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The Learning Classroom: Theory Into Practice

Thinking About Thinking: Metacognition

This program explores how thinking about thinking helps students better manage their own learning and learn difficult concepts deeply. The program features a senior English teacher and a sixth-grade teacher, with expert commentary from University of Michigan professor Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar and Lee S. Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

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Linda Darling-Hammond: When you are working on a project, how often do you stop to ask yourself, “What have I accomplished so far, and what else do I need to do?”  When you do this, you are engaged in metacognition. Metacognition is what we do when we manage our work by asking ourselves questions like, “How well am I doing? What do I need to do next? What else do I need to learn in order to achieve my goal?”   

Hello, I’m Linda Darling-Hammond and welcome to The Learning Classroom.

Discovering how you can help your students manage their own thinking and learning is our challenge in today’s episode.

Lee S. Shulman, Ph.D., President, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Metacognition is thinking about your own thinking. It is sometimes we use the phrase, “going meta” instead of metacognition, and what we mean by that is being able to step back, to step back and see yourself and what you are doing, as if you were somebody else observing it. It’s becoming audience for your own performance. And in this case it’s your own intellectual performance.

Linda Darling-Hammond: To help students learn in powerful ways that serve them beyond the classroom, we need to teach them first to understand how they are learning, and second to manage their own learning process.

These metacognitive strategies include helping students learn to: think about what they know and what they don’t yet understand. Become aware of their own thought processes. Understand how others are thinking about the same ideas. Analyze and try different strategies for solving problems. And reflect on what they’re learning & how they’re learning it.

Kendra Hearn teaches English composition to seniors. She works with her students to develop their thinking through the writing process.

To help them become conscious writers, Kendra teaches them strategies that help them observe their own thoughts, using tools like journals, reading reflections, and mind maps.

She also encourages them to assess their own work and that of their peers, using standards and rubrics that let them analyze their writing.

Let’s see how Kendra serves as both a model and a coach for her students as they learn to think metacognitively.

(classroom scene)
Kendra: Today, I have for you a few models of the reflective essay that we’re working on. And what we’re gonna do first is begin by reading those essays, we’ll do them collectively, and what I want you to do is think about the thinking that the writer did. And how are we gonna do that? We’re gonna do what is called a “Ah, Huh, Hmm strategy.” We talked about this before, and it’s basically “Ah” – making some connections, then you’ll put an exclamation point, and whatever you connect it with on your sticky note and put it on that area of the draft. If you have a question, that’s a “Huh” – wondering about things, questioning what the writer was thinking. And the last one is “Hmm” – meaning you noticed something. Any questions about…

Kendra Hearn: My approach is one where I really try to allow the students to take ownership over their learning. And so in that regard it’s very constructivist, where they’re constructing their own meaning. And it, it’s based a lot around a, a notion of language and literacy that’s highly transactional. So we have an awful lot of discussion, and dialogue, and argumentation, and debate so that they can really think through their ideas. Another emphasis that I like to make, particularly with the essay writing class, which is a composition class, is that thinking is writing. So that the challenge is getting those thoughts, then, onto paper in a way that makes sense to other people.

(classroom scene)
 Once you are done sticking your sticky notes on, then we’ll have a dialogue about the things you noticed, wondered, and questioned on that particular essay. And we’ll talk about where we think that essay fits in terms, in terms of the rubric and in terms of that author’s thinking. Okay? Let’s do number one…

Kendra Hearn: I think I happened upon metacognition, and it became something I was fascinated with. And the fascination came with going beyond just critical thinking, which does not necessarily have to be very metacognitive, but asking kids to do some real complex thinking about their own thought processes.

(classroom scene)
Kendra: Let’s stop there. Take a minute, do the same thing. Think about what you noticed, wondered, questioned in this particular essay. Also I want to challenge you to notice, wonder, and question in terms of the rubric. Are there some things that really seems to fit the criteria of this particular assignment, some things that may seem a bit out of place…

Kendra Hearn: And what I saw in the notion of metacognition is a whole lot of power for children in their learning, for making a plan for how they were gonna approach a task, making some real conscious choices about which strategies to employ in doing that particular task.

(classroom scene)
Boy: Sometimes it’s hard to understand. I don’t understand what he’s talking about.
 Right, because of the vocabulary.
 Like, if only kids from high school are going to be reading this, I think, well not everyone, but a lot of people are going to be, like, what is this?

Kendra Hearn: And then going back and revisiting those strategies and seeing what things worked and what didn’t, so that the next time they approach a similar task, they would know which choices to make.

(classroom scene)
 Talk as a group about those things that you connected with, wondered, and noticed. And then use what you got in terms of the thinking about this essay to decide where you would think it would fall on the rubric, okay? So have a debate, come to a consensus, use what you wrote on your notes…

Annemarie Palincsar, Ph.D.,  University of Michigan: 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 activities as learners. So those are the kinds of skills that really will enable a student or a child to be a lifelong learner.

Kendra Hearn: The kinds of activities that I regularly engage my students in in my classroom to reflect and assess are journaling. Oftentimes we’ll be thinking through a topic and I’ll have them just, on paper, pour out their hearts and their brains and not concern themselves with the mechanics of writing at that point, but to really get at what’s on the top of their brains and tell them that often that’s the best material, and we can polish it up later. We also, for reflection, have state of the writer addresses. And that’s a point where, where one individual gets to address the class about where they are in that writing task, and get some feedback.

(classroom scene)
Girl: You needed to use more, um, details and that, evidence from your papers. But I thought it was a really good paper overall, and you were very honest in it.
 So let’s come together and synthesize this. What were some things that you connected with, you said, Ahhh! David, you had one.
I connected when he said he, ah, won the contest, ’cause I was runner-up for one of the contests.
 Exactly, so you knew what that felt like.
 Right. So I knew his feelings.
 Let’s jump to the Hmm. What were some things that you noticed?
 It was kind of confusing, but I guess for sending it, like, to a college, they’d notice that, they’d pick that up. But as, like a high school student, most people would have no idea what half the words that’s out of the book.
 So maybe he excluded part of his audiences’ appreciation and comprehension, right? We’re saying, I’m wondering about that. Where did you put this on the rubric?
 I would have given him like a low A.
 I thought it was like a B+ or A because it was real wordy, there was a couple grammar, ah, spelling mistakes.
 I would also have given him a B, I wasn’t really following where the essay was going.

Lee Shulman: Well, if I’m learning to write an essay, and, I write an essay, and, let’s say I write two essays, and I get an A from you on one of them, and I get a C on the other, and the teacher says “See, you CAN write a good essay, do more of what you did on the A essay, then you did on the C essay.”  And I then I stop and say, “But I don’t know what I did on the A essay that was different from the C essay, I just have no idea.”  That’s where it becomes terribly important for the teacher to assist the student in reflecting on their own learning, because otherwise, how do I get any better, how do I move my learning, from the kind of thing I did in the C situation, to the kind of thing I did in the A situation, if I don’t have access to the kind of understanding of my own performance that I need to improve it. I mean I think that’s the essence of it.

Kendra Hearn: I’ve used rubrics and, again, as a metacognitive strategy, to have students compare their writing process, their thinking processes and their accomplishments in terms of a collective standard. And often we negotiate the rubrics together. So I may decide what the categories are. They may even have some input on that. And we talk together about what do they think would be a stellar example of content for this particular essay.

There are no secrets about the standard. So when they get their grades back they fully understand, and they’re able to often again, through self-assessment, articulate where their writing falls along the guidelines of that particular rubric. So, the rubric becomes a cornerstone for that thinking about their thinking on those particular writing exercises.

(classroom scene)
 What I want to move into now is peer response. What we’ll probably do is a two-part session on peer response. What I want you to focus your energy on, because what I’ve been noticing about peer response sessions is a lot of us are still focusing in on fixing the essay. The point of peer response is to think about it, talk about your thinking, share your thinking with each other, and have this communal discussion about it – let the author listen in and process it through their thought process, and then go back. You ready? Okay, go for it.

Kendra Hearn: Today, students presented their drafts of their reflective essays in what we call peer response sessions.

And the structure of it is quite interesting, because it’s unlike other peer conferencing techniques.

