Thursday, July 11, 2019

Teachers, Make Room for Metacognition

July is here and depending on where you are, you are probably either getting close to finishing up a term before a school break or you are approaching a nice long summer vacation. Either way, the future is just around the corner. This is a perfect time to think back and think forward.

Consider, if you will, having a class full of students who are equipped with an internal GPS, a guidance system that generates self-confidence. These students will be engaged, self-directed, and high functioning. They will be more likely to stick it out when they are challenged; they will be more likely to experience success.

I am describing metacognitive learners – students who have an awareness and understanding of their own thought processes, a uniquely human and empowering capability. As teachers, we can build students’ awareness of what effective readers, writers, and problem solvers do by demonstrating and talking about the strategies we use. In effect, that knowledge moves learners from the passenger seat to the drivers’ seat.

Students manifest their awareness of the processes of learning, in the form of self-talk. When undertaking a task, they coach themselves, sometimes thinking aloud, as they consider their goals; the different ways to reach them; next steps to take; their understanding or lack of it; how to get back on track; and judge their progress. People who engage in self-talk when they are focused on work are consistently found to be high achievers.

What does a metacognitive reader do?

  • They work through and successfully complete reading tasks on their own.
  • They check-in with themselves to be clear about their goals.
  • They monitor their understanding and notice the loss of meaning.
  • They use strategies they’ve learned to get back on track.
  • During and after reading, they judge their progress and assess what they have learned both from their hits and their misses.

Which student populations can benefit from these practices?

Supporting students’ use of metacognitive behaviors has been consistently effective over the many years I’ve been teaching for thinking, regardless of the age group, oral language proficiency, and academic success. The same is true whether the children are in advantaged schools or low-resource communities where students start school without the benefit of coming from literacy-rich homes. As with any area of instruction, however, it is necessary to accommodate students’ needs by adjusting the pace of instruction, the level of vocabulary we use, the examples we give, and the amount of visual and concrete materials we provide.

Teacher and student interactions that foster metacognitive behaviors

When teacher educators introduce classroom teachers to the why and how of embedding their curriculum with metacognitive teaching strategies, conversations that motivate commitment and intention, are essential. Here are two tried and true discussions that bring teachers on board:

  • Introduce this new concept by asking teachers to visualize the contrast between classroom life with students that need constant direction and re-direction and having students who are self-starters. “Paint” a portrait of all the ways self-directed students would change the dynamics of teaching and learning.
  • Develop the concept of teaching students what readers and writers do (the processes they use) as opposed to exclusively focusing on delivering and receiving information. Make the analogy with this commonly known proverb; if you give a man or woman a fish he or she will eat for a day; if you teach a man or woman to fish they will eat for the rest of their lives.
I use the lesson in the “Set the stage” blog to introduce Habits of Mind used by successful people. It describes how to guide students to (1) explore their concept of what it means to be smart and (2) learn that we can grow our intelligence. Students are told they are going to learn how to do the things that make us smarter, more intelligent. The children are asked for examples of people they think of as smart and successful, such as doctors, airplane pilots, or famous soccer players. Then they discuss the habits these people would need in order to succeed. Names are applied to the traits they describe. For example, they would have to be accurate, thorough, persistent, and flexible. (Lessons on these strategies are provided in Learning for Keeps, Koenig ). The link to the “Habits of Mind” article is a mini-course by the seminal writers on this subject, Art Costa and Bena Kallick. I highly recommend checking it out.

Create a climate that supports risk-taking – Teachers’ responses to students’ answers and original ideas, either give kids permission to think for themselves, be metacognitive and develop their sense of self-efficacy or not.

  • Welcome “wrong answers”. Teach students when we get something wrong, we get a chance to learn something we didn’t know. Instead of moving on to another student, when the child you called on gets stuck, stay with the student and coach him or her through the barrier they encountered. The “coach” link takes you to a transcript of a teacher prompting a student through his block.
  • Release responsibility after you’ve taught a strategy explicitly and the students have practiced using it. Step back and give students opportunities to initiate what they’ve learned. Look at the contrast between these 2 examples of giving students directions:

    • a) Open your books and read pp. 10 to 13. Answer the questions on page 14.
      b) We’re going to read the next 4 pages in the story. When we’re done, we are going to retell what you learned and work together to draw a picture of the way we visualize the new character that is introduced. What will you do while you are reading to help yourself understand and remember what you read? What will you do to help us draw that picture? 

  • Provide positive and specific feedback. For students to develop autonomy and self-efficacy, they have to know what they are doing well and why. They also have to know what they can do more effectively and how.

3 key teaching practices that promote metacognition and self-efficacy

Thinking aloud – This link to my last blog provides a step by step tutorial to preparing your read aloud and think aloud lessons. Thinking aloud is an excellent way to build young students’ awareness of what reading for meaning is really about. Students learn by demonstration and with daily read aloud’s and think aloud’s, they internalize the behaviors you model (e.g., predict, question, infer, visualize, synthesize message, fix-up confusion, solve word recognition problems). Beginning readers and more experienced students who are weak in reading comprehension, become accustomed to responding to text and eagerly volunteer to contribute their ideas to the read aloud. With the gradual release of responsibility, students progress from whole group work to buddy reading while thinking aloud, and finally to independent reading and note-taking. 

Explicit strategy mini-lessons – Explicit teaching lessons are designed to give students clarity and control over the execution of key strategies. It is a time for shining a light on a key strategy and unpacking its steps to demystify an unfamiliar or complex behavior within reading, writing, problem-solving and Habits of Mind. 

The “Explicit strategy mini-lesson” blog link, gives an example of a lesson on how and why we understand and remember when we organize ideas. The strategy is then applied to organizing text when reading and organizing ideas when writing.  

Processing activities – When we ask children to read with a pencil in their hand and they select a way they will respond to the text, we foster the active processing required for understanding. Students need a repertoire of reading processing behaviors. Metacognitive students select strategies they think are appropriate to the task. Some options for younger students are:

  • Drawing what they words say
  • Mapping the information with graphic organizers
    Using approximated or invented spelling, they can:
    • List the sequence of events
    • Write predictions 
    • Record questions that arise while reading

Reconceptualizing early literacy curriculum

Peter Afflerbach’s article, “Aligning Curriculum and Assessment in Early Reading Education” makes the case for teaching metacognitive behaviors to beginning readers (I would add writers) given the effect those behaviors have on motivation and self-efficacy. Early readers are not equipped with these skills; so, it is imperative that curricula model, and teach, the critical mindsets and strategies required to develop them. Failing to do so, prevents students from receiving an education aligned with early reading development. (p. 36)

When we reconceptualize early literacy curriculum in this way, teaching for metacognition is not regarded as an add-on. As such, when covering the content of the curriculum the teacher moves back and forth between talk about the subject matter and talk about how students processed it.  A student’s response is followed with phrases such as:

  • So, you were making an inference? Tell us how you did that.
  • That was a challenging sentence. Would you tell us how you figured out (a specific feature)?
  • Your writing is so well organized. Did you make a plan first using a map?

There will come a time, sooner rather than later, when teachers feel unease around the time it takes to coach and teach metacognitive (or any) strategies, That’s the time to remember they are devoting time to the processes of learning. It is time devoted to the education of the child, the reader, the writer, the problem solver, that will remain long after the details and the facts have faded. They are giving their students nothing less than access to higher-level achievement and a life-long sense of self-efficacy.

I hope this blog will be useful to you as you plan for your students’ return to your classrooms. See you in September!

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