Q: What is metacognition?

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A: Metacognition is thinking about thinking. It’s a term thrown around by a lot of people … because it’s so important.

Metacognition is the ability to think about what you do to accomplish something. It comes from experiences you have – “I need to write this down so I don’t forget”, “I’ll just ignore that so I can concentrate.” By understanding your own thinking, you can choose a strategy or approach to help yourself. Metacognition is about understanding that you can remember as well as forget and that you can do some things on your own and need help with others. It’s knowing when you know and understand something and when you don’t.

It’s also about how you might learn best. For example, you might decide to practice an activity for only 20 minutes because you learned it’s gets too frustrating after that. You learn strategies that make it easier for you to understand, remember and use what you learn.  

Metacognition has an emotional component. That’s because it involves your beliefs about how or what you learn best. You might say to yourself, “I’m really good at learning words” or “I’m not good at maths.” It also includes your beliefs about how you learn best – “If I keep repeating this over to myself, I’ll remember it” or “It’s going to take me a long time to figure this out.” These bits of metacognition can ‘color’ how you think about some things. You might have been frustrated by some kinds of activities in the past. That’ll change your attitude to them and mean you have to pull in extra metacognitive strategies to counteract them. 

As we develop our metacognition, we begin to understand that other people don’t all think the same way. That means we understand that we have to adapt how we explain things and how we check their understanding.   

The video below gives a fast (less than 2 minute) overview of metacognition. The striking thing about the description is how metacognition involves all the key executive functions. You have to think about how to plan and organize your work. You have to be aware of things that might keep you from doing your best work (inhibitory control) and how to watch out for it (self-monitoring). It’s important to learn how you remember best (working memory is involved) and to change strategies  if they’re not working out (cognitive flexibility).

In spark*, we teach children to be more aware of what they do and how they do it. This includes thinking about their self-regulation, including awareness of need and resilience.

Ways you can help?

Probably the simplest thing you can do is to talk about what you’re thinking. Think out loud!

“Hmm, what do I need to do here? Oh right, I need to get some … and don’t forget the …”
“Oh gosh, I forgot about the … I’ll write a note to myself so I can remember.”
“I’ve got to remember that phone number. I’ll write it down, make a picture in my head and say it over and over.”
“I need to make an appointment to get y hair cut. I’ll call right now before I forget.”

The possibilities are endless. The things you talk about will help your child learn about thinking about thinking. Prompt children to do the same thing – “Hmm, what do you need to do to get that done?”, “How can you help yourself remember?”, “What’s another way to do that?”   

Here’s a short video giving an overview of metacognition

Photo by Pietro Tebaldi on Unsplash

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