George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

3 Ways to Get Teens Thinking Metacognitively

Your classroom can provide a safe harbor for teens during a year of upheaval—use this opportunity to impart metacognitive skills they’ll use throughout their lives. 

December 17, 2020
RichLegg / iStock

In the current climate, when “fact can blur with fiction” and “science can blur with wishes,” students need to engage in deep, meaningful learning that goes beyond simply being exposed to challenging content. They need help making sense of the complex circumstances they’re living through, write educators Bena Kallick and Giselle O. Martin-Kniep for ASCD’s In Service blog, and they need tools and practice coping with the “cognitive dissonance” they’re experiencing daily as they encounter “content that challenges their assumptions and beliefs,” and face unprecedented levels of disruption in their lives.

“Deeper learning insists that we develop the critical and creative skills that help us to search for what is true, listen to one another with understanding and empathy, and unpack problems when confronted by complex and ambiguous situations,” Kallick and Martin-Kniep write.

For middle and high school students in particular, whether they’re learning remotely or in person, this starts with a classroom that provides a “psychologically safe environment that is open to diverse perspectives,” the authors note. But the deeper work here lies in building in teens the metacognitive skills to begin thinking of themselves as the agents of their own learning process—deepening their understanding of their own role in classroom communities, moving them from a passive to active role as academic learners, and connecting their lives to meaningful contributions outside the classroom.

Contributing Members of a Classroom Community

Getting kids to step back and think about their roles and responsibilities as members of a classroom community starts with educators intentionally setting up the conditions—through structured processes that offer opportunities for “student self-discovery and inquiry around worthy content”—for trusting relationships to take root and flourish.

High school geometry teacher Amanda Christian, for example, used Flipgrid to model how students might introduce themselves. She filmed herself talking about her experiences during the pandemic, described what she loves about geometry, and expressed her expectations for the school year, before asking students to make their own personal statement. “This set the stage for a learning environment that promised to be thoughtful, sensitive, personal, and academically challenging,” the authors write.

Another way to get students thinking about their roles within the classroom is through a get-to-know-you survey. Personal survey questions might include options like “What would you like your friends to say about you?” and “What would you like me to know about you?” Academic survey questions could include questions like “What are you looking forward to learning this year?” and “What is the easiest, and hardest, part of school for you?” Once students complete the survey, encourage them to share results with the class or in small groups, if they feel comfortable doing so.

The goal is to encourage students  to “think intentionally about what supports them and their peers as learners, what they want to read or learn, how they want to structure their studying, and how they can process and demonstrate learning,” Kallick and Martin-Kniep suggest. The exercise may also serve as the starting point for a broader classroom conversation about students’ social responsibilities toward their peers, to the class, school, and even their communities outside of school.

Thinking About Their Academic Strengths and Weaknesses

When students understand what’s expected of them, and have the tools and information to monitor and improve their academic progress, it builds their sense of agency and improves academic outcomes. Further, when teachers offer students choices for how to show their learning, it deepens their investment in their own learning.

One way to do this is by offering brief diagnostic or baseline assessments—short quizzes, or graphic organizers where students identify what they already know and what they’d like to learn about a subject—to help students “uncover what they know and can do.”  Teach students to use the results from formative assessments you assign as a tool to help them self-monitor and adjust their course of action over the school year. These tools can be especially productive when “students are at the helm and can assess their understanding and skill attainment to determine their progress and what they need to improve,” write Kallick and Martin-Kniep. You might consider using this opportunity to give students a set of prompts to get them thinking about their study habits: How do they prepare for a test or track their progress during larger projects with multiple due dates? Do they put away their phones when they’re doing homework? Do they use a planner to stay organized and on top of important due dates? What are the conditions that help them learn best?

Finally, to further encourage student accountability, the authors suggest asking students to “assess their own and each other’s work against criteria they have co-developed, asking students to translate the standards into their work, and helping  them annotate and sort work against different levels of quality.” For a more individual task, Scott Wright, a 6th grade teacher, created a self-assessment checklist for literacy standards he expected his students to master, then asked students to “use each standard as a goal statement and score themselves on how well they are doing,” write Kallick and Martin-Kniep.

Reflecting on Their Role in Communities Outside of School

A fundamental priority should be to nurture students’ abilities to think critically and deeply about life outside of school, engaging them in addressing real world problems.

To get her students to think about and engage with their communities, but also to more deeply connect her classroom content to the outside world, 8th grade English teacher Cathleen Beachboard created a “community problems bank.” The bank is a tightly curated, standards-aligned list she creates of local problems her students can tackle using classroom content and tools to merge “the best aspects of service learning, project-based learning, and growth mindset,” writes Beachboard. “You can use the problems bank to teach a concept to the entire class, or you might allow students to form groups and select their own standard-aligned problems to try to solve during or after a unit of study,” says Beachboard. Give students structure by providing a detailed planning sheet to guide them through the “design thinking process to generate solutions.”

Teachers usually have required standards and curriculum to follow, but teachers also have some agency and responsibility when it comes to deciding what content to teach their students, write Kallick and Martin-Kniep.  Focusing on “larger outcomes that will prepare students with the essential skills for problem-solving, innovating, and designing possibilities that address future challenges,” needs to be at the center of the middle and high school years. “The clarity that stems from a commitment to such outcomes promotes students’ capacity to take a critical and discerning stance when confronted with complex issues that require distinguishing fact from opinion, or separating emotional wishes from science,” the authors conclude.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Assessment
  • Critical Thinking
  • Student Engagement
  • Student Voice
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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