In Diane Dahl’s classroom, second graders discovering how the Chinese invention of paper changed the world spontaneously connect their new knowledge to a previous lesson on Sequoyah’s creation of a writing system for the Cherokee people. The students are making the most of another lesson on how their brains learn by connecting new information to what they already know. They model this aspect of metacognition, or “thinking about your thinking and what you know,” with an intricate, ever-growing sculpture of pipe cleaners that represents how the brain makes learning connections. The second graders and their teacher Diane Dahl regularly label and link new topics to previous lessons woven into the sculpture.
In our work in teacher education, we use the metaphor of teaching students to be the boss of their brains. We owe that phrase to a third-grader who used those very words after a lesson on how metacognition supports learning. Decades of educational research have established that learning gains result from explicitly teaching cognitive strategies children can use to explore, understand, and apply new concepts. To help children develop metacognition, teachers and parents can model these strategies and reinforce their use by children.
A teacher might begin a lesson by saying, “Today we are going to learn about how another group of people recorded information a long time ago. It says here that the ancient Egyptians used hero-grams. Wait, that doesn’t sound right.” As the children laugh at the thought of their teacher making a mistake, one child volunteers, “I think they’re called hieroglyphs.” The child tells of watching a program with her parents about how archeologists decoded the symbols carved in stone.
The teacher continues to read the passage, pausing frequently to connect the words and illustrations and to puzzle out or look up the meanings of new words, like sphinx and pharaoh. Occasionally, she writes a word or question on the board to explore later. Along the way, other children share ideas. One mentions King Tut, and another talks about seeing a mummy at a museum. When a child asks when the hieroglyphs were made, the class refers to a timeline of their area to discover that the Egyptians built the pyramids long before the Indian mounds near their town were formed. Together the class summarizes the key points and agrees on what to explore next when they return to ancient Egypt tomorrow.
This simple example illustrates several aspects of metacognition you can use with children in the classroom and at home:
- Think out loud. Model catching and correcting your own mistakes, using context to establish meaning, and finding clues in titles and illustrations.
- Connect new learning to what children already know, and point out when they make those connections on their own.
- Embrace curiosity. Answer questions with an invitation: “Let’s find out.” Consult books, encyclopedias, and websites. Go to the library.
- Help children to summarize what they are learning—and how.