching that involves helping too much or too quickly discourages curiosity and creates dependency. The most common form of encouragement—praise—is often confused with feedback and is thought by some to lift self-esteem. It is effective with neither. Praise is information-less feedback, usually framed as a personal judgement, and more effective at cultivating narcissism than self-esteem. These ideas and much more are explored further in my latest book, Metacognition: Teaching Children to Think.
Metacognition is about thinking. It is about knowing not only what you think, but why you think it and how you arrived at your thoughts. Metacognition is about active learning. It is empowering.
Mostly, the thinking process is concealed because people have little understanding of how they think. Thinking includes reflection and conscious awareness about what you know, what you do not know, what you should know, and what you want to know. Thinking is an internal conversation weighing up different viewpoints. Learning is a consequence of thinking and generates knowledge. What we do with that knowledge determines wisdom.
Memory—the core of learning—is the residue of thought. Long-term retention of learning is a central aim because prior knowledge enables the further acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge builds on knowledge. The more you know the more you can know and the quicker you can attain it. But in the beginning, there is thinking—the prerequisite for learning and behavioural change. Listening in and of itself does not lead to learning. You must do something mentally with the content you have listened to, such as consider, ponder, entertain the idea, connect and draw upon. The opposite of thinking is passive listening. The average person can process up to 60,000 thoughts in one day. But having a thought is not thinking. There is more to thinking than most people think.
Effective teachers foster a metacognitive learning approach, to generate better quality thinking. These teachers look for ways to step back so that student thinking is centre stage. They want students to feel in control of their learning, to feel they have the skills and abilities to direct and guide themselves. This is autonomy. Teachers nurture self-efficacy and learning confidence, the core motivator driving human action. Without metacognition, the mind drifts into randomness and thinking will likely be directed by the opinions of others. The best learners are metacognitive in their approach to learning. This is the outstanding factor that differentiates learners. Teachers who encourage metacognition catalyse in their students intrinsic motivation, curiosity, independence of thought, and desire for challenge.
Students taught with a less metacognitive and more controlling approach not only lose initiative but learn less effectively and less enjoyably.
Control teaching can produce conformism and people who comply with instructions without necessarily thinking about what, why, and how they are doing it. This is why some (not all) straight-A students struggle at university. In contrast with metacognitive-supportive teaching, control teaching results in a lack of resilience when faced with challenges and difficulties, decreased creativity, decreased motivation, a focus on extrinsic motivation, and lower enjoyment of learning.
When I was learning piano as a child, I had a teacher I liked very much. Safe to say, he was an “old-school” control teacher in that he made all the decisions during my lessons. He called the shots. He told me which piece to take out first, what was good and not so good about my playing, and what to practise each week. I was the receptacle of his wisdom, a passive receiver of his well-intentioned knowledge. Not much thinking or speaking was required. I nodded in agreement with his suggestions, which he unfortunately accepted as a valid check for my understanding.
When I reached university, my new teacher barely offered suggestions of any kind. I was confused. How could I learn from him? When I played piano in my lesson, rather than comment, he looked at me as if he were waiting for me to do the analysis. Uncomfortable with the silence, I uttered thoughts and suggestions of my own. I did not understand this at the time, but my teacher was pressing me to think for myself, to analyse and self-evaluate. This led me into a new “golden age” of self-directed learning. I was developing freedom of the mind. Becoming metacognitive, I learned how to teach myself. As a result, my competence as a pianist grew rapidly.
Metacognition is one of the magnificent joys of learning and of life itself. Metacognition is the learner’s coming of age. It is the hallmark of intrinsic motivation. The diverse set of skills this word represents is essential for reaching expertise in any domain. The great thinkers Rousseau, Kant, and John Locke viewed the aim of education as enabling children to think for themselves, with the subsequent aim of becoming persons of character. Metacognitive processes aim to provide an objective view of our strengths and weaknesses, self-knowledge, and blind spots. They enable freedom of the mind. Through reflection and evaluation, we understand our actions more critically and have a vision for self-improvement.
This is an excerpt from Michael Griffin’s latest book Metacognition: Teaching Children to Think (2021), available through Amazon, in paperback and kindle. Michael provides professional development for schools on mindset, metacognition, and motivation. His website is professional-development.com.au.