“Things which matter must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” Goethe
In my last blog, ‘Research in the Classroom part 1’, I reflected on how retrieving and connecting knowledge could be worked into a colourful tapestry of distributed practice. A picture stimulus paired with a word is a powerful platform on which to build knowledge. It ignites student cognition to gather stored information from memory and apply it to strategically planned activities. It is however, only part of the metacognitive picture.
The Bigger Picture
Metacognition is complex to understand. As teachers, not only do we have to grow an understanding of it ourselves, but our students do too. If students are to truly understand what being a learner actually means in relation to their own understanding of their metacognition, then our understanding of it has to be one of the pillars underpinning our classroom teaching and any additional role of responsibility we may have in our schools. The EEF guidance on ‘Metacognition and Self-regulation’ goes a long way to supporting this accessibility of understanding, but it has to go hand in hand with what we see the guidance guiding us to do when applying it to the curriculum, faculty schemes and lesson planning.
As I apply this promising metacognition strategy in my classroom, I have tried to approach it through the eyes of a student and scaffold the complexities for myself. I recently held a conversation with a student and posed the challenging and difficult question of what being a learner meant to them. ‘A learner learns to get a good job,’ and ‘does work in the classroom.’ It didn’t scratch the surface of self-regulation. ‘Being able to plan a piece of work’ and ‘keeping a track of my learning so I know what and how to improve,’ is what we are talking about. These are skills for life and life-long learning, a support for a growing resilience and ultimately, independence.
In my application of metacognition and self-regulation in my planning, I have started to think of cognition as the ‘cogs’ and the meta as the ‘myself’. During my reflections on this strategy, I sketched out an idea of what it looks like when I plan for progression:
I then began to list how the cogs were being turned and connections being made, alongside the tasks which are supporting a growing resilience and a developing independence. I saw it like a ‘strategy shuttle’ moving backwards and forwards retrieving and growing knowledge and strengthening the skills toolbox of my students in getting them to where I want them to be. I see my ‘Strategy Shuttle’ as having two layers which move backwards and forwards, complementing, challenging and creating a growing independence:
Turning the cogs and making connections
My current year 7 English class have been exploring the art of narrative writing. Together, we have been discovering how one writer crafted a story that withheld information, created a vivid setting and fashioned characters that slotted into the plot as tightly as the pieces of a jigsaw.
I began with a picture of a Jack-in-the-box, the main character in the narrative. This was the platform for my questioning. Single words retrieved from knowledge of the character were written on the board first. This progressed to looking at a paragraph from the text which we had read the previous lesson. I wanted them to recall the knowledge we had learned through connections with the single words on the board. One of the words retrieved was ‘rusty’.
‘Who can tell me why the writer might have used the adjective rusty in describing this character?’ A raft of hands punch the air. I pause, think and think some more. I then target question a student who is looking at me. I want to check they are engaged and not doing that look like your listening thing some students excel at. No response offered. I rephrase to guide. ‘How has the writer used the adjective rusty to tell us something about the character?’
I nod and wait again before I pose a second question. ‘So why would a writer want to create imagery?’
I look around the room. Less hands up this time. It could be a sign of my students noticing I had chosen a student who had not raised their hand, or they feel challenged by the question and they need the thinking time. I give them a minute to reflect. I target a different student and wait for the response. The answer grows from the writer’s method to the effect on the reader – and all from the single adjective ‘rusty’.
Further cogs are turned and connections made relating to sentences, punctuation and inference by looking at the bigger picture and all of the pieces of information we knew so far in the narrative. This is explicit strategy instruction – reviewing a piece of text and retrieving the knowledge my Y7 class have grown around it. It is a cognitive activity just like the picture and text stimulus described in ‘Research in the Classroom Part 1’. Questioning had stirred the cognition and made connections. Time to add the ‘meta’.
Move to the metacognition ‘myself’
I add the ‘meta’ by challenging my students to plan their own ideas around a character. They begin with a picture, give the character a name and write down adjectives to begin to mould their character to who they want it to be. They have to reflect and apply what we have just explored together. We share ideas.
‘X student has chosen X character and has used cuddly, faded and hard. Who can tell me if this connects well with the picture? We talked of imagery, didn’t we?’
This student’s main character was a plastic footballer.
‘Cuddly doesn’t go with the character. It’s a plastic toy, miss.’
I pause. ‘Perhaps it doesn’t match the picture. Swap books and look at the words your peer has used to create an image of their character. Identify words that work well and any that don’t.’
The activity progressed to peers motivating peers by suggesting alternatives, using a thesaurus to up level their vocabulary and books being swapped back for self-monitoring. My students know it is here that their resilience and knowledge of strategies to ‘SORT IT’ needs to kick in.
Following lessons built on the characters the students had chosen, appropriate settings, the writer’s methods and the clues given which lead the reader to think in a particular way. They are honing their skills as literature detectives in order that they can keep growing and applying this narrative knowledge. I want them to end up with a tightly structured five paragraph piece of writing. The five ‘P’s’ and the ‘Story Mountain’ are not worth their salt if students cannot make the knowledge and skills connections that are behind these strategies. There lies the problem – they are strategies which have been given a ‘teaching title’ and it goes back to knowing how to turn the cogs of cognition and make connections until such time that students understand that these ‘titles’ are to guide them to the tip of their knowledge of narrative and skills iceberg.
My dirt marking of their evolving paragraphs tell me that the knowledge and skills I have shared and taught them are sticking. They have been instilled with confidence (many have said they are writing the next best seller – who am I to argue? I am trying to give them lifelong skills, and if they hit the bookshelves in their thirties or before – the skill of writing narrative started somewhere and was built on!)
Something happened in my classroom during delivering this scheme of narrative writing. It was something that my students had instilled in me whilst using this metacognitive strategy in my teaching, just as they were applying in their learning. I told my Y7 class that the classroom was not mine; it was theirs. They were making the room what they wanted it to be – a place of retrieving knowledge, making connections and working together to discover the ‘myself’ – the part which ultimately will be what gives our students in our classrooms life-long learning and a growing awareness of what it means to be a learner.