Thursday, July 21, 2011

Meta-cognition: More than a Buzzword?

Some things I gleaned* out of our recent PCMI discussion on meta-cognition:
* Research shows that when kids are encouraged to continuously reflect on their own thinking/learning, they actually become better at the process of learning to solve problems.

* We don't care if kids leave our classrooms knowing necessarily all the content, but it is uber-important that they know how to learn effectively and efficiently in the future. So, in a way, meta-cognition isn't only a means to an end, but it's the end itself.

* Meta-cognition is personal. Kids who are given the same task, who arrive at the same results, may have very different evaluations of their thinking processes used. Conversely, even if two kids arrive at two different solutions (either both correct or both incorrect), their meta-cognitive reflections may not be so different. Content mastery needs not dictate how we think about our own thinking.

* Sometimes being more "meta" isn't better. There are different levels of meta-cognition, and some are more closely tied to skills -- such as "Hey, I notice that I keep messing up the signs when I do algebra!" -- and others are more abstract or removed from the content and are, instead, more closely tied to processes or Habits of Mind -- such as "When I encountered problems of great complexity, I persevered and also turned to my peers in order to gain new insights/perspectives." A proficient meta-thinker should be able to move fluidly up and down that spectrum of abstraction, and use their own awareness of their thinking to modify their strategies to be more reasonable or more efficient, in real time!

* We can encourage kids to think meta-cognitively by pairing two kids to work together in pairs on a challenging problem, and assign a third student to only observe and ask probing (but not leading) questions and to take notes on observed evidences of meta-cognition. I believe that meta-cognition happens naturally and implicitly when two kids collaborate productively and "equally" on a task, and a debrief afterwards can help all students realize the benefit of thinking out loud and asking/answering clarifying questions. Teacher needs to circulate during such exercises, however, to make sure that no one group is dominating in voice volume or trying to "give answers" to other groups.

* Meta-cognition is closely tied with kids taking responsibility for their own learning. If a child is successful at one of them, it feeds into their success in the other realm.

* If a kid cannot answer a question posed by the teacher during class, they need to turn and pose a specific question to the rest of the class about where they are confused. This helps kids self-diagnose trouble spots and helps all kids remain actively engaged during class. It also helps the teacher to set the tone that content achievement is not the only thing that matters during class, and that successful meta-cognition is a different form of success. (ie. Teacher can explicitly praise students who are able to pinpoint nuances within concepts that are troubling them.)

I think this has been the most productive discussion yet! :)

*Well, maybe "gleaned" isn't a good word. Some of this is not new, but I thought I'd put them all in one place. Maybe "distilled" would have been better...


  1. I love the last bullet point (and the whole thing too but especially the last bullet point). I treasure concrete ways to put these abstract ideas into the classroom. Thanks Mimi.

  2. I've got some really great resources we're developing this summer at PCMI... I'll send them along your way when we "finish" them today.


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  4. I really like the idea to pair students working on a problem, then have a third whose only job is to observe and ask probing questions. Thanks!

  5. I also love all of them, but the last bullet especially. I urgently need clarification, though. Or an example!

    A kid is confused, doesn't understand something (yet), so what question do they ask the class? And does the class then answer?

  6. @Tim: I'm no expert on this (I'm going to implement this last bullet next year). But what I think is that you throw a difficult, open-ended question to the class and cold call a kid to think out loud. Say the kid has no response, then you ask them what basic things they can conjecture based on what they do know, and if there is a question blocking them from getting to a complete "answer"... They try their best to formulate that question they have in their mind, and their classmates then try to answer it. You can also put it on other kids to ask clarifying questions if the kid's question isn't quite clear...??

    Like I said, just thoughts floating around. I'm going to try them next year!!