Metacognition: It’s Good to Talk

29 April 2018

The latest EEF guidance report on Metacognition and self-regulated learning sets out seven recommendations on how to develop pupils’ metacognitive skills and knowledge: “It is about planning how to undertake a task, then cognitively undertaking that activity, while monitoring the strategy to check progress, then evaluating the overall success.” One aspect that struck us in the report was the value in teachers considering how to use their talk to support metacognition in the classroom, and in this post we explore some of those ideas.

Questioning

Recommendation 2 of the guidance report is to “explicitly teach pupils metacognitive strategies, including how to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning“. At every stage of a process, the teacher can ask questions designed to help students to reflect on the thinking that should be considered. The guidance report offers the example of an art teacher teaching about self portraits and the questions that they should ask at each stage: planning, monitoring and evaluating. For example, a planning question might be: “Have I done a self portrait before and was it successful?”, a monitoring question could be: “Are all of my facial features in proportion?” and for evaluation: “Are there other perspectives, viewpoints or techniques I would like to try?”

Without these questions, we are teaching how to draw a self-portrait without necessary teaching the strategies that support metacognition in this specific context. The guidance report does express the need for metacognition strategies to be placed in context, rather than in generic ‘thinking-skills’ lessons. Of course, there are some questions we could ask which might fit other contexts such as, “Am I doing well?” and “How did I do?” but many are specific to the task at hand and require subject-knowledge (e.g. perspective) to succeed.

Modelling

Questions can be used as part of modelling, but often we need to hear an expert articulating every process. Here is the example from the guidance report, in which a P.E. teacher articulates their actions during a demonstration of a forward roll:

I don’t want to hurt my neck and want to do this neatly. So first, to protect my neck, I need to tuck my chin to chest like this. Then when I start to roll, I remember not to roll onto my head. Instead, look how I’m going to roll onto my back and shoulders. This also means my back is round, so I can smoothly roll like this. Now, who can remember what I did first to protect my neck?

This talk is crucial in moving students from novice to expert – the implicit needs to be made explicit. Teachers need to consider these explanations before teaching and avoid leaving it to chance. In the example above, it also helps if pupils know what a forward roll is. So, if they have not seen one before, it should be shown before the demonstration. When a teacher articulates the process, it is more likely that pupils will do this themselves later. The diagram above shows another example of some of the talk associated with developing these strategies.

Dialogue

Recommendation 5 of the report is to “Promote and develop metacognitive talk in the classroom.

Teachers asking challenging questions—guiding pupils with oral feedback, prompting dialogue, and scaffolding productive ‘exploratory’ talk where appropriate—is an ideal way to share and develop effective learning.

The guidance report cites the work of Robin Alexander, whose ‘Dialogic teaching’ approach emphasises structured classroom talk. Alexander has six ‘repertoires’ of which ‘teaching talk’ and ‘learning talk’ are most appropriate for developing metacognitive skills. Both the guidance report and Alexander emphasise the need for structure and scaffold for talk in the classroom to be beneficial. Dialogic teaching is not simply about student discussion; it values all forms of talk in the classroom – rote, recitation, instruction, exposition, discussion, dialogue – but privileges the latter two. What is clear, however, is that the teacher plays a crucial role in supporting any student talk:

Common teaching strategies to better organise and structure classroom talk and dialogue include ‘Socratic talk’, ‘talk partners’ and ‘debating’ (each strategy having its own clear parameters and rules for responsible dialogue). Such strategies—provided they are sufficiently challenging, build on firm pupil subject knowledge, are realistic, and suitably guided and supported by the teacher—can help develop self-regulation and metacognition. We should take care, however, not to focus on dialogue simply as an end in itself without it being wedded to these necessary conditions.

In recent times, teacher talk has been dismissed. The guide on the side was preferred to the sage on the stage. Let’s have more of the sage on the stage – and they can be accompanied by the guide on the stage too.

Posted on 29 April 2018
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