The term “metacognition” is one of those words that sounds deeply philosophical and complex, but actually represents a relatively simple and powerful fundamental idea about the way we think.
Let’s look at this concept, what it means, why it matters, and how we can use metacognition for kids to aid learning processes and in child development.
What is Metacognition?
Let’s start with a clear definition and example that shows what metacognition is. You can first break down the term into its 2 constituent parts: meta + cognition.
The first part, “meta” refers to thinking about things, and “cognition” simply means thinking.
When we talk about our children’s cognitive development, we are referring to the development of their intelligence, their critical faculties, and their ability to think. So, metacognition means “thinking about thinking.”
Metacognition is a term first coined back in 1979 by John Flavell, a noted psychologist currently regarded as the “father” of this particular field of psychology.
Flavell can’t take all the credit, however, since the foundational idea can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece and Plato who was known for his emphasis on self-reflection and self-awareness, which are the two main principles behind metacognitive thinking. Another way of putting it is “thinking about your own thinking.”
The definition “thinking about thinking” doesn’t seem very helpful or meaningful on the surface, but perhaps a simple example will help us on the way:
Examples of Metacognition:
Simple Math Problem
Take a simple math problem like 3 x 5. You might look at that immediately using your thinking capabilities and you’ll work out that 3 x 5 = 15, right?
Solving that in your head is regular thinking. Metacognition — thinking about thinking — is where you think more deeply about what “3 x 5” actually means and put your cognitive strategies into use.
You look at the question and ask yourself: what am I being asked?
You begin with the cognitive process and you see this question is presenting you with 3 groups of numbers, and in each group there are 5 things, and the goal of this question is to determine how many there are altogether between the three groups.
This level of thinking is “thinking about thinking” or metacognition. It’s a simple example, but illustrates the concept of Metacognitive skills with ease.
Below is another common and everyday example that we’ve probably all experienced without knowing that it’s metacognition.
Reading as a “Conversation”
Whenever you’re reading a book, you’re more than likely engaging in metacognitive strategies even if you don’t know it. You might think of reading a book as a one way process, kind of like a lecture.
The books are pushing words at your eyes, which you’re taking into your brain, recognizing and understanding that together they make up a story.
But the reality is a bit different. Yes, the book is doing those things, but you are doing something back.
For example, if you read in the book that the main character, Billy, can’t stand to eat any food that’s brown in color, then you will ask in your head, “Why can’t Billy eat any food that’s brown?”
Asking that question is metacognitive awareness. The book first “talks” to you by showing you its content, but you then “answer” the book with your own questions and curiosity – that’s metacognitive skills at work.
Why is Metacognition Important for Kids?
When we talk about teaching and fostering metacognition in children, we aren’t talking about teaching them the terminology directly.
It’s more about creating activities that help kids to exercise their metacognitive skills without even realizing that they’re doing it.
But, why? Why is metacognition so important for kids to develop as a cognitive skill?
1. Problem Solving
When learned and practiced from a young age, metacognitive knowledge can help kids to be more intellectually robust, especially when encountering difficult problems that they have to solve, academic or otherwise.
Let’s say a student is facing an academic problem such as a challenging essay that they can’t think how to write, using metacognitive strategies they can move from a state of thinking “I can’t write this” to “How can I write this?”
The former is a passive, defeatist statement whereas the latter is a pro-active statement showing problem solving abilities.
How can metacognitive strategies help?
First the student asks themselves why they’re stuck on this essay, what is it about the topic that’s frustrating them, and then what can they do to resolve the issue.
Step by step, the student is moving from that initial attitude of can’t and won’t to a new attitude of “can and will try.”
2. Helps Kids Struggling with Learning Difficulties
Kids who have ADHD and similar learning issues often enter a vicious cycle in their learning, and that vicious cycle is more likely when a child has not had metacognitive thinking nurtured within them since they were young.
For instance, when a child with ADHD or dyslexia is struggling with their own learning, metacognitive thinking can help them to guide their thinking processes from their initial frustration into a more reflective state where they understand why it’s hard and focus on finding solutions.
Without metacognitive strategies, that same child moves from frustration to a kind of despair where they assume that the reason they can’t accomplish this task is because they’re simply not good enough; they’re fundamentally flawed in ways that will set them back forever.
That’s the kind of “victimhood” thinking that puts kids with learning difficulties on the back foot for the rest of their lives.
The dream outcome of just about every modern educator isn’t to try and get students to remember as many particular facts as possible, but rather to turn kids into great learners and sharpen their cognitive processes.
The best kind of learner that they can become is a “self-regulated” learner, and metacognition is a core skill behind self-regulated learning strategies.
Self-regulated learning is about following a cyclical path to meet your own learning goals, starting with a plan where you set goals and overall study strategies.
