Metacognition in the primary classroom

Written by: Jane Downes | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Metacognitive strategies can empower even the youngest children to think about how they are learning and equip them to learn new tasks. Jane Downes explains


With the autumn term under way, now is a good time to help pupils make a flying start to the year by developing positive learning behaviours. One approach which is rapidly gaining momentum in the education world is metacognition, the method which enables learners to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning.

There are already signs that metacognition can support children from all backgrounds in making progress. A study (Classick et al, 2021) comparing children from disadvantaged backgrounds who do well with those who do not, found that high-achieving disadvantaged pupils often used metacognitive strategies.

Although research often explores metacognition in secondary-age pupils, there is an argument that children are never too young to develop techniques which help them become more independent learners and to have more control over their learning


Introducing metacognition

To learn successfully, pupils need to have a range of strategies to tackle new tasks. When learning their four times table, for example, a child might find it helps to visualise groups of four objects. However, the same pupil might find that strategy doesn’t work so well for the seven times table.

Metacognition happens when pupils reflect on which strategies helped them with a new skill and which strategies did not. This gives children a toolkit of strategies that they can take with them into their future learning.

Many children are already using metacognition without realising it. The child who learns their spellings by “saying words as they are spelt” is using a learning strategy and may choose to use the same strategy again in their next spelling test.

In fact some teachers I have spoken to say they have noticed their pupils using metacognition naturally when learning remotely during the pandemic. Metacognition is an important step towards becoming an independent learner.


A metacognitive lesson plan

The key to helping pupils develop and sustain metacognitive practices is to guide them to make decisions themselves about which strategies to use. Even primary school lessons can be structured around the three stages of metacognition – planning, monitoring and evaluating.


Planning

When thinking about how to learn a new skill, learners are encouraged to consider what they are being asked to do. They then review which strategies they would use and whether any strategies they have used before would be helpful.

Here is how it could work in a year 3 lesson on the four times table:

  • Start by introducing the purpose of the lesson and explain there will be a test. This gives the children something to work towards.
  • Ask the children what helped them remember their two, five and 10 times table which they have already learnt. The children might talk about what they did, such as singing songs or counting in steps.
  • Encourage the children to try different strategies for learning, like using a number stick, counting on a number line or repeating multiplication facts. Ask the children to try out all these strategies while working in pairs.


Monitoring

While learning a skill, learners reflect on whether the strategy they have adopted is successful or whether they might need to try a different method.

  • Set some questions on the board for the children to answer individually, then ask them to mark their own work. The idea is to help pupils recognise how helpful their strategies are.
  • Introduce a reflection point where pupils pause their learning, take stock of their strategies and discuss them with their peers.
  • Ask the children to mark each learning strategy with a red dot in the margin if they felt it wasn’t helpful and they needed to try another, or a green dot if the strategy has helped and they would carry on using it.


Evaluating

Once the skill has been mastered, teachers ask learners to reflect on the effectiveness of the strategy they chose in order to identify approaches which could be used in other, different contexts.

  • Explain to the children that the strategies they find helpful might not be the same for the person they are sitting next to.
  • Remind the children of the learning objective, in this case to learn the four times table facts. Ask pupils to agree what success looks like. For some it might be to get nine out of 10 correct. For others it might be to get the correct answer to nine times four.
  • Encourage pupils to mark their own tests and reflect on how successful they have been. If they were successful, they should think about how they might use the same strategy in the future. If not, they should think about which other strategy might help next time.

Children need to experience opportunities to overcome difficulties in order to develop metacognitive thinking. It leads children to greater understanding about their own learning and how they can apply this understanding when tackling new skills.


Involving everyone in the school

It can be a good idea for adults to lead by example by using metacognitive strategies themselves when learning a new skill. Some senior leaders have built metacognition into different aspects of the school day to help everyone adopt learning strategies. Below are some examples of whole-school metacognitive thinking.


Metacognition week

Invite everyone in the school, including the headteacher, teachers, site manager and pupils, to learn a new skill. Each person should choose their own skill, whether it is playing a tune on an instrument, building a bird box or counting in Welsh. It doesn’t matter what the skill is, as long as it is new.

Encourage the adults to model their thinking out loud by asking themselves metacognitive questions such as: “What didn’t go well and what could I do differently next time?” “What went well and for what other types of problem can I use this strategy?”

Display these questions in classrooms and in other learning spaces to help embed metacognitive thinking across the school.


Metacognitive assembly

Hold an assembly and introduce one new skill for everyone in the school to learn. It can be a good idea to invite an external visitor to teach something like juggling, for example.

Encourage everyone to learn together and ask the adults to model the planning, monitoring and evaluation process throughout the exercise.

Hold a second assembly to share the strategies everyone used to learn the new skill. Discuss which strategies were helpful and when alternatives were needed. Ask everyone to evaluate which strategy might be helpful for learning in the future.


Conclusion

There are plenty of creative and fun ways to build metacognitive strategies into the school day and metacognition can soon become second nature. By gaining the understanding they need to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning, children will not only make a good start to the year, but they will also have tools for lifelong learning.

  • Jane Downes is a teaching and learning adviser for Juniper Education and has over 30 years’ experience in primary education. She has taught across all primary school year groups and she is currently a moderation manager for key stages 1 and 2. Visit https://junipereducation.org/


Further information & resources

  • Classick et al: PISA 2018 additional analyses: What differentiates disadvantaged pupils who do well in PISA from those who do not? Research brief, DfE/NFER, February 2021: https://bit.ly/38WBoSN
  • Headteacher Update: Metacognition in the primary school classroom, June 2019: https://bit.ly/2Yy2wlv
  • SecEd Podcast: Teaching metacognition, January 2021: http://bit.ly/2LK0Ger


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