Mindset theory and Metacognition are both false idols

The Old Testament scribes were deeply troubled by the worship of false idols and the abominations such worship entailed. Moloch was a singularly unpleasant deity. “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech,” warned the writers of Leviticus. For Moloch demanded child sacrifice.

It would be hyperbole to claim that education is full of Molochs, but it certainly has its share of false idols. One of these is Growth Mindset worship. Although there is perhaps some small part that is useful and true to be extracted from the idea, Growth Mindset as enacted via motivational poster and assembly in a typical school is a waste of time and effort, as I discussed yesterday.

Tom Sherrington, a consultant and writer of a popular exegesis of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, makes a similar point to mine but then goes on to suggest that we should worship at the altar of Metacognition instead. He is wrong.

Sherrington illustrates his points about Metacognition with reference to the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning strand of their teaching and learning toolkit and a separate report commissioned by the EEF on Metacognition.

The first of these sources is deeply flawed as I have written about before. In short, interventions ranging from philosophy lessons for primary school kids to explicit writing instruction are mushed together into an impossibly broad category, with the resulting supposed effect size of 7 months of additional progress drawing heavily on just some of these interventions. It is almost as if it has been designed to mislead.

The subsequent EEF guidance report is better. It wisely devotes no space to trumpeting generic programmes such as Philosophy for Children and instead offers the advice that, “While concepts like ‘plan, monitor, evaluate’ can be introduced generically, the strategies are mostly applied in relation to specific content and tasks, and are therefore best taught this way.”

While true, this raises the question as to what the metacognition label adds above and beyond what subject disciplines already do. Do English teachers not teach students how to plan essays? Do history teachers not teach students how to evaluate sources? In a world where these things did not happen, this might be useful advice.

Instead, it is at best redundant. Yet there are far worse possibilities. By thingifying Metacognition, we imply there is some kind of rarefied essence that we should seek out much like the ‘higher order thinking skills’ of times past. Soon, assemblies will be delivered and poster-shaped shrines will be stapled to classroom walls.

And we have already seen Metacognition being used as an excuse for a progressivist maths teaching initiative in South Australia.

When something is nothing it may be used to justify anything.


2 thoughts on “Mindset theory and Metacognition are both false idols

  1. This is interesting.

    For a long time I’ve felt that knowing your stuff is 95% of the game. Of you’re writing an essay, 95% of the quality of that essay will be down to how well you know the subject and 5% will be based on how well you can write an essay in general.

    Do you think that’s right?

  2. Janita Cunnington says:

    When I first heard mention of Philosophy for Children, I thought it sounded like a great idea. I imagined a survey of the logical fallacies that we are all prone to and ways to avoid them — something like a simplified version of Robert Thouless’s classic Straight and Crooked Thinking — plus an overview of the history of philosophy. I still think this would be a good idea. What I didn’t realise was that it would in fact be a matter of asking kids to express their feelings about some current issue that, on the whole, they know nothing about. A lesson in posturing, in other words.

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