Teach Your Kids Metacognition
Reading time: 12 minutes
In this reading you will:
- Learn what metacognition is
- Understand why it is important for your child to know it
- Know how to have conversations with your child to coach it
Metacognition is an important ability to effective learning. It’s something your child needs to understand and know how to use. It can be taught, and it can be learned. Don’t overlook this in your homeschooling.
Metacognition has been defined in simplest terms as
But it’s more than this. It also speaks to the processes you select when you try to learn something. And it also requires learning about self-management.
Why is metacognition so important? Doesn’t everyone think about their thinking?
Well no, at least not in productive and organized ways. Metacognition is considered a critical component of expert learning. You can’t reach the highest level of learning maturity – lifelong learner without knowing how to practice it.
It is the knowledge and awareness that your child has about his or her own cognitive processes, so it has an important connection to the ability to learn. The root word meta, means “beyond” so it refers to “beyond thinking.”
So it’s not referring to merely thinking.
The phrase was coined by developmental psychologist John Flavell in 1979, who is a founding scholar of the field. However, we can trace the roots of this back further to Plato, who emphasized the importance of self-reflection and self-awareness.
Flavell said that metacognition has two primary elements:
1) Knowledge – what you know about yourself as a cognitive processor and
2) Regulation – managing and controlling how you go about learning or problem solving.
Your ability to control your thinking processes is done by your ability to organize, monitor, and adapt to your situation. The ability to become aware of distracting stimuli – both internal and external – and sustain effort over time also involves metacognitive which is part of our “executive function.”
Most importantly, when learning it includes your ability to reflect upon the tasks or processes you are undertaking and to select and adjust as needed the appropriate strategies necessary for learning and studying.
Good metacognition allows the learner to maximize results, and poor metacognition can lead to the use of poor or less effective learning efforts.
This is why you need to help your child learn how to do it – and do it well. Add this to your list of family values about learning and thinking.
A child who uses metacognition involves self-regulation and self-reflection of strengths, weaknesses, and the best types of strategies for her learning in that situation. These are actively reviewed and adjusted based upon awareness of how effective the learning is. There is insight into different learning subjects requiring different efforts and strategies.
But doesn’t everyone do this? Well no, or at least, most can’t do it very well. Or consistently.
What Does it Look Like?
Here’s several examples. When I learn, I notice I am having more trouble learning subject A than B and ask myself why. I am thinking about the content, but I am also noticing when my attention begins to wander. I notice when my strategies are becoming repetitive and I now have drifted into just going through the motions.
I have well developed methods for metacognition. I have learned the discipline of asking myself many WHAT questions — what are the most important concepts? What are the important facts? How well am I processing these? What do I really understand? What do I not comprehend? When I finish, I will think about how to get better next time, what could I have done differently?
Since metacognition has a critical role to play in successful learning means it is important that it be practiced by both students and teachers.
Students Perform Better
Students who demonstrate a wide range of metacognitive skills perform better on exams and complete work more efficiently. Metacognitive skills are important for college-readiness.
Here’s how important it can be.
Research by Swanson (1990) found that metacognitive knowledge can compensate for IQ and lack of prior knowledge when comparing fifth and sixth grade students’ problem solving.
Students high in metacognition are self-regulated learners who utilize the “right tool for the job” and modify learning strategies and skills based on their awareness of effectiveness. Students with high-metacognition were reported to have used fewer strategies, but solved problems more effectively than low-metacognition students, regardless of IQ or prior knowledge. This is how powerful this is!
Coach a 5 Step Process
If you are going to teach your child how to do this, you need a conceptual model. Here it is. Metacognitive regulation or “regulation of cognition” contains five skills organized into steps which you need to teach your child through coaching and practice. (by the way this is also important for us to do also as adults)
- Plan a strategy to approach a learning task: based on your own understanding of how you learn, you select the most appropriate learning strategies to learn a task. You don’t just start learning — you plan for it.
- Creating steps to solve your learning problem: The insights to this can come from experience and trial and error. Or it can come from understanding the science of learning.
- Monitoring and Reflecting: refers to one’s awareness of comprehension and task performance. One way to do this is learning to track and evaluate efforts and outcomes through student journaling.
- Evaluating Results: refers to appraising the final product of a task and the efficiency at which it was performed. This includes re-evaluating strategies that were used. Self-testing and looking back at the student journal is an important source of information for this.
- Modifying and Fine Tuning your approach. This assumes knowledge of and proficiency with many learning strategies and methods so you have choices.
How to Coach It?
How can you help your child learn to do this better? How do you coach your child to a higher awareness of his or her learning, and to the use of the 5 skills above?
You do it through conversations with your child on “thinking about thinking.” It becomes a theme you ask questions about and share frequently. You can teach it by modeling it – share your own thoughts about your metacognition. For example, talk about mistakes you made and reflect on your own thinking at the time, and what you learned. Talk about good decisions you made, your thought processes at the time, and why these were successful.
Talk about the five skills listed above. Incorporate these into your child’s learning processes. Sit down and help them make better decisions using these skills.
