‘Metacognition’… Meta – what?

4 December 2016

If you look near the top of the graph that distills the EEF Toolkit, you will find that metacognition sits proudly high amongst the approaches that have the most positive impact on learning:


Not only that, it is a cheap approach to applying evidence to enhance the learning of our students. But there is one small problem: How do you get the theory of metacognition into action? What does it look like and sound like and how do we engage in a concerted strategy to improve it in our schools and classrooms? 

Due to the popular blogs by our Headteacher, John Tomsett, such as this on doing GCSE Maths questions, or this on preparing students for their examinations, we are sometimes asked to visit Huntington to see metacognition in action. The issue here is that metacognition is no show of glossy posters or contrived lesson observation checklists, but it is instead an integral component of most learning and part of the fabric of all classroom instruction.

Dylan Wiliam provides an excellent explanation of metacognition here:

It is thinking about thinking, it is part of the many mental strategies undertaken by experts in any subject and it is essential to the self-control needed to work hard. Due to the nature of metacognition proving so multi-faceted and complex, we need to unpick the threads and lay it bare in our school context. We need to evaluate where it is happening and shine a light on best practice.

On a simple level, metacognition is a three step process undertaken by students. It is when they 1) Plan their learning, 2) Monitor their learning and 3) Evaluate their learning. Unlocking what this looks like and sounds like in our respective subjects is the key to understanding metacognition.

Just some teaching strategies that could come under the umbrella of metacognition include:

  • Shared writing
  • Live mocks
  • Devising checklists 
  • Paired planning
  • Questioning
  • DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection time) in response to feedback 
  • Exam wrappers
  • Revision strategies. 

School leaders, CPD leads and teachers are left to translate the theory into coherent action. We are left with some pertinent questions:

  • What is the existing understanding of metacognition amongst teachers and students?
  • What metacognitive strategies are being undertaken in school successfully and how can you shine a light on this best practice? 
  • How can you best implement a new metacognitive strategy and evaluate its impact on the learning of students?
  • How can you mobilise the messages about effective metacognition and self-regulation so that students, and their parents, can support with the likes of homework and exam revision? 


Interested in finding out more? Look out for our imminent evidence-based training for CPD leaders, Research-leads, middle leaders and more on ‘Leading Learning’, which provides a programme of evidence-based support for you to translate the research evidence behind approaches such as metacognition, and put them to action in your school, or across groups of schools. 


Image via Creative Commons: NICHD https://www.flickr.com/photos/nichd/16672073333/in/photostream/

Posted on 4 December 2016
Posted in: Evidence
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