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Tutor Talk: Metacognition for Remote Learning

Metacognition is a key area of focus for Tempus Tutors in 2021, and one that I am keen to discuss with my own clients and with parents who are battling home learning during COVID. Given the current situation, it is more important than ever that students of all ages are developing skills needed to work independently; education psychologists regard metacognition as a key part of this cycle of self-regulated learning.

What is metacognition?
Metacognition is “the ability to think about and manage one’s own thinking” (Branigan & Donaldson, 2020). In a nutshell, this means the ability to step back from a task, order our thoughts and figure out a strategy to complete that task on our own. This might sound wishy-washy or even obvious: isn’t this ju

st what we do naturally? In short, not necessarily – we know that pupils vary widely in their ability to think objectively about what they are doing. Consider this example:

Two students are set the same remote learning task: write a short story about a boy called Tim who has a pet rock. Both have written many short stories in school – this is a task the teacher therefore considers that each can accomplish. Now consider these two streams of thought:

Child 1: I don’t know what a boy called Tim would do with his rock! I have no ideas. I can’t think of a storyline at all. How can I write a story?

Child 2: I don’t have any ideas yet. Making a story plan has helped me in the past. I’ll plan a beginning, a main event in the middle and then an ending. I can check the stories I have written in the past, or some books, to get ideas about how to start.

These differences are clearly extreme. They may also seem oversimplified, but these two patterns are far more common than you might think. As tutors working with individual children, we see this difference over and over again. Unsurprisingly, Child 1 is the more likely to feel daunted by the task, because they are unable (yet) to make a plan that will break the task down. They are likely to procrastinate and feel overwhelmed by the blank page. Predictably, they are unlikely to enjoy English lessons – a cycle that is likely to continue until they are actually taught how to organise their thinking. No amount of SPaG drills will help this child be better able to write a story about Tim and his rock.

How to develop metacognition
There is a quick way to help Child 1. This is called scaffolding – the fancy educational term for providing a structure in which to work. If a teacher provides a planning template to prompt children to think about characters, setting and structure, this is scaffolding. Scaffolding looks different in every subject.

Scaffolding can definitely help Child 1 over the finish line, as most of the planning stage is managed for them. However, there will come a point when the teacher will take this scaffolding away and expect children to do this planning on their own. The nurture / nature debate is rife at this stage – some children will certainly seem to have learned by osmosis. Like Child 2, they will probably replicate the scaffolding techniques that have been modelled for them. Others, like Child 1, will struggle to make this step. This, finally, is where metacognition is really important. If a child has been encouraged to think about their own thinking, they are more likely to be able to plan and strategize effectively. If, each time they completed a story plan, they were prompted not only to complete the task, but to discuss and recognise the importance of what they were doing, they would stand a better chance of replicating this on their own in future, and be more able to complete tasks independently as a result. Scaffolding alone does not teach metacognition. Using scaffolding and drawing students’ attention to how the scaffolding is helping them will teach metacognition.

Metacognition is often taught badly. Tasks that require children to “set targets” or “discuss what they did well and badly” are increasingly used by teachers to try and encourage metacognition. These are often despised by students, and with good reason: they seem pointless. These tasks only add value when students are actually taught about metacognition, its value, and that they should replicate these steps independently. This is where private tutors have a distinct advantage: not only can we address the needs of each child individually as to the extent of scaffolding and metacognitive teaching required, but we also have the capacity to discuss these strategies with each student and actually make sure they are gaining value from them (as opposed to just filling out a self-reflection form with no benefit).

Taught properly, in consistent chunks, metacognitive ability allows students to break down tasks into accomplishable steps even when the teacher, or their tutor, is not there to help them. This is the kind of lifelong skill and perspective that we value so highly at Tempus.

Finally, if you are looking for high-quality tuition from a qualified Oxford graduate in 2021, or know of someone who is, contact me today. I can offer subject-specific help, generalist tuition, Oxbridge preparation, interview practice and more. You can also forward this article to anyone who is in the process of finding a reputable tutor.