Holy Rosary Primary School

Holy Rosary Primary School is Moving!

Improving the Culture of Metacognition for Future Generations

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, mental wellbeing in our schools has been one of the key priorities.

At the same time, many teachers have been aware of the losses suffered by young people when it comes to socialising and relationship-building due to isolation during lockdown periods. Skills used for collaboration and group work need attention, and conflict resolution skills are under pressure. Although some gains have been made in mathematics and literacy, they are globally not the same as ‘BC’ (before COVID).

We know that the future workplace needs emotionally strong employees with high levels of critical thinking and sound problem-solving abilities. Newly emerging skills in self-management, such as active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility, are in demand.

Remaining relevant

Holy Rosary School learnerAt Holy Rosary Primary School in Johannesburg, we are constantly challenging our own thinking in our efforts to remain relevant. As a discussion starting point, we used a phrase from a report entitled This is the new skills gap for young people in the age of COVID-19 by Tsega Belachew and Rachel Surkin. The phrase is: ‘Teaching young people how to “learn to learn” and “learn to discern” will help them “learn to earn.”’

These were our three sustainable focus questions:

  1. How do we address the social and emotional needs of our girls?
  2. How do we accelerate our academic programmes?
  3. How do we remain relevant and develop future workplace skills?

We have a strong philosophical culture within our school and needed to capitalise on this. As educators, we felt that when answering the three questions we had to add and build on a stronger culture of metacognition.

Metacognition is a word often used in education, but what does it mean? Very simply put, metacognition is thinking about thinking. But what does that really mean? Pause and consider this:

  • Did you find thinking about thinking difficult to explain?
  • Did you feel you had the concept within your grasp but could not pin it down?
  • Did you use examples to explain thinking about thinking?

Often the answer to these questions is, yes. Your brain starts to hurt when thinking about thinking. Our ability to think is what makes us distinctly human. However, we have no common language or approach for thinking about thinking or teaching thinking. Can you imagine trying to do mathematics without a common language, such as add, subtract or divide?

Metacognition can be explained as ‘[an] awareness or analysis of one’s own learning or thinking processes.’ Imagine yourself as a learner, looking down on the task set for you. You would ask yourself:

  • What am I meant to be doing?
  • What is the task?
  • What is the learning?

The Education Endowment Foundation has conducted numerous studies on metacognition and has found that it holds great promise. It can accelerate a child’s progress by seven months and is cost-effective. The Education Endowment Foundation also acknowledges that, although metacognition holds promise, it can be difficult to implement.

Sutcliffe’ concept of ‘thinking moves’

Thinking moves encourages creativityAt Holy Rosary School we have adopted a structured and explicit approach to teaching metacognition based on The A to Z of Thinking Moves created by Roger Sutcliffe. There are 26 ‘thinking moves’, each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet. Each move represents a type of thinking. For example, the move of Question asks us to question. The move of Connect asks us to look for similarities and the move of Divide asks us to look for differences. Each move is taught with the aid of an icon, a hand sign, synonyms and coaching questions.

The moves are comprehensive, understandable, and memorable. Most importantly, these moves provide children and teachers with a common language for thinking. The moves are not something new but are types of thinking we do every day. They can be applied to all ages and are not limited to academic settings.

We wanted a framework that could make a common academic language accessible to all grades, especially our Grade R girls. The first step was memorisation of the 26 thinking moves. The efficacy of these moves became apparent when we saw how quickly our young girls began to memorise the moves and hand signs and how easily they began implementing them.

We set challenges, had class competitions to see which class could recite the moves the fastest, and which class formulated creative ideas for memorisation. The process also helped the teachers consolidate their own knowledge of the moves, which they had covered in previous professional development sessions.

Students take thinking moves on board

The moves of Connect and Divide were certainly favourites in the Foundation Phase. No matter what subject area, the girls looked for connections and differences. When learning phonics, they were quick to delete or add sounds to make new words from an existing word. When counting in threes, a teacher heard from the back of the classroom, ‘I have made a connection. One number is odd, and the next number is even.’

At playtime, a Grade R pupil was overheard telling a classmate to Yield when playing a game on the playground. Our belief that young children have tremendous capacity for learning was reinforced. It also became clear that thinking moves are suitable for all age groups.

Showing Divide and Connect

Thinking moves also incorporate self-regulation and selfreflection. The move of Ahead is used for predicting, but can also be used for planning. When provided with a project or task, children are encouraged to think Ahead. Very often children think of the final result, but do not factor in the steps to get there. By thinking Ahead, they are encouraged to slow their thinking down and plan the steps to successfully complete the task.

Think Back is our second move and incorporates the question, what do you remember? However, we also use this move to reflect on our learning. We ask children to think Back and consider:

  • What went well or what was difficult?
  • Were they involved in the learning and what did they learn?
  • How did they feel about the learning?

Use of the thinking moves framework not only creates an awareness of your own thought processes, but also helps to improve your thinking. The moves are used to deepen learning and take the learner forward. Once you are aware of your thinking and types of thinking, you can apply the appropriate thinking to tasks. We are noticing that within a brief period, thinking moves are providing our girls with greater agency.

A group of Grade 3 girls has initiated their own book club where they will read a page of a book and identify the types of thinking that are occurring. Thinking moves are especially beneficial for inquiry-based learning, including philosophy for children.

We believe that the thinking moves framework will assist us in developing greater social-emotional awareness. Our teachers are starting to use the moves in conflict resolution situations.

Thinking moves permiates the culture at Holy Rosary School

Permeating the culture

To develop a metacognitive culture in our school, it is vital that it permeates into every area in the school. The thinking moves hand signs and icons assist with this in the classroom. We are finding ways to use the terminology in other areas too, for example, in the weekly newsletters, which incorporate articles such as: Thinking Back on the week that passed, and Thinking Ahead about what is coming the following week.

Getting our parents involved is important too. We hosted a ‘Thinking Parents’ workshop, where parents were introduced to the moves and taken through activities that their daughters would experience. Having the chairperson of our school board at this session was a powerful statement of our commitment to developing this framework in our school.

Educationalist James Nottingham asks:

What is more memorable, the route you drive to work every day or driving from the airport in a foreign country on the wrong side of the road?

I am sure you will agree that it is the latter. Using thinking moves, the learner can apply higher order thinking skills to their learning, making discoveries on their own. This makes the learning more memorable, more meaningful, and most importantly, thinking about your thinking is fun!