death road bolivia (1)

Anyone who has ever watched a car drive along the Caterretera 3-NA in Peru, will have been witness to the vertigo inducing depths of up to one thousand metres.  Needless to say, it is one of the most dangerous roads in the world.

In 2011, Ben Fogle and Hugh Dennis took on the challenge to drive along this road.  In their preparations, the following questions are very likely to have been asked by themselves as they reflected on their mission:

  1. Is the task of driving this road too challenging for me?
  2. Is this a task asking for knowledge I can remember?
  3. What strategies can I deploy if I am stuck on a narrow bend or meet a passing car?

That’s successful metacognition and an exhibition of an awareness of the degree of challenge.  Let’s take a student in the classroom.  The road to their successful development of self-regulation and metacognition also lies in challenge.  Challenge brings reflection and reflection on the challenge instigates strategies for successful task completion.

As the EEF guidance on metacognition and self-regulation highlights, ‘a successful pupil will regularly engage in metacognitive reflection’.  This is broken into three headings:

  • knowledge of the task
  • knowledge of the self
  • knowledge of the strategies


You can clearly see what the connecting word is.  Fogle and Dennis would have broken down their reflection on their knowledge in the same way.  I’ve thought about how I instil knowledge in my students and I know, through chalkface practice, that the building platform to support sophisticated schemas of knowledge to lead to this desired outcome is challenging and also crucial.  Empirical research has provided overwhelming evidence that partial guidance during instruction is significantly less effective and efficient than full guidance (Cark, Kirschner and Sweller 2012).  So, how can a strong platform based on full guidance be built?

Knowledge of the task

I think of this as picture building towards the intended outcome and see it as one of the pieces in the jigsaw of mastery.  Explicit modelling (both live and looking at exemplars – exemplars of both high and poor quality) guide students in adapting and applying their knowledge.  A nuanced approach that models reflection on how to approach a task and how challenges can be addressed demonstrates resilience and, like Fogle and Harris, an awareness of the degree of challenge in the task.  As the modelling process unfolds, asking questions to prompt retrieval of prior knowledge is a powerful strategy, and kicks starts the what’s and why’s of the undertaking.  Taking a step back from using models is also important – it encourages independence.  Some of the best learning for students comes from the mistakes they make and helps to build the sophisticated schema of knowledge that teachers strive for in their students.  Student reflection on the successes and mistakes strengthens the knowledge of the self.

Knowledge of the self

Think back to the questions that Fogle and Harris were likely to have asked themselves.  Students too will reflect on the challenges set, their knowledge, and the strategies they can employ to meet the challenge: ‘Is the task too challenging for me?’  ‘What knowledge can I remember from a previous text/topic?’ ‘What strategies do I know that can help me?’  I see self and peer marking as another piece of the jigsaw of mastery.   Both guide learners to reflect on what they know, what they are good/not good at and how to improve in those areas.  If students are grounded in their knowledge of the task, then chances are their knowledge of the self will be more accurate.  I often use student self and peer marking as part of the modelling process.  Not only does it show the good and not so good student marking of work, it is a part of the building platform in identifying the knowledge that is being applied well and the knowledge that needs deliberately modelling and practising again.  Students scoring work (their own and peers) is only effective if knowledge of the task is secure.  To make knowledge of the task secure, it goes back to the picture building of the intended outcome, part of the building of a solid platform on which the sophisticated schema of knowledge can grow.

Knowledge of strategies

It’s always positive to have a plan of action.  Sir David Brailsford’s is marginal gains, Mo Farrah’s is a nine point strategy which has arguably placed him as the greatest runner Britain has ever produced.  Simon Yates’s was to cut a rope, but any voids my students encounter, they have to SORT IT!  I’ve found it a powerful acronym to instil in my students strategies to use when the going gets tough.  Self, Others, Resources, Teacher – the IT being the challenge.  Self – what knowledge do I have of the task?  What notes are in my workbook?  What did I ask last lesson and is it the same thing I am being challenged on?  If the student is still not sure, they ask a peer.  The peer reflects on their knowledge of the task, delving into their developing sophisticated schema of knowledge to find a solution and lead the learning of their peers.  If the challenge is still there, my students look at past notes, models and examples previously used.  If they are still challenged after independently reaching into their toolkit of strategies, they ask the teacher.  I’ve found this strategy encourages perseverance and resilience.  As the EEF guidance emphasises, a successful metacognitive learner will ‘ask questions and will typically exhibit an awareness of the degree of challenge in what they are learning’.

The learning road is full of challenges.  When presented within a supportive environment, built on full teacher guidance and supporting self and peer metacognitive reflection, these challenges can become milestones on the student learning journey.