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Metacognition: What’s all the fuss?

by Shirley Larkin.

What does metacognition look like? And how can we facilitate it?

Try a thought experiment. Turn your mind to think about your own memory. Is it a good memory? Can you compare it to someone else’s? Can you compare within yourself eg. I have a good memory for faces but not for names. Ask yourself how you remember best. Does it depend on what you are trying to remember. Think about short term and long term memory. Don’t conjure up a memory, just focus on memory itself. When you have had enough come back to reading.

If you did the above you have just experienced the shift in thinking we call metacognition. Metacognition is thinking about our own cognitive processes. So we turn our thoughts inward to what is in our mind rather than what is in the world.

The cognitive processes are: thinking, knowing, believing, guessing, imagining, remembering, understanding, attention, concentration, perception.

But of course we can’t see people make this shift in thinking. We can only interpret what people are thinking from what they say or what they do. So if we want to develop better metacognition in the classroom we need to provide activities that require students to shift their thinking to the meta-level. We also need to have some way of being able to see this shift happen.

We know that activities that are complex, open-ended, with no one right answer, which are novel and authentic are more likely to require this shift in thinking than simpler, familiar and repetitive tasks. We don’t need to be metacognitive all of the time. Tasks become automated for a reason eg consider reading, driving, walking. But making decisions, taking account of different perspectives, solving complex open ended problems do require a shift in thinking. We can use our metacognitive knowledge of how we think best to help us with such tasks. We can also monitor our progress and where necessary change the way we are thinking, drawing on strategies that we know have helped us in the past.

So to facilitate metacognition we first need to provide the right kinds of activities. Secondly we need to show students what metacognition is by modelling it. Thirdly we need to equip students with the language to talk about their own thinking. Fourthly we need to consider the classroom environment and turn it into a space where the focus is on good thinking rather than only good answer.

Biography: Dr. Shirley Larkin is a senior lecturer at Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter. She has researched metacognition since 1999. You can see her profile and contact information here, if you would like to get in touch:


Shirley researches and writes about metacognition, self-regulated learning and thinking skills extensively. For a recent publication written for primary school teachers see Metacognition, Worldviews and Religious Education.

Prof. Daniel Mujis on the Research Behind Ofsted’s New Inspection Framework

On 18th October we welcomed Ofsted’s Head of Research, Daniel Mujis, to talk about the concept of ‘quality of education’, discussing research into pedagogy, teacher effectiveness and how this relates to student outcomes – but also how these are insufficient indicators of quality of education.

He discussed the wide body of research into the concept of ‘teacher effectiveness’ – which is often cited e.g. by this Sutton Trust document. This an excerpt from one of Daniel’s slides:

  • There is clear evidence that the effectiveness of individual teachers has a significant impact on student outcomes. Explains up to 75% of classroom level variance in pupil performance
  • If one takes two pupils with identical background (SES, gender, …) and test scores at beginning of year, the pupil taught by the most effective teacher will score 25% higher at the end of the year than the pupil taught by the least effective teacher (Muijs & Reynolds, 2001).

We also know that the quality of teaching is more important for pupils disadvantaged by socioeconomic background, for lower achieving pupils and for pupils at risk.

Of course, trying to pin down exactly what characterises ‘effective’ teachers is more problematic. Teaching is obviously a dynamic, interpersonal process which resists simple quantification. However, there are some clear indicators of what ‘effective practice’ might look like which highlight the particular benefits of: direct instruction, metacognition, classroom climate and relationships (warm but learning-focused), feedback and assessment (how do we make sure that assessment is built into and informs learning, that feedback is effective).

Recognising the deformative impact that Ofsted has previously had on school performance measures (creating ‘Ofsted’ lessons and criteria matched closely to perceived Ofsted grading criteria), Daniel went on to discuss why focusing simply on pedagogy – as the research discussed above does – is not sufficient when considering quality of education. Instead, he argued, we need to consider not only howsomething is taught but also whatis taught. Here’s another excerpt from his slides:

  • What if we use good pedagogy, but don’t have good subject knowledge?
  • What if we use good pedagogy to teach harmful content?
  • What about what happens outside of the classroom?
  • What do lessons mean in isolation?
  • Can we effectively teach poor content?
  • There is a relationship between teacher subject knowledge and teaching behaviours/strategies
  • But we can teach poor content well!
  • What do we need to do to ensure the what, as well as the how of teaching are addressed?
  • What if we teach harmful content?

