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  • Writer's pictureGuest Post

Preparing your teen to think metacognitively


Liz Keable,

Effective Learning in the Early Years

As parents we tend to watch with absolute fascination as our new born very quickly learns to recognise and interact with us. We wait with anticipation for that first smile and then the first word, and before you know it, we’re getting very excited whilst watching them take their first stumbling steps.

Suddenly we realise that we’re no longer new parents, but have a toddler who is constantly on the move and investigating everything they can lay their hands on. Children at this stage are so curious that it drives their every move and we have to start anticipating what comes next in order to keep them safe as they go about their business.

Learning at this stage is both relentless and extremely effective, as a child continuously picks up information directly from interacting with their environment. They are in fact creating an unconscious database of information that they will use for the rest of their lives as a backdrop for decision making.

But what happens when this enchanting little being that we’ve produced, or are the main care giver for, is expected to enter formal education? Some schools, recognising that children have been learning up to this point via unconscious means, will allow them initially at least, to continue learning directly through play. By this means a child can continue to grow that database through personal experience.

At some point however, they will be required to sit still, be quiet, listen and not get involved until the teacher says so. Now, their learning will not be driven by their own curiosity, and no longer leads to personal experiences from which to absorb information naturally. Instead, the teacher will dictate what they learn, as well as when and how they’ll learn it.

Where Does it All go Wrong?

That’s a massive change! Neuroscience tells us that the brain was designed to learn from personally experiencing something, engaging with it as a result of curiosity, experimenting to find out what benefits it holds, and getting it wrong until we’ve learned how. In other words, exactly what children do naturally.

The mistakes made during this experimental process provide essential feedback to the brain, causing it to make constant mental adjustments that enable us to achieve mastery. Without that vital input, the brain has difficulty grasping and consolidating an idea because there’s no real significance attached to the neural pathways being created.

As a consequence of this, many children find it very difficult to transition from their previous natural way of learning to one where they are being told and shown a lot of the time by someone else. It’s often presumed that they’ll remember everything that they’re introduced to in this way, which is not compatible with what we know about learning.

The ability to learn is often described as ‘cognition’, which encompasses all the mental skills required to gain knowledge, understand it, and then use it. Barring serious health issues, all children have some level of cognition which they use effectively from birth onwards to learn a great deal before they ever start school, including the complicated processes of learning to walk and talk.

The problem starts when they’re expected to be passive observers in school, and the brain gradually starts to switch off. Children who were very effective pre-school learners, can quickly fall behind and learn to disengage in order to protect themselves from the resulting sense of failure. If not dealt with swiftly, this can lead to more serious problems, and there are a significant number of students who never gain a positive relationship with learning in school.

If children are going to be successful within a less than perfect education system, then they are going to need something extra!

The Vital Role of Metacognition

That something is Metacognition! It’s the skill that enables us to check out what we’re thinking and make a judgement call on whether those particular thoughts are helpful or not. More importantly, being able to think metacognitively allows us to consciously change the way we’re thinking in order to get a different result.

Metacognition allows a student to experiment with what they’re learning inside their own heads, even if a lesson doesn’t have any practical element to it. A metacognitive learner can engage more effectively with the expected curriculum and question their own role in the learning process. This enables any young person to become more independent of the system and learn more effectively, despite the often ‘passive’ nature of learning in school.

Two of the biggest hurdles for a student on the way to developing metacognition however, are a lack of self-belief and not fully appreciating how to be actively involved in their own learning. Both of these issues need to be overcome before a learner can become more successful.

A Case in Point

Look at the difference developing metacognition made to one of my students who was able to rise above her own previous experience. Originally, I was asked to provide Science tuition, but soon discovered that what she really needed was to believe in her own ability and understand how to engage more effectively with the learning.

“Since working with Liz my teachers have noticed a real difference in my performance in class. I’m confident to answer questions and I’ve gone up at least 2-3 grades in my topic tests. My GCSE exam no longer scares me and I’m confident I can get at least a grade 5 or 6 which I’m really happy about as last year I was only getting 2-3’s on my tests.”

What’s particularly interesting here is that this 16year old, didn’t just break the barriers in the one subject, she achieved much higher results across the board than expected, to gain mostly Levels 6/7 in her final exams. That’s the difference it can make if we support a learner to develop a more metacognitive way of thinking. It puts them in charge of their own learning and helps grow the belief they have in their own ability to succeed.

