Best Practice

Metacognitive development and challenge in the primary classroom

Designing challenging tasks in the primary school classroom is no mean feat, but an understanding of key research theories and how they link with metacognitive skills can help. Anoara Mughal explains
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Research tells us that introducing challenge in the classroom can significantly enhance metacognitive development among pupils.

By grappling with complex problems or unfamiliar tasks, pupils are pushed out of their comfort zones and develop critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and self-regulation strategies – all vital for academic and personal success.

And there is much research out there – Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory (Lovell, 2020; Sweller et al, 2011), Bjork’s desirable difficulty (Bjork & Bjork, 2020), Dweck’s growth mindset (Dweck, 2016), and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (1978). So the question is – where do we begin?


What is challenge?


We spend so much time thinking about setting challenging tasks that we lose sight of what challenge actually is. As Robbie Burns said in his recent three-part series on challenge in the classroom for Headteacher Update: “We do not think deeply enough about the meaning of challenge.”

In the classroom, challenge refers to creating learning experiences that push pupils beyond their current knowledge and abilities. It involves designing tasks that require pupils to think critically, solve problems and apply their skills and understanding in meaningful ways.

Challenges should be appropriately difficult, stimulating pupils’ curiosity and motivation, while still being achievable with effort and support.

Not only should challenge provide pupils with the opportunity to stretch their thinking, make connections, and develop higher-order cognitive skills, it should help develop confidence and self-efficacy, too. Setting challenging activities is a complex task encompassing various elements.


Conceptual understanding

To get started, teachers must develop their “conceptual understanding” of the curriculum as well as the various theories cited above.

When teachers have a deep understanding of the concepts that pupils are expected to learn, they can plan and design effective learning experiences that align with curriculum goals.

They can identify the key knowledge and skills that pupils need to develop and design activities that are challenging yet achievable. Teachers can also identify prior knowledge and any misconceptions that pupils have and address them through targeted teaching.

This ensures that challenges build upon pupils’ existing knowledge and align with pupils’ current abilities and understanding.

In addition, understanding the concepts within the curriculum helps teachers to scaffold learning effectively. They can tailor their instruction to meet the needs of individual pupils and provide support as needed. They can break-down complex concepts into smaller, more manageable parts and provide the guidance required to help pupils grasp the underlying principles.

Understanding the sequencing of the curriculum is also crucial for setting appropriate challenges for pupils. The sequencing of the curriculum involves the logical order in which concepts, skills and content are taught.

By having a clear understanding of this sequence, teachers can ensure effective scaffolding and support, that they build on prior knowledge, and that they understand the cognitive steps needed to reach the learning goals. Without a solid grasp of the curriculum sequence, teachers may unintentionally introduce tasks that are too advanced or too basic, leading to frustration or boredom.

Conceptual development involves the acquisition of abstract knowledge and the ability to apply it in various contexts. It requires pupils to engage in critical thinking, problem-solving, and reasoning.

Metacognition plays a crucial role in conceptual development as it enables pupils to reflect on their understanding, identify gaps in knowledge, and develop strategies to fill those gaps.

When pupils are actively engaged in metacognitive practices, they can monitor their own learning, evaluate their progress, and adjust as necessary, to improve their conceptual understanding.

I have written previously in Headteacher Update about the explicit teaching of metacognition and self-regulation processes. Here I would like to focus further on three of the theories cited above.


Cognitive Load Theory


Understanding Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory, how the human mind processes information, and the limitations of working memory can help teachers in setting appropriate challenges.

According to Sweller, when pupils are presented with complex tasks or information that exceed their cognitive capacity, it can lead to cognitive overload, which hinders learning and comprehension and can be a catalyst for poor behaviour.

By applying this theory, teachers can design challenges that strike a balance between difficulty and manageability. Using the theory, teachers can break-down complex concepts into smaller, more digestible chunks, ensuring that pupils are not overwhelmed.

By aligning the challenges with pupils’ cognitive abilities, teachers can create optimal learning conditions, promoting deep understanding, engagement, and effective learning outcomes.


