When did metacognition become a thing?

Written by Alex Black

I have noticed the phrase “When did x become a thing?” spreading in many areas of discourse. Maybe this is a sound bite form of protest against interesting and complex ideas being reduced to something over simple. Metacognition has become a much discussed “thing” in education since the EEF and other influencers have started using it as one of the “things” that work. This is also in line with many pithy simplification “memes” such as “learning is a change in long term memory” that are gaining status through over reproduction through social media.

As Let’s Think programmes have been developing the use of metacognition for decades I propose a way of discussing metacognition more as a process of taking back control of cognition rather than a tool in a toolkit.

The two key ideas I want to explore are metacognition as “coordinating evidence and claim” Kuhn (1999) and “increasing learners representational capacity” Demetriou and Spanoudis (2018). These ideas clearly extend the concept of learning beyond just changes in memory.

Figure 4. Really Raising Standards


The CASE (Thinking through Science) lesson Floating and Sinking challenges students to consider the role of volume and mass of different vessels and come to a rule that explains whether these vessels will sink or float in water.  The students are presented with five opaque plastic bottles of equal volume but increasing mass.

Then they are shown six opaque plastic bottles of equal mass but decreasing volume. Also a mystery bottle for which they have to predict whether it will float or sink based on the floating rule they have developed as a claim.

I remember teaching  this lesson several times some 20 years ago and following  the lesson script where the first five equal volume vessels were demonstrated which led to cognitive conflict and a group social construction discussion ensued. In training teachers in my school I basically followed this pathway through this lesson during co-teaching and CASE training. However, when I started teaching this age group again, three years ago, the ideas of Kuhn and Demetriou and my own 20 years experience of adapting CASE pedagogy to different subjects and age groups had given me a new emphasis. This was making metacognition explicit at every stage in a lesson. The strategy I used was Predict, Explain, Observe and Explain. This is a modified version of POE (Predict Observe Explain) that goes back to White and Gunstone (1992). All of the five equal volume vessels had been presented to the class. Typical responses for Predict and explain were “All of them would float because large things float just like big ships float” or “They are all heavy and heavy things sink like rocks do” “or some will float and others will sink and the lightest will float”.

Then each of the five vessels were tested and at each observation  a lot of monitoring and evaluation of their claims was made available. The evidence supporting their claims and the representation of their rules and inferences were challenged. After each observation a social construction and metacognition discussion ensued. As the floating or sinking results come in each offers an opportunity to monitor thinking, evaluate the rules they had thought about and plan a new way of thinking. Nascent ideas of the compound variable schema emerge  at various times during these discussions. Mediating these ideas, allows for a more detailed monitoring of how inefficiently the single variable schema coordinated the claims students had made and the evidence of floating or sinking.

The form of representation shown in Figure 4 makes clear that the problem cannot be solved by just centring on the volume of the object or the mass of the object. This allows a metarepresentation of the two unsatisfactory claims and suggests the schema of compounding the two variables.

The normal CASE lesson could not be completed in an hour because this intense cycling through the four pillars of Cognitive Acceleration pedagogy obviously takes more time than the normal lesson plan.  I believe this leads to a significantly more productive awareness of the ways of the reasoning established through this sustained intellectual endeavour. This ensures that the students can more clearly represent their ideas to themselves and how these match the evidence. This evidence then needs to be represented in a more complex way, in this case with the schema of compound variables. Their representations are then further reinforced with the follow up card game activity used in this lesson which again uses the two dimensional spatial schema as a scaffold for the compound variable idea. Then the bridging activities lead to the importance of the density idea and can be followed up in the next lesson.

So metacognition is now seen as a set of processes of planning, monitoring and evaluating our learning and thinking.  We can then, together with our students, increase their capacity to represent the complex world and judge how good their claims are. The EEF report stresses that teachers should model metacognition. Let’s Think lesson structures allow for many opportunities to do this.


Adey, P. and Shayer, M. (2006). Really raising standards: Cognitive intervention and academic achievement. Routledge.

Demetriou, A. and Spanoudis, G. (2018). Growing Minds. Routledge: London.

Kuhn, D. (1999). A developmental model of critical thinking.  Educational Researcher, 28:16-25.

White, R., & Gunstone, R. (1992). Probing Understanding. Great Britain: Falmer Press.