Mastering Metacognition

At Durrington, teachers in their first five years of teaching are offered the opportunity to study a part-funded masters in education through the University of Brighton, led by Dr Brian Marsh.  Our Head of Geography Ben Crockett, has just successfully passed his masters after two years of hard work.  In this post he reflects on his experience:

Why did you decide to do a masters?

Three main avenues of reasoning:

  1. Personal Development – having completed my PCGE with 60 masters credit I was keen to complete the full qualification, and the opportunity provided by the school and its partnership with Brighton University was a great opportunity.
  2. Keen to reengage with academia and challenge myself. It is easy when teaching, (particularly with no A-Level) to become complacent as much of the subject knowledge is embedded. Doing a masters gave me an opportunity to intellectually challenge myself and reengage with the process of learning – in fact it turned out to be useful in regaining perspective of students being in the struggle zone!
  3. Desire to connect research in academia with class room practice. While I don’t think teachers tacit understanding and “gut feeling” of what works in their classroom should ever be ignored, at the same time too many processes occur in the classroom without seemingly good reason or evidence to support their deployment. In wanting to improve my teaching and the teaching going on in my department, I wanted to make sure that what I was doing with could be empirically supported with evidence

What was the focus of your dissertation and why did you choose this topic?

Research Question: Can direct metacognitive instruction enhance 13-14 year old high school students’ metacognitive awareness and capabilities?

Despite a track record of success in the department, that has traditionally and continues to use a relatively direct method of instruction, I was becoming increasingly concerned that the increasing demand being placed on students to retain and apply vast amounts of information to answer synoptic problems in the new examinations meant that teaching can no longer rely on students simply having knowledge. Of course without knowledge students would be ill-equipped to solve problems, but likewise the inability, unawareness or reluctance I observe in many students to “think about their thinking”, plan, monitor and evaluate their learning is increasingly concerning. In fact discussions I have had with some students indicated that some expect or rely on the teacher to do this regulation for them. I was therefore interested in how direct instruction methods could be used to develop metacognitive abilities within students. I investigated the metacognitive awareness of fifty-seven 13-14 year old students using an adapted form of the Metacognitive Awareness Inventory (Schraw and Denison, 1994).

My study investigated whether students’ metacognitive skills could be developed, using a range of explicit metacognitive instruction strategies referenced by the research literature. Importantly metacognition was modelled alongside the teaching of content, as encouraged by Swanson (2000). A control group provided a baseline of natural metacognitive awareness development. The modified format of the MAI (Schraw and Denison, 1994)  was  provided to students at the beginning and end of an academic term, alongside interviews, to judge changes in student’s metacognitive awareness.

As it was small scale, I would have liked to have seen if a link could be determined with academic outcomes, but the research wisely focused more on the metacognitive processes, with an assumption based on literature, that if these develop, then academic outcome should show positive trends as a result. There is a wide body of literature particularly from the USA, not just that outlined by the EEF toolkit, regarding the positive academic impacts of well–developed metacognitive skills. It is generally assumed that subject experts (aka teachers) have such developed skills. However these skills can become embedded in the expert processes, and thus become covert to observers and even the expert themselves. Subsequently they are either not modelled to students or students fail to observe them, and as such students miss out on a valuable processes that experts engage with when successfully completing tasks.

What did you learn from this?

  • Metacognition, although important and clearly supported by evidence in regards to its impact on academic performance, is not naturally developed in a large number of students. While most students (13-14 years old) demonstrate strong metamemory (i.e. understanding of their knowledge, what they are strong at and where their weaknesses are in knowledge), they generally have poorly developed metacognitive skills such as monitoring, planning, evaluating and regulating.
  • When compared to their nearest subject experts (teachers) students predominantly believed themselves to be less effective problem solvers, with the majority of students justifying this in relation to a lack of subject knowledge or experience versus their teacher – there was minimal appreciation or awareness of the role of metacognitive processes undertaken by teachers, with many students seeming to hold the false belief that teachers “just get it”.
  • Post intervention data showed very little change in the control group, whereas the experimental group saw a significant shift in students self-awareness of the metacognitive processes they engaged in, with higher numbers of students self-reporting that they did metacognitive activities such as planning and considering strategies, evaluating task performance and monitoring on task progress.
  • While there was only a slight change in the number of students believing themselves to be as good as their teachers at solving problems (understandable as students do assume their teachers to be better than they are) there was a much higher number of students showing an awareness that this difference could not be solely attributed to subject knowledge or experience, and that the metacognitive thought processes of the expert played a significant role in determining outcomes.

How has this impacted on your teaching/leadership?

Much more aware of the challenges faced in metacognitive instruction and the tendency for it to become covert. Subsequently my own teaching and that of the department has focused on ensuring that the metacognitive processes that we undertake are explicitly modelled so students and that students are given resources that guide them to engage in metacognitive processes more often.

What has been the best thing about doing a masters?

  • Engaging in research and academia.
  • The challenge.
  • Being a learner again.
  • The opportunity to take control and make informed changes to your practice.
  • Disseminating findings to rest of the team.

What challenges has it presented and how did you overcome these?

  • Time management – running a large department with over 160 students taking GCSE geog in yr 10 and 11, while completing a masters has been tough. Finding time to do the duties required of this position and then complete my own studies has been tough – getting in after a 5 period day knowing you need to write a few pages on your research paradigm and the ethical considerations of your study requires a lot of will power – and coffee!
  • Not allowing the changes to your pedagogy with the experimental groups to impact on your teaching of other groups until the data proves that it is effective – again it is that gut feeling of the teacher versus the actual evidence.
  • Ethical issues:
  1. As an inside researcher completing an action research project in your own setting has its advantages such as easy access and familiarity, however at the same time it has its challenges. Working with my students presented an issue in regards to my power relationship with them – I had to question if they were going to answer honestly or as they thought they should to please me. To overcome this I asked other teachers to complete the interviews but this did mean that I couldn’t direct the interviews as I may have wished. Similarly had I been working with colleagues, I would have had to consider the power dynamics – would I have felt comfortable interviewing an SLT member, while at the same time would an NQT have felt comfortable about being interviewed by me.
  2. Control group – an ethical minefield!  A control group was necessary to evaluate the impacts of the change in practice versus the natural growth of metacognition.  However using control groups in education is not necessarily a favoured route with many researchers and teachers, arguing that you shouldn’t use this approach without potentially beneficial practice from certain groups. At times I felt quite uneasy about doing it.

If you want to learn more about metacognition and how it can be mobilised in the classroom, take a look at the Durrington Research School training programme – ‘Understanding and using the EEF metacognition and self regulated learning guide’.

Posted by Shaun Allison

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