Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s  picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Educational Psychologist, President
Center for Innovative Education and Prevention, BrainSMART, Inc.

Kids Can Be the Boss of Their Brains

Teaching children to think about their thinking can increase learning

In an Oklahoma classroom, second graders discovering that paper was invented in China connect their new knowledge to a previous lesson on Sequoyah’s creation of a writing system for the Cherokee people. The students are demonstrating the metacognitive strategy of connecting new information to what they already know. Their teacher, Diane Dahl, has explicitly taught them this aspect of metacognition, or “thinking about your thinking,” with the aim of enhancing learning. The class models this strategy with an ever-growing sculpture of pipe cleaners that represents how the brain makes learning connections. Students and teacher regularly label and link new topics to previous lessons woven into the sculpture. By year’s end they have a colorful reminder of the new learning they have achieved.

Many people assume that children naturally know how to learn, but decades of educational research have established that teaching students to use metacognition is one of the most effective ways to increase learning. Metacognition supports the process of learning and can be aplied in all content areas. Through purposeful instruction on specific cognitive strategies to explore, understand and apply new content presented in class, students are taught to be the “boss of their brains” (a term coined by a Texas third-grader learning metacognition). To help children discover how they can take charge of their learning, teachers and parents can model metacognitive strategies by:

  • Thinking out loud. Model catching and correcting your own mistakes, using context to establish the meaning of unfamiliar words, and predicting what might happen in a story based on clues in the title and illustrations.
  • Connecting new learning to what children already know. The classic KWL strategy (charting what I know — what I want to know — what I have learned) is a good example.
  • Embracing curiosity. Answer questions with an invitation: “Let’s find out.” Consult books, encyclopedias and Web sites. Go to the library. Experiment.
  • Helping children begin to summarize both what and how they are learning. Summarizing involves deep analysis to zero in on core concepts.

Modeling Metacognition

In a third-grade classroom, the teacher begins a lesson by showing students images from a book on ancient Egypt: “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 recalls watching a program with her parents about how archeologists decoded the symbols.

The teacher continues to read, demonstrating along the way how to puzzle out the definition of pharaoh from clues in the text and then confirm the meaning by looking it up in a dictionary (or better yet: Students have lots of questions about the pyramids, so the teacher displays a Web site about them on a computer projector. When a child asks when the pyramids were made, the class refers to a time line of their area to discover that the Egyptians built the pyramids long before the Indian mounds near their town were formed. In ending the lesson, the teacher asks the students to summarize what they learned.

“We learned that Egyptians wrote in hieroglyphs,” one student volunteers.

“But not on paper — in stone,” another chimes in.

“They built sphinxes and pyramids,” says a third.

“A long, long, long time ago,” says a fourth.

“And we learned how to figure out what all those new words mean!” says another.

LEArn More:

“Evolving Our Brain: The Magic Onion,” by Ruben Baler

Related Reading:

“Instruction of Metacognitive Strategies Enhances Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary Achievement of Third-Grade Students,” Reading Rockets

“Teaching Metacognition,” a summary of Marsha Lovett’s presentation at the 2008 Educause Learning Initiative conference

“What’s All the Fuss About Metacognition?”a chapter from A.H. Schoenfeld’s book, Cognitive Science and Mathematics Education

“Thinking About Thinking: Developing Metacognition in Children,” by Robert Fisher, first published in Early Child Development and Care

For the Love of Teaching, Diane Dahl’s blog