As adults, we are so used to this kind of thinking that we are hardly aware we are doing it, and even less aware that young people are still developing these important metacognitive skills. More importantly, as adults we can think about our thinking (like you just did). We have the gift of age (acquired metacognitive skills) and the curse of knowledge (being unaware of how much we know compared to what students may know). Our job as educators is to help students notice and articulate the strategies they use to solve problems, both successful and unsuccessful, and reflect on that process.
HOW TO IMPROVE METACOGNITION
The good news is that there is plenty of research indicating that we can teach metacognitive regulation to students through explicit instruction, lots of modeling, and practice. Several large studies and reports have taken on the task of researching the ‘how’ of teaching metacognition. (Dignath and Büttner (2008), Hattie (2011a), Hattie et al. (1996), the EEF Guidance Report and Getting Started with Metacognition. Overall, evidence-informed recommendations for improving metacognitive skills recommend that teachers:
Explain the benefits of metacognition (‘Good learners think about their learning, because it helps them make good decisions and learn from mistakes’).
Be explicit about strategies to use (‘It’s important to plan, monitor and evaluate as we solve problems’; ‘We can use planning tools to help us’).
Model (‘First I will…’).
Relate to context and/or subject (‘The first thing I’ll do is look at the periodic table. I will…’).
Incorporate verbalization of thinking, including Talk Tasks prompts and protocols (‘Let’s Think, Pair, Share…’).
Practice, practice, practice (‘Remember when we… – let’s use that strategy again here’).
MODELING: MODELING IS A MUST
The best teachers know what they know and show how they think through modeling. Modeling is the vehicle for sharing the teacher’s learning process with students. When we model our thinking, we let learners inside our heads so that they can understand what expert thinking sounds like.
This live demonstration of our thinking, as we think aloud in front of the class, reveals deep understanding of the mysteries of the mind, including when one solves a maths problem, writes a sentence, reads difficult text, sets up an experiment, etc. Teachers should do this repeatedly, providing numerous examples of the thinking process, naming the steps, and providing structures along the way. Naming the steps they take when solving a problem is important because novice learners will be using their working memories to sort through other information as they think; this allows them to focus on developing useful learning strategies, versus missing key information due to cognitive overload.