Put simply, metacognition is the ability to critically analyse and monitor the way we think. As the concept of metacognition has grown in popularity in the education sector, so too has the number of misconceptions associated with the term. So, what are these misconceptions?
The Education Endowment Foundation recently released a very thorough and helpful overview of what is currently known about metacognition and self-regulation. We think anyone interested in teacher metacognition CPD should read it (a full copy of it can be found here).
We thought their section on the common misconceptions about metacognition was particularly interesting, so we summarized them here:
"Metacognition can only be developed in older students"
Whilst older children often use a wider range of metacognitive strategies, research suggests that younger children can demonstrate metacognitive skills too.
In one particular study, children aged as young as 3 years old were found to demonstrate metacognitive skills by being able to accurately predict their levels of ability on a task. Clearly, younger students have both the capacity and ability to further improve their metacognitive abilities.
"Metacognition is a general skill that doesn't require subject knowledge"
There is a misconception that if students can improve their metacognitive skills, then they will show improved academic performance across all subjects. However, whilst some metacognitive strategies are applicable to a number of subjects and lead to academic improvement, students still need subject knowledge.
Essentially, it is easier to regulate one’s thinking if you know about the topic at hand.
"Metacognition is more important than cognition or subject knowledge"
Metacognition should not be seen as ‘higher order’ thinking. It is not the top of a triangle, with ‘lower order’ skills such as remembering information at the bottom. Instead, the two should be seen as being entwined. As the authors of the research state, “we should look to develop both concurrently and not create false hierarchies where they do not exist”.
"Metacognitive skills can be easily taught in discrete 'thinking skills' lessons"
Metacognition is best developed during their subject lessons. This is because it is notoriously difficult to transfer between different contexts. Displaying high levels of metacognition looks very different in a Year 4 Maths to how it does in a Year 7 French or Year 11 Physics. Therefore, students should be taught the most relevant strategy at a time when it is applicable to the task at hand, so that they can better understand how such skills can be integrated into their studies.
However the authors of the report do also note that “over time, metacognition can become more generic, and older metacognitive learners can possess an array of strategies that they then judiciously apply across a range of contexts and to a range of tasks”. This means that older students may be better at applying the right thinking strategy to new or different types of problems.
Whilst previous research has suggested that developing metacognition is an effective way to improve students’ academic performance, it does need to be implemented in a certain way and teachers need to be mindful of common misconceptions.
It is important to know that metacognitive strategies can be introduced at a young age, should be weaved into their lessons and, if paired with strong subject knowledge, can offer a great way forward to help students learn, develop and improve.