Desirable difficulty

The Desirable Difficulty Framework is a concept that suggests introducing certain challenges or obstacles during the learning process to enhance learning outcomes.

It was proposed by psychologists Robert and Elizabeth Bjork. According to the framework, when learning is made slightly more difficult, it can lead to greater retention and long-term learning. The idea is that by creating a moderate level of challenge, learners are forced to engage more deeply with the material, employ effective learning strategies, and develop stronger memory and problem-solving skills. There are various ways to implement this.

Challenge and desirable difficulty refer to tasks which require pupils to exert effort, engage in deeper thinking and overcome obstacles. When pupils encounter challenges, they are encouraged to reflect on their thinking processes, adapt their strategies and develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

This process helps pupils become more aware of their own learning, leading to enhanced metacognitive skills. The research shows that when pupils are exposed to appropriate levels of challenge, they are more likely to engage in metacognitive strategies, such as planning, monitoring, and evaluating their own learning. Some common strategies are:

  • Spacing: Spacing out learning sessions over time, rather than cramming information all at once, allows for better retention and retrieval of knowledge.
  • Interleaving: Mixing up different types of problems or topics during practice sessions, rather than focusing on one topic at a time, helps to enhance learning by promoting deeper understanding and flexibility in applying knowledge.
  • Retrieval practice: Actively recalling information from memory, such as through quizzes or self-testing, strengthens long-term retention and improves learning compared to simply re-reading or reviewing material (see Roediger & Butler, 2011).
  • Varied examples: Providing learners with a variety of examples or problem-solving scenarios that require them to apply their knowledge in different contexts enhances their ability to transfer and apply that knowledge to real-world situations.


The Zone of Proximal Development

The ZPD is a concept introduced by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. It refers to the range of tasks that pupils cannot yet perform independently but can accomplish with the guidance and support of a teacher or peer.

Pitching tasks just outside the ZPD but with scaffolding is an effective strategy to not only accelerate learning and teaching to the top, but also to provide appropriate challenge to develop metacognitive skills.

Scaffolding involves providing temporary support and guidance to pupils as they work through challenging tasks. It helps bridge the gap between pupils’ current abilities and their potential abilities, enabling them to reach higher levels of understanding and skill development.

To balance challenge and support in the classroom, teachers must carefully assess their pupils’ current abilities and provide tasks that are appropriately challenging but not overwhelming. By pitching tasks just outside the ZPD, teachers can foster a sense of productive struggle, encouraging pupils to engage in metacognitive processes to overcome challenges.

Teachers can provide scaffolding such as explicit instruction, modelling, prompts and feedback to support pupils as they navigate their way through difficult tasks. As pupils gain confidence, the level of scaffolding can be gradually reduced, allowing for independence and metacognitive growth.


Final thoughts

Balancing challenge and support is essential for creating an environment where pupils are encouraged to engage in metacognitive practices, reflect on their learning, and develop strategies for conceptual development.

By developing teacher understanding of a multitude of concepts involved in setting challenging tasks, teachers will know that they are setting appropriate challenges for all pupils and fostering independent learners equipped with the metacognitive skills for lifelong success.

  • Anoara Mughal is a metacognitive researcher, dedicating her teaching career to researching and understanding the theory and its applications to the classroom. A former assistant headteacher, she has been a teacher in London for 17 years. She is the author of Think! Metacognition-powered Primary Teaching. Find resources to develop metacognitive understanding via, follow her on X (Twitter) @anoara_a and @TFLearn, and read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via


Further information & resources

  • Bjork & Bjork: Desirable difficulties in theory and practice, Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (9,4), 2020.
  • Dweck: Mindset: The new psychology of success, Ballantine Books, 2016.
  • Lovell: Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action, John Catt Educational, 2020.
  • Roediger & Butler: The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 2011.
  • Sweller, Ayres & Klayuga: Cognitive Load Theory: Vol 1, Springer, 2011.
  • Vygotsky: Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes, Harvard University Press, 1978.