Andrew Bridge (@theandrewbridge) tweeted me: “I’m looking for resources/strategies to help teach metacognitive skills in a junior math classroom.” 

I’m glad he asked me that because it really is a favourite area for me to think about.  Now I am not a math expert – but I have some ideas about metacognition, intentional learning and how to support students in ‘taking charge of their own learning’ — which embodies metacognition.

My immediate Twitter reply: “1st thought-Think of metacognition as a ‘way of being’ Build culture of ‘thinking as being highly valued’.”  This quick reply was based on a concern that plagues our profession. We have so many initiatives coming our way that they often get relegated to a set of activities or lessons to accomplish them before moving on to the next initiative. (See PBL – the New Worksheet & Another Brick in the Wall)

Wikipedia houses the standard descriptions of metacognition 🙂 :

Metacognition is defined as “cognition about cognition”, or “knowing about knowing”. It can take many forms; it includes knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or for problem solving. There are generally two components of metacognition: knowledge about cognition, and regulation of cognition.”

James Flavell first used the word “metacognition”. He describes it in these words:

“Metacognition refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant properties of information or data. For example, I am engaging in metacognition if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; [or] if it strikes me that I should double check C before accepting it as fact.” —J. H. Flavell (1976, p. 232).

So really it’s about understanding one’s own thinking and learning and the ability to manage that understanding.

Some questions to anyone asking the question Andrew asks are:

  • What fascinates you, as a teacher/learner, about learning, thinking, the mind, regulation, and knowledge construction?
  • What excites you?
  • What questions do you have about it?
  • Do you share these with your students?  Is it a focus of your regular classroom activity?
  • Is it evident in the physical layout of your classroom?
  • If I walked into your classroom would I see evidence on the walls that ‘thinking is a highly valued activity’?
  • What do you love to learn? How do you approach it? What are your challenges?
    • Perhaps, ‘what is your stance as a learner’?
  • What learning do you do in front of, or with your students, and how do you make that learning explicit (or visible)?
  • What is your philosophy of learning? How do you even define learning!?

To me it is about a ‘lifestyle’ – a ‘way of being’ – not a set of skills to be taught (not that I think Andrew is suggesting that).

I’m going to share some answers that I might give in response to these. Forgive me, but I am going to link to other posts rather than repeating much of those here.

I’m Confused! Thought I Was a Social Constructionist!  For years I have identified myself as a ‘social constructionist’. Much reading I have done recently has led me to understand that although that is a major mainstay, we are largely conditioned by past behaviours, learnings and by our environment. We are more influenced by Skinnerian stimulus/response reactions than I was willing to acknowledge. “Thinking, Fast & Slow” – Wondering about implications for schools also illustrates this point. So how is this metacognitive?  Well, I am constantly learning about learning and reflecting on how I learn within that context. How might this relate to metacognitive skills in a current junior math classroom? Since I started teaching – some 40 odd years ago – there has been a debate between ‘process’ vs ‘product’. It has had many names over the years but basically it has been a conflict between rote learning/memorization versus conceptual understanding of mathematics.  I personally think you need both. I also think that some kids need the conceptual understanding first, some will benefit from the memorization first to help to understand the concepts, and some will learn best with some iterative process that moves back and forth. This is not a popular view. (I’m used to that! LOL) My opinions aren’t the issue here though. What do your students think? Raise the issues. Have the conversations with them. Perhaps check out the Ontario Ministry of Education document from the Capacity Building Series entitled Grand Conversations in the Junior Classroom for strategies.

Intentional Serendipity – Unpacked! Teach kids this cool term – Intentional Serendipity. “If you hold an attuned intention to learn, then you will have sentinels at the watch for all that goes by. You will be ‘at the ready’ to opportunistically grasp anything that is useful to your learning. You are vigilant so that you do not miss events relevant to your intention. Intentional serendipity relies on the vigilance of the learner within the learning space.  The intentional learner may set the conditions of that learning space to optimize opportunities – opportunities conducive to the task at hand. It may be by turning on all the knowledge flows – twitter, text, skype, etc. Or it may be by selecting a place of silence for reflection and inner workings of the mind and heart.”  Eleanor Duckworth speaks of helping students get to where ideas can find them.  I love that!

Scaffolding for Deep Understanding  Journal writing, collaboration and scaffolding are useful ‘tools’ to make thinking explicit and discussable. But, it needs not to be an ‘exercise’. It needs to be useful worthwhile. That is the challenge.  One thing that we often did in these scaffolded, collaborative journal writing environments was to have regular group/class meetings where kids had to arrive prepared to discuss such things as: “Go through the journals of your group and find examples of where a ‘confusion’ was later solved.” Or, “…where an old idea was used in a new way.” Or, “…where there is a difference of opinion.” Etc. Then we’d have a good yak about the ideas – about the thinking – the learning.

Deep Understanding and the Issue of Transfer ‘Bug seeking’ is a critical metacognitive skill. It refers to tiptoeing back through your thinking and actions to see where, how and why you went wrong. In the conclusion of this post, you will see how some grade twos dealt with this metaphor of ‘bug hunting’. ‘Thinking’ becomes externalized and an object for examination.

The ‘Drip Effects’ of Technology  Gavriel Salomon taught me a great deal about ‘effect with’ and ‘effects of’ using computers with kids. One of the unintended effects of my using computers with kids was the way in which I restructured my grade 2 class some years ago. It led to a great discovery. I expected kids not just to learn the content at hand, but indeed I expected them to manage the learning of that content as well.  This is, of course, what metacognition is all about.

ZPD – Who’s in Charge Here? I believe that it is important to help kids to take charge of their learning – to be able to seek the appropriate scaffolding in their Zone of Proximal Development.

The Construction Zone  I called my classroom The Construction Zone because I think that ‘naming’ is very powerful.  Names are loaded with meaning. ‘Classroom’ comes with many expectations and perhaps baggage. Maybe students walk into such a space expecting to be taught. “Do it to me!” ‘The Construction Zone’ infers that they are going to build something – to create and manufacture.  Indeed, I was referring to ‘constructionism’ and the ‘zone of proximal development’ and being in ‘the zone’ —  a state of ‘flow’ (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

Metaphoria and Digital Literacy

Play games with your kids – ‘bug hunting’ – and Metaphoria. This latter one has been one of my favourites. Metaphors provide students with a mental model  — a model that is durable and independent of the computer and therefore empowers students with tools with which to think.

Metaphoria – The Concept of Understanding One Thing in Terms of Another


OK!! I’m going to stop here. LOL

Thank you, Andrew, for encouraging me to revisit some of these thoughts!
Friends and colleagues, I don’t think I have provided many specific resources to help Andrew teach his students metacognitive skills in his junior math class.

I’m calling on you more practical people!  JUMP IN!!!