(classroom scene)
 Let’s see, I connected with you’re ah, improving over the year, on my writing, I also improved during this year, right. Um, all things that Mrs. Hearn taught us, the different stages that you use, and, um, I actually disagreed with you on the pre-writing part. I actually, it actually helped me a lot. And…
 I just think it’s cool that ah, you actually talk about what type of methods help you write your papers out.
The next step is what? Gotten some peer feedback on our drafts…revision. The purpose of revision is what? Not just to correct grammar and spelling errors, but what? Ok, say that again Jarrid.
 Think about what people said.
 Think about what people said. What does your thinking need to be about any changes you may want to make. Here’s another question for you. Um, how many of you have your mind maps handy? Anyone that can just whip ’em out?

Kendra Hearn: The mind map is a pre-writing strategy that gets them to think about their own thinking in terms of what sorts of ideas that they have and what sorts of areas they wanna explore, given a particular writing prompt. And there’s no focused structure to it. And it’s a little different than, say, a cluster or an outline, in that they’re, it’s really free form, and free flowing, and it’s what I want them to get at. And in our experiences with mind mapping is what’s on the top of their brain in terms of that particular topic. And they’ve used it in the past and including today as a, a thinking activity about their writing. And from there they go into sort of another stage of pre-writing, which is then to organize those thoughts.

(classroom scene)
 Any of you feel like I need to make some adjustments from your original thoughts? Or there was something that you left out? David?
 Well, when you have your mind map, you have, like, every idea that you wanna talk about, and when you write out, you know, your rough draft, and you read it to your group, but a lot of times they have ideas for you so you can help improve on the things that you felt were the most important and maybe didn’t come across as well as you hoped for in your rough draft.
 Good. That’s a good point. I think that is THE point. Again, it’s whether or not you convey what you intended. And your mind map is a record of what you intended.

Kendra Hearn: We focus, particularly in the, in terms of composition and, and writing, on the notion of what works for me as a writer. So I realize and I honor the fact that an outline may work for some, and we’ve learned outlining strategies, and a mind map may work for others. And they’ve had plenty of opportunities to do that. And again, along the lines of metacognition, is for them to begin to make some conscious choices about which of these sorts of strategies will actually work for the task that they’re being asked to do, given what they know about themselves as a thinker, a learner and a writer.

(classroom scene)
 Let’s look at this one. ‘Cause you’ve come a long way in your thinking. What’s different now in your thinking about this essay, than the mind map that you started with?
 It’s not a box anymore.
It’s not a box, you had boxes for this essay that we’re working on? No, you didn’t.
 Oh, how it’s different. I made it more specific and more to the, um, rubric.
 Okay. So, give me an example, maybe.

Kendra Hearn: One student that I had who has made major improvements as a result of using these strategies that comes to mind is a student named Sara, who today I worked with, because she made major strides in terms of mind mapping. Sara’s one who, when I introduced mind mapping to the class, was extremely resistant.

And the spectacular thing about her is that she’s gone beyond, and she’s accomplished a whole lot more than she expected. And I think she’s a fabulous example of how these strategies have worked.

It becomes the teacher’s challenge, and I think this is the artistic part of teaching – to inspire them to think and give them new ways to examine their own thinking.

Lee Shulman: Cognitive work, intellectual work, thinking and feeling, is invisible, it can’t be directly observed, so the question for us is, “What’s the equivalent of the mirror on the dance studio wall, of the video tape of the golf swing?”  When we’re saying, “How do you become thoughtful about your own thinking?” as you’re doing mathematics or history. If you’re doing, the teaching of biology, or the teaching of composition. And, that’s a great challenge. .

Annemarie Palincsar: 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.

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 learner. 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.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Kathleen Hayes-Parvin knows that one of the best ways to help her students to reflect on their learning is to have them teach someone else the strategies they use.

This year Kathleen’s sixth graders are helping a class of student teachers learn how to teach middle school English. We’ll watch as they are preparing and presenting their thoughts to the student teachers and their instructor.

(classroom scene)
 This is a writing experiment called a free write. Olivia. One of the purposes of a free write, Olivia?
 To overcome writer’s block.
 Another reason that we would use a free write, Kareema?
 To build fluency.
 Excellent, alright, so one of the reasons to use a free write would be to overcome writer’s block. How many have ever experienced writer’s block? Just were stuck.

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin: We’re a community of learners where skills are taught in the context of their work – primarily their own reading and writing, as opposed to working out of a standard English grammar text, where they would be learning in isolation. That does not, research is showing that that does not transfer into their reading and writing lives.

(classroom scene)
 But the first big audience that you’ve been teaching is each other, and you’ve done a masterful job at it. The next audience that you’ll be working with is the University of Michigan audience. And those young people who are getting ready to become teachers, and you’ll be teaching them… So my question to you is, what made the teachers that you remember so well really good, so that when you start to take on the role of teacher next week, you can make your teaching really powerful and good?

Kathleen: One of the major strategies that we learn is the ability to make connections. And this group is becoming savvy at being able to make connections from text to text, text to self, and text to world. So we point out and we teach these strategies explicitly, and then throughout our daily lives you’ll see us reading a book, and somebody’ll just naturally begin to make those kind of, kinds of connections that help them to predict and help them to make meaning from text.

(classroom scene)
 How, how, how is that?
 It’s Kenny’s turn actually.
 It’s either Kenny’s or Erin’s turn, cause all of the other ones are…
 What I’m asking you to do right now, is to just reflect for a moment. And when I use that word, reflect, think for a second, what does that mean to you?
 Um, to look back at things in the past.
 Ok, and Elikem?
Um, reflect is like when you look back at something that’s already happened, and you try to learn from it. You analyze it.
 We don’t just learn it and just copy down definitions all the time. We learn it; she gives us examples of things and how to remember it.

Lee Shulman: It’s important for teachers to give their students many opportunities to reflect on their learning, because the learning itself is rarely sufficient, to create understandings of a sort that can be transferred readily to other situations, and, and because, the absence of opportunities for reflecting on one’s learning is at the heart of why some kinds of learning are simply barren and infertile if you will, and other kinds of learning turn out to be highly productive and useable again and again. And I think the heart of it is creating opportunities to step back and analyze and reflect on your own practice. I mean it’s no accident that when we prepare people to do very complex and important kinds of skills, we create opportunities for reflection.

(classroom scene)
 This Knoxville, Tennessee poem by Nikki Giovanni is one that we’ve studied. We’ve paid attention to the structure of it and we’ve written our own city poems, many of us. And that strategy when you copy an author’s style or you copy a poet’s style, it’s called copy change. So we’re gonna begin with the real poem, and then we’re going to ask a couple of you who have taken your poem through many, many revisions to have an opportunity to read your version of your city poem.
 I always like summer best. You can eat fresh corn from daddy’s garden and okra, and greens, and cabbage, and lots of barbecue, and buttermilk, and the homemade ice cream at the church picnic.

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin: My students will have an opportunity to get some feedback from the university experience. When they have an opportunity to share their knowledge with the pre-service teachers from the University of Michigan, they’ll be able to get feedback from the professors.

(classroom scene)
Oh terrific!
 It’s a miracle.
Good morning, everyone!
Good morning
This is Dr. Rex. We’re going to begin with this first team, and they’re going to talk to you about book clubs.

Kathleen Hearn: In preparing them to be teachers, they, what is great about these cross-age collaborations is that it gives them authentic purpose. They have a real reason to communicate what they’ve learned, as opposed to an artificial reason to please the teacher or to get a grade. This is, um, pro…provides us with an authentic forum.

(classroom scene)
Boy: Hi, we’re book clubs, and you get a chance to work with your friends or meet new friends.
You usually have a writer’s notebook. The required minimum is six people, but you do not have to have six, you can have at least three. And at the end, you go to the south of the pavilion, you have a competition…

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin: These young people that are getting ready to, to go into the classroom are faced with many challenges, and these guys feel like they really have an expertise to share. So, we do a lot of processing of what we’re learning. We do some note taking. We do some direct instruction. We give them an opportunity to read for information and gather some information that’s gonna help to be better teachers. They reflect on their own experiences. Who have their greatest teachers been and what made them really good?  So that they can make their opportunity to teach fun and exciting.

