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The essential role of metacognitive development in education

| November 17, 2017 | 0 Comments


What became evident from the presentations of Graeme Codrington and Nic Spaull2 at the one-day Southern
African Heads of Independent Schools Association (SAHISA) conference, held at Herschel School in Cape Town this year,3 is that the age of artificial intelligence is going to have major implications for Education.

It is going to shift human skill deployment from knowing content to its application; from regurgitated facts to critical engagement with content to achieve a desired outcome. With artificial intelligence, facts are now available at the click of a button or by posing a question to a machine. The result is that human content “experts” are under threat, thanks to the information overload that is the worldwide web. This means that, increasingly, we are going to have to teach students to be critical thinkers. I recall the first time that I encountered the concept of critical thinking in my honours 10th grade English class at The Stony Brook School, New York.4 It was 1985 and Mrs Nurline Lawrence was emphatic that we should not be mental sponges, absorbing whatever was placed before us without a filter. Rather, she insisted that active minds questioned and analysed information. Nearly a decade earlier, before Lawrence was teaching us to become active learners, developmental psychologist John Flavell was theorising about the process of thinking. He then introduced the concept of metacognition. According to Nancy Chick, assistant director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching: Metacognition is, put simply, thinking about one’s thinking. More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one’s thinking and learning and b) oneself as a thinker and learner. This theoretical demarcation aligned with the expectations
placed upon me by The Stony Brook School.

Making sense of metacognition

In schools, thinking must be a conscious process. Most of us use metacognitive techniques; however, we don’t often articulate our thinking processes. It should be noted that:[A]lthough the term “metacognition” has not been part of
educational psychologists’ lexicon and did not come into common use until the 1970s when it was introduced by
[ John Flavell]… the concept has been around for as long as humans have been able to reflect on their own
thinking.6 A key aim should be to “make thinking visible” and to interrogate, name and explain thinking techniques as clearly as possible to reduce the notion of thinking skills as “fuzzy” and hard to practically quantify, let alone implement. Verbalising our thought processes is essential. It is important to note that implementing metacognitive processes is not an “add-on” method, running parallel to “normal existing curriculum, and incorporates metacognitive practices and techniques into every lesson. While reflective pedagogical
approaches can be time-consuming and may reduce the amount of content that can be covered in class, the reward is students who possess the skills to apply thinking techniques correctly, to novel questions. Such skills are indispensable as we enter the robotic age. Teaching metacognition and incorporating metacognitive practice will alter the classroom dynamic. Teachers will no longer be the providers and students the recipients of
knowledge. Rather, teachers will be facilitators and students will be required to take responsibility for their own learning; it is students who must perform the “heavy lifting” of learning. No longer should teachers carry the burden of spoon-feeding content to students, who then have to regurgitate their memorised information in high-stakes summative assessments. In short, the application of metacognitive techniques shifts learning to the learner.

In high school, I was taught a kind of shorthand with which to apply analytical methods to writing and examining texts; a shorthand that could be reduced to the “five Ws” – what, when, why, who and where. In some instances, an “H” can be added – how. As mentioned above, critical thinking has existed as long as people have been able to think conceptually. At the turn of the 20th century, in 1902, the five Ws (and one H) were memorialised by Rudyard Kipling in a poem at the end of his short story, “The Elephant’s Child”. It begins: I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.7Three

Distinct facets of learning

Metacognitive theory has now placed the five Ws and an H into a theoretical framework of three distinct facets of learning: declarative, procedural and conditional knowledges.8 What metacognitive theory does is expand the five Ws and the H from an analytical tool to a practical understanding of what techniques to use when and for which purpose – in other words, understanding one’s skills as a thinker and using this understanding to alter one’s approaches to achieve better results:

  • Declarative knowledge can be framed as “what I know” or, more importantly, “what I think I know”, and is based on an assessment (accurate or biased) of one’s strengths and weaknesses. This is the personal variable that is unique to each learner. Consequently, declarative knowledge is of limited value and should be interrogated within the context and understanding of certain theories of mind, which include accepting that beliefs can be false and that things can look one way but be another (appearance vs reality).
  • Procedural knowledge is methodological in nature: one examines the task and asks “how?” A student with strong procedural knowledge knows what skills to apply to complete a task. Skilled learners seem to have a more automatic, accurate procedural knowledge than underperformers. This knowledge is utilised to assess the
    task at hand and is specific to each task – the task variable. High-performing learners assess and ask important
    questions to make completing the task easier, such as: Did I understand the task? Did I allocate enough time to
    structure my response? What format is required?
  • Conditional knowledge is contextual. This knowledge asks “when and why?” Knowing when and why to apply certain procedures – the strategy variable – to achieve the desired outcome, and understanding one’s ability to implement strategies or adapt them based on past experience, is a knowledge related to age, the developmental stage of an individual and experience.

Symbiotic to metacognitive knowledge is the experience of metacognition, or the regulation of metacognition or
metacognitive control.9 Becoming aware of one’s thinking is the first part of metacognition, but regulation of this thinking is crucial. According to Moshen Mahdavi,10 metacognitive control can also be divided into three Components: planning, monitoring and evaluation:

  • Planning involves setting goals, reviving prior knowledge  and allocating appropriate amounts of time to complete the task.
  • Monitoring requires self-testing one’s skills and knowledge – or, put differently, critically analysing the
    effectiveness of the strategies or plans being implemented.
  • Evaluation deals with the examination of one’s progress to achieving the desired goals, and can induce further planning, monitoring and evaluation.

The metacognitive experience involves monitoring and assessing during a task, making judgements that
are then used to revise and modify what is known, and using that to adapt existing (or even adopting new)
methods to yield better results. Another experience is the feedback loop. Through the regulation of metacognition, the learner controls their own learning: resulting in self-regulation that builds confidence.

No longer good enough just to know

Earlier this year, I explored metacognitive theory when I was requested to deliver a lecture at the “Mind the Education Gap” conference, held at the Pietermaritzburg (in KwaZulu-Natal) campus of Varsity College.11 Following the SAHISA conference, I was even more convinced that ISASA schools must ensure that they are producing young people who are thinkers. In the current age, merely knowing facts is no longer sufficient – if it ever was. We must endeavour to produce people who see themselves as thinkers and understand how they are thinkers. As educators, we cannot teach students to be thinkers if we are unable to theoretically express the basis on which we extol the virtues and benefits of being a critical thinker. I posit that metacognitive theory may possibly be a framework that can assist in such an articulation.

1. See:
2. See:
3. See:
4. See:
5. See:
6. See:
7. See:
8. See:
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. See:


Category: Summer 2017

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