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Response: Student Metacognition 'Needs to be Purposely Developed'

(This is the third post in a four-part series on the topic of metacognition in the classroom. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

In Part Two, Dan Rothstein, Mark Estrada, Diane Friedlaender, Bena Kallick, Allison Zmuda, Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, and Amy Benjamin answered the question.

Today, Erik M. Francis, Pam Ferrante, Frank Lyman, Kathy Dyer, and Amber Chandler contribute their thoughts.

Response From Erik M. Francis

Erik M. Francis, M.Ed., M.S., is the author of Now THAT'S a Good Question! How to Promote Cognitive Rigor Through Classroom Questioning, published by ASCD.  He is also the owner and lead professional education specialist for Maverik Education LLC, providing professional development on teaching and learning that address the cognitive rigor of college and career ready standards:

Our goal in teaching and learning should be for students inevitably to demonstrate and communicate metacognition.  Metacognition is self-knowledge and personal understanding.  It's reflects how students process the information they have acquired and gathered into self-knowledge they can transfer and use in different contexts.  It's also how students express and share the depth and extent of their personal understanding. 

Students demonstrate and communicate metacognition when they are posed good questions that ask how could you or how would you transfer and use what they have learned in different conditions and contexts.  They express and share metacognition when they write and present arguments and opinions that communicate what do you believe, feel, and think or what is your perspective, point of view, or thoughts.  They also demonstrate and communicate metacognition when they are presented with good driving questions that encourage students to think critically and creatively about what can you design, develop, and do with what they have learned.  These are the good questions that engage students in authentic learning experiences such as project-based, problem-based, and service learning. 

The emphasis and focus of instruction and assessment are for students to show and tell what they personally and particularly have learned about the texts and topics they are reading and reviewing in class.  To teach and learn for metacognition, all teachers simply need to do is ask students good questions that refer to you in the inquiry.   With standards based learning, simply place a question stem that refers to you before the performance objective.  For example, if the standard says Interpret a multiplication problem as a comparison, place the question stem how could you or how would you before the standard, turning it into the affective question How would you interpret a multiplication problem as a comparison? or, How could you interpret a multiplication problem as a comparison The emphasis is not on whether the student can demonstrate and communicate conceptual or procedural knowledge and understanding (i.e How can multiplication problems be interpreted as a comparison?).  The focus is on how they -- or you -- can synthesize and share their self-knowledge and personal understanding -- or metacognition -- about multiplicative comparisons.

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Response From Pam Ferrante

Pam Ferrante is a National Board Certified Teacher with over 30 years of classroom experience. She is a Florida Teacher Leader Fellow and currently serves as a district level literacy specialist for Seminole County Public Schools:

Growing up, I was always a good student.  I read voraciously, studied diligently, loved having esoteric conversations with classmates about the meaning of life, and never struggled in school.  Learning seemed to come naturally to me.  Without even realizing it, I spent a lot of time analyzing my own thinking.  This is metacognition. 

In my earliest years as an educator, I assumed that my students would naturally employ the same habits of mind that I did to comprehend the content I provided.  When they struggled, I scaffolded and designed new and more engaging activities to reinforce learning.  Still, some students seemed to struggle regardless of all the work I did to present the content in differentiated ways.  What I finally learned was that "I" couldn't be the one doing the work and my students didn't all "naturally" develop the habits of mind that I and other good students employ to comprehend.  These habits of mind, the conversations we have within our own mind that help us make sense of new and novel ideas, of complex algorithms and situations, need to be purposefully developed. Students must be provided with opportunities to think about their thinking, to develop metacognitive skills that will allow them to know when they don't know something and act accordingly.

In "Reading for Understanding," Ruth Schoenbach and Cynthia Greenleaf refer to the importance of "making thinking visible" by requiring students to engage in metacognitive conversations with peers in which they reflect on and discuss their thinking processes in tandem with discussion about content.

This incorporation of metacognition, or thinking about thinking, enables students to develop autonomous comprehension skill.  Our greatest goal as educators is to provide our students with opportunities to learn how to think. Metacognition is at the heart of rigorous thought and problem solving and is necessary for successful navigation of the complexities of life. 

Whenever you contemplate multiple outcomes before acting, make a mental plan accomplishing a learning task, reflect on your own progress in completing a task, you are engaging in metacognition.  This ability allows you to make decisions more effectively and efficiently. 

Like anything else that we want students to learn, the key to developing fluency with metacognitive thought is practice.  We must provide frequent and sustained opportunities for students to articulate their thinking processes in varied situations. 

By supporting students as thinkers, we are developing the next scientists, entrepreneurs and leaders who will solve tomorrow's problems, build tomorrow's world and lead tomorrow's generation.

