Metacognition and Learning

Last week’s blog argued that, while strong Literacy and Numeracy are vital for success in every discipline of learning but learning how to learn and how to understand the thinking and learning process (Metacognition) is even more important! Understanding how to learn and think is possibly the most vital skill set students should be acquiring in schools today.

Metacognition, or cognition about cognition, is the ability to reflect upon how we process our thoughts.  One important trait of academically successful individuals is their ability to employ a variety of thinking routines or strategies for different tasks. It is also important to be able to determine when such strategies and routines would be helpful. Such Metacognition requires significant development of the Executive function of the brain. Harvard university describes Executive Function as “skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.”

To learn effectively, the brain needs to balance and co-ordinate three important functions:

  • Working memory which governs the ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time.
  • Mental flexibility which helps to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings.
  • Self-control is essential to enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses.

While children are born with the potential to develop these skills, they require growth promoting environments which support and scaffold the child as they learn. Routines and explicit modelling and instruction can all help develop these skills. Stressful situations can influence brain architecture in negative ways which influence the effective co-ordination of these three functions. There is also some evidence that students on the Autistic Spectrum or with ADHD may experience greater difficulty co-ordinating the skills required for effective executive function. This can make everyday life at school frustrating and difficult for such students.

At home education that focuses on developing students’ skills in working memory and flexibility and self-regulation will ultimately result in much improved Executive Function with both improved academic performance and greater capacity to cope with all life will throw at them. One way of developing these skills is through the explicit teaching of learning routines. One useful learning routine used to synthesise a reading or viewing is

The CSI: Colour-Symbol-Image
 routine asks students to identify and synthesise the essence of ideas taken from their reading, viewing or listening. Students are invited to choose a colour, symbol and image that they feel best represents the essence of an idea. They are then asked to share this with a partner or a small group, to deepen their knowledge, understanding and perspective.

Next week’s blog will explore other useful Learning Routines.


Harvard University, (2019), Executive Function & Self-Regulation

viewed October 4,2019,

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