(classroom scene)
When you get your classroom, you will want your students to get writer’s notebooks. Real writers keep writer’s notebooks. Writer’s notebooks is like a book of your least thoughts, observations, and notes. We keep writer’s notebooks because we can look back at our work.
I wrote about my best friend. She’s my best friend. I wrote about things that I like about them and things I don’t like about them. And how when, like, how, when I have a problem they help me or they give me ideas.

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin: In this environment, they’re teaching every day. They’re teaching each other and the teaching and learning is a two-way street.

(classroom scene)
 Question that I have is, for somebody to tell us what their favorite thing is about writer’s work, readers-writer’s workshop and what their least favorite thing is about it.
Well, my favorite thing about writer’s work, um reading and writing workshop would probably be that you get to read with your friends and sometimes discuss the books with them. And my least favorite thing would be, ah, I don’t really have a least favorite.
 What is it that a teacher needs to get done well to make the reading-writing workshop work?
Boy: I think you should enjoy your job, first you gotta like your job. You gotta know how to teach.
 I believe all students should not read the same book because everybody learns at a different level. And a teacher should keep a journal along with their children’s so it reflects sometimes back on what they’ve written in the past and what they’re going to write in the future.

Kathleen Hearn: I’m learning from them, they’re learning from me. I see myself more as a coach and a facilitator than, than an instructor and they’re the empty vessel that I try to fill up. It’s more of a constructivist model. They bring a certain knowledge, we get them from where, where they’re at, and move them forward. And they’re constructing knowledge and meaning throughout all of our days together.

Annemarie Palincsar: 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.

So there’s, there’s, that’s a second component is that there’s, there’s real knowledge that’s worth worrying about.

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.

Linda Darling-Hammond: The more we help students to think about their own thinking, the better learners they will become – both inside and outside the classroom. When they understand and can choose their own strategies, they can expand their learning throughout their lives

This is The Learning Classroom. Thanks for watching.

“We can teach children to think about their thinking in ways that help them understand what they know and what they don’t know and what they’d like to learn, and to help them reflect on their learning and to evaluate their work against a continuum that they’re on. All of those kinds of thinking actually make the learning process more powerful.” 
Linda Darling-Hammond

Key Questions

  • How can people learn by reflecting on what they know and do?
  • How can teachers help students think about their own thinking?

Learning Objectives

  1. Defining metacognition – Teachers will understand what metacognition is and how it improves learning. They will become familiar with two aspects of metacognition: reflection and self-regulation.
  2. Developing metacognitive skills – Teachers will understand what it means to develop a culture of metacognition in the classroom. Teachers will become familiar with strategies for helping students regulate, monitor, and guide their learning.

Video Program

This episode explores how thinking about thinking helps students to better manage their own learning and to learn difficult concepts deeply. The episode features two teachers – Kendra Hearn, who teaches senior English at West Bloomfield High School, West Bloomfield, Michigan, and Kathleen Hayes-Parvin, who teaches sixth grade at Birney Middle School, Southfield, Michigan. University of Michigan professor Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar and Lee S. Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching provide their insights for teachers.

Session Content Outline

Key Questions

  • How can people learn by reflecting on what they know and do?
  • How can teachers help students think about their own thinking?

Learning Objectives

  • Defining metacognition – Teachers will understand what metacognition is and how it improves learning. They will become familiar with two aspects of metacognition: reflection and self-regulation.
  • Developing metacognitive skills – Teachers will understand what it means to develop a culture of metacognition in the classroom. Teachers will become familiar with strategies for helping students regulate, monitor, and guide their learning.

Session Outline

How do we know what we’ve learned and how to direct our own future learning? These are all questions addressed by the concept of metacognition. Simply put, metacognition means “thinking about one’s own thinking.”

There are two aspects of metacognition:

1) reflection – thinking about what we know

2) self-regulation – managing how we go about learning

Sometimes people use the phrase “going meta” when talking about metacognition, referring to the process of stepping back to see what you are doing, as if you were someone else observing it. “Going meta” means becoming an audience for your own performance – in this case, your own intellectual performance.

The challenge is helping students learn how to “go meta” in regard to thought processes that are not directly visible in order to improve cognitive performances.

Early Ideas About Metacognition

Although the word metacognition did not come into common use until the 1970s, the notion of reflecting about one’s own thinking can be found in writings dating back to Plato, who emphasized the importance of reflecting through dialog. John Dewey, often considered the father of progressive education, viewed reflection as a central part of active learning. In addition, both Piaget and Vygotsky described the role of metacognition in cognitive development.

Development of Metacognitive Strategies in Children

Part of developing cognitively is learning how to be aware of one’s thinking and direct it consciously and strategically toward desired ends. Metacognitive strategies help us become more efficient and powerful in our learning because they help us to find information, evaluate when we need additional resources, and understand when to apply different approaches to problems.

Metacognitive skills develop over time and depend upon a knowledge base.

Thinking about Thinking

Metacognition is most commonly broken down into two distinct but interrelated areas. John Flavell defined these two areas as metacognitive knowledge – awareness of one’s thinking and metacognitive regulation – the ability to manage one’s own thinking processes. These two components are used together to inform learning theory.

Metacognitive Knowledge – Reflecting on What We Know

Flavell (1979) describes three kinds of metacognitive knowledge:

  • Awareness of knowledge – understanding what one knows, what one does not know, and what one wants to know
  • Awareness of thinking – understanding cognitive tasks and the nature of what is required to complete them
  • Awareness of thinking strategies – understanding approaches to directing learning

Metacognitive Regulation – Directing Our Learning

When a student has information about her thinking (metacognitive knowledge), she is able to use this information to direct or regulate her learning. Ann Brown and her colleagues (1983) describe three ways we direct our own learning:

  • Planning approaches to tasks – identifying the problem, choosing strategies, organizing our thoughts, and predicting outcomes
  • Monitoring activities during learning – testing, revising, and evaluating the effectiveness of our strategies
  • Checking outcomes – evaluating the outcomes against specific criteria of efficiency and effectiveness

Good metacognitive thinkers are also good intentional learners. That is, they are able to direct their learning in the proper ways to build understanding. They know when to use strategies and how to use them (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989).

A Culture of Metacognition in the Classroom

A number of conditions support a metacognitive classroom environment (from Bransford et al, 2000).

  • Knowledge-centered classrooms focus on meaningful, powerful, nontrivial activities. When students are asked to engage in activities that build on their previous knowledge, challenge them with complex tasks, and require active sense-making, they are more likely to see the utility of being reflective and strategic learners.
  • Learning-centered classrooms take into account students’ current knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs.
  • Assessment in a learning- and knowledge-centered classroom helps students reflect on what they know, care about, and are able to do. It not only helps learners develop an awareness of themselves, but also give learning-centered teachers valuable information for their instruction. Using activities such as self-assessment, peer assessment, and teacher assessment gives students frequent feedback about their effectiveness of thinking.
  • Formative Assessment involves opportunities for feedback in the midst of an activity, so it is useful to direct further learning.

Metacognitive learning is supported by a culture that encourages and recognizes the importance of revision. When students are given feedback with the purpose of redirecting and revising their work – rather than to simply assign a grade – they have the opportunity to revisit their work with greater understanding. When a teacher provides clear expectations in terms of how she evaluates student work and provides models and examples that give students a sense of the goals they are striving for, students are empowered to take on more responsibility and ownership in their learning.

Strategies for Learning

Teachers who are developing metacognitive skills in the classroom help students incorporate active reflection in their learning. They model and scaffold the processes of reflection, questioning, evaluating, and other thinking strategies that may not come naturally. The strategies below include opportunities to reflect on learning and to learn to regulate or direct one’s work:

  • Predicting outcomes
  • Evaluating work
  • Self-assessing
  • Self-questioning
  • Selecting strategies
  • Using directed or selective thinking
  • Using discourse
  • Critiquing
  • Revising


Activities that encourage a reflective and strategic stance toward learning should be embedded in the regular activities of the classroom. When teachers make aspects of learning and problem solving visible, and help students identify their own strengths and strategies, they can have a lasting impact on how their students learn once they leave the classroom.