Daniel discussed how the interaction between what happens in the lesson and outside the classroom is also important, and also the limitations of observing a snapshot of learning in a single lesson, and the importance of how learning builds in sequences over time. All of this, was used to justify and explain the Ofsted focus on the curriculum – why curriculum matters.

He also touched on the contested issue of ‘cultural capital’ – offering these views…

Cultural capital:

  • The symbolic elements (knowledge, tastes) we possess, and typically share with others
  • Provides us with more or less access and social mobility in a stratified system
  • Cultural capital is not equally shared, but valued forms are more present in some social groups than in others
  • Education can help to provide what is not present in the home, which can help provide social mobility

But we will write about Cultural Capital in a separate post…

Curriculum views and debates

The current focus on the notion of ‘curriculum’, what ‘curriculum’ means, ways of understanding and designing curricula and ‘knowledge’ shows no sign of abating. If you feel the need to broaden your perspectives two online publications are particularly useful:

  1. Here we have a special edition of the BERA Blog (views from the British Educational Research Association) on ‘Reimagining a curriculum for teacher education’. Blog posts are a maximum of 500 words so these are short opinion pieces which often link to research articles. This is my personal favourite – ‘What do teachers need to know to be able to teach‘, questioning assumptions around the relationship of theory and practice.
  2. This special edition of Impact, the journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, includes slightly longer (but still short and accessible) articles again offering a range of provocative views. Here’s the opening of Christine Counsell’s article (one of many in this edition which are open access), “Curriculum is all about power. Decisions about what knowledge to teach are an exercise of power and therefore a weighty ethical responsibility. What we choose to teach confers or denies power. To say that pupils should learn ‘the best that has been thought and said’ is never adequate. Start the conversation, and questions abound: ‘Whose knowledge?’; ‘Who decides on “best”?’”

Research-Practitioner Partnerships: the ‘best’ educational research?

 In August I was lucky enough to attend the conference of the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (https://www.earli.org/). One of the most thought-provoking presentations was given by Judy Parr and Rebecca Jesson from the University of Auckland, who were reflecting on the lessons they’ve learned from fifteen years of research. The focus was on how to create research-practitioner partnerships between universities and schools which made the most of the different experience held by researchers and teachers, and they placed particular emphasis on the trust that needs to be built between the different partners.

There is a strong DfE drive at the moment to ensure that teaching is ‘evidence informed’ (see this report from 2017). There is a plethora of labels for how teachers might engage with evidence and research: evidence-based, research-led, research-informed, research-inspired – all with individual nuances but all getting at the idea that as teachers we should be drawing on, selecting from and using available evidence to support and develop our teaching. Parr and Jesson’s work takes this notion of the evidence or research-engaged teacher further, highlighting that research should take place with schools not just in schools.

Their projects have all placed teachers at the heart of the research process – not seeing them as just research participants, but as true partners in the research, involved at all stages. They have identified seven key ‘decision points’ for such partnerships:

  1. Negotiating a shared focus – deriving research questions that identify common concerns and address the needs of both partners
  2. Devising pragmatic yet robust research designs to answer those questions
  3. Selecting or designing ‘smart’ data collection tools and processes particularly for assessment of student learning and classroom practice
  4. Analysing and interpreting findings of initial and ongoing data, engaging with teacher’s theories and interpretations
  5. Deciding on the focus of interventions or changes of practice
  6. Monitoring outcomes
  7. Sustaining widespread adoption – ensuring understanding of the essence of effective practices.

Of course, this approach to research in education has major practical implications in terms of teacher time. Few teachers currently have the space and energy to learn about and develop research projects alongside the intensive everyday demands of teaching. Parr & Jesson benefitted from generous national funding which provided release time for teachers, as well as payments to allow travel, conferences and events which brought teachers together to explore these issues. This is all at the polar end of the spectrum of research-engagement to the front piece of the EEF Toolkit with it’s completely decontextualized, unnuanced summary of evidence (which is not to say that the more detailed EEF reports aren’t useful). It’s also fundamentally opposed to the preferred ‘Randomised Control Trial’ approach, which requires teachers to be ‘blind’ participants rather than active partners. However, if we agree that ‘evidence-informed’ or ‘research-inspired’ teaching is important, and that teachers should engage with research deeply and critically, I think I would be hard pressed to define a better model than that offered by Parr and Jesson. The problem now is finding funding which will allow us to do it!

But what do you think?

  • Should this kind of research participation be a priority for schools?
  • If so, which teachers or school leaders should be involved?
  • Is this requiring too much of teachers, expecting them to go beyond their core remit?
  • Have you benefitted as a teacher from conducting your own research?


See more about Parr and Jesson.

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