The Metacognition era begins…


by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about our thinking. More specifically, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about student thinking. Serving in a high-poverty school where students too often greet us several years behind grade-level, teachers and principals are perpetually peeling the proverbial onion for any keen piece of insight or instructional strategy on how to expedite the student learning process and, almost equally, how to make this process more enjoyable, for everyone.

Recently, I’ve found myself in an enlightened situation where I seem to have the classroom equivalent of a courtside seat watching an all-star teacher slam dunk teaching and learning. As my school district continues its surge towards a forward-thinking blended learning initiative, one teacher in my academy has grabbed this electronic bull by its digital horns, making me an avid believer and vocal advocate in the process. I’ll table the topic of blended learning for a later post but it’s worth mentioning here because it’s proved to be a conduit between centennial* learning styles and the role teachers play in how to better help them think.

Picture this

 Interior Maplewood classroom – day

Students enter class, swiftly grabbing numbered laptops and routinely following practiced procedures with nonchalant familiarity. There’s a bellringer illuminated on a state-of-the-art Smartboard. The directive guides students to, a fun, pop-culture-based portal where students sharpen grammar skills. As students work at their own pace, those who finish quickly segue seamlessly to item two on the day’s agenda, constructive response questions found in Google Classroom. Once here, students toggle back-and-forth between selected reading passages and their writing responses.

There’s little direct instruction during this time, as the teacher occasionally addresses the whole group but mainly circulates – using proximity to prompt focus while ensuring students feel supported. It is while circulating the teacher eases upon a student who is clearly stuck –

 Two words are typed on the student’s laptop screen:

 INSERT: “I can’t”

 RETURN TO SCENE: The teacher slides-up a seat alongside the clearly frustrated student, his shoulders now slumped, his brow furrowed. Today’s lesson in metacognition begins…

 What happened next in that little slice of classroom cinema is what prompted me to write this post: A frustrated student, attempting to utilize the technology he was born with, finds himself clearly incapable of simply getting past understanding the prompt itself.

For context, this is an English class so a didactic approach, which may very well serve the breakdown of an algebraic equation, is of no use here. Instead, the teacher shifts the thinking from the content at hand (Gatsby) – pulling the student away from the constructive response quagmire – choosing instead to hone-in on the student’s cognitive barriers to understanding the prompt. This instructional shift from content to process, called like a QB issuing an audible at the line of scrimmage, is much more complex than the 25 words in the previous sentence does it justice. Getting students to think about their own thinking, identifying cognitive roadblocks before further analyzing why they are roadblocks at all, is like asking a teenager to surrender his or her cellphone: frustration mounts, anxiety sets-in, possible heart palpatations. The student’s inner-modem defaults to learned helplessness mode, a slumped-shoulder sigh before a quick toggle to Temple Run so he can experience some success in order to boost an instant dopamine fix.

Herein lies an undeniable challenge all educators face: We so desperately want our students to understand, while simultaneously feeling the immense sense of urgency due to continuous benchmark assessments, that more often than not we’re guilty of rushing solutions or explanations instead of allowing the time it takes to critically think through a problem. The aforementioned scenario rings so true that we’ve literally created a cohort of students whose power-save mode is set for 90 seconds, with anything taking longer to figure-out resulting in a temporary shutdown.

Too often our immediate response is the path of least resistance, blaming the students’ lazy, indifferent even apathetic nature towards school. However, this argument loses steam quickly as we analyze man’s innate motives to survive, stemming from curiosity-hardwiring and a predisposition to discover new things. Basically, it’s our natural instinct to learn and we’re designed to walk about and get it. Naturally, we side-step and target teachers, who stand as low-hanging fruit in education’s scapegoat skeet shoot. Teachers aren’t engaging, teachers don’t differentiate, teachers are out-of-touch – Admit it, you’ve heard it before, some of you have even said it yourself. Yet, the slow realization is that the standardization system that has been meticulously constructed over the past 20 years has ultimately curbed instructional design while perpetuating the mundane, drill-and-kill test-prep pedagogy found at the root of learned helplessness. This academic apocalypse, in turn, myth busts the teacher-as-target argument, as clearly teachers have an airtight alibi in the killing of education.

student thinking

Embrace the power of Metacognition!

Ironically, as fate would have it, teachers play the role of hero in an almost Joseph Campbell-inspired tale of redemption, lassoing misfiring synapses, corralling them towards connections, all while keeping skeptical students engaged long enough for a fraction of success to take hold. The tactic now becomes helping the student better understand their own learning style and processes. At first mention this may ring cliché, as any teacher will tell you she’s tired of hearing students proclaim, “This sucks – I’m a visual learner!” And while that may very well be true for most students, seeing as humans have a preponderance to visual stimulation over the rest of the senses, what we’re talking about here goes far beyond a preference for graphic organizers over lengthy lectures.

We’re now scratching the surface of neuro- and behavioral science. I won’t pretend to be an expert on either subject but any educator worth his or her salt understands the correlation between the two and would be remiss not to further probe the research and data as to their impact and effects on student learning.

I will, however, nudge you towards John Medina’s Brain Rules, as this brain-based tell-all is currently on my can’t-put-down list. Medina’s assertion that “We must do a better job of encouraging lifelong curiosity” speaks to our innate motivation to separate from all other life forms by continually questioning ourselves and the world around us. This affirms our duty as educators to embrace metacognitive teaching practices as a means of both building success skills (critical thinking) and reinforcing resiliency in order to combat the learned helplessness plague.

Furthermore, our approach to metacognition and facilitating students through the arduous task of learning about themselves and understanding how our own thinking can be manipulated pushes into more advanced psychology, even going so far as to tap into famed psychiatrist Carl Jung’s Shadow Self Theory. When teachers begin directly helping students work through cognitive barriers, both conscious and the unavoidable subconscious, a byproduct is the acceleration of once before stagnated brain maturity, advancing students towards an understanding of self, which, in turn, positively impacts a perceived sense of belonging and, ultimately, a push towards self-actualization – being their best.

Granted, I’ve gone on record as to the Underdog nature of today’s teachers, encompassing the life-changing work and tireless efforts they have committed their lives toward. Toggling our teaching approaches between both learning content versus analyzing process is just another example of why today’s teachers deserve the respect and admiration that’s gone missing the past few decades. Yet in true Underdog fashion, the passionate work continues – Now let’s rewire some synapses through Metacognition!

*Centennial: the term for students born around the turn of the century.