Students Have No Understanding Of How They Learn



Metacognition is a phrase widely used amongst teachers, managers and leaders in schools. However, it may not be either widely understood or widely applied. If it were widely applied, you would see students leaving sixth form with a far greater understanding of how to learn and therefore a far greater understanding of how to do well post-school.

If one of the success criteria of performance measures of a school was the success of its graduates once they had left; in in other words if we audited skills and professional success, schools would see that much of their provision – especially their academic provision connected to GCSEs and A-Levels – is not particularly significant for success in later life.


What is metacognition?

To give you an example: Two men in a pub. One says to the other, “I’ve taught my dog to speak French.” The second man says, “Really?! You’ve taught your dog to speak French? I understand he’s a clever German Shepherd dog but you’ve actually taught him to speak French?” The first man, nodding, says, “Yes, yes, yes, I have!” The second man, suitably impressed, thinks for a moment then asks to hear the dog speak French. The first man says, “Oh no no, I didn’t say he could SPEAK French, I simply said I had TAUGHT him French!”

Our short anecdote encapsulates the challenge within the UK’s education industry which doesn’t focus on metacognition sufficiently. We do teach the syllabus; we do work our way through the curriculum; we do tick those boxes – but how much of what we teach is actually learnt at a meaningful level? How much of that delivery also encourages or inculcates that understanding of how it is that we learn amongst our students?

That metacognitive quotient, the number of students who graduate from school with a clear understanding of how best they learn particular dimensions of the curriculum is actually very, very small.


What is the solution to increasing metacognition?

People will say it takes years to help people understand how to learn. They may be right but it doesn’t mean to say we can’t take time within our already busy school week and hopefully thicken up the curriculum so we don’t have a curriculum a mile wide and half a centimetre deep. Pick two or three areas we really want to concentrate on as a nation and make these things our national unique selling points (USPs) to develop them.

For example, in one of the most successful schools we know of, there were two scheduled metacognitive sessions per week with each year group and it was really very simple. Through a number of test and psychometric processes, each group of learners was encouraged to understand how best they learned particular aspects of the curriculum.

It’s not rocket science! Sitting with Year 7 students, going through a few tests and doing a short presentation and then letting people explore how best they learn something particular that you’ve set aside – it’s not a hard thing to do. Then giving each student or each group of students a set of cards, an aide-mémoire, a mnemonic to prompt them how best they learn. It really is not difficult, it is a question of mindset and a question of willpower.

There is the problem encapsulated of the two men in the pub; yes, we do a lot of teaching but how much of that provision is connected to learning and how much of that provision is connected to HOW we learn is clearly very debatable.

If metacognition was more widely understood and applied, I am certain you would see students leaving sixth form with a far greater understanding of how to learn, and therefor a far greater understanding of how to do well post school.
Dr Adam England
Consultant Headteacher

What can we do about it?

The answer is as simple as that posed within the previous short story. We change our mindsets. We set aside time to deal with metacognition. We allow our students – with a carefully scaffolded metacognitive curriculum – to understand how it is they learn. We create those spaces and areas which foster that metacognitive dimension.

Noble and Eaton can help you achieve this. Contact us to find out more.

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