This e-bulletin and the next will be looking at the crucial role of metacognitive plenaries in helping our students ‘learn for transfer’pdf-5493969

Collective Memory Challenge.pdfpdf-5493969 Inner Voice Check.pdf

Last time we looked at how to run an effective PLTS-focused debrief or plenary – in particular how rich questioning is the key to generating conversations about learning in your classroom. As we saw, the plenary in a PLTS-focused lesson is distinctive because it puts thinking and learning under the spotlight. Students are asked to share not only what they have learned about the subject, but also what they have learned about the process that made the learning possible – their thinking. They are also encouraged to think about how they might use their thinking skills and new learning strategies both across the curriculum and beyond into everyday life. But transferring learning is easier said than done, as all teachers know!

The problem of transfer

Although the transfer of learning is widely considered to be a fundamental goal of education, it is also one of teaching’s most formidable problems. Research on classroom learning has found that students typically show little ability to apply flexibly what they have learned in one curriculum area, to help them with a new and different problem in another. Knowledge and skills that could be generalised and transferred remain stubbornly welded to the context (and sometimes even to the room!) in which they were learned, and are still less likely to be applied to the solution of informal problems in everyday life. It is important, therefore, to acquaint students with the whole problem of transfer, and show them how to learn for transfer.

One prerequisite for the successful transfer of learning appears to be the extent to which students have developed the tendency to metacognitively monitor their own thinking. Have your students learned to ask themselves the following questions, for example: What’s this about? How shall I do this? What have I done before that might help? Is this working? Is there another way – a better way? What went well? What would I do differently next time? What have I learned? Where could I use this again?

This sort of thinking tends to be a hidden process – and yet a crucial one for students to master. The more they become consciously aware of their own thinking, the more they will be able to regulate it and tackle challenging situations or problems intelligently. After all, if you are not aware of the processes and strategies you are using, how can you learn to self-correct; to abandon non-productive strategies and consider alternatives? And how can you transfer these processes and strategies to new situations?

Teaching for transfer involves making a hidden process explicit. And this can only be done by protecting time for reflection within your lessons.

Introducing the idea of ‘thinking about thinking’ (metacognition) to young learners

Here is an analogy that young learners tend to find helpful when exploring the idea of metacognition for the first time.

Ask your class to take a look at a straight, flat line that you have drawn on the board. Tell them that it represents an easy journey that they know well, like a walk to school, their local shop or a friend’s house. It is routine and easy. They could almost do it with their eyes closed.

Next, draw a second wiggly line ascending line and ask them to imagine having to find their way to the top of a difficult mountain. From the bottom they cannot see the top or many of the dips. It’s unknown territory. What would happen then? They certainly could not do it blindfolded. How would they tackle this sort of challenge?

The problem is that inexperienced mountain walkers often try to get on and do even the difficult route without much thinking. They forget to keep checking where they are, where they have been and where they need to go next. An expert mountaineer, however, would…

…think about carefully planning the trip before setting off…

…check regularly that they are on the right track, perhaps changing course if necessary…

…look back when they reach the top to see the way they have come and perhps figure out whether there was a better way.

The same is true when we are talking about learning: when we face a new and challenging learning activity we need to think and plan more. When things are easy we just get on and do them without much thinking. A novice learner, however, may try to tackle even the harder tasks in this way. An expert learner will spot when they need to slow down and begin to monitor their own thinking – whether they are on track, whether their strategy is a good one, whether they need to try something new, whether they have done something before that might help, and so on.

Metacognition in action – some activities

he following range of activities encourage students to explore the idea that they can learn to develop and listen to an ‘inner voice’ that is constantly monitoring and challenging their thinking – even as they work on a task. Being aware of and regulating your own thinking is a tricky concept for young learners to get hold of. But, as a first step, most are able to understand it, as in the mountain analogy, in terms of ‘planning, checking progress, re-planning and reviewing.’

1) Have you heard your inner voice?
Ask your students to think of something they have done recently at home or at school that was really difficult – where they had to think hard. Ask them to swap stories with a partner, sharing their responses to the following questions:

  • What did you do?
  • How did you think your way round the problem?
  • Did you try to think of something that you had done before that might help?
  • Did you make a plan?
  • Did you keep checking you were on the right lines?
  • Did you have to stop and think and perhaps try a new way of doing it?
  • Did you talk to yourself? What did you say?
  • Did you make a mental note of how you did it so that you could do it again or do it better another time?

Explain that if they did any thinking like this about the difficult task or job, then they were using metacognition: they were thinking about their thinking. Another useful analogy is to explain that learning to think in this way is a bit like being an athlete and a coach all rolled into one – doing the job, but coaching yourself at the same time.

As a whole class, try to get your students thinking about the kind of thinking they were doing as they worked on the difficult task; did they do any planning? checking? re-planning? reviewing?

Another option would be to tackle a difficult problem or puzzle, yourself, in front of the class – modelling the sort of thinking involved by thinking aloud. This could also be an imaginary situation, such as getting locked out of the house. Your students could then try to select from a pack of Words for Thinking cards the types of thinking that they observed their teacher doing. Students can also do this for each other’s stories.

A full set of Words for Thinking bricks can be downloaded here (link to issue no. 2)

2) Guiding questions
You can make the process of thinking metacognitively more ‘visible’ to your students by using guiding questions to help draw them into the type of thinking involved. For this you will first need to give your students something interesting to think about, so challenge students to have a go at an open-ended activity of your choice – any activity where students will have to think hard and employ strategies that they see as personal. A Collective Memory activity would work well and helps students experience for themselves the value of thinking metacognitively. An outline of this activity can be downloaded here.

Warn your students that at various points before, during and after the activity you are going to be asking them some unusual questions to help them activate their Metacognition – questions that will help them think about how they are doing the task.

Examples might include:

  • PLANNING: What would be a good way of going about this?
  • Have you done anything before in other subjects that could help you?
  • CHECKING PROGRESS: Is everything going according to plan? Are you on track?
  • What strategy are you using? Is it working?
  • RE-PLANNING: Did you change your strategy or ideas as you worked?
  • REVIEWING: What went well? Would you do anything differently next time?
  • What thinking skills were you using or learning?

What have you learned that you could use again?

3) A learning experiment
Conduct a ‘learning experiment’ that challenges students to notice whether or not they are beginning to think about their thinking and therefore become more aware of the processes and strategies they are using.

Here is one example known as the ‘Inner Voice Check’ which involves students in recording any instances where they have engaged in planning, checking, re-planning or reviewing their work. Students record their observations on a template for three lessons or activities within a set amount of time. Instructions and a blank template can be downloaded here. Students can then report back to you about their experiences: describing the occasions where they managed to be reflective; explaining what they learned and how it was useful; exploring what sometimes gets in the way and what their teachers can do to help.

If you run an experiment of this kind with your students, it is useful to make their subject teachers aware of it, so that they can use guiding questions (see above) where relevant, to help draw students into the type of thinking involved.

(For further learning experiments of this kind see Thinking Through School, A. de A’Echevarria & D. Leat, Chris Kington Publishing, 2006.)

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.