> Guest Post: What Is Metacognition

by Anna Crowe

“When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself.” Plato

Last week when I read  Larry Ferlazzo‘s question  “[W]hat is metacognition , and how do we teach it?” my immediate response was: ”it is thinking about thinking, and it is what we as teachers try to do all the time”.  Immediately I was irritated with myself because while my response was pragmatic at best, it would be unhelpful if I was explaining this to the student teachers that I educate (novices) – I know this from experience. The parsimony of my response comes from reading and thinking about the work of people (experts) far more knowledgeable and experienced than I am in metacognition, and who are this able to distil the meaning so clearly.

Many years ago, I started teaching high school Biology, as a practising scientist with some content knowledge and little formal education training  –  because of this,  I always had to analyze how I understood what I wanted to teach before I taught a class. I then framed my lessons according to how I made sense of the knowledge or skills I needed to teach.  On reflection sometimes my students learned what I hoped they would learn, and sometimes I was less successful – then, I had to think again, and differently – metacognition in action.  From this perspective  I consider metacognition to be knowing (awareness of) when and how to use what (relevant/appropriate) knowledge.  Metacognition is therefore an integral part of learning and is both personal and contextual. I think we teach metacognition by modelling it when and how we teach and interact with our students – provided we are explicit about what we are doing and why we are doing it.

One of my favourite ways of modelling metacognition is using Socratic questioning which challenges the accuracy and completeness of students thinking/ reasoning/ arguments. This method not only engages students metacognitively, it helps teachers to identify and address misconceptions  their students might have.  Socrates asked his students six different types of questions, all of which can be easily included in most science classes.   These Socratic questions and examples of some questions a teacher could ask her/his students follow below.

  1. Conceptual clarification questions which get students to think more and deeply about what they are thinking about and the concepts behind their argument or reasoning. For example: What does this mean? Why are you saying that?  What do you know about this?  Can you explain what this means?  How does this relate to what you know?
  2. Questions which probe assumptions makes students interrogate the beliefs which premise their argument of reasoning. For example:  What are your assumptions? How can you verify or disprove your assumptions?  Explain how you arrived at these assumptions?  What would happen if … were true?
  3. Questions which probe rationale, reasons and evidence guide students towards supported arguments or reasons.  For example:  How do you know this? What is the cause of this? Is this good enough reason?  How might this be contested?  What evidence do you have?
  4. Questions about viewpoints and perspectives gets students to argue/reconsider with their position.  For example: What would be an alternative?  What are other ways of looking at this?  Are these alternate ways reasonable?  Why is it the best?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of…? What is a counterargument for…? How could you look another way at this?
  5. Questions that probe implications and consequences help students to determine if their argument/reasoning has logical outcomes and if they make sense or are desirable.  For example: Then what would happen?  What generalizations can you make?  What are you implying?  How does … affect …?  How does … tie in with what we learned before?  Which is the best, and why?
  6. Questions about the question can get students thinking about the original question. For example: What was the point of this question?  Why do you think I asked this question? Am I making sense?  Why not? How does … apply to everyday life?  What else might I ask?

Questions like these can be crafted according to the content and skills that one wants to teach, and are not limited only to argumentation. Many new teachers find questioning demanding to do because students within a class can have differing levels of content knowledge as well a different states of awareness of their own thinking.  In addition, inexperienced teachers and  teachers with limited subject knowledge cannot always predict their student’s response which undermines their confidence to deal with their students responses.   Initially, students do not like being questioned because they find it challenging, and often there is no quick answer. However, in my experience once students become comfortable with this way of teaching, they start to generate their own questions about their own work (self-regulation) and that of others – sometimes including that of their teachers. Students need to learn that there is no such thing a ‘bad’ question,  that making errors is necessary to get to the ‘right’ answer/solution, and that the path to the ‘right’ answer/solution might be different  for each of us.

To model critical (self) awareness students need to see it in action. It must be made obvious that the teacher actually uses such metacognition in real life, and that it is both a useful and used set of techniques/methods  when she/he addresses  issues or solves problems.  Explicitly teaching students how to become openly and consciously familiar with the methods (like questioning)  they use to learn, why and how they use them, and when and how to apply them can help them think more like experts. With practice and guidance students can become better thinkers. Good thinkers regularly ask questions in order to clarify their thinking so that they understand and effectively interact with the world around  them  –  I like to think that this is why I teach.

Once, when a group of my students complained about having to show me drafts of a research  assignment  before they were submitted in final form, I showed them  various drafts  which  had kept when developing  that particular assignment. The students were surprised that I had drafts of my work (they believed teachers were experts, and experts just do things “properly” the first time they do it), that I had kept the drafts (they believed that experts don’t need to reflect on what they have done),  that I was happy to show them what I considered to be imperfect versions of the assignment task (they thought that experts don’t admit that they sometimes don’t know what they are doing), and that I had critiqued my own drafts (they had never really considered  value of self-evaluation).  One student blurted out “ … so you are no better than us” – I quickly replied  “I, too, am human”.  I never again had a problem getting drafts of assignments from this group of students.  Generally the students’ writing became more focused and articulate with each successive draft and they were happy hand in copies of these drafts after completion of the assignment because they could ‘see’ how their writing had improved during the process. These students engaged in their own learning and produced excellent assignments from which I learned lots – two reasons why I never get tired of teaching.

Professionally, in her early career Anna Crowe (PhD) practiced as a scientist and then moved into science education. She has migrated between employment as an educator at high school level and at university level because of her particular research interest in the interface between these two levels education,  especially in South Africa.