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Response From Frank Lyman

Frank Lyman is a former elementary teacher and field based teacher educator. His achievements include invention and development with colleagues of the Think Pair Share cooperative discussion technique and the ThinkTrix metacognitive strategy. He was an originator in 1965 of the use of cognitive mapping in the elementary classroom and is co-author of The Shaping of Thought: A Teacher's Guide to Metacognitive Mapping and Critical Thinking in Response to Literature (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016):

A major goal in education as well as in everyday living is to be able to engage in meaningful conversation.  We teachers realize this generally, but for various reasons can fall short of realizing the goal with students. We ask questions, sometimes at high levels.  At our best we try to make the discussion center around student interests, problems relevant to their lives, and novel curiosity inducing stimuli. We use abstract terms such as analysis, inference, assumptions, evaluation, hypothesis, principles, compare/analogy, generalization, synthesis. Depending on the students' backgrounds and on the teacher's allowing for maximum response through cooperative learning, levels of questioning, relevance, novelty, and understood abstract terms; for some students classroom discussion can result in meaningful conversation as a springboard to further learning.

There is a missing element that if attended to will increase the odds that more students will leave school on a given day having said something or heard something that will have meaning for their learning and their lives. The element is metacognition, or knowing how they know. The knowledge often missing for students and even the teacher is how the mind works to solve problems, analyze, infer, evaluate, hypothesize, derive principles and generalizations, compare, and synthesize. Without a concrete knowledge of the working parts of these cognitive abstractions, the terms come over to many students like the voice of Charlie Brown's teacher. (We remember that inchoate garble talk, don't we?)

One proven strategy that includes all students in meaningful conversation is to make them aware of and teach them how to use seven basic mind actions, or thinking types. These are: recall, cause and effect, similarity, difference, idea to example, example to idea, and evaluation. With an understanding of the basic actions of the mind, students and teacher can uncover meaning in any piece of knowledge or conjecture.

They ask the different type questions and seek the answers individually and cooperatively. Whereas teachers can use the seven mind action icons reminding them to ask questions of different types, true education is achieved if students have the metacognitive awareness to ask the different type questions themselves. The question is the vehicle of learning and students take charge of the discourse. The resultant pair or small group meaningful discussions are the measure of the success of this approach, known as the ThinkTrix strategy. "ThinkTrix" is a composite of Thinking Matrix, since the seven types can be on one axis of the matrix grid and the focal points of the thinking on the other.

An example of the importance of metacognitive understanding is its usefulness in problem solving. Too often students are not aware of a cognitive path to solving problems. With knowledge of the basic mind actions they begin with a clean statement of a problem, leaving out any implied cause, move to the effects of the problem to gauge its importance, probe deeply for causes, select causes that seem most likely, design a solution based on these supposed causes, pre think the effects were this solution to be carried out, try the solution, and evaluate the efficacy of the solution. Sometimes the whole process can begin by thinking of an analogous problem.

This "metastrategic" path can be flowcharted into a heuristic and thereby made indelible in students' minds for future problem solving.  Most problem analysis strategies never even mention cause and effect and the problem statements are infected with imagined causes. A statement such as, "The students aren't listening", is an example of such an infection in that the problem statement can lead nowhere if the causes have nothing to do with listening. The teachers' request to "analyze" a problem is Peanuts teacher talk to students who lack a basic knowledge of how thinking works and the path to take it on. The problem solving flowchart is an example of what can be termed "metacognitive mapping", a mind aware version of cognitive mapping in which students label the types of thinking used on the maps.

If all students attain a metacognitive awareness of basic actions of the mind, they will be more able to understand and use the higher processes of thinking to solve problems, make decisions, inquire, and create. Along with icons representing the seven mind actions, on the wall of the classroom could be these words: "How does my mind work to answer this question or solve this problem?"

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Response From Kathy Dyer

Kathy Dyer is a Sr. Professional Development Content Specialist for Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). She is a regular contributing blogger for Teach. Learn. Grow. and has written for the ASCD Express newsletter. You can connect with her on Twitter @KDyer13:

The NACE Job Outlook 2016 found that 70% of employers surveyed want graduates who can problem solve. So how does problem solving connect with metacognition? If we think about problem solving as having two layers - one being the ability to apply a strategy to solve the problem and the other being able to select a strategy and then monitor its success, we can begin to see the connection.

In "How People Learn" (2000), Bransford, Brown and Cocking describe metacognition as the ability to predict performance on various tasks and monitor current levels of mastery and understanding. Now wait. Haven't we always thought it was thinking about thinking? If we take the term a bit deeper as the ability to predict and monitor, we see that in order to do that we have to think about our thinking. Now we get some clarity about why teachers might be concerned about this topic. Bransford et al also identified three principles of learning, one of which was developing expertise and being able to problem-solve, which depends on the development of metacognition (thinking about thinking).