Key Terms - New In Section

  1. Formative Assessment – feedback provided by a teacher or a learner herself in the midst of an activity.
  2. Metacognitive Knowledge – awareness of one’s knowledge, thinking, and thinking strategies.
  3. Metacognitive Regulation – the use of metacognitive knowledge to direct or regulate one’s learning. This kind of metacognition is also referred to as executive control
  4. Reflection – thinking about academic work or tasks that enables students to compare their performance or understanding with others or with their own previous performance or understanding.
  5. Self-regulation – the ability to monitor and control one’s own thinking and learning.

Questions for Reflection Step-By-Step Instructions

Step 1. The video segments in The Learning Classroom were taped as teachers worked in their own classrooms. As you watch, jot down the questions you have about what you see the teacher do and how the students respond.

Step 2. When you’re done, click on the episode title from the list and compare your questions with the Questions for Reflection and responses that our project team has anticipated.

Step 3. Review the responses we have prepared to questions that match the ones you have asked. The expert responses are not “final answers,” they are provided to give you a starting point for your own reflection. What else might you add to the response you read?

Questions for Reflection

Question 1: Dr. Shulman mentions that an important activity of teaching is observing students’ thought processes? How can a teacher observe something that is so intangible?

Response 1: Thinking and, especially, metacognitive thought are quite transparent. Students may indeed exhibit some outward behaviors, such as a pensive gaze, that might indicate that they are engaged in thinking. However, a teacher cannot know the nature and quality of the thinking or have the opportunity to facilitate something that is usually quite personal. Consequently, for thought and meta-thought to become useful parts of the learning relationship between a student and teacher, meticulous effort on the part of the teacher is required to bring it to the surface where it can be carefully examined by student and teacher alike.

Question 2: Dr. Shulman also comments that cognition cannot be directly observed, but that the teacher must create the equivalent of the mirror on the dance studio wall. How does the dance studio metaphor translate to an academic learning situation?

Response 2: Teachers can expose cognition and metacognition through a variety of strategies, all of which involve students articulating their thought processes orally or in writing. Among these strategies are student-teacher conferences where the two discuss a student’s thought processes as it pertains to a particular learning task or goal. Another is journaling (i.e. learning logs, writer’s notebooks, etc.) where students keep a record of their thoughts and reflections as they are learning new contents, skills, and processes. These strategies are intended to help students examine their own thought processes, particular when they encounter learning challenges, but they also provide good information for teachers – who may use what they see in them to adjust their teaching.

Question 3: How is metacognition different from critical thinking?

Response 3: Critical thinking is a skilled process of evaluating, conceptualizing, and analyzing whatever the subject of learning is through a variety of lenses, situations, and perspectives. Good critical thinkers are often able to assume roles outside of themselves, their own experiences, suppositions, and dispositions to clearly view the subject matter at hand. By assuming such roles, a learner’s perspective is broadened, increasing the ability to draw defensible conclusions, reason, argue, and even generate new theories relating to the subject or content. Metacognition is a form of critical thinking, however, its subject is the students’ own thoughts themselves.

Question 4: Kendra frequently mentions that she and her students use rubrics to establish a standard. What are rubrics?

Response 4: Rubrics are tools devised by teachers and students that clearly outline the standards and expectations for successful completion of a learning task. Most rubrics describe the degrees of completion from minimal to masterful. Often points or grades are also associated with the degrees of completion. Rubrics are presented at the time a learning task is initiated, giving the students a clear understanding of the task and the characteristics of exemplary completion. The rubric, then, becomes a means for assessment, but also a tool for learning as the student and teacher can use it throughout the learning process to measure and reflect on the student’s progress toward mastery.

An example of a rubric developed for this course can be found as part of the Learning Challenges section of this Web site. Click here to see it.

Question 5: Kendra also mentions that she and her students often negotiate rubrics? How and why is this done?

Response 5: Students can and should be involved in setting standards in a learning environment. In doing so, they become architects of their own learning process, thereby increasing their own motivation and personal investment. Negotiated rubrics are one such way for students to help set their learning standards. Under the teacher’s guidance and through democratic discussion, students can help determine the characteristics of successful completion of a learning task. In other words, they help decide what constitutes mastery of the task. The process of negotiating a rubric is a learning experience in itself, and assures that students understand how they will be assessed. Likewise, students can use their own negotiated rubrics to reflect on their own work or assist their peers.

Question 6: Kendra mentioned that when her students write in journals she has no concern for grammar, but is more interested in their ability to get their thoughts on paper. Why is grammatical skill not important in this sort of metacognitive exercise?

Response 6: When the goal of the learning activity is to generate thoughts and ideas for personal examination and reflection, regard for accuracy in mechanical skill may become secondary. Kendra’s disregard for grammar in students’ reflective journal writing allowed them to focus on the purpose of journaling in their learning environment without fear of penalty for errors in mechanics. Kendra is careful to explain to her students the many kinds of writing and their purposes, and personal journals are a form in which grammatical convention is secondary to exposing thought processes and engaging in metacognition. As they develop the notes in their journals into more formal writings for presentation to others, there is a natural opportunity to increase the importance of mechanical skills.

Question 7: Dr. Shulman mentions the importance of focus on process instead of product in learning environments? Why is process more important than product?

Response 7: A focus on product will not help students uncover the complexity of their own learning processes, styles, and needs. It often leaves students unaware of how the conclusions, results, and products themselves were derived. Consequently, when the student is confronted with new, but similar learning tasks they may be unable to engage in them for lack of understanding the processes and their own performance while engaged in the processes. The more students understand the process of their own learning, the better chance they have to control it themselves and to transfer it to new situations.

Question 8: Kathleen’s example seemed to emphasize a need for audience for students’ work? Why is audience important to metacognitive development?

Response 8: Not only does an audience create a more authentic learning situation, which stimulates interest and motivation in learners, but an audience also gives students more resources and people with which to share their work and thought processes. Through the process of preparing their work for a real audience, a teacher can help students think metacognitively about the perspectives of the audience as they are preparing the product for audience review. Furthermore, if representative members of the audience are included, they can help students think about their own thinking as it pertains to the people for whom they will eventually perform. By doing so, the establishment of standards for successful completion of the learning task is reiterated by an objective source.

Question 9: Dr. Shulman underscored the need for opportunities for students to reflect often as they are working? How much reflection is enough?

Response 9: Reflection should be a continual part of the learning process. Students should reflect on their own, with the help of the teacher, and with their peers. Additionally, people outside of the classroom, including parents, should be integrated into students’ reflection practices. There can never be too much reflection during learning.

Question 10: One of Kathleen’s students mentioned it important that teachers also keep a journal? Is this sound advice? If so, why?

Response 10: Whether it is keeping a journal, collegial conversation with peers, participation in critical friends peer review groups or other reflective means, teachers can also learn from thinking about their own thinking. As a member of the learning community, teachers are always engaged in a process of learning – about themselves, their students, and even the content under study. By stepping away from the learning process long enough to reflect on their own teaching and learning, teachers can also improve.


Linda Darling-Hammond
Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education, Stanford University

Lee S. Shulman
President, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar
Jane and Charles Walgreen Professor of Reading and Literacy, University of Michigan

Kendra Hearn
Former Teacher, West Bloomfield High School, West Bloomfield, Michigan. Currently professional development consultant, Macomb Intermediate School District, Michigan

Kathleen Hayes-Parvin
Sixth Grade Teacher, Birney Middle School, Southfield, Michigan

Transcript of comments by Lee S. Shulman, Ph.D., President, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Excerpts from an interview with Lee Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Recorded July, 2002

Discussion of transfer

The problem with transfer and the problem with structure are very closely related to one another. There’s a very simple fact that we all have to learn to deal with, and that is we never have enough time to learn everything we will ever need to know in order to live our lives successfully and fruitfully. So it doesn’t matter how long you would make medical school, for example. No physician could ever learn enough in medical school to anticipate every possible patient that will ever walk in her door. And therefore, the challenge of education is always to ask, “What’s the least amount of material we can teach really well that will, in turn, make it possible for those whom we teach to use that knowledge in the widest possible range of situations – including not only situations that we can anticipate but also situations that no one can anticipate.” And that’s abstractly the problem with transfer. How can you learn less, and make much more of it?

