Ten Takeaways from ‘The Metacognition Handbook’ by Jennifer Webb

Okay, we need to talk about metacognition.

I think I need to be honest. I’ve been teaching 8 years and I have been through a significant shift within teaching and learning, and reaped the rewards of the changes I’ve made – and I think I’m done with new fads and overcomplicated teaching. I think we do a lot of that – overcomplicating teaching. Simplicity is key. So when people talked about metacognition, I was probably a bit offhand and dismissive, like, “yeah, sure, I do that, kids know how they learn” but I clearly shouldn’t have been. This book has transformed my attitude. Perhaps, yes, I have employed things within my own teaching and learning that encourage some metacognitive habits, but I am clearly not doing it well enough, or indeed consistently enough.

I think the problem with delivering or encouraging metacognition – in a school, department, classroom, or in the micro aspect of with an individual student – is that it is a concept which is incredibly intangible. It’s about thought processes, really, the mechanisms and habits we employ as we learn, and these are so hard to simply “do” as a teacher – because in reality they are things that we want students to just “do”. The reality is they won’t – we need to teach these habits, encourage students to use them, and model how and when to employ these habits. I think I get it now- mainly thanks to this book – so here are my ten key things I have taken away. But this is just a summary. Seriously, get the book, it’s £11.15 (at the time of writing) on Amazon, which I would pay over again to be honest.

1. Baby bird vs Amina

Webb begins with a classic example of students beginning an independent assessment – and the constant simple questions they ask (“Do I write in paragraphs?”). She calls this ‘baby bird syndrome’ which she then compares to a student, Amina, who is independent, “self-motivated and actively aware of herself as a learner”. I have taught a lot of Aminas over the years, and they often get grades which surprise you – I do wonder how they acquire their habits. I think too often we put it down to “hard work” – but it is far more complex than this. As Webb explains, we need all of our students to be more like Amina, more self-aware and reflective. It’s a powerful way to start!

2. The areas of metacognition

Webb then splits up metacognition into three distinct areas: knowledge, regulation, and motivation. For me, the areas of metacognition that I have read about often focuses on the idea of regulation – the plan, monitor, evaluate cycle suggested by the EEF – and has therefore missed out the key elements of knowledge (knowledge of self, strategies, the task) and motivation (self-belief, wanting to achieve etc). By including these two elements, and then giving practical examples of how to cover all three, metacognition started to get a little clearer for me!

3. Internalised questions

There’s an excellent diagram with an example of a student asking internal questions before they begin an essay. I’ve always thought that I’ve modelled metacognitive questions when I’ve been modelling a response before, but this series of questions, and example answers, has made me realise that I’m not doing it well enough… and although I am going through a lot of these questions when I write an essay, I’m not modelling them explicitly. It strikes me now, as I write this, how difficult it is to model metacognitive habits successfully as a teacher – how many things are going through our minds as we teach? How can we balance that with the modelling of the learning process alongside actually modelling? How can I concentrate on that kid at the back, the lawn mower outside, a random noise in the corridor and try and explain what happens in my mind as I tackle a task as an expert to people who are novices? Maybe there’s a great argument for pre-recorded modelling here…!

4. Treat it as a framework

I think when people say they “already do metacognition” my toes curl, because no element of teaching can just be something we do… I do a lot of modelling, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m doing it well. Webb raises this, and tells us that metacognition isn’t something we do, but more, ‘we must see metacognition as a framework around everything else we do’ – this was my threshold concept moment (!) for understanding metacognition… because really this is the problem – it’s a teaching tool but it isn’t, because it needs to frame everything we do. Treating it as a bolt on, or a new pedagogical thing kind of misses the point. It has to become part of everything that we do. And that’s tough.

