What Is Metacognition and Why Should Teachers Be Concerned About It?

By Allison Zmuda and Bena Kallick

Educators constantly ask how they can measure the development of “soft skills.” We contend that we cannot measure these skills the same way we are measuring academic skills because they are among the hardest skills to develop.

Persisting in the face of messy problems, listening to someone else with understanding and empathy when you disagree with their point of view, and remaining open to continuous learning when you believe you should have received an “A” are all much harder compared to readily reproducing black-and-white information.

So, how do we adjust the way we observe students as they develop Habits of Mind essential for their learning?

Students must become:

1. Self-Managing

Learning how to be aware of thinking (metacognition) and how to strengthen capacity to be self-observing is critical for using good feedback for improvement. Metacognition helps to make thinking more visible.

Although we may have many observations not at the conscious level, when we are asked to put those observations into words or visuals, we find we know more than we thought. Students must be encouraged to pay attention to their planning processes:

  • What choices and decisions do they make as they plan for a particular project or work assignment?
  • How do they manage time?
  • How do they work with others?
  • What will they do when someone is absent?
  • How will they keep on track?

2. Self-Monitoring

Students must pay attention to the ways they monitor their progress as they work within a particular project.

  • How do they solicit feedback?
  • How frequently do they check against the standards by which they will measure quality and success?
  • How do they deal with feedback to make certain they are paying attention to what really matters in their projected performances?

3. Self-Modifying

Students need to be invited to reflect at the end of a project.

  • What have they learned?
  • How will that learning transfer to other situations?
  • What do they know about themselves as learners?
  • How will they modify what they did to make their performances even better than the previous ones?

Thinking about one’s own thinking — metacognition — is at the core of the Habits. Our goal is to help students be as self-observing and self-regulating as possible so they can find success in a rapidly-changing world once we are no longer there to guide them.

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