Monday, June 27, 2016

What’s in a Word? The Meaning of Metacognition

For many years, Marcus and I have been using the word “metacognition” in our writings and presentations. It may seem like a mouthful, but when you break it down, it’s easy to understand.

The syllable “meta” means “referring to itself, self-referential,” whereas “cognition” describes the mental process of acquiring knowledge and understanding. So, simply put, “metacognition” is defined as “thinking about thinking.”

The aim of metacognition is to improve the way we learn. It’s a word that is at the foundation of the Thinking for Results approach that Marcus and I use in the graduate degree programs we have developed in brain-based teaching as well as in our presentations internationally. It's also a theme of our new book, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas, published in conjunction with ASCD.

It is our belief that cognitive and metacognitive strategies can and should be explicitly taught in conjunction with core curriculum so that students can clearly see the benefit of reflecting on and regulating their thinking to improve such skills as reading comprehension and math problem solving.

As Emily Lai writes in a 2011 Pearson’s Research Report on metacognition, this instruction is most effective when it emphasizes “how to use strategies, when to use them, and why they are beneficial.” Our approach presents metacognition and important “cognitive assets” students can learn to implement, monitor, and hone as they take charge of their learning.

Recent scientific findings indicate that everyone from preschoolers to adults may benefit from thinking about their thinking. Educational researchers have found that children as young as ages 3 to 5 can learn problem-solving strategies. At the other end of the age spectrum, Theo Dawson suggests in a 2008 Developmental Testing Service report that “it is important for even the most advanced adult learners to ‘flex their cognitive muscles’ by consciously applying appropriate metacognitive skills to new knowledge and in new situations.”

These findings are consistent with one key focus of our professional development—to encourage teachers to learn how to use and model metacognitive strategies in their classrooms.

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