And basically there are two kinds of transfer that you can think about. One is the transfer that occurs between learning the parts of a task and then using those parts to do something much more complicated. So, for example, when you were in first or second grade, you learned addition, and you learned subtraction, and you learned multiplication. At some point you had to learn long division. Now, that required transfer, because you had to take what you already learned about adding, and subtracting, and multiplying, and apply all three of those processes to learning a new kind of skill called division. And you can call that vertical transfer – it’s taking small pieces and putting them together into a larger more complex skill. If you’re learning a performance of some kind – football players learn very specific small skills, and then they learn to put them together into a new play that they learn to run. And that’s a very, very important part of transfer. And so as educators, we often ask ourselves, “What are those simpler skills that, again and again turn out to be useful in more complex, later things, we want students to learn. Let’s make sure we teach those simpler skills very, very well so that when they confront the more complex skills, they can put together what they already know.” Now it turns out that very often, you already have some simpler skills or simple kinds of knowledge, but when you confront the new task, you don’t realize you already know what it is you need to do that task. And that’s why problem solving, and transfer, and metacognition are so important, because they involve being wise enough to know that you already know something, and to use it when it’s necessary. Anyway, that’s one kind of transfer, from simple to complex.

A second kind of transfer occurs when you have to take what you’ve learned in one situation and apply it to a new situation at roughly the same level of complexity. And so, for example, if I have learned about the, notion of a revolution in studying the history of the United States, and then I study the history of France, can I apply the notion of revolution, can I transfer what I know about revolution, from the American context to the French context, and subsequently, to the Russian context, if I then study the Russian revolution? These are examples of a more horizontal kind of transfer, where I can take an idea from one situation and move it to another. And, you can do that within a subject matter area, so, for example, you can do it from the concept of revolution for the United States and for France, (I’m doing that from within history), or you can do it across subject matter areas. So, for example, when the teacher was teaching bridge building to the students, he used concepts like balance, and form, and function to help remind them what they needed to keep in mind as they built their bridge. Well, where have they learned those concepts before? They might’ve learned them in looking at a piece of art, and looking at a lovely painting, and a teacher might say, “Well, notice what makes this beautiful is the way in which the painter balances various elements and the connections between the form” But now if they’ve learned those in art, if they’ve learned them well, then the teacher can draw upon those ideas in a totally different area, such as bridge building, or frankly, biology, and so there are concepts that can be used across, and that would be an example of this second kind of transfer.

It’s important for teachers to understand the concept of transfer, because it’s absolutely necessary to protect them against what is probably the worst sin of teaching, which is trying to cover all of the material with equal attention across all the things you anticipate a kid might have to know. First of all, that’s impossible. Second, it is deadly boring. And third, it’s bad psychology. The reason teachers have to understand the notion of transfer is whenever they teach, they have to ask themselves, “What is it about what I’m teaching now that will be of value, of use, a source of understanding, or of pleasure to my students at some point in the future, when they’re in a situation that is not identical to the one they’re in now?” And that has got to be a mantra for the teacher, always asking, not just “Where am I?” and “Where are they now?” but “Where might this be going?” and if they can keep on thinking of that question as they teach, which is the question of transfer, then it can transform the kind of teaching they do.

The ways a teacher can facilitate transfer – that’s a very interesting challenge. Probably the most obvious way, and a way that teachers often think that they shouldn’t do – because they almost think it’s cheating – is explicitly to point out to students the variety of situations to which what they’re learning today might be useful or transferable in the future, and give them a chance to not only talk about, but even take the time to have them DO some of those transfer kinds of tasks themselves. So for example, when teachers want students to understand that some of the very basic skills they’re learning now are going to be really important, because, at a later date, they’re going to have to put those together in some more complex processes, one way to do that is to actually to give the students first, the complex task, or process that they’re going to need the separate skills for. That gives them a kind of vision of the more complex whole that they’re aiming toward. Then, when they learn the individual processes, they can anticipate the later transfer. We do that in all kinds of situations. We can do it in arithmetic, but we also do it in something like medicine, where we teach medical students all kinds of basic ideas, and they have no idea why they’re learning these things.

Well, what we now do is, early in medical school we give them much more complex cases to deal with, and they realize they don’t know what they need to know in order to solve those more complex problems. And then we say to them, “Okay, we’re going to move back to much more basic ideas and skills that are going to be the way in which you will eventually be able to solve this kind of problem.” We do it with engineering students as well – give them a complicated design problem. And then when they realize how complicated, how many different components there are to the design problem, they are then ready to go back to the more basic processes and understand that these have transfer value to what it is they’re going to need later. So, one of the most important strategies is to actually give students the chance to encounter the variety of transfer situations, for which what they’re learning now can be very useful. And I think that’s not done very often, and it’s probably one of the most frequently missed opportunities that we as educators don’t take advantage of.

Another thing that can facilitate transfer is – as you teach the basic ideas – to have students practice talking about them with each other, and writing about themselves what these skills entail, and what these ideas mean to them, because one of the most difficult things about transfer is that you have the knowledge you need, and you don’t know you have it, or you don’t recognize that it’s useful in this new situation. People know far more than they realize they know, and they’ll give up on a more complicated task. So teaching the initial material in ways that increase the awareness of the students of what they know, how they know it, and a variety of ways of trying to represent the idea in their own head – just multiple connections – makes it more likely that when they do encounter a situation in the future where that knowledge is useful, they’ve got it packaged or organized in ways that’ll make it more available.

Discussion of learning skills in context

Learning skills in context both can increase the transfer of skills and knowledge, but it also can decrease it, if it’s not used well, and let me explain what I mean. If you use a context, if you use a particular problem, or a simulation, or if you say, “We’re going to use this for bridge building, or we’re going to do it for another, very interesting real life task,” it increases the students’ engagement with the ideas – it makes them work with the ideas much more actively and flexibly. It’s very likely they’ll do it collaboratively and talk to one another about it, which raises awareness. It has all of those virtues which makes the ideas become more alive and salient for them, and all of those things – as I said before – make it more likely that the ideas will be transferable.

The danger one has to worry about when one puts learning in context is the students somehow learn that what it is they’re doing only applies in this situation. The context takes over, and they fail to recognize the value of what they’re learning when they’re not building bridges with toothpicks, when they’re not rubbing balloons on their heads, when they’re not writing a particular essay on a particular topic that was assigned. And so the teacher is always doing this really challenging balancing act of – on one hand taking full pedagogical advantage of the richness that a context can contribute to the learning process; at the same time, constantly reminding the students, in a variety of ways that what they’re learning has value beyond the context as well – making comparisons, making analogies. So that the kids don’t think that what this is really about is toothpicks, because it’s not.

Another important way to think about transfer is to remind ourselves that classrooms are very special artificial environments that we create in order to educate. Students live most of their lives outside the classroom, and when they live their lives outside the classroom, they are living in rich environments in which a lot of learning is taking place, and so there are two kinds of transfer we have to keep very, very much in mind. One is – how can we as teachers use the rich variety of experiences that students have outside the classroom, and bring it to bear inside the classroom, so that you ask students to think about something they already know how to do outside and apply what they know inside? And of course, we also have to get the inside out – have to keep on reminding students that what they’re learning is not only valuable inside the classroom, but to get them to think about the ways that transfer can occur outside.

Let’s try to think of a few examples of that. Carol Lee, at Northwestern University, has been working on the question of how do you help students from African-American, urban communities, use the knowledge they already have about using words, rhymes, and sentences – that come out of the way in which they already use rap and things like this in their lives outside the classroom – to the interpretation, and analysis and then creation of written material inside the classroom. And she’s done stunning studies that show that when you can begin with students becoming much more conscious of the ways they’re already using language outside the classroom and then show them how they can apply those usages in the analysis of production of literature inside the classroom, you get amazing increases in learning. And so there’s an example where culture and cultural artifacts and practices outside the classroom get transferred into the classroom and facilitate learning. So that would be an example of outside-in.

We all know that almost every little boy that says he can’t learn to do division can probably do baseball batting averages in his head when he’s outside the classroom. Here’s just an example that there are all kinds of varieties of intuitive uses of mathematics that kids engage in without thinking of them in formal terms outside the classroom. And if teachers can identify those, and help the students bring what they already know and do outside the classroom into the learning of the mathematics and doings inside the classroom, there will be much more rapid learning of the mathematics.

