Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Dana Schroeder and I spent our lunch today discussing the many questions that run through our minds, including the idea that metacognition, thinking about thinking, is an important practice that helps students move forward.  If students know that learning is messy and jumbled, they are not as hard on themselves. In other words, if students think they are stupid, their academic success suffers, even to the point where they will not ask the questions that are on their mind, but if students think they will eventually figure out what needs to be learned, they are more patient with the learning process and more gentle with themselves.

Student:  I don't get this.
Teacher:  What?
Student:  This.
Teacher:  You know you have to give me more than that.  What about this do you not understand?
Student:  I don't understand what you are asking us to do.
Teacher: Which part?
Student:  I don't really get what you mean by your question.
Teacher:  Which part of the question trips you up?
Student:  The part about gender roles.
Teacher: Now I can help you.

Teachers can help students find the right questions to ask, find the right vocabulary to express what is not understood, and to pinpoint exactly where confusion is hindering understanding.  Students who do not analyze their own thinking tend to perceive academic success as luck(good or bad), whereas students who see learning as a process full of hurdles usually persist through the difficult times knowing hard work pays off.

So how do teachers help students explore metacognition?  Asking questions like "At what point did you know you understood this topic?  Or perhaps, "At what point did you get lost and confused?"  Even, "Can you see connections between how you answered this portion correctly and this portion incorrectly?  What is the difference?  How can you use what you did correctly to solve your incorrect problem?"  These questions create the foundation for independence and self-discovery, which is what metacognition is all about.

As a writing teacher, asking questions like "Is the idea finished?" when students ask, "Is this paragraph long enough?" helps students learn to trust themselves and not go to me for the thoughts that should be coming from their own minds--mostly this is a confidence issue, and as students gain confidence, they take more academic risks.  

Directly telling students that the goal is for them to become independent thinkers who can troubleshoot errors also fosters the persistence to keep working when they feel like giving up.

Thinking and writing are two sides of the same coin; when students gain confidence in their thoughts, they gain confidence in their writing. Frequently writing about their thinking process allows students to essentially record their progress over the course of a semester and ideally a lifetime.

Teachers cannot underestimate the far-reaching effects they have on students.  If teachers notice that students are not using metacognition, the solution is as easy as working it into the lesson plans that in a perfect world are created after teachers practice metacognition about their own classroom successes and failures.

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