5. A process for metacognition

Webb explains her reasons for preferring Michalsky’s approach (comprehension, connection, strategy, reflection) over the generally employed EEF process (plan, monitor, evaluate). The example provided for her preferred approach made much more sense to me as a process students can use in order to actually improve how they tackle a task, rather than an add on thing they do (or often claim they already do). I would like to think, when writing an exam response, a lot of my students already plan (it’s easy to see evidence of this), monitor (I see this when they write, they tick off their plan as they work, return and re-read and edit as they write) and evaluate at the end of the task. Comprehension and connection give students a process which makes them think in a metacognitive way, rather than just planning their response. It makes them strategise, consider prior learning and approaches, and prepare properly for the task. It’s something I plan to research more.

6. Exam feedback examples

We do exam wrappers at my school. There we go again, “we do that already” – tick! I’m just not entirely convinced they are done properly, or students really get enough out of them, in my classroom. I think it’s – like a lot of things can become – a bolt on, only done in big assessments, rather than a way of getting students to think differently about how they execute independent tasks. Using the Michalsky approach to structure the way students think about a response works well for me, and the example responses given helped to offer clarity for me of what I should be expecting from students. I have never clearly modelled what I want an exam wrapper to look like, the level of detail I expect, the types of questions students should be asking themselves. It’s time I do.

7. Modelling – a work review

So I think, think (!) that I’m alright at modelling. And I always felt (before reading this book) that this was my area of strength in terms of metacognition. I model the approach to exams by breaking down each step – “what do we read first?” “What are we planning on highlighting?” But Webb offers some suggestions for the final stage of reflection which I think are both practical and ideal for developing students’ metacognitive habits. The suggestion of getting them to explicitly list the changes they have made makes perfect sense, as well as getting them to annotate with any further queries and things they still aren’t sure of, enabling the teacher to address these issues rather than allow these concerns to continue on to the next assessment.

8. Making metacognitive talk internal

I mentioned in idea 3 about internalised questions, but Webb later elaborates on the process of getting students prepared enough to go through these questions without support. There are a range of suggestions of how to make students go from external (out loud, shared, perhaps prompted) to private (out loud, prompted, but to themselves) to internal (metacognitive questions become natural part of the learning process) talk. These are the processes Amina, mentioned in idea 1, completes habitually, and something that we can think is innate, or natural, to certain students. Perhaps for some, it is easier than others, but I think there are ways to guide students towards this type of thinking – lots of suggestions are made in the book, and I plan to give them a go!

9. Case studies: weaving strategies

In idea 4 I explained Webb’s suggestion of treating metacognition as a framework, rather than an add on, and the best way to understand this later on in the book, was reading the various case studies from current teachers. They explain how they have employed metacognitive strategies in class, but these various things relate to all the basics of good teaching: retrieval practice, modelling, questioning. The metacognitive approaches weave together all of the elements of teaching, but the best kind of teaching here ensures metacognition is a part of everything we already do. It’s a big deal. I can see it being difficult. But I think I get it now – why the EEF see metacognition as so important – but also, why it will not be something that transforms the teaching and learning of our schools. Because it’s going to be hard, because it needs to be long term, and a lot of teachers – including experienced ones – need to reconsider the way they frame everything they do. I know I need to do that. I’m excited for September so I can take up the challenge!

10. A CPD programme for the long haul

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of teaching and learning in a school, how it can be delivered, how it can be improved. It’s not my role, and I’m not sure it’s the job I want, but I have thought a lot about who delivers CPD (my tweets from a few months ago discussed why often T+L leads seem to be on the leadership team, and why this might not be the best approach – thanks to those who engaged in this discussion!). Webb, in an entire chapter devoted to CPD, presents an incredible case for the pitfalls and mistakes made by many CPD programmes – and how, even as teachers, those who love learning, we do not utilise our understanding of learning when developing our own profession. Maybe I need a CPD session with some retrieval, or modelling. I probably do… Her thoughts here just made me stop reading and think “oh, dear” about current CPD programmes in schools, and I can’t help but hope that her next book will be about this in more detail. If you are in charge of teaching and learning, read this chapter.

Thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts on the book either on here or over on Twitter, – Lauralolder

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