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Critical Thinking

Using Metacognition to Enhance Learning in All Grades

When students use a questioning strategy to think about their own thinking, they can see how to transfer their learning to new situations.

September 17, 2021
Teacher and students having a discussion in middle school
SDI Productions

Walk into schools in Metuchen, New Jersey, and you will hear students from kindergarten through high school asking themselves questions. Why? They are being prepared to become metacognitive students and citizens. A large part of the students’ preparation is to be able to think about and think through solutions to problems that have no clear right answer—an essential social and emotional learning (SEL) competence. Examples are all around us, at all levels: cyberbullying, climate change, racism, pandemics, weather prediction, polling.

Educator and Metuchen administrator Rick Cohen and colleagues (authors of The Metacognitive Student) define metacognition as “thinking about and managing your thoughts, experiences, and what your senses are telling you.” They say that these are the questions students need to be asking to promote metacognition:

  • Select a focus: What’s the problem? What is the question? What is the task?
  • Gather information: What do we know? What do we need to know? What is similar, and what is different?
  • Brainstorm: How can we solve this problem? What are possible solutions? What can we do?
  • Evaluate: What is the best way to solve this problem? Does this make sense?
  • Plan and act: What do we do first, second, and so on? Does this work? Is this working?
  • Reflect: Did it work? How do we know? Do we need to go back and try again?

Just as the five core competencies developed by the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, are much more encompassing than they first seem to be, these questions—appropriately adapted—promote deeper learning at every age. Here are two examples, from early elementary and high school, based on the work of Cohen and his colleagues.

Ms. Rivera’s First-Grade Class

Ms. Rivera is teaching her class how to write about different things. In this lesson, the focus is on things that fly. She begins by using the metacognitive questions as a way to organize the topic. Starting off with a booklet with four blank pages, Ms. Rivera will model for the students how they can proceed. She reads a book all about things that fly. After reviewing some examples—birds, rockets, airplanes, hot-air balloons, helicopters—Ms. Rivera selects birds to teach the process.

Step 1: Focus. Get a book about things that fly—in this case, birds—and read it with the class.

Step 2: Gather information. Model the answer to the first question: What do I know about birds? The class discusses what they know—birds have feathers, they hop around when they walk, they lay eggs, they make nests, they have wings. After the discussion, she writes on page one, “Birds fly with their wings.”

Step 3: Brainstorm. Model the answer to the second question: What do I know about what birds look like? After another discussion, she completes page two: “Birds have colorful feathers, beaks, and feet with three toes.”

Step 4: Evaluate. What else do I know about birds? After another brainstorming discussion, she writes out many different answers on the board and asks students to pick two of these and copy their answers on pages three and four.

Step 5: Plan and act. Ms. Rivera asks each student to pick something else that flies, other than birds, and write their own four-page book using the bird book as an example with her guidance and that of classmates.

Step 6: Reflect. After they have finished, she asks them to reflect on what they learned, how they felt, what was easy and hard, and what they would do differently next time.

Mr. Khan’s High School Chemistry Class

The students are learning about the melting and boiling points of various elements. Here are the metacognitive guiding questions and how they could be used by high school students to investigate this topic. Ideally, small groups of students would work together, which would lead groups to approach the topic in different ways and have them all learn from one another’s explorations.

Step 1: Focus. What is the problem? What is the task being asked of me? To report on the boiling and melting points of different elements. To be clarified is whether answers are required for every element, groups of elements, etc.

Step 2: Gather Information. What do I know? What do I need to know more about to proceed? What exactly is a boiling point and melting point? Do all elements have them? Which ones don’t? Why not?

Step 3: Brainstorm. What are all places I can look for information to learn more? We need a periodic table, something about how the various elements are organized, web searches about boiling and melting points, information from our textbook.

Step 4: Evaluate. What is the best way to proceed? What makes the most sense, given the situation and constraints? How should we organize our tasks as a group? What is our timeline? How will we share information? How will we present what we learn to the class?

Step 5: Plan and act. What do I do first, second, etc.? How is this working? What changes do I need to make? How will we communicate with each other about how we are doing, problems we encounter, help that we need?

Step 6: Reflect. Did it work? How do I know? Do I need to go back and make other revisions? (Note that this is best done twice, right before final submission of the work and after feedback is received.) Did we answer the question? Did we present our information clearly? How can we improve?

Two big takeaways for me are, first, the questioning strategy indeed works as well in early as in upper grades, and second, having a metacognitive strategy they can apply to all academic and social and emotional situations helps students feel empowered, confident, and creative, and will go a long way toward preparing them to tackle difficult issues in the present and the future problems we can’t even envision.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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