George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Hands-Off Teaching Cultivates Metacognition

Students learn better when their “thinking” includes thinking about the material plus how to dig in, break it apart, understand it, and build on that.

April 21, 2015

As a teacher, you put a lot of thought into how to make your class and the material as accessible and engaging as possible. You think about what you know, and how you first learned it. You think about what your students already know, and how to use that knowledge as the foundation for what you're about to teach. And, as if that's not enough, you think about how to make your content so engaging that no matter what else is happening (lunch next period, upcoming prom, or the latest social media scandal among the sophomores), your lesson will hold your students' attention. All that thought goes into a lesson, and still there are students spacing out during class or seeming to fall behind. Working so hard and still not reaching every student can be frustrating. And you have no one to blame but yourself -- you're hogging all the best learning in your classroom.

Thinking About Learning

In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed everything we know about learning in a paper called How Students Learn. In this report, 600 pages of research culminate in a single word, which the NAS identifies as the key to effective learning: metacognition. Metacognition (or thinking about thinking) is the secret to and driving force behind all effective learning. If you want your students to learn as much as possible, then you want to maximize the amount of metacognition they're doing. It's a pretty simple equation.

The only problem is that most classrooms are set up to promote metacognition in the teachers, not the students. To succeed, you need to think about your own thinking (How did I learn this? How have I taught this before? What worked and didn't work?) as well as your students' thinking (What do they know? What will keep them engaged?). However, it's far too easy for your students to kick back, disengage, and wait for you to simplify the material for them. You're like a personal trainer who says, "I'm going to help you meet all your fitness goals. Now sit back and watch me lift all the weight." Teaching is hard work -- you have to be constantly engaged and aware of your process and how to improve it. That's exactly what makes an expert learner. So share the wealth! If you really want your students to be better learners, then let them walk a mile in your shoes.

That's exactly what Eric Mazur decided to do. As a professor of physics at Harvard, Mazur was working with some of the most educated undergraduates in the world and yet, as he discovered, their lack of understanding was truly shocking. Mazur decided he needed to force his students to think more, so he made them teach each other. The change was astounding. His peer instruction approach has since grown into the flipped classroom movement, and research shows that it consistently produces better results than traditional lecture-based classrooms. No wonder! Flipping the classroom shifts the metacognitive balance toward the students. We want our students to do as much thinking as possible, and that's why the world's greatest teachers actively avoid teaching.

Shifting the Responsibility

We've seen this tactic succeed on a personal level. Ten years ago, when we started tutoring full time, we did everything we could to help our students. It was our job to make sure that they understood and succeeded. Pretty soon, we realized that our desire to help was exactly what was hurting our students the most. They knew we'd do everything we could, so they stopped doing things for themselves. Eventually, we turned our tutoring sessions around. When a student asked how something was done, we'd play dumb and say, "I don't know. We should probably look it up." The student would look it up, ask another question, and we'd say, "Hmmm. That's interesting. How can we find that out?" Again, the student would go to the book. After enough of those sessions, our students stopped bothering to ask us for the answers -- they already knew all the behaviors that would lead to understanding.

Curious whether this shift in our students was just a fluke, we began working our way through the scientific literature, and the picture quickly became clear. Today's students have incredible resources -- and a troubling lack of resourcefulness. They have brand new textbooks that they never crack open. They have the collected knowledge of the world available at the click of a mouse, but they never use it to look up things they don't know. After years of classroom lectures, students everywhere -- regardless of cultural or socioeconomic background -- had internalized the idea that students are supposed to get answers from teachers. At its core, that translates to the idea that the person in charge of their learning is someone other than them. And that's a huge problem because, ultimately, no one else can be responsible for our learning.

No matter how entertaining you make your lectures, you can't make your students pay attention. Only they can do that, and yet we fall victim to the idea that if the student isn't learning or isn’t paying attention, it's the teacher's fault. From a neuroscience perspective, that's just wrong. Yet by doing the majority of students' thinking and rushing to solve their problems, we reinforce that idea. In our experience, that has done America's students a tremendous disservice. A great education doesn't come from a teacher who thinks for you. It comes from a teacher who teaches (and pushes) you to think for yourself.

The Hands-Off Teacher

Of course, being pushed to think for yourself can initially be frustrating and emotionally uncomfortable. But we need to let America's children struggle if we want them to develop the skills to succeed on their own in the workforce of the future. And that means we all need a more sophisticated model of what makes a great teacher. We've all heard the horror stories of tenured teachers who did nothing all class period, but the reality is that a teacher who doesn't push students to figure things out for themselves isn't much better help. A great teacher doesn't teach as much as possible. A great teacher teaches as little as possible, while modeling the behaviors of how to figure something out. Perhaps it seems too obvious to say that your goal should be for students to think as much as possible during your class. But in this case, "thinking" really means thinking about the material plus how to dig in, break it apart, understand it, and build on that. It means thinking about how to constantly get better.

We know that not every teacher has the luxury of flipping his or her classroom, but here are some simple things you can do to move your students toward more metacognition:

  • At least once each class period, refuse to answer a student's question and instead get everybody to look up the answer.
  • Instead of marking exactly where the mistakes are on a test, essay, or homework assignment, tell students how many mistakes there are and challenge them to find every one.
  • Let students try planning an entire class period and recording themselves giving that lesson. The ability to teach something clearly is the best test of whether you understand it. (And there's no faster way to help them appreciate what you do!)
  • After a test, give your students the same test again, but fill it in first with actual wrong answers that students gave. As students grade this test and provide corrections (a process typically reserved for teachers), they'll have to think not only about the right way to do things, but also why someone might make each particular error.

How do your students think about their thinking?

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