Why is metacognition important in schools?

by Kate Atkins
Headteacher, Rosendale Primary School

Kate Atkins, Headteacher, Rosendale Primary School

Research from the Sutton Trust has provided schools with a detailed analysis of the most effective strategies to raise attainment and close the achievement gap. Amongst the top three is ‘metacognitive strategies’ defined by the Trust as,

“Teaching approaches which make learners think about learning more explicitly. This is usually through teaching pupils strategies to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning. Self-regulation refers to managing one’s own motivation towards learning as well as the more cognitive aspects of thinking and reasoning. Overall these strategies involve being aware of one’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner, being able to set and monitor goals and having strategies to choose from or switch to during learning activities.”

The strength of the evidence supporting the effectiveness of metacognitive strategies is high. Studies show that children make accelerated progress and that it is particularly effective for low achieving children.

The American psychologist, John Flavell, was the first to introduce the term ‘metacognition’. He argued that children’s learning would be better supported if they consciously understood the process of learning and what happens when they learn something new, so that they could control that process.

In the classroom, we can see that successful learners have a good understanding of what they do and do not know and also do not overestimate their abilities. They are persistent and are able to change strategies if something goes wrong or they are not making progress. These children are able to describe how they learn.

Struggling learners, on the other hand, tend to overestimate their abilities, they find it difficult to see how the same approach can be used in comparable situations and tend to give up when things go wrong rather than try a different approach or strategy. They do not plan or develop a strategy to complete a task and do not monitor their own progress.

Excellent classroom practitioners have always understood the need for children to become familiar with learning behaviours. When children are learning in class, they need to be able to identify the skills or processes required to complete a task. Firstly, they need to be clear about what they already know and what they still need to know. They need to think whether there is information that will be useful to them and how they find that information. If they get stuck, are there resources available to them and can they use those resources? Finally, they need to review their learning and think about their ‘next steps’.  

Target setting has always been an important factor in developing metacognition but only when the targets are set and monitored by the children. If only the class teacher takes responsibility for setting and monitoring targets, children are not managing their own learning but relying on prompts and support from the teachers. They do not develop autonomy and it is the independent application of metacognitive strategies, which is one of the key factors in improving children’s learning and attainment. Children need to be taught strategies AND given time to apply them independently.

Understanding the process of learning and how to plan an approach to a task and monitor progress is something that children can be taught. The difficulty, however, lies in developing an approach which can be consistently applied across a whole school and which allows the children to not only learn these strategies but also gives them opportunities to apply them independently.

The ReflectED approach offers schools a metacognition toolkit that develops the metacognitive skills to plan, monitor and evaluate. There are lesson plans that teach metacognitive skills and strategies such as developing memory, accompanied by regular reflecting when pupils are taught to think deeply about their learning. The approach uses digital technology to ‘shine a light’ on pupils’ reflections ensuring that the process is a collaborative one between teacher and pupil.