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Interview: Annmarie Sullivan Palincsar

Excerpts from an interview with Annmarie Sullivan Palincsar, Jane and Charles Walgreen Professor of Literacy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Taped September 17, 2001

On metacognition

If we think that one important purpose of schooling is to prepare children to be lifelong learners, then metacognition is an important key to that, because when we talk about teaching children to be metacognitive, we're talking about helping them to become aware of themselves as learners and, very importantly, to take control of their own activity as learners. So those are the kinds of skills that really will enable a student or a child to be a lifelong learner.

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There was a time in the early '70s when we assumed that children didn't become metacognitive or couldn't engage in strategic behavior until they were older, like maybe eleven, twelve years of age. But, in the thirty years since then we've learned through research, for example, that Henry Welman has done or Judy Deloche has done, that very young children, even children as young as three and four years of age have been shown to be very strategic in their learning. So, for example, Judy Deloche does work where she would hide an object and one group of three year olds will be told "Just stay with this," let's say it's a dog, "Stay with the dog until I come back." A second group of children were told, "Remember where the dog is so that you can tell me when I come back." And children in that condition arrange, well, they did a number of things – they would point to it repeatedly, or they would put their hand where they knew the dog was hidden, or they would keep gazing at it, as compared to children who just thought they were there to, to just be with the dog. So, that would be evidence that children can be very purposeful in their activity, even as young as three.

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I think this issue of developmentally appropriate is a bit challenging, because it's not the case that there are strategies that are more or less developmentally appropriate so much as there are particular kinds of activities that you would engage children in that will be more accessible to children than others. And so it's really the, the strategies are very much informed by, well, what are the demands of the learning activity. And then that should dictate what are the ways in which children can be taught to be planful or what approaches can they take, what methods of problem solving can, can they be taught. So it's not a question of developmentally appropriate strategies, but rather developmentally appropriate activities which then call up particular kinds of strategies.

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[looking at the segment in "Thinking About Thinking" featuring Kendra Hearn]

Even mind mapping or semantic mapping or networking has been used with very young children, so I thought that certainly her instruction reflected a number of very sophisticated kinds of ways of approaching text. So, asking the students to really be critical about another expert's writing – that's probably not something you would expect of very young children. Being able to have fairly unguided exchanges between peers about their writing – again, that would probably have to be much more supported or scaffolded if you were working with younger children.

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Let me give you an example. That's a potentially helpful way to think about it. So, question asking, teaching children how to ask questions of themselves as they're learning is a very prominent strategy, and it works very effectively. So what might be reflective of changes with development is that with very young children the focus of the question might be on such things as trying to self-test – do I remember who these characters are or what problem they're trying to solve, or the sequence of events in this particular story. As students hit the middle grades then the nature of the questions would be more what inferences can I draw, what, what is the relevance of this information to a problem that I'm trying to solve. When we talk about high school students, what is it that wewant them to be self-questioning? Well, we want them to be really critiquing it, you know, what stand is this author taking? Do I agree with this stand? Is the evidence that the author has provided sufficient to support the stand that the author has taken?

In the very, very basic and fundamental strategy, self-questioning can look really quite different across the grade level. But at its core, it looks more similar than different.

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The study of metacognition first was written about in the early 1970s. John Flavel and Ann Brown, both of which, both of whom were doing research on what's referred to as meta-memory – how is it that children use strategies to help themselves to remember and organize ideas in such a fashion that they remember. So it actually began with memory research. And interestingly, it began mostly with youngsters who had pretty serious learning difficulties – children in fact who were identified as mentally retarded. So one of the hypotheses was that what distinguished these youngsters from other children is the fact that they didn't engage in metacognitive activity. They didn't have this awareness of themselves as learners or these, array of approaches or activities that would help them to be more successful in their learning activity.