You then implement your metacognitive strategies, monitoring your performance as you go, and then you self-reflect on that: what went well? What didn’t? How can you improve next time? Using the results of that reflection, you then go back to the first step. This is self-regulated learning.
The beauty of this idea is that it works at every education level. It doesn’t have to be a PhD candidate striving for a breakthrough, it could be a curious kindergarten student trying to figure out the differences between different shapes, colors and textures.
The same metacognitive processes work in both of those hugely disparate situations.
4. Builds a Positive “Growth” Mindset
The old world of education was very much centered around fixed mindsets, with people believing there was just a certain amount of knowledge to be learned and school was the place to learn that.
Newer thinking wants to get kids thinking more positively and thus reflectively about their learning.
The fixed mindset constantly runs into roadblocks where learners don’t understand and feel they’ve reached a ceiling.
The growth mindset teaches kids that when they encounter problems they should reflect on the reasons for those problems and what solutions they could try to help them overcome their difficulties.
The power of the growth mindset was strongly advocated by Carol S Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University.
In a Tedx talk she delivered in 2014, Dweck talked about students in one school who when they hadn’t passed all the courses they needed to were given a grade “Not Yet.”
She expressed her admiration for a school promoting the growth mindset by reminding students you aren’t at the right level ‘yet’ — her speech was called “The Power of Yer” — but with some reflection and added hard work, they will get there sooner or later. That’s a mindset that kids need.
Metacognitive Strategies: Fostering this Ability in Kids
What learning strategies can we use to promote and engender metacognitive thinking for kids? It’s such an important part of child development that we should have strategies for teaching it from the youngest early-years of students, and continuing it all the way through K-12 and even at the college level.
Strategy 1: Encourage Reflection at All Levels
Students of all ages can engage in self-reflection that helps them eventually to ask the kinds of questions needed when using metacognitive processes to overcome academic challenges and solving life problems.
One very simple strategy for encouraging reflection is a simple process where students explain a “before…but now…” answer.
“Before, I thought the sand would feel smooth in my hands, but now I know that sand feels rough.” — a nursery or pre-K student reflecting on different textures in their physical play time
“Before, I thought that new water was generated on our planet all the time, but now I know that the same water is cycled through nature over and over.” — a primary school student reflecting on learning about the water cycle.
“Before, I thought the students would respond to this method of teaching Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, but now I’ve found that it doesn’t help them to understand the text.” — a teacher reflecting on a literature class.
As you can see, the mindset works at every level. By reflecting on what we’re thinking and doing, we are constantly exercising our metacognitive awareness and actively creating new thoughts on how to avoid similar situations in the future or how we can improve to the point where we won’t make certain mistakes again.
Self-reflection is a core element of the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum at every stage, and is held up by IB advocates as the core principle that makes IB work for students so well in the longer term. IB students are recognized as creative problem-solvers, growers and thinkers.
Strategy 2: Encourage Journaling
A simple activity like journaling is a perfect way to get students using their metacognitive practices, and there are many ways to approach it.
For younger students, a simpler structure of what they did, what they thought about it and why is fine, but for older students, journaling can be an exercise in reflection on deeper emotions.
Teachers can also lead students in helping students develop academic journals where they reflect on a week’s schoolwork asking key questions like ‘what was my greatest challenge this week?’ and ‘what can I do to improve next week?” and so on.
Journaling doesn’t have to be with a notebook and pen, either. Students can now use blogs, wikis, a traditional diary, or they could use a less conventional approach like a mind map. It’s the same principle at work, but expressed in a different way. Not everyone enjoys writing, after all.
Strategy 3: Deliberately Use Confusing Material
It might seem counterintuitive to a good teacher to deliberately try and confuse students, but when our goal is to boost our students’ metacognitive abilities, confusion is a great and powerful tool.
By starting with tremendous complexity, teachers create a sense of struggle in the students, and this is designed to promote metacognition and creative thinking to try and find ways to make sense of the complexity.
This is actually an idea born out of neuroscience, in particular using Russell’s “Core Affect” Framework. In this framework, confusion is an element that leads to “flow” when it is given to students in the right proportion.
Too much difficulty and the confusion turns to frustration which then leads to boredom and no metacognition being practiced.
When it turns to flow, however, then we feel the challenge and want to overcome it. Confusion therefore can benefit learning when it leads to flow, but not frustration, so it’s a careful balancing act.
Conclusion: At the Heart is Reflection
At the end of the day, the heart of the matter when it comes to metacognitive skills is self-reflection.
Regardless of what strategies or activities a teacher ultimately uses to suit their classroom, as long as they are promoting self-reflection and the development of a growth mindset in young learners, then they are on the right track.
Parents should also learn to continue the reflection process at home. Get kids thinking about their own queries when they make them; get them to question why they don’t want to do things or why they’re scared of things like going to the dentist.
It can become a reflective conversation, a way to bond, and a way for the whole family to grow. Metacognition truly is the fuel for a thought-powered revolution.