The notion here is for the teacher to be enormously cognizant of how smart kids are outside the classroom in a variety of ways, and to have them make that connection inside. Probably the most frequent strategy that gets used to do that – and we see that on a number of the tapes – is where the teacher begins by asking the students, in one way or the other, what they already know. And as the students begin to express things they already know, the teacher begins to identify the hooks from their outside experience that she’ll then use to facilitate the learning inside the classroom.

Now the inside to outside is the one we probably do more frequently, and that is where we have kids study a particular problem or task – or set of processes in the classroom – and then we assign a project or an assignment of some other kind that calls upon the students to take what they’ve learned inside and apply it outside. And again, we see this in all kinds of things, we see it in kids taking the mathematics they learn in the classroom of calculation and graphing and other kinds of representation, and going to the nearest busy intersection outside the school, and beginning to do a traffic flow study to try to decide whether they need an extra stop sign or an extra stoplight. You see it when kids take things they’re learning in biology, and they get a chance to get out and study a local body of water to check for pollution levels, or to check for what kinds of wildlife live out there. And these are just examples of teachers saying, “Hey, this is a set of ideas that doesn’t stop being useful in the classroom. Let’s go out and use it in a variety of settings and see how much transfer there is that way.” So the transfer goes both ways.

Discussion of the structure of subject matter

When we say that a subject matter has a structure, what we mean is that the ideas, the facts, the principles, the theories, the skills of a subject matter are not just some sort of long list of names that can be arrayed in any order, and you simply have to sit down and memorize them, and that’s what it means to know the subject. Anything worth knowing usually has some sort of organization. And that doesn’t mean there’s only one organization for the subject, but it means if you understand the organization, you have much more likelihood of gaining some mastery over the subject, of moving around in the subject, and of using it. Let me take a trivial example. You send me to a supermarket to buy a long, long list of groceries, and the list starts with avocadoes and ends with zwieback crackers – something like that for the baby. (Do they still have zwieback for babies? I don’t know.) And I don’t know anything about the way that supermarkets are organized – I just think they’re random – it will take me forever to buy that stuff, because I’ll go down the list, and I’ll go one at a time, and I’ll be wandering all over the place. I won’t know where to look for things, and I won’t know how to organize my actions inside the supermarket. But most of us understand the structure of a supermarket. We understand that different kinds of things you might want to buy. Groceries tend to be grouped together in certain categories, but not only that, categories tend to be organized in certain ways, and sometimes we know that structure even though we haven’t explicitly thought about it. We know, for example, where to look for produce. The likelihood is that the produce is going to be along the walls of the supermarket, and for some reason, when you walk into the supermarket they’re either along the right-hand wall, or the left-hand wall. Why? I don’t know, but I know that they’re organized that way. I know that the meat and the fish counters are also likely to be along walls. Now does it have to do with the availability of water and electricity? Maybe, but I don’t know. And the canned goods are likely to be in the middle and they’re going to be organized in certain ways, right? If I know that organization, if I know that structure, then I can move through and do what I need to do and even remember what’s on that list much better than if I don’t know the structure at all. In fact, what I tend to do when I get a list of things to go to the supermarket and buy – on those rare occasions when I’m trusted alone in the supermarket; men are not very trustworthy, we are impulse buyers – I reorganize the list. And I rewrite the list, so I put all the fruits and vegetables together, and all the milk and dairy products together, because I am trying to change the task so it fits my knowledge of the structure.

We do that in other places. If I’m a physician, and I’m doing an examination of you, I don’t just randomly say, “Let me just look at your nose, how’s your toe?” I have a structure – it’s the structure of the human body and its organ systems – so I will systematically check the gastro-intestinal track. I will check the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, the neurological, right? Because, not only does that give me a structure for moving through the examination, it also structures my memory for any signs and symptoms that I encounter, that may be relevant in diagnosing what you have. So, every time we call something a subject matter, I would say, we call it that because it has some principle of organization that connects the ideas with one another that gives them some kind of order, some sort of meaningfulness, and it’s like a code. If you were to be a teacher and you taught students about supermarkets, and you never taught them the code, you never said, “You’ve got to understand, there’s a structure here – there is a predictable way in which these things are organized.” You wouldn’t be teaching the students well, because if you understand the structure, then you could go to a supermarket in Buenos Aires, you could go to a supermarket in Tel Aviv, and you could find your away around.

Well that’s true of teaching kids mathematics; it’s true of teaching kids history; it’s true of teaching them biology; it’s true of teaching them literature. You’ve got to look for the ways in which meaning is created through organization – through the way things are connected and ordered – and if you can help students get access to that, you can give them so much more power than if you just give them long lists of things.

When we say that subject matters have structures, what we’re saying is that they have ways in which the core ideas in the subject are connected with one another so that the students can acquire meanings that would be hard to acquire otherwise. It means students beginning to detect patterns and regularities.

Discussion of looking for the structures of subject matter

Looking for structures in subject matters is really a great deal of fun, because it’s what makes the subject matters the exciting kinds of domains they are. And the way you do that is to make students much more aware of how certain ideas keep on coming up again and again in the subject area, and to make them aware of the patterns and regularities in the subject. So, for example, as you begin teaching kids arithmetic and they learn that two plus three is exactly the same as three plus two and that two times three is exactly the same as three times two, that’s a wonderful structure. We call it commutativity. It means that the order in which you do things doesn’t matter. In this case it’s the same going backwards and forwards. And then you say to them, “Well, does that mean that three minus two is the same as two minus three, or that three divided by two is the same as two divided by three?” And as they begin to realize that isn’t the case, you begin to afford them access to one of the structures of mathematics – which is that some kinds of processes do have this commutative property and others don’t. And what are the implications of that? Where can you go from there? And this is again a question of transfer. We talked about that earlier, because as you begin to get access to those structures you’re getting ideas that you can apply again, and again, and again in new situations.

And so the notion of structure in mathematics is probably one of the most obvious ones. Mathematics is a field where most people who teach mathematics will readily understand the notion that there are certain kinds of structures. There’s a notion of balance. There’s a notion of equilibrium. There are notions of ratio and proportion that just keep on coming up again, and again, and again, and whether you’re doing primary arithmetic or you’re doing algebra, those notions return, repeat themselves – and you get a sense of how these organizations really make sense of the subject. In the case of a field like literature, the structures tend to be somewhat more elusive. They aren’t as obvious. They don’t stare you in the face the way they do in mathematics. But they’re there, nevertheless, so that you find that teachers of literature will often ask students to think about notions of theme. What’s the theme of this story? And students will say, “Well, I’m not sure, what is a theme?” And so you begin to get examples and try to show them. Well, what about character? What about plot, and how is plot like or different from theme? These are aspects of the structure of literature in some sense. And, we have centuries in which people are trying to identify these structures and to use them to help people learn these ideas and appreciate these ideas. When you’re studying Shakespeare, what’s the difference between the structure of a tragedy and the structure of a comedy, and how do you know when you’re reading or watching or experiencing each one? Those are aspects of the structures of literature. So you can go field by field and get examples of structures.

Many scientists will argue that in modern biology the theory of evolution is the central structure of all of biology. And it’s got core concepts, like adaptation, like organisms and environments, like the notion of chance, and what’s the role of chance in how well organisms adapt to environments – and how does that relate to notions of evolution? I mean, these are core ideas and they keep on coming up again, and again, and again. And to teach biology without introducing students to those core ideas would be like teaching people supermarket without giving them any sense of the organization. So in just about every field of study you get a kind of grammar, a kind of syntax, a kind of structure of the field which is the code that students have to be given access to so they don’t think all their learning is a long list.

Discussion of pedagogical content knowledge

Pedagogical content knowledge is an idea that we developed to try to explain a really interesting anomaly – and the anomaly is that many people who know a subject very, very well, find it nearly impossible to teach what they know to somebody else. It’s a really intriguing problem. The world is filled with people who know how to read, but they can’t teach reading to somebody else. The world is filled with people who can write, but then their own child comes with an essay they have to write, and they ask for help, and they don’t know where to begin. There are people who are great historians and have enormous difficulty explaining the histories that they themselves know to someone else. And we certainly know that the world is filled with mathematicians who seem to find it very difficult to teach mathematics to others. So the notion of pedagogical content knowledge grows out of the question: how is it possible for someone who already knows something to teach it to someone else who doesn’t? How do you create a bridge between what you know and what somebody else does not yet know, but needs to know? And, like building any kind of bridge, it requires a different kind of understanding, a different kind of process. It requires understanding both what you know and what is already inside the students’ heads, so that you can create powerful, and flexible, and rich connections between those two.