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That early research on metacognition really made very salient the issue or the importance of keeping present for children what is the purpose for which we're learning. What are the goals of the kind of activity that we're engaged in? And what are some ways in which you, as an individual learner, can influence what happens to you in the classroom? So it's not been uncommon in instructional practice for children to really be somewhat at sea as to why they're doing something. Teachers may not be very explicit about why is it that we're learning this, or what is it that I expect you to do as you're writing, or reading, or performing this math problem, or doing the scientific inquiry. So making visible for children what the purpose of the learning activity is, and then, focusing on the process, not the products of learning, but really shifting the attention to what are the ways in which you can interact with this task and be successful. There are, there are many other responses I could give you. Another important influence I think is the ways in which teachers now try to be more explicit about their thinking as adult learners, as expert learners. They try to make transparent for students what are the processes that we can bring to this activity that will help us to be successful. So those are some of the examples.

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It's really peculiar, because I don't think any of us would take off for most voyages or trips without having some sense of what our destination is. Right? And, and depending upon what your destination is, you would probably think to pack in particular ways, and given the kind of experience you want to have on this journey, you're going to launch into that journey in particular ways. But learning in schools very often isn't that way. I mean, children aren't informed about what's our journey about. Where, what's our destination? Why are we taking this journey? What tools will you need to help you to get there successfully or to enjoy the journey? And so I think that's an important way in which metacognition can play a role in, in teachers' thinking. That it, it isn't a secret. In fact, Mrs. Hearn used that language. She says, this isn't going to, I don't want there to be a secret here.

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Talking about metacognition doesn't lend itself, I think, so much to talking about stages, but I think that there are some general guidelines of principles that are useful to teachers who want to teach from the metacognitive perspective. So, one principle, for example, would be doing what's in essence a task analysis. This is what I want my students to be able to do. Or this is how I want them to demonstrate their understanding or their, their learning about something. What does it look like to be competent? What are some of the processes that I know competent or skilled or proficient learners use to achieve that, that kind of learning goal? And so then translating that into, well, what are the tools that I want to provide my students? So the brainstorm or the brain mapping is one example of a tool that a teacher can provide students. Context can be designed that will support children in being metacognitive. So there was a lot of emphasis in Mrs. Hearns' class on sharing ideas, talking with one another. Not necessarily working toward consensus, but being aware of where your ideas differ – lots of emphasis in, on dialogue and interaction. She uses the language of being transactional in her teaching. And I think all of those are principles that we see among effective teachers who bring a metacognitive perspective to their teachings.

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One of the things that I was struck by as I watched Mrs. Hearn teaching is, first of all, the way the nature of the activity, the choices that she makes about what are going to be powerful activities for the students. So, I think it starts there. If you have children engaged in trivial kinds of experiences, it's, you can't reap from that a lot of metacognitive awareness or the chance to be self-regulating. So the very choice of task is something that I would, I would call teachers' attention to. A second dimension of her teaching that I think is interesting is that she pays attention to providing children with procedural knowledge, by which I mean she talks with the youngsters about how are you going to do this and be successful. She also talks about conditional knowledge. When is this going to be useful to you? I thought a third aspect of her teaching is that she has this rubric, and what I think she means by that is that the group together has generated a set of standards that will be useful to evaluating writing. This is something, it's visible, it's shared. It's something that's been constructed by the class together. It's not something that's been imposed on this particular classroom of students. So I think in doing that, the children have a sense or these students in this case, have a sense of agency. There's some ownership here of what's happening in this classroom. A fourth dimension is all the occasions for exchange – the exchange of ideas. Whether it's in peer conferencing, or whole group reporting, or the teacher interacting individually with students, you see many occasions where she's actually trying to get more access to her students' thinking. I think it's interesting that she pays attention to the motivation aspect. She talks about the importance of being interested or feeling as though you can be successful with this. And she points out to the students where they're showing signs of progress. So they're getting feedback on the consequences of engaging in these kinds of metacognitive practices. I could probably go on, but those are some of the primary features that I noticed.

