Reflections upon metacognition and the role of teacher beliefs

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Every year over the summer break I aim to read at least one educational book a month and in 2009 it was the turn of Guy Claxton’s ‘What’s the point of school?’. On page 113 he pays great tribute to his A level Chemistry teacher, Michael Shayer, the leading academic on the Cognitive Acceleration project.

As Michael Shayer begins his 91st year the pieces of his work are falling into place. This struck me recently when I read another piece by Guy Claxton entitled; ‘Effective learning: beyond the traditional/progressive Punch and Judy show’ published by the Chartered College of Teaching in their Impact magazine . In this short piece, Claxton raises some interesting questions regarding the mindset of teachers and the professional choices they currently face.

Claxton argues that we should be arming young people with the confidence, capacity and the appetite to engage with difficult things i.e. to approach uncertainty with a curious, adventurous and buoyant spirit. The section that resonated with me is where he adds to the vocabulary we can use as teachers to describe our pedagogical choices. He talks about the third layer i.e. our beliefs about the learning environment. This is the real us, the one we cannot hide and the one our children pick up on, it is our teaching DNA so to speak. He asks several questions that we all would do well to reflect upon: Do we make time for our students to struggle, think and talk? Do we encourage them to work things out for themselves, even though that may be different to the strategies we had anticipated?

In the same edition of Impact, there is an article by Helen Lewis, a member of the Let’s Think Forum. She shares information about her work supporting teachers to encourage metacognition in young children using video to support their reflections. This article focuses on the role of the teacher in the metacognitive process and the fact that we need to make thinking visible in the classroom. Helen states that ‘reflective talk’ may be particularly supportive of young children’s self-regulation and metacognition. Most notably for me she mentions that the videos used in the reflective dialogues formed a ‘site for joint meaning making’.

Lewis’ article links well to Claxton’s in that both focus on the way we approach teaching in the classroom and the choices we as teachers need to make in order to facilitate effective pupil thinking. If we want to make our classrooms thinking environments, we need to support children to move away from believing that thinking means behaving well, and to move explicitly towards a view of thinking as an active and diverse set of activities that are common to all, including the adults in the room.

Little did I know that when I first heard the word metacognition in 1992 that even today it would be such an integral part of the way I reflect upon my classroom life, and that it would be an understanding that is continually shaped by my engagement with research and the ideas of others.

This summer the book that further enriched my understanding was ‘Imaginations Heartwork’ by P Hogan. His ideas really spoke to me – there is something about seeing things though another’s eyes that helps you to better formulate your own understanding. In describing learning he suggests that for pupils, ‘reflecting back on the experiences can transform a problem into questions’ and that these arise as a consequence of engaging with a challenge. Using a lovely phrase, that to me now encapsulates metacognition, he terms these reflections ‘the conversations that we are’. Hogan is both describing, and making an appeal, for a continual process where efforts to understand and the questions asked in response, are predisposed by previous experiences – i.e. a reciprocal relationship that develops over time.

When I first encountered the work of Philip Adey, Michael Shayer and Carolyn Yates all those years ago metacognition was always presented as a continual process and one that cannot be a simple add on – it is an attribute that grows and matures like a muscle! The more you develop it the healthier and stronger it gets and vice versa. Now August is upon me I think it may be time to put down the educational tomes and pick up that Dickens book I have been meaning to read for some time – I wonder if he has anything relevant to say about education and schooling?