Start with young children and help them express how they think about things. Do this in a non-judgmental way so that they learn that sharing their thinking about thinking is a positive thing. Work on executive function (there are lots of internet resources on this)
We think one of the best things to do with middle school age kids is to start weekly SRP study planning and review meetings as a good place to ask questions and initiate conversations on what strategies and resources your child intends to use and to ask questions on outcomes and what is working or not.
Fostering good metacognition is one of the most important things you do as a learning coach. It should become part of your continuous improvement efforts on how to be a more effective learner. You will want your child to learn to use metacognitive strategies such as adapting, monitoring, self-regulation, and self-reflection.
The Steps to Metacognition
If you want students to determine goals and then monitor and adjust their approach, they need to engage in metacognition. Although there are many models for metacognition, most of them share some sort of variation on a cycle with the following components:
- Assess the task
- Evaluate and know your strengths and weaknesses
- Set a plan the approach to learning
- Apply multiple strategies
- Monitor your progress
- Reflect on whether the approach is working
- Adjust your training and assess again
Talk About Metacognition
Metacognitive knowledge involves considering the following:
(a) learning processes and your child’s beliefs about how she learns and how she thinks learning occurs in the brain,
(b) How your child approaches the task of learning and how he processes information, and
(c) the learning strategies he knows and how he or she uses them
Though metacognitive strategies can be taught and learned over time, students must also be motivated to use them effectively. To help your child to succeed, it may be necessary to teach self-evaluation skills and to identify what finished work looks like.
For an example of how to do this, read the case below.
Case Example: Emily Learns Spanish
Emily is a 16-year-old homeschooling student. She already knows French, but now wants to learn Spanish. Read the metacognition process she will use. Follow Emily’s thinking as she addresses the process, the tasks, and the strategies.
She begins with, “I think I am good at learning new languages. My goal is to learn Spanish so that I can visit a country and communicate well with native speakers. I will determine this by getting to the B1 level, which is the beginning intermediate or ‘Threshold’ level. (as per CEFR definition on page 5) From my research into learning languages, I know this is typically takes others about 310 hours of focused study. I will need to plan how I will efficiently use this time and what strategies and tools I will use.”
She then dives deeper into questions to help her identify what she needs to do. “To complete this, I will need to think about how I will do the following:”
- How do expert learners learn a new language?
- What is important for me to know?
- What will be difficult for me to learn this language?
- How will I keep myself motivated?
- How many hours will it take for me to reach my language goal?
- What resources are available to me to learn this new language?
- How did I do this to learn French? What’s will be similar? Different?
- What will I learn to listen and understand this language?
- How will I learn to speak correctly? How will I get feedback on pronunciation?
- How will I learn vocabulary? Verbs? How will I master tenses?
- How will I space out practice to review so that I remember?
- What will my tasks be each week until I reach my goal?
(I will present this to my mom in our weekly meeting for discussion.)
After this, she translates this into her plan.
“I estimate learning this new language is going to take me 12 months, so I will start this week. I will identify all the things I need to do to meet this goal. I will lay out a calendar for the first 3 months. I will plan to study at least 26 hours per month. This works out to training an average of one hour a day, six days a week.”
She then breaks this down into the specific learning strategies she will use.
“I need a method to learn words, so I will start using an online flash card application like ANKI (note: look it up) to learn words and I will set a goal of 20 new words per week. This will give me a vocabulary of over 1000 words. I will also need to learn to listen to the language being spoken so that I can get my pronunciation correct.”
“I will use an online app such as Duolingo and Memrise to do this twice a week, or even more often in the first 3 months of this project. I will need a book of verb drills to practice these. When I get bored, I will have a novel in beginning and intermediate Spanish to read.”
What else do I need to help me learn?
“I learn best when I have a learning partner (maybe Natalie who is also studying Spanish) so I can practice having conversations. We will meet once a week for at least an hour. Having a partner will personally motivate me to maintain my progress. I also know that I will need to learn which nouns are masculine and feminine and I will do this by studying lists of them using two different locations to make it easier to recall which is which.”
How will I know I am effective? How will I correct or adapt?
“At first, I will emphasize learning the basics of the language. I will maintain a journal of my progress. Every two weeks, I will stop and evaluate my progress, and compare it to my plan. I will find ways to fine tune and adjust me efforts.”
Conclusion – Two Thoughts
- Who do you think will learn more in the next 12 months and who will likely reach their learning goal – Emily or an average student who doesn’t know or hasn’t learned about metacognition? I’ll put my money on Emily.
- Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way, explains what he calls “the moment,” which every skilled creative has experienced. “The moment,” is when your eyes are opened to the mechanics and behind-the-scenes of your craft. Emily has achieved her “moment’ regarding the craft of learning, because she understands what she needs to do when she wants to grow her brain. Help your child discover his or her learning “moment.”
Interesting Side Note
In case you aren’t familiar, CEFR has 9 language levels. The definition for level B1 is:
|B1||Threshold or intermediate||
Practice Exercise (How can I turn this information into something I can use)
- In my own words, what is metacognition? Why is it important for my child?
- How effective is my child’s metacognition now? How do I know?
- How can I improve my child’s Planning skills?
- How can I improve my child’s Monitoring skills?
- How can I improve my child’s Evaluating skills?