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[looking at the segment in "Thinking About Thinking" featuring Julie Helber]

In Mrs. Helber's class, I thought that some of the interesting ways in which she was teaching with metacognitive principles in mind is, first of all, she's doing a lot to prime the students' thinking and to have the students activate what is all, is that they already know. Now that's not directly a metacognitive activity. That's something that good teachers do that has more to do with the fact that building new knowledge has a lot to do with being aware of what you already know and thinking about the relationship between your current thinking and new ideas to which you're being exposed. So these youngsters, for example, are thinking about the array of situations in which they have experienced static electricity. So now they're primed for thinking about what for her is really the more driving question, which is why? Why do objects stick to one another? Or what is it about materials that attract one another? So I think that's one way in which she's done, that is, by really priming children's thinking, situating them so that they're beginning to think about what they already know and given what they know, what new questions are they going to bring to their investigation. I think another example might have been the fact that the students aren't just encouraged to made random observations. She talks with the youngsters before they begin about how, what is it that they're going to notice about these materials as they investigate and how are they going to document what they're observing. I think that's important – to teach students to be planful in the inquiry process, so that in the end of it, they're able to share with others what they've learned, begin to look at patterns in their data so that they can talk about how that larger guiding question can be answered, given the patterns that they saw in how these materials interact with one another.

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Discussion of metacognition and a community of learners.

Thinking about the relationship between community of learners, or constituting a community of learners and being metacognitive is, is an interesting one. So, it's difficult to get in touch or to recognize your own thinking in the absence of having the opportunity to talk about that, to compare your thinking with others. However, if the classroom hasn't been conceptualized as a place where we do that, where a range of ways of thinking and a range of ways of approaching a learning activity are valued, where you're not going to be ridiculed if you try a particular approach to a problem and it turns out that it's not a very effective way. If the lesson is that, you know, that's fine that that wasn't very, that wasn't very fruitful. But all of us benefited from your trying that particular approach. So all of us are going to gain from those kinds of mistakes. If there's, I think one of the most important things about a community of learners is that there's notion of shared authority for knowing. It's not just the teacher who holds all the information, who knows all the, the processes and procedures for being successful – that every one of us as learners has knowledge to bring to this particular activity or task. And that's more likely to happen when there is a community of learner principle, or, or a set of ways of thinking about organizing the classroom.

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I think there are a couple of ways to characterize classrooms in which we see a lot of evidence of this kind of effective teaching that includes metacognitive activity, one of which is that there's a clear center, or a clear focus on the learner. Some people talk about this as being learner-centered. So in each of these instances, a lot of attention is being paid to what are the ideas the children are bringing to this problem or this situation. But it's also knowledge-centered and I think that's worth pointing out as well. That in each case, the students are involved in something that's meaningful, whether it's learning to be a critical reader and writer of an essay, or learning how to investigate something in, some, and manipulate scientific phenomena and investigate in a way that's going to lead to new, new understandings. So there's, there's, that's a second component is that there's, there's real knowledge that's worth worrying about. I mean one of the real problems that I think teachers of young children have sometimes is that the curriculum or the text that they're working with don't really provide the grist for children to wrestle with ideas or even think about what would be necessary to be successful with this particular task. I think a third feature that we saw in both of these classrooms is the feedback. Teachers are highly interactive with the students. They're providing students information about the success with which they're advancing or, more importantly, they're encouraging the students to engage in that kind of self-evaluation.

