Metacognition – Learning to Learn

Why are we practising this? How will you use that outside of class? If you get stuck, what strategies can you use? Is it ok to make mistakes?

Have you ever asked yourself why you ask these types of questions when teaching? Well, the answer is metacognition – the process of thinking about thinking. John Flavel, the American psychologist, was the first to introduce the term ‘metacognition’ and argued that if children consciously understood the process of learning and what happens when they learn something new, learning would be better supported. Learning how we learn, and practising those key non-academic skills creates successful, resilient learners.

Developing metacognitive skills increases the autonomy and confidence of learners, and is essential in education. Those students who end up being truly successful in not just school, but in life, are those individuals who can self-manage, plan and find new ways and monitor their own learning path. They do not need constant guidance from the teacher, in fact, the teacher can stand back and facilitate the learning. Failure does not discourage them, they embrace it. The less independent a child is, the more setbacks they will experience and gradually become increasingly disengaged with learning.

Disengaged learners are often responsible for classroom disruption. Studies have found that developing metacognition supports accelerated progress, particularly for struggling learners. Therefore it is in our best interest as educators, to focus as much on the facilitation of metacognition in learning as on taught content in lessons.

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How Is This Achieved?

Firstly, children need to know what metacognition is. They need to know that you can learn how to learn and that everyone learns in different ways. They need to identify their strengths, but perhaps more importantly, their weaknesses. They need to know how to deal with obstacles, what failure is, and how to use it for good. Setting personal goals, both short-term and long term is essential, and being able to review and reflect as to whether they’ve achieved them.

This can be broken down into three steps:

  1. Students set their own Learning Goals
  2. Students recognise their own Learning Styles
  3. Students Review their Own Learning – thinking about the next steps

Children need to be taught strategies and given time to independently apply them. They need to know the meaning of learning skills and processes, and what these skills look like in practice:

  • Resilience – perseverance, dealing with distractions
  • Resourcefulness – asking questions, reasoning, using imagination
  • Reflectiveness – planning, reviewing, setting new goals
  • Reciprocity – collaboration, empathy, active listening

Being familiar with these learning behaviours and identifying the processes and skills in order to complete a task, enhances children’s learning. The first step of doing this is sharing the learning journey with children – they need to know what they already know, and how they can build on their current skills. Making reference to learning skills and processes throughout the lesson helps to frame the learning and teaching children strategies to deal with getting it wrong, is one of the most powerful strategies of all.

The Learning Pit (created by James Nottingham is a fantastic way to help children to understand that when we find things hard, it means we are learning, that we all get things wrong and that mistakes are proof we are trying. If children are able to confidently deal with mistakes, find strategies to move their learning forward, address misconceptions and find new ways, then they are on the journey to becoming independent learners.

A school which has successfully implemented this kind of learning as a whole-school approach is @Forest_ Academy in Croydon, South London, part of the innovative Synaptic Trust of schools ( There, they have 2 learning objectives for each lesson; one learning specific and one learning skill-specific.

For example:

Can I solve multi-step money problems? Focus: Perseverance and reasoning

Children feel confident in explaining how they are learning as well as what they are learning. The learning community ethos creates pupils with inspiration, ambition and academic success where pupils are passionate about their learning. Through their challenging curriculum, pupils develop a love for the outdoors and learning in the local environment, being aware that learning can come in many forms. Children are self-motivated, confident learners, able to apply their skills and all pupils develop thinking skills enabling future success outside of school and in years to come.

Ultimately, learning is hard. As educators, we have a responsibility to build learners who are confident and able to cope in an ever-changing world. Learners who will be doing jobs that don’t currently exist. The only way we can prepare them for this is to teach them to understand how to learn; how to be resilient, make links with what they already know, how to work collaboratively and manage distractions. All in all, Albert Einstein summed it up when he said “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think”.

This article originally appeared in the May 2017 edition of the UKEdChat Magazine – Click here to view

Sarah Wordlaw @smwordlaw is a Primary Assistant Headteacher and Year 6 teacher. Leader of Teaching and Learning with a particular penchant for Computing, Project-Based Learning and Music and Performing Arts.

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About UKEdChat Editorial 3187 Articles
The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

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