Metacognition: How do we think about thinking?

We hear educators use the term “lifelong learners” quite regularly.  It follows the belief that we’re never really done learning.  However, being a learner beyond traditional school requires more than the basics of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  It means students have an understanding of what learning is and how to facilitate their own learning.  This requires the ability to reflect on how we learn and think.  Every hear yourself say, “I don’t learn well that way.” or “I don’t even have enough information to know where to start.”  These thoughts fall in the category of metacognition, or the thinking about thinking.

 When learners (children or adults) can think about how to approach a learning task, they are able to set up an environment that sets them up for success.  For example, if you’re doing your taxes and this year you bought a house, you might reflect on what you already know. 

  •  I know buying a house could impact my filing.
  •  I don’t know exactly how to report or what documentation I need.
  • I want to know exactly how much this will save me in taxes.

Because you can think about your thinking, you can focus your learning on what you don’t know and how to determine what your refund will be.  This is an example of using metacognition to be aware of your knowledge.  You know what you know and know what you don’t know.  Next, you can move on to other areas of metacognition.  If you complete your taxes, expecting an increase in your return due to the credit you’ll have for buying a house, and your return actually decreases, if you’re using metacognitive strategies, you’ll notice something isn’t right and put thinking strategies into place.  What do I need to do to make sure I understand how to file my taxes correctly?

Fostering this reflective ability in our students helps them become independent thinkers and achieve that goal we have of being lifelong learners.  There are a few simple strategies we can use to encourage students to be metacognitive.

 1.  Plan ahead

  • ·         Determine the steps necessary to complete a task.
  • ·         Set up a learning environment where the student can focus.

2. Ask Questions

  • What do I already know about this? 
  • What do I need to know before I can start?

3. Reflect during the learning

  • Does this makes sense?
  • How can I improve my understanding?

Intentionally focusing on these metacognitive thoughts will support confidence as students grow making them less dependent on others to tell them what they need to do.  Thinking about thinking is worth thinking about.

Math Practices

How are Mathematical Practices Used K-12?

Often in math we only think about the content to be taught at each grade level.  Third grade learns multiplication; sixth grade learns negative numbers, etc.  In reading, there are common learning themes that follow students from kindergarten through twelfth grade; these include fluency and comprehension.  Students continuously work on these skills to become proficient readers.  The same is true in math.  There are 8 specific mathematical practices that students work toward using to think more like a mathematician than just as 2nd grader or a geometry student.

How students use mathematical practices

Teachers of math focus on not only what each child needs to learn each of their 13 years, we will also focus on instilling these mathematical practices.  Some simple ways they can be supported is through questioning and creating a positive attitude toward math.  Consider the following interactions with a student

 “I can’t do this, it’s too hard.”

Response: Don’t give up.  Think about what makes sense.  How can you think about this problem?

“Is this right?”

Response: Does it make sense? Can you prove your answer by explaining it, doing it another way, or drawing a picture?

“I found an easier way to do it.”

Response: Does that work just for this problem or have you found a mathematical rule?  Will it always work?  How do you know?

“That’s not the way we were taught in class.”

Response: There are multiple ways to solve a problem.  Can you show me the way you did it in class and we can compare it to the way I learned it?  Why do both ways work? How are they the same?

“I didn’t learn how to do this.”

Response:  Think like a mathematician.  Let’s reflect on what you already know and see if we can figure it out by looking for patterns or applying rules we know are true.

 “I don’t get it.”

Response:  What part is difficult?  What do you know you can do and where does it get hard?  Can you create a picture or model that can help you ‘see’ the problem differently so you can think about it?

 These approaches to math frustration can trigger efficacy in students so they feel capable of working it through.  Even though math can be difficult for some students (and frankly many adults), sometimes the struggle pays off.  When students are coached through the math, they’re more likely to master their own learning than just watching someone else do it or listening to someone tell them how.

Are You Busy or Productive?



