Metacognition in context

Regular followers of this blog will recognise that I have written a reasonable amount over recent years about the vagaries of implementing metacognition across a large secondary school.

Certainly there are challenges to this and, as I have mentioned in the past, metacognition often proves to be one of the trickiest interventions to convert from theory to habitual changes in classroom practice. As a result, I have narrowed our approach this year, and you can read about how in this blog.

However, as well a clear vision of whole-school implementation, what is of paramount importance in a secondary school is subject specificity. As the EEF guidance report says:

“While there may be some benefit to introducing pupils to the general importance of planning, monitoring, and evaluating, the particular strategies are often quite subject- or task-specific, and the evidence suggests that they are best taught through subject content.”

Consequently, I have come to realise that the single most important aspect of my implementation of metacognition is gaining alignment with our curriculum leaders on how it can best serve their subject. It has to be that way round. If metacognition is imposed on a subject with no clear rationale for what particular problem it is solving then teachers will rightly not recognise its value and therefore not change their habits to incorporate it. It is rather about looking at what challenges that exist within a subject are within the gift of metacognition to overcome. That way metacognition has a far greater chance of being integrated into subject areas, as it proves itself to be a useful adaptation with a clear purpose rather than just another thing teachers have been told to do.

To support this process of alignment I have, over the past few weeks, completed joint learning walks with the leaders of English, maths and science at my school. These were designed less as a checking up process to see whether teachers were doing as they had been told, but more as a way of seeing if we agreed on where metacognition could best fit into what we were seeing in order to improve it. In that way it was the start of a process rather than a one-off event as it would be the springboard to further developmental work in departments.

I’m pleased to say that in every subject we saw some great examples of metacognition in action. To illustrate the point here (in the interests of fairness!) is one example from each subject area:

English:

Fran Haynes was teaching poetry analysis to her year 9 class. The metacognitive teaching in evidence her was the exposition of her expert thought processes alongside the instructions and questions she was using. With a few key headings dotted across an empty board, Fran was asking her students to draw out various themes from the poem. While doing so she was also explaining why a certain technique (in this case Owen’s use of a capital letter for the word Lie) had been used by adding the thought processes of a poet: “He would have done this because it has the effect of….”. In this way she was lifting the mystery of the technique and helping students in incorporate it into their own toolbox of strategies for later use.

Maths:

In Jamie Veness’s maths lesson students’ command of the strategies available to them demonstrated strong metacognitive thinking. Maths as a subject lends itself well to the application of metacognition as the processes inherent to the subject intuitively require a teaching approach that involves weighing up how, when and why to use them. Talking to the students in this lesson, we found them confidently able to articulate which strategies they would use to tackle particular maths problems and why they would use one strategy over another. Their metacognitive knowledge of strategies was strong as was their metacognitive regulation of these strategies.

Science:

As is habitual in science lessons at Durrington, Martin Reene’s lesson started with a series of retrieval practice questions. The team have been working at incorporating metacognitive questions into this phase of teaching to build greater reflection from the students as to both the knowledge being recapped and the strategies they use to remember it. Martin did this particularly well, asking several metacognitive questions. One example was asking a student why they were able to remember a particular chunk of knowledge. The student was able to answer that they remembered it because they had now looked at it several times. This led to a discussion around the idea that the more knowledge was returned to, the less likely it was to be forgotten.

As well as these excellent examples it is also fair to say that we noticed some missed opportunities to bring metacognitive questioning or modelling into the lessons. By completing the learning walks jointly we were able to discuss these moments and whether we both agreed a tweak would have been appropriate or desirable and what specifically that would look like.

Following the learning walks we spent some time immediately afterwards discussing the next steps for the subject based both on what we saw on the day, what we had seen over time and the department’s current priorities. This then allowed us to decide on what was important for the particular subject going forward. To summarise this, the agreed priorities were broadly speaking:

  • English: to ensure the expert thinking that sits alongside many of the disciplines within the subject are fully articulated during teaching. The initial focus her is to be on poetry analysis.
  • Maths: to increase the frequency and consistency of metacognitive questioning and for students of all attainment levels to gain a greater command of the strategies available to them.
  • Science: to increase the consistency of metacognitive questioning during the recapping of knowledge and to ensure modelling is metacognitive through the explanation of expert thinking.

There is obviously more detail to these priorities and the professional development that will need to happen to make them a reality. However, the model of working directly with the curriculum leader to create a shared and aligned vision of how this particular teaching and learning priority will benefit them and their team is one we intend to keep developing.

Chris Runeckles is Assistant Headteacher at Durrington High School and Assistant Director of Durrington Research School.

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