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Discussion of metacognitive strategies

Much of the research that's been done, looking at how experts use metacognitive strategies, has been done through think-aloud research where a reader, for example, is asked to read portions of text and stop and just share out loud what it is they're doing. The kinds of strategies that these expert or proficient readers use include things like simply monitoring for sense making, asking, you know, is this making sense? What understanding am I taking away from this? Paraphrasing the text – sort of stopping and sort of summarizing it, integrating the gist of the material as they work their way through it. Generating predictions – what I think the author is going to talk about next – is another common strategy. Fix-up strategies, so when there's been a breakdown in the reading, for example, or the comprehension, what a proficient reader does is to take some measure, as opposed to a naive reader who will just keep barreling along. So the proficient reader stops and says, you know, clearly I'm not getting this. I need to re-read. Maybe if I look ahead it will make more sense. I need to ask for help. I need additional reading material. So it's actually interesting that there are probably five to six strategies that are very powerfu,l and the ones that I've, that I've mentioned are the most, are the most frequent. Another one is the self-questioning and also visual imaging. So, you can do that with text that really suggests a particular picture, trying to, to make that picture in your mind to recall it.

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Proficient readers use a particular set of strategies typically, so they self-question while they're reading. They'll try to summarize so they're sort of integrating the gist as they move along. They're anticipating what the author's going to write about next, so predicting. They're drawing images to the extent that the text will support that. They're trying to visualize what the text is about. What's in common about all of these strategies is that they promote both monitoring whether the text is making sense and they also provide a means to actually promote comprehension.

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I think the question of the relationship between metacognitive strategies and the subject matter is very interesting. So it is the case and, and it's been a, a very, an issue of some contention in the educational psychology literature – is there sort of a toolkit of strategies that we can teach children that no matter what the domain, they'll find them useful. And for the most part, people think that there's some truth to that, that, you know, teaching children to be metacognitive lends itself across domains. But that it's very helpful to think about what are the subject matter's specific demands and then thinking about, and what are the strategies that are useful to those particular demands. So, in the activity of science, for example, where you're manipulating a phenomenon, and you're working toward an explanation, that's quite different and lends itself to different kinds of strategies, like organizing data in particular ways so that you can look at patterns and build an explanation. That would be different than the kinds of activities that children might do if they're reading a piece of fictional literature, where the idea is to come up with multiple interpretation and multiple explanations for what the characters have done in that piece of literature. So you see just even within those two domains the activity of the learner looks quite different, and therefore it makes sense that children will be given different tools for being successful with those, those two different kinds of activities.

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I think it's important that what we see in these videotaped excerpts is the fact that metacognition is not being taught as something discreet or isolated. It's, children are taught to be aware of their learning and to control their learning in the context of real academic tasks. There was a time, and I'm not sure how prominent or prevalent this practice is now, but when metacognition first arrived on the scene, I knew of schools where they set aside like half hour periods where children were to practice being metacognitive. And that really isn't going to lead to very much in the way of advancing children's learning of anything. So what I think is important and I, I would worry that this emphasis on metacognition through this program is perhaps going to lead to that kind of practice again. Oh, well if, you know, being metacognitive is a good thing, then let's practice being metacognitive. But it's really in the context of, of real learning and challenging tasks. I mean there's, there's nothing that presses a youngster to become aware of his or her own activity as a learner than confronting something that's challenging but that they want to be successful with. Interesting, they can experience the satisfaction of coming to know something at a deeper level or to know something more broadly. So I think that's the value of what I see illustrated in these videotapes.

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Discussion of cognitive apprenticeship

Well, you know, cognitive apprenticeship grows out of a very tried and true method by which human beings have learned from other human beings. So if we think about the old world apprenticeships where, you know, weavers sat with weavers and candle makers sat with candle makes, and what they did initially is they spent a lot of time really observing and being given portions of the task that were within their, their reach, and then as they learned more of the skills they are able to more fully participate in whatever the, the, the craft or the, the activity is. So those are some of the aspects of cognitive apprenticeship, that again you have the expert learner in the teacher, but the teacher is always mindful of ways in which students can take on whatever aspects of the, the learning they're capable of and there's always a, attention being paid to when can the students assume increasing responsibility for this activity. Another dimension about, or another aspect of cognitive apprenticeship is that it isn't the case that in apprenticeships, traditional apprenticeships, that you would ever take apart the task. So it's done in very holistic ways. So, weavers, if you're learning to be a weaver you're not, you don't have certain days where you're being taught how to think about color and another day when you're thinking about the, the strength of different threads and a third day when you're thinking about how can you make different patterns with these weaves. It's all done in a very holistic way. And that's characteristic of cognitive apprenticeships in classrooms too. You're not trying to take a task and break it down into discreet or isolated kinds of skills, but rather keeping the task whole and then providing students access to the skills that will enable them to be successful with this task in its, in its whole, in its entirety.

