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Developing metacognition and self-regulation in learners, of all ages

Ahead of a session with Rachel Lofthouse and the CollectivEd1, the mentoring and coaching hub created by her, I have been thinking a lot about metacognition. Our session with teachers in a few weeks is to be focused on metacognition and how we can develop this in both young learners and teachers. The title of our seminar is 'Making sense of Metacognitive Teaching Through Collaborative Professional Development' and will take the form of an introduction, followed by round-table discussions around various models that may be used to develop such collaborative professional development. After the round-tables, we hope to pull the main points emerging together and explore key issues. To help attendees focus their attention they have been referred to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) paper 'Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning' published in April 2018.

Metacognition has been identified as a key skill for learners by many different authorities and researchers, but like many other key skills, has not been taught in any systematic way in many schools, with teachers seeming to assume that this is another skill that develops over time, with more knowledge and experience. For some it does, for many it doesn't. Skills need to be taught and developed over time, so that all individuals have the opportunity to utilise them to best support their learning. The development of metacognition, and metacognitive awareness is no different. If we don't explicitly model and teach the skills all learners will need, we disadvantage even further many of those learners.

As I stated earlier, the case for the development and teaching of metacognition has been made by many researchers. John Hattie includes this in his 'top ten, high-impact, evidence-based strategies' for all learners to adopt. In the EEF report referred to it states that 'evidence suggests that the use of metacognitive strategies... can be the equivalent of and additional 7 months progress, when used well.' Ron Ritchhart and colleagues at Harvard Graduate School of Education wrote 'to the extent that students can develop an awareness of thinking processes, they become more independent learners, capable of directing and managing their own cognitive actions'  in 2011. On the Education Scotland National Improvement Hub it states that 'metacognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently high levels of impact.'

Understanding that the support for metacognitive and self-regulatory approaches can have big positive impacts for learners, is but the first step in their introduction and development in the classroom. I would suggest that it is important that all learners have that understanding and expectation at the outset, so that they are clear as to the goals that can be achieved. Next, everyone needs to be clear about what we mean by the term 'metacognition'. The EEF report itself recognises that many teachers, and school leaders, have a very sketchy, at best, understanding. If you ask most teachers, many will reply 'its about thinking about thinking' with little clear understanding of what that actually means, or how to teach it.

In the EEF report an attempt is made to clarify what it is we are actually talking about. Metacognition and self-regulation in learning are closely linked. You can't self-regulate your learning, and become independent in your learning, if you don't understand yourself as a learner, and the strategies you employ when you are learning new things. 'Self-regulation is about the extent to which learners are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses and the strategies they use to learn.' Metacognition forms one of the three key elements of self-regulated learning, the others being cognition and motivation. All three are key for independent learning. 'Metacognition is about how learners monitor and purposefully direct their learning'. Learners need to understand and be taught a range of strategies and approaches that they may employ when faced with any learning, cognition, and then need the motivation to consider and deploy the most effective ones when new learning is presented.

If we are clearer about the benefits of metacognitive teaching, and we better understand what that means, the next question is how do teachers go about developing metacognitive capacities in their learners? The EEF report is keen to dispel any notion that the development of metacognition can be left till pupils are older, and argues, rightly in my view, that the development of metacognitive understandings should start with younger learners too. The report gives a seven step systematic progression to the development of metacognition.

The first step is for teachers to develop their own understanding, knowledge and skills about metacognition in order to better support their young learners. Hopefully, the first part of this post has helped with that, but I would refer you to the full report and to Ron Ritchhart's work for a more detailed and deeper understanding. They suggest that teachers adopt and model a plan, monitor, then evaluate framework, and explicitly teach this to their learners, as an on-going cycle of approach to their learning. The explicit teaching of this model is step two. In this we begin to teach and discuss the specific metacognitive strategies being employed by the teacher and the students. The report suggests, and I concur with, that this should be incorporated into  real-life learning situations across the curriculum, rather than as a discrete add on. The teacher will begin to introduce metacognitive questioning to draw out, and make visible, the strategies known and being used. They suggest some metacognitive elements that teachers should look to incorporate into their lessons, including the activation of prior learning, explicit strategy instruction, modelling of a learned strategy, memorisation of a strategy, guided practice, independent practice and structured reflection.

In step three, the teachers should look to model their own thinking to help their pupils develop their metacognitive and cognitive skills. They can talk through their own thinking and encourage learners to ask questions about why they chose certain strategies over others. This is the teacher scaffolding new learning, with the aim to reduce this over time to encourage the learners to become more independent and confident. The fourth step requires the teacher to set a level of challenge that is appropriate for the learners. The aim of this challenge is to develop the learner's self-regulation as well as metacognition. The level of challenge should be such that it promotes motivation whilst taking note of cognitive load theory, by breaking down otherwise complex tasks for the learners. In step five, the teacher should seek to create a dialogical learning culture, where learners are supported and encouraged to develop metacognitive talk in the classroom. Having adopted this myself, I understand how this takes time and requires the slowing down of learning in some areas. But the benefits for learners, far outweigh the apparent 'costs'.

Step six requires teachers to explicitly teach learners how to effectively manage and organise their learning, to help them become independent learners. Here we should teach cognitive strategies that have been shown to work by cognitive science and research. We could help them with memory strategies such as practice tests, spaced practice, elaborative interrogation of learning, self-explanation, interleaved-practice and so on. In this way we are developing cognition, motivation and metacognition that will all help our learners become more independent in understanding and managing their learning. The final step, number seven, is directed more at the management and leadership of schools, who need to ensure that teachers have the opportunity for high-level collaborative professional development that allows them to keep up-dating their knowledge and skills around metacognition. Providing they are supporting and giving teachers the opportunities they need to keep growing and developing their understandings, the report strongly recommends that SMTs then 'expect' these strategies to be implemented by teachers. A strong, but not unreasonable, stance, as long as everyone is delivering on their side of such an expectation.

I think that the above gives schools a guide as to how they may really get going with developing metacognition in teachers and learners. It can soon be made systematic and continuous, then can be built on as confidence, knowledge and experience increases. There can be great benefits for our learners if we do this right, and get it right for all our learners. I have identified some of these as follows:

  • Raised attainment and achievement for all learners, especially for those most disadvantaged otherwise
  • The closing of gaps caused by disadvantage
  • The development of independent learners earlier
  • Learners who better understand themselves as learners, and how to improve
  • The development of self-regulation and agency in learners
  • Deep impactful change embedded in teacher practice and thinking
  • Schools working collaboratively with a focus on thinking and learning
There may well be others, but I think they are all worth thinking about!

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