So, if you have a learner in the family who is struggling with some aspect of education, helping them to change the way they think is essential to getting them back on track. The factor that has the greatest influence on what any student can achieve, is what they as an individual have going on inside their own heads during any given learning opportunity. So, let’s go where others fear to tread, inside the mind of a reluctant learner.

What Can You Do?

Most learners don’t set out reluctantly on their learning journey as we already established earlier on, but what they experience within education can lead to a situation where they either feel unable or unsure about how to engage more fully with it. As parents this presents us with a real dilemma. We have no control over the education system that our young person is moving through year in, year out, and yet we know they are not achieving their best as a result of it.

Just blaming the system does nothing to solve the problem, so the best way to fortify any student’s ability to reach their potential is to ensure that they know how to learn independently, which means developing metacognition.

So, what can you do to help them achieve that?

One of the first things to establish is doing away with the word ‘can’t’. That message is received as an instruction by the unthinking, subconscious part of the brain, and its role includes making sure that the instruction is carried out! Some educators suggest saying I can’t do it YET but the sub-conscious still hears ‘can’t’, so that doesn’t work either. A learner needs to say ‘I can’ but that just feels like a lie if they’re struggling with something, so they need a statement that includes a solution.

The words “I can do this, I just need some help” form a statement that convinces the brain that it’s not only possible, but even probable. Once the brain has been primed for involvement in this way, a student then needs to understand what the learning process actually looks like so that they can interact with it effectively in the same way that they did when they were younger.

The natural learning process consists of three stages; 1) meeting a new piece of information, ie; something we didn’t know before which we’ll label as a ‘challenge’; 2) facing that challenge by experimenting (ie; making mistakes) to discover its usefulness and 3) ‘practising’ to gain mastery in order to apply it in situations that make it useful.

Now think about how your offspring approaches learning. Do they accept ‘challenge’ as something that’s going feel uncomfortable in the beginning because it’s unfamiliar. Do they know how to stay out of their comfort zone in order to engage with new things or do they ‘run away’ either mentally or physically the moment something different appears on the horizon. Help them appreciate that it only feels challenging because its new and reassure them that they will feel more comfortable with the process once they learn to face it head on.

Is your child afraid of making mistakes? If so, why might that be? What has experience taught them? We established earlier the vital role of getting things wrong in order to inform the brain about what is or is not useful, so need to undo the damage caused by being afraid of making mistakes. This fear cripples a lot of learners, so we need to help them appreciate that experimenting with new information, playing around with it, and learning from the resulting mistakes is an effective way of learning.

Lastly, some learners feel that they should be able to get things right first time and will freeze if that doesn’t happen. They need to appreciate that the brain requires repetition and practise in order to establish strong memory traces. No serious sportsperson or musician would dream of missing ‘practise’ because they know it’s the only way to become good at it. Why do we not help students to see that academic learning is no different?

Don’t use the phrase ‘practise makes perfect’ with a learner as it’s setting them up to fail. They know that perfection is an unreasonable goal. What practise does make is ‘permanence’, because it leads to strong memory traces that are easy to recall when required. Focus on that instead.

The Role of Metacognition

The purpose of this article is to help you prepare the learner you care about to start thinking metacognitively. Metacognition is part of the decision-making processes of the brain and we want our young people growing up with the ability to make wise decisions that are in their own best interests.

In order to do that effectively they need the ability to analyse what they’re thinking, constantly checking that their thoughts are in line with what they want to achieve. If they discover thoughts that are out of alignment, then they have to feel ready to change what they’re thinking in order to improve results.

If your child has not yet developed this ability, they are not alone, the majority of school aged children and young people have not learned to think this way. It takes time to develop, but at least you now know how to get started with supporting your child to think differently.

Preparation that helps lead to the development of metacognition includes supporting a child’s belief in their own ability to learn, so make sure they get help when they need it. They also have to understand what the learning process involves, (ie; challenge, mistakes, and practise), so that they can engage with it willingly at each stage. If learners also appreciate that practise makes permanent, you put them back in control of their own learning.

You can start making a difference today by supporting the learner you care about to develop metacognition.


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