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For the teacher to be able to make decisions about when to remove support in a cognitive apprenticeship situation has everything to do with how aware the teacher is of what are the indicators that students are being successful. So designating a particular time when the teacher begins to relinquish control to the learners is probably not what typically happens. It's rather the case that teachers are teaching, mindful that they're always trying to release control of the learning to the students. They're mindful of what the indicators will be when they back away or cede more control to the students, when they're in fact, the students are able to continue to, to move forward in productive ways and they're ready to step in again. The teacher's ready to step in to provide additional scaffolding if, perhaps, for some children it was a premature withdrawal of the support, and they're also ready to step in when the level of challenge increases. So a scaffolding or the process of scaffolding is not a linear one. In fact it's probably best compared to a spiraling processing where, you know, you're always trying to anticipate students be, being competent enough that they can work independently of you, but you're ready to step back in and support students in the fact of counter-evidence that they're, they're not quite ready yet.

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What are some cues of children needing or not needing more help?

Well, to determine where you start to scaffold, what that you need to scaffold, you have to be a wonderful study of children. Really successful teachers know their children well, and they know what to look for in terms of trying to understand how children are learning or what children are learning. And I think the most successful teachers I know are teachers that watch children very closely, and listen to children very well. I think that's the key. Once you've listened and you've watched, then that gives you some very good insight, as to how much support children are going to need. Another characteristic of really successful teachers is that they engage in what is called prelatic teaching. I know that, that is a strange word, but what it means is teaching in anticipation of competence. So their expectation is that students are going to be successful, given adequate support, rather than kind of piecemeal, or providing more support, and kind of nudging children along. Set up challenging tasks, know what you're looking for, know what children are bring to this, because you've watched children carefully, you've listened to childrens thinking and ideas, and then you can make decisions, about, alright, given where I want them to go, what kind of support systems are they going to need. Whether that is basic skills, in reading and writing, or a language, or other resources that they can use, other contacts, more powerful activities, that will help them to attain those goals. So those are some of the ways to think about this knowing when to provide. I know a teacher who talks about when do you hold and when do you fold.

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Discussion of the zone of proximal development

What I would hope new teachers would take away from an understanding of cognitive apprenticeship, is that it is one of the most pleasurable ways to think about your role as a teacher, because there is never boredom. If you're putting yourself and your students in challenging learning situations. If you're making decisions about what your role as the teacher is based upon what you see your students doing. If you think about the ways in which your classroom constitutes this community of apprentices, what their apprenticing to is becoming lifelong learners.

Well, when you think about a zone of proximal development, you're talking about what is the student able to learn with the assistance of others, and so this comes from a Vygotskian idea that what is really of interest isn't so much what the learner currently knows, but what is possible for the learner to come to know with assistance. So we talk about, in some situations children have very narrow zones of proximal development. They can be given a lot of support, and they'll show slow or small increments of change, other youngsters have very broad zones of proximal development, in particular context. So given a little bit of support they show enormous gains, or big strides, or tremendous shifts in their understanding. So it is really an interaction. What it suggests is that we never want to think about the learner in isolation, or the teacher in isolation, but rather the teacher and learner in interaction, and how the support provided by the teacher is going to enable the youngster to show significant gains or growth in their understanding or learning, or competence.

 

 
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