What do those connections look like? Well, first of all, pedagogical content knowledge often takes the form of understanding what kinds of examples and analogies, metaphors, stories, drawings that you might put up – visual representatives, experiences the students have outside the classroom already – that will create some of these meaningful connections between what the students already know and what it is we want to help them know. And that’s not a trivial task. It’s an extraordinarily difficult, complex task that takes years, and years, and years to learn. And, in fact, having taught now for nearly 40 years, I’m still learning, developing pedagogical content knowledge with respect to things I know. As I get more and more insight into how to explain them to others.

So, for example, in the teaching of mathematics – this very abstract, powerful, symbolic system – how do you teach mathematics to members of the species that are young and concrete and very much caught up in their own personal experiences? That requires pedagogical content knowledge. It requires understanding what kinds of experiences, what kinds of objects to manipulate, what kind of examples you can use to help students acquire an understanding of very, very complex ideas. And the important insight of pedagogical content knowledge was really at two levels. One was that someone who understands a subject matter deeply still doesn’t know what he needs to know in order to teach it to someone else; that subject matter knowledge is not sufficient for teaching, although it’s increasingly clear that it is necessary. So, teaching something well to someone and only having pedagogical knowledge of it, but not content knowledge as well, is also probably impossible. So there are two kinds of understanding and a very substantial part of pedagogical content knowledge is not only the understanding of the subject so you can figure out the variety of hooks that you can help create in the subject, but it’s having profound understanding of who the students are, so you understand where the hooks are in them, as well.

And that’s where questions of culture, and of language, and of the developmental status of the students become absolutely essential parts of pedagogical content knowledge. You cannot build a bridge from one side of the Golden Gate to the other if all you know about is your side of the Golden Gate, because how are you ever going to know how to anchor it at the other end unless you understand that terrain very, very fully. That’s why pedagogical content knowledge is equally concerned with a profound understanding of the subject matter at one end and of the student’s intellectual and motivational developmental and cultural standing at the other. It’s a very complex idea, but I think it captures the essential challenge of becoming an extraordinarily good teacher.

Discussion of finding the core ideas in a subject area

How do you identify the central ideas in a subject area? That is the million dollar question, really, because it is the question that the scholars in that area wrestle with constantly. I mean it’s not one of these simple questions where the answers are in the back of the book. And so it is a process of careful analysis. For example, one of the things I’ve done in preparing teachers is I’ve asked them, “Imagine now that there’s a class you’re teaching, and you’ve got 20 weeks to teach this class. Now, think about all the things you might want to teach in those 20 weeks. What if you then learned that you only had ten weeks for teaching it. What would you leave out? Would you simply lop off the last ten weeks? Or would you try to reorganize it in some fashion to make sure that certain ideas or stories or principles or concepts or facts were in it? Well, what if you learned that there are only five weeks to teach the class?” And I keep on pushing it back. And then I’ll say, well what if you had one day? And somehow in one day you had to somehow help students get access to what really counted? Now, at that point some of the students will just throw up their hands and say it’s not fair. But the very exercise of asking that kind of question forces us to rethink, and rethink, and rethink what does it mean to understand this subject well?

So if I were to say to you, “If you were an English teacher, what if you could only teach one story, one novel, or one play and that had to be in some fashion, the window to the world of literature for your students. Which play would you choose? Why? And what would you ask students to do with the play? Would it be ‘King Lear’? Would it be ‘Romeo and Juliet’? Would it be one of Arthur Miller’s plays? Would it be a Faulkner short story? Would it be Tolstoy’s War and Peace? And why?” I mean, that’s the kind of question that pushes you to begin to wrestle with, what’s the big idea here. And what’s interesting is that there may not be a single big idea.

For example, in elementary arithmetic, Dr. Lee Ping Ma has studied what she called the profound understanding of fundamental mathematics, and she discovered that in elementary arithmetic knowledge is organized into what she called knowledge packages – just clusters of ideas that are connected internally to one another, and then those ideas in turn, those packages, are connected to one another. And what she discovered was that in China the teachers and the kids understand those packages and teach them, whereas in the United States we tend not to. We tend to teach arithmetic as if it’s just a set of computational processes. And Lee Ping Ma maintains that’s the reason why consistently in international comparisons the Chinese kids dramatically outperform American kids, because we don’t stop and ask what those basic core ideas are.

Similarly, with a field like history. What are some of the core ideas about human power, about the clash of cultures, about the way in which societies organize themselves to engage in certain kinds of activities, internally and externally? And how is it that if you understand those, then you could look at different societies, different nations, over time in different places and be able to see the patterns and the regularities? But you’ve got to be able to understand those patterns and regularities yourself as a teacher before you can do that. And then you notice that some of the ideas we’ve been talking about earlier, ideas of transfer, ideas of structure, apply here as well. We’re talking about the transfer of knowledge. If you can get access to those key, core structures of a subject matter you can transfer that learning.

I mean, think of the example of learning a foreign language. If you try to learn how to conjugate every single verb in a language, one at a time, as if each verb had its own unique character, you’d spend a lifetime learning the language and every time you encountered a new verb, you would think you have to learn its conjugation from scratch. But would we learn? We learned a new language. Isn’t there a certain limited number of kinds of conjugation? And if you say, “What’s the word for to bungee jump,” and the person says, “Oh, it’s such and such.” And you think, “Ah, that’s a such and such kind of word.” You’re thinking about kinds of conjugation. They say, “Yup, that’s right.” You immediately know how to conjugate it because you understand a core principle that transfers, that applies over and over again. And they might say, “Well, it’s almost like that. There are a couple of little exceptions.” That’s fine, too, because you’re still doing variations on a theme. And we know about this musically as well. I mean, there’s certain kinds of musical performance with certain kinds of structures, and you learn to anticipate them. So, it’s different for each area. You’ve got to know it in each area. You can’t simply know it in one and say, “Well, I understand the structures that work in history, I guess I now don’t have to worry about mathematics, biology, physics, etc.” You have to know them for each subject and then begin to elaborate and work with them in your teaching the student.

Discussion of structures in science and history

Science and history make an interesting contrast if you begin to think about how notions of understanding are the same or different in those two fields, and therefore, how their teaching might differ. Let’s take a vivid example. When we first introduce science to kids, one of the first ideas they learn is the idea of an experiment. What do scientists do? They do experiments. And, you know, you put on your white coat. And as they learn about scientific method they learn about experimental groups and control groups. And they learn the great stories of scientific experiments. They learn the store of Pasteur and they learn the stories of Jonas Salk and they learn – I mean the notion of an experiment is very much at the center of what it means to do science, to generate evidence, to make inferences and come up with theories in science. Now, let me set aside for a moment the undeniable fact that there are fields of science where it’s very hard to do experiments – like astronomy. But let’s just take it for a given that experiment is a great idea in science. And now we start learning history. Well, how do you do an experiment in history? Well, you suddenly realize that that’s not the way you do history. We don’t have, we can’t put one historical period in an experimental group and another one in a control group and see what the difference is. But we’re still doing comparisons. We’re still trying to create evidence. I mean there are certain ideas that do cut across – notions of description, of analysis, careful, careful observation, notions of what is the evidence for your claim, notions of theory. But the fundamental process of experimentation which is at the heart of work in science, has no real analogy in history – if what you mean by experiment is that the scientist is controlling conditions and studying what happens under conditions that she herself has controlled.

So what does a historian have to do? The historian in some sense has to look for comparisons where, if you will, nature has made experiments, not scientists. So you ask, well, why was it that the American Revolution had these properties and proceeded this way, but the Russian Revolution, which we also call a revolution, had different properties and worked out a totally different way? Why is it that the American Revolution yielded a democratic form of government that remained stable for 200 plus years and the Russian Revolution yielded a more autocratic kind of government that had other kinds of properties. Well, you can say that’s almost like an experiment. So you’re still trying to generate evidence through comparison and contrast, careful observation and analysis. But you don’t have what the scientist in the experimental discipline has, which is control over the variables that you’re using for your work. And so what’s really important as teachers teach different disciplines to students, is for the students to appreciate that there are certain kinds of ideas like description, like analysis, like careful observation, like evidence, inference and theory, if you will, that are useful across disciplines. But there are other ways in which very important methods of work in one discipline just don’t show up in another discipline. And I think history and science make a lovely contrast here.

