More evidence that ‘metacognition’ is progressivism’s newest excuse.

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I have written about metacognition on a number of occasions. Specifically, I have questioned the Education Endowment Foundation’s toolkit strand of ‘metacognition and self-regulation’, suggesting it represents a bag of very different things, the evidence for which is mixed, at best.

I have also noted the way that a new fuzzy maths initiative in South Australia trumpeted its use of ‘metacognition’. Fuzzy maths is essentially educational progressivism applied to the teaching of maths and the evidence suggests that this is a harmful thing to do.

Progressivism tends to focus more on the process of learning rather than the content to be learnt. In fact, it often conflates process with learning. When applied to the maths classroom, progressivism prioritises ‘rich’ tasks and activities, usually without making exactly clear what the objectives are.

Clear objectives are a problem because progressivism sees students as unique individuals who respond to tasks in their own way and whose choices, to a greater or lesser extent, are meant to drive the learning process. Advocates can avoid this difficulty if they frame their objectives much more vaguely, and so we have claims that certain tasks will develop ‘critical thinking’, ‘creativity’ or, in maths and science, ‘deep understanding’. Who is to say that these tasks don’t develop these abstract and poorly defined qualities? Such is the value of an unfalsifiable position.

Ten years ago, the same activities may also have been held up as promoting the skill of ‘learning to learn’. Today, a similar end seems to be served by appeals to ‘metacognition’.

My perception is only enhanced by an article I have just discovered from earlier this year in the Times Educational Supplement. We read about a maths lesson focused on improving metacognition:

“The pupils are working in groups as part of a summary of their unit of work in mathematics. The groups, of four to five pupils, are working on some challenging problems which have been set by group facilitators… aged about 10.

There are two strands to this learning: the correct completion of the mathematical problems using the strategies and language previously taught; and the development of metacognitive thinking.

Towards the close of the lesson, the pupils begin to evaluate their learning… At the same time, the facilitators meet to discuss the performance of their respective groups…

You might be wondering what the teacher was doing in this example. She was moving around the groups and modelling, through dialogue, how to ask questions which promote thinking and reflection. She is hugely skilled, and two stand-out features are apparent: she has an excellent relationship with her students so can push and probe without them feeling uncomfortable, and she doesn’t appear to need to be the “expert”, or finish every conversation herself. She happily empowers her students in this area.”

Given that this task comes at the end of a unit, it may be the case that students had mastered the required content and therefore gained something from this process. It is hard to tell. However, the way this is written is strongly progressivist. We have a teacher as guide on the side, offering no explanations, only probing questions. We have students working collaboratively and setting each other problems. We have students being ’empowered’.

Despite seemingly being the main point of the article, exactly how the students are developing their ‘metacognitive thinking’ is something that is left to us to imagine. It seems unlikely that they would be debating the relative merits of blocked versus distributed practice, even if knowledge of the advantages of spaced practice is one of the disaparate elements grouped together as ‘metacognition’ that has some evidence to support it.

I think I can see where this is all going. Watch out for old progressivist meatloaf, reheated and served up as metacognition, coming soon to a school near you.

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4 thoughts on “More evidence that ‘metacognition’ is progressivism’s newest excuse.

  1. For a rather more useful take on metacognition, see Roediger et al (2011)–they discovered that routine testing improved metacognitive monitoring. Not entirely surprising–if you know you’re going to be tested–especially in the near future, and not at the end of your schooling– you tend to reflect a bit more to what you’re reading or what the teacher is saying. http://psych.wustl.edu/memory/Roddy%20article%20PDF's/BC_Roediger%20et%20al%20(2011)_PLM.pdf

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