This principle of learning tells us that if we want students to be able to problem solve we have to teach them to think about their thinking. John Hattie confirms this saying that the category of metacognitive strategies showed effect size of .69, which caused it to rank 13th on Hattie's list of what works in helping students achieve more. Such strategies may include study skills, self questioning, seeking help, self assessment, "organizing and transforming," setting learning goals, and controlling and directing their learning.

So if teachers (and employers) want students to be able to problem solve, explicitly teaching metacognition will help students in doing this. This recommendation from How People Learn is particularly important for how we use assessment at the classroom level. We can teach students through explicit experiences how to be metacognitive. We can give them the skills to be able to step back from their experiences and think about what they are learning or not learning and why.

We can also look at what Royce Sadler (1989) found about students who are learners. These learners 1) hold a concept of quality roughly similar to that of the teacher, 2) compare his/her current level of performance with the standard (or learning target/goal), and 3) take action to close the gap. For educators to support students in developing and using metacognition we must teach students to be learners, to:

-        Identify where they are in the learning

-        Monitor their progress to see if they are on track

-        Think about how to get help

-        Think about resources

So for example, how do these ideas about metacognition fit with what you might consider your most powerful learning experience? When were you a learner in an experience where you were a better observer of your own learning and managed your learning?

Teachers have to collect information about student learning processes and harness student insights into their own learning. "Teaching practices congruent with a metacognitive approach to learning include those that focus on sense-making, self-assessment and reflection on what needs improving." Teaching these strategies to students supports building self-regulated learners.

Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Association of Colleges and Employers. Job Outlook 2016: Attributes Employers Want to See on New College Graduates' Resumes Spotlight for Career Services Professionals November 18, 2015 - http://www.naceweb.org/s11182015/employers-look-for-in-new-hires.aspx#sthash.UVFBHzW6.dpuf

Sadler, D. Royce. 1989. "Formative Assessment and the Design of Instructional Systems." Instructional Science 18: pp. 119-144.

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Response From Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4-8blogger, and speaker.  You can follow her @MsAmberChandler and join the community of Flexible Teachers at doyoudifferentiate.com:

If you've ever consoled a child who failed a test or didn't make the team, one of the things you might have noticed is that students are not very self-aware. Recently, at a post-conference, I asked a young lady what grade she thought she earned, based on the criteria we had set forth.

"B," she said without a second of hesitation.

"Tell me more about that," I said, hoping to elicit some clue to her thought process.

"I got a 'B' on my math test this week, and I scored 4 points in the game, so I think I'm having a 'B' kinda week," she replied, as if I were just too dense to understand that this is how the world works.

My jaw almost dropped to the ground, and then I remembered times when I had told myself some ridiculous stories as well. Truth be told, my student didn't have any idea how she had done on the assignment because she had not thought about her own thinking--in other words, she was not spending any time in what I call the "metacognitive minute."

The phrase "metacognitive minute" was born several years ago when my frustration level was through the roof. Over and over, I couldn't get past the fact that my students could take a reading comprehension quiz on the chapters from the night before, and hound me about their grades constantly. Not only was I not too thrilled about their grade obsessions, I was in disbelief that a person could be this clueless about his/her own learning.

I instituted a "metacognitive minute." It is going to sound extremely simple, but I can promise it makes a huge difference. Each day I write the Daily Learning Goal on the board (essentially my objectives) and introduce it immediately. Students copy it on the Metacognitive Minute Recording Sheet (which they later just record in a notebook). For example, maybe the goal is "I will understand metaphors." We then ask some questions about the Daily Learning Goal. I'll ask, "So, what will it look like if you understand metaphors?" Students will shout out "I'll recognize them," or "I'll be able to use them" or "I'll know what they mean." This takes two minutes, tops.

With about three minutes left, I ask students to stand up, "shake it out" or something to change their state. I then tell them to sit back down and take out their "metacognitive minute" record.  I then tell them to go back to their DLG (Daily Learning Goal) and determine which level they thought they'd reached and to create an action step if needed. It is really cool to have students scramble over at the end of the period to get a pass for study hall because in the metacognitive minute they realized that they may know what a metaphor is, but don't know how to use them and need help. Finally, students have the tools to know how they are doing in the process of learning.

This may not sound like a revolutionary tactic, but I came up with it while working on my National Board Certification, and it has changed my own thinking dramatically. I had been plagued with uncertainty, yet to be an accomplished teacher I needed to know what my students learned (and didn't!) and adapt from there. How would I know what they learned if they didn't? Metacognition is a skill that I can teach them so that everyone is on a successful path, knowing what next steps we need to take together.

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Thanks to Erik, Pam, Frank, Kathy, and Amber for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

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Look for Part Four in a few days...

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