History and literature also make a lovely contrast. Because when a student study history, one of the first questions they always have to learn to ask is did it really happen that way? And that, that’s, you know, if somebody says that beings from outer space came down to the North American continent in 1775 in the middle of the night, they wrote the Declaration of Independence, slipped it under Thomas Jefferson’s pillow and then went back up into outer space. Well, you know, that’s a perfectly interesting narrative and the question is, but what’s your evidence that it really happened that way? Did it really happen? Now, if I write a novel and it’s a novel about beings from outer space coming down and slipping the Declaration of Independence under Thomas Jefferson’s pillow and somebody says, “That’s a perfectly awful novel cause it didn’t really happen that way.” My response is, “You don’t get it. This is literature, this is a novel. It has different purposes. There are different canons that we use for determining whether it’s a good novel or a bad novel, and they’re not the same as the ones we use for determining whether something is good history or bad history – unless we’re going to use the novel for teaching people history.” And so here again, understanding the differences in what counts as evidence and what counts as knowing a subject between subjects becomes terribly important for teachers to understand, and in turn for students to understand.

Discussion of metacognition

Metacognition is thinking about your own thinking. Sometimes we use the phrase “going meta” instead of metacognition, and what we mean by that is being able to step back and, see yourself and what your doing, as if you were someone else observing it. It’s becoming an audience for your own performance. And in this case it’s your own, intellectual performance. We know that this is extraordinarily useful when we think about learning physical skills. So that when someone is learning to play golf, we know that seeing video tape of their own swing is enormously helpful for beginning to understand what they’re doing well, and what they’re doing poorly, because, so typically, we don’t even know what we’re doing when we do it. And therefore, it’s very hard to improve a process that you’re engaged in if you don’t have any idea of what you’re doing when you engage in it. I mean it’s no accident that ballet studios have mirrors in the walls. Because even someone as exquisitely skilled as a ballet dancer, does not really understand what she looks like and what she’s doing just from trying to experience it in her body. She has to be able to see it as others might see it before she can begin to improve it, and modulate it, and notice now that physical skills are so much easier then intellectual ones, because physical skills are at the end of the day, visible. They’re there. You can see them.

Cognitive work, intellectual work, thinking and feeling is invisible, it can’t be directly observed, so the question for us is, what’s the equivalent of the mirror on the dance studio wall, of the videotape of the golf swing? We’re saying, “How do you become thoughtful about your own thinking as you’re doing mathematics and history – as you’re doing the teaching of biology, the teaching of composition.” And, that’s a great challenge. Helping people learn how to go meta on their own thought processes, which are themselves not directly visible. And yet, if you can’t do that, it becomes very difficult to improve them – to get better at them – because how can you improve on those things you can’t see or feel, and therefore you can’t understand. And that’s the great challenge, not only of cognition, but when we talk about cognitive apprenticeships for example. It’s so much more difficult to model, and to shape, and to guide processes that aren’t directly visible. It’s not like learning to become a blacksmith, or to be a shoemaker, or even to be a midwife. When learning to be a mathematical problem solver, or someone who can creatively think up narratives in writing, you need to be able to go meta on your thinking, and not only on your observable performance. So that’s what megacognition is.

I think it’s, important for teachers to give students chances to reflect on their learning, because the students are the last ones to realize, very often, what they’re doing when they’re successful and when they fail. Here again, if I’m hitting a golf ball, and I see when I finish my stroke the ball has gone two feet to the left of the tee, I’ve got pretty good evidence that there must’ve been something I’ve done wrong with my swing, because it just didn’t get anywhere. But still, I need, some way of analyzing and looking at my swing, or I have no chance to learn to hit the ball so that it’s going to go 200 yards and straight down the middle. Well, if I’m learning to write an essay, and let’s say I write two essays, and I get an A from you on one of them and a C on the other, and the teacher says “See, you CAN write a good essay, do more of what you did on the A essay, than what you did on the C essay.” And I say, “But I don’t know what I did on the A essay that was different then the C essay, I just have no idea.” That’s where it becomes terribly important for the teacher to assist the student in reflecting on their own learning, because otherwise, how do I become better, how do I move my learning from the kind of thing I did in the C situation to the kind of thing I did in the A situation, if I don’t have access to the kind of understanding of my own performance that I need to improve it.

And I think that’s the essence of it, and it’s true in field after field. It’s so true in mathematics, where kids get confronted by things like more complex contextualized word problems, and they get some right and some wrong, and they just don’t understand what it is they did when they got it right – they just don’t have that meta understanding, “What was I doing when was doing it well as against what am I doing when I’m doing it badly.” And that may be at the end of the day, the most important thing we can teach students, and what’s tragic is that very often – because of the press of time – that’s the thing we sacrifice. So for example, think about hands-on science. We design these wonderful laboratory experiences for the students, and they go, and they roll balls down inclined planes – remember that from one of the tapes. Or we have them construct their bridges out of toothpicks, and we expend so much time doing, having the experience – doing the experiment – that we don’t take the necessary time the next day, or at the end of the hour to say, “Okay, stop doing what you’re doing. What was really happening there? What were you learning? Why was it that you concluded the ball did this – it was doing this – and when the ball did that, something else was happening? Think about your own thinking here. How were you using the evidence, how were you, on what basis were you making those inferences.” And the students should then be discussing it, arguing about it, trying to make these things clear.

Very often we do these lab experiments, and we run out of time, and so at the end of the day they’ve done the experiment, they’ve had the cognition, but they have not been able to go meta, and in the absence of going meta, the cognition is almost a waste of time, because they don’t know what they know. And therefore, the likelihood that they will be able to transfer that to another situation is dramatically reduced. Metacognition is one of those processes that helps take what we learn in one situation and transforms it into a level of understanding that is much more likely to transfer to another situation. And that’s the kind of connection there is between metacognition and learning and transfer. It’s at the heart of the process of taking what you’ve learned, and making it useable in transfer situations.

It’s important for teachers to give their students MANY opportunities to reflect on their learning, because the learning itself is rarely sufficient to create understandings of a sort that can be transferred readily to other situations, and because the absence of opportunities of reflection on one’s learning is part of why some kinds of learning are simply barren and infertile, if you will, and other kinds of learning turn out to be highly productive and useable again and again. And I think the heart of it is creating opportunities to step back and analyze, and reflect on your own practice. I mean, it’s no accident that when we prepare people to do very complex and important kinds of skills, we create opportunities for reflection.

I spent years teaching medical students how to take medical histories from patients. And we didn’t just teach them to do the histories. We had them practice it and then look at a videotape of their own performance, so they could begin to see things they were doing that were and were not productive of getting good information from their patients. Without looking at their own practice they found it very, very difficult to improve that practice. When students learn to write we often have review groups, where students review each other’s essays, and critique and give feedback. Well, that’s a way of going meta, because if you can step back and say, “Suzanne, did you notice that when you used this word, it had much more power than when you used that word? Why do you think that was so? And how can we get you to use more words of the first kind than of the second kind?” And you say, “I didn’t even realize I was using those words. I mean, it just, it just came to me naturally.” And you say, “Well then, if you’re just doing it naturally, then you’re not going to get control over using it purposefully.” And that requires going meta. Then, maybe helping you reflect that way, I get some insights into my own performance as well. So these are just several examples of how it is that going meta, becomes the lever for ratcheting learning from a low level to a much higher and transferable level.

Transcript of comments by Annemarie Palincsar, Ph.D., University of Michigan

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.

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.

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.

[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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

[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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Web-Based Readings

Biemiller,A and Meichenbaum, D.(1992). Untracking for Equity: The Nature and Nurture Of the Self-Directed Learner. Educational Leadership, 50(2). Retrieved 12/31/02.
This article describes the importance of self-regulated learning.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). Learning: From speculation to science, Learning and transfer, and How children learn (Chapter 1, see selected pages 18-19, Chapter 3, see selected pages 67-68, and Chapter 4, see selected pages 95-101). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Related Links

An article on metacognition at the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University.