"How have you been?"  Without much thought, a common response for  me has been "BUSY".  In a recent Twitter chat, I stumbled across the idea that being busy and being productive are not the same thing. It caused me to reflect on how I spend my time.

In the past, I spent countless hours on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. Were these taking my time, making me feel "busy" or were they helping me be productive, getting closer to my goals?  How many hours did I spend collecting resources I still haven't used? At the end of the day, what had I accomplished? Answer:  Not much!

This year I've responded to the question, "How have you been?" with comments like:

  • More focused
  • Happy
  • Balanced
  • Energized

So what's changed? What's causing me to be more productive?

How to be Productive and Not Just Busy

1. Set Long Range Goals

It's easy to live day-to-day. What do I need to do today, this week, or even this month? However, when we set long range goals progress can be made to achieve them. If a teacher sees herself as a principal some day, what are the steps she can take to prepare herself? A productive teacher might begin by increasing committee work. She might then chair a committee. Another option might be to tackle a new project in the building like leading a book study for fellow teachers. Each of these activities brings her closer to accomplishing a long range goal.  A less productive teacher might spend her time thinking about being a principal, maybe even have conversations with people about how to become an administrator, but without action. This time spent dreaming about a long range goal doesn't get her any closer to obtaining it.

2. Empower Others

Busy and productive people might look the same to others, there are some key differences.

So many times I've found myself thinking and even telling people I don't need their help because it's just easier if I do it myself. Soliciting help, delegating responsibilities not only helps you in the moment, it comes back over time. Building capacity in colleagues makes the district stronger and provides sound boards for future problem solving. The professional learning network begins with the people you work with every day. Investing time to show someone how to do a task or explain the complexity of the situation allows you to spread the work among many, lifting your load. The unintended benefit from this process is that it builds trust and relationships; these are key in any community. Productive people are able to identify tasks that can be shared so a project can be completed with more efficiency and teamwork. 

3. Have a Plan

One of my dear friends is a list maker. He makes lists for everything. If he does something that wasn't on his list, he adds it to the list just so he can cross it off. At the end of each day, he can see how productive he's been based on how many things he's accomplished from his list. Nothing gets missed, not even the undesirable tasks because he has a daily plan for what he expects to accomplish. We all know life happens and it's not always possible to complete everything you planned to do in a day. However, since he has a plan, he can make intentional decisions based on priorities. For example, if a report is due to the State by Thursday and he doesn't have it done by the end of the day on Wednesday, he has a decision to make. He has choices: 1. Call his wife to say he will be half hour later than planned. 2. Take the report home and do it before bed. 3. Arrive to school early and do it in the morning (hoping nothing else comes up to prevent him from getting it done as planned) or 4. Turn it in late. While option 4 is an unlikely choice for a productive principal, it might be the only choice for a busy principal who didn't even remember the report was due. Not having a plan doesn't allow you to make those decisions.

4. Take Time for Yourself

Easier said than done, I know. If you live by your calendar like I do, there's no shame in using it to help you schedule some rejuvenation time. Date nights with my husband, shopping excursions with my daughter, writing time on my book, are all on my calendar. I avoid scheduling things on top of these precious times because I realize the benefit of taking time for myself. Neglecting family is a mistake I've made in my career. The time you deflect from family to work comes back at you 10 fold, only when it rebounds, it is often unplanned and negative. If you don't spend quality time with your children, they can begin making poor choices, which suddenly requires your time and attention. Instead, be proactive and spend that time in positive ways. 

Care for your health. Eat properly and get exercise. It's ironic when educators tell students to eat a good breakfast, get plenty of rest, and play outside, then skip meals, plan until midnight, and never see the outside of their classroom or office. How am I going to get all this done? See tips 1-3 and let them work for you.

It's been 17 months since someone told me I should blog and I agreed. In those 17 months, I've been busy doing other things, researching blogs, reading other people's blogs, wondering what I could blog about, blah, blah, blah.  Bottom line is that today I was productive.  Start a blog: CHECK!