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Teaching thinking and creativity
Developing creative minds and creative futures
Thinking about Thinking: Developing
Metacognition in Children
© Robert Fisher
This paper was first published in Early Child Development and Care Vol 141 (1998)
This article explores what metacognition is, why it is important and how it develops in
children. It argues that teachers need to help children develop metacognitive awareness,
and identifies the factors which enhance metacognitive development. Metacognitive
thinking is a key element in the transfer of learning. The child's development of
metacognitive skills is defined as meta-learning. Meta-teaching strategies can help
mediate the metacognitive skills of children, help to stimilate children's metacognitive
thinking. The article draws upon reserch currently being undertaken in London schools
on raising achievement in thinking and learning through developing the metacognition of
children as learners in schools.
'The hardest kind of thinking is thinking about thinking' Anna, aged 9
In recent years metacognition has emerged as a major focus of research interest in
cognitive psychology (Metcalfe & Shimamura 1996). There has been a growing
recognition that metacognition or self awareness 'including awareness of ourselves as
learners, helps us to learn more effectively' (Scottish CCC, 1996). But what is
metacognition? How does it facilitate learning and what can teachers do to foster it in the
Metacognition: what is it?
A meta was one of the conical columns set in the ground at each end of the Circus in
Rome to mark the turning point in the race. Similarly the concept of meta-cognition can
be seen as a turning point in our understanding of the mind. The prefix meta has come to
refer to something that transcends the subject it is related to. What does it mean then to
transcend cognition? The term metacognition was introduced by Flavell in 1976 to refer
to 'the individual's own awareness and consideration of his or her cognitive processes and
strategies' (Flavell 1979). It refers to that uniquely human capacity of people to be self-
reflexive, not just to think and know but to think about their own thinking and knowing.
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Psychologists such as William James (1890) had emphasised the importance of
'introspective observation' but Vygotsky (1962) was one of the first to realise that
conscious reflective control and deliberate mastery were essential factors in school
learning. He suggested there were two factors in the development of knowledge, first its
automatic unconscious acquisition followed by a gradual increase in active conscious
control over that knowledge, which essentially marked a separation between cognitive
and metacognitive aspects of performance. Flavell argues that if we can bring the process
of learning to a conscious level, we can help children to be more aware of their own
thought processes and help them to gain control or mastery over the organisation of their
learning (Flavel et al 1995). On this view effective learning is not just the manipulation of
information so that it is integrated into an existing knowledge base, but also involves
directing one's attention to what has been assimilated, understanding the relationship
between the new information and what is already known, understanding the processes
which facilitated this, and being aware when something new has actually been learned.
Effective learning is not just a matter of innate intelligence. We must not fall into what de
Bono calls the 'intelligence trap' (de Bono 1992), and Boorstin (1985) calls 'the illusion of
knowledge', which is that the greatest obstacle to discovery lies in what people already
believe they know or can do. They may become trapped in what they already know, and
not open to new learning. Some children are more competent at learning effective
strategies and applying them appropriately, while others who seem more intelligent or
knowledgeable can be remarkably unintelligent in their approach to learning. Binet
believed that self criticism was a central factor in intelligence, that it is not inborn but
must be nurtured through education. Flavell and his colleagues (1995) suggest this
metacognitive ability changes with age, and that older children are more successful
learners because they have internalised a greater quantity of metacognitive information.
The failure to use these strategies however may not be related so much to age but to
experience, and that teachers interventions can help even young children to develop some
of the metacomponents that are the strategies of successful learning.
What are these metacognitive strategies? Nisbet and Shucksmith (1986) suggest a set of
six strategies for successful learning, which involve asking questions, planning,
monitoring, checking, revising and self testing. Harry-Augstein & Thomas (1985) feel
such strategies do not go far enough. they argue that learning depends on 'conversations',
on the negotiation of personal meanings through dialogue with others, leading to
understanding. These conversations can be internal, but are particularly effective carried
out in pairs or groups where different ways of interpreting experience can be explored to
mutual benefit. Fisher (1995) summarises a number of 'teaching to learn' cognitive
strategies identified in recent research, including 'discussing' and 'co-operative learning',
as among those that help develop metacognition.
One area that has been much researched is that of problem solving (Fisher 1987). As
Miller and his colleagues (1960) point out 'an ordinary person almost never approaches a
problem systematically and exhaustively unless specifically educated to do so..'. Perhaps
the most common reaction to a problem situation is a random hunt for solutions and
sometimes this will result in success, but in school situations where there is usually a
limited number of possible solutions frequent failure is likely. The need to avoid
impulsivity and take time to consider options and alternatives has been identified as a key
strategy in overcoming learning failure (Feuerstein 1980). In analysing Schoenfield's
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success in developing student's mathematical problem-solving ability Perkins & Salomon
note the importance of fostering a general level of control that they call 'problem
Students learn to monitor and direct their own progress, asking questions such as 'What
am doing now?', 'Is it getting me anywhere?'. 'What else could I be doing instead?'. This
general metacognitive level helps students avoid persevering in unproductive
approaches, to remember to check ... and so on (Perkins & Salomon 1989 p21)
Donaldson (1978) quotes with approval Piaget's finding that children's reflection on
problems and consideration of possibilities are important aspects of cognitive
development: 'If the child is going to control and direct his own thinking, in the kind of
way we have been considering, he must become conscious of it.' (p94). Feuerstein (1980)
shows how adults can play a key role in encouraging this metacognitive awareness in
children. The teacher can ask children about the successes and difficulties they have had
with problems. Students can be encouraged to reflect on the kinds of thinking they have
been engaged in, and to be conscious of those processes that have been helpful or have
hindered their progress. This meta-discourse on the problem-solving process is an
application of the way Vygotsky (1978) described language as the mediator of learning.
As Adey & Shayer (1994) comment: 'The language of reasoning mediates meta-learning'.
There is in the literature however some confusion about the meaning of metacognition,
and how it is to be identified. These are important matters for if we wish to identify
metacognitive development as one of the goals of teaching thinking then it is as well to
be as clear as we can about what metacognition is. Metacognition also has an important
bearing on the issue of the transferability of thinking skills. So what does it refer to? Von
Wright (1992) distinguishes two levels of meta-reflection. Low level reflection involves
the thinker: 'reflecting on her means of coping in familiar contexts. However ... she is
unlikely to be capable of reflecting about herself as the intentional subject of her own
actions.' (von Wright 1992 p60-61)
Higher level reflection is what we would generally call metacognition:
Reflecting about one's own knowledge or intentions involves an element which is absent
from reflection about the surrounding world....in order to reason about how I reason, I
need access to a model of my reasoning performance. (von Wright 1992 p61)
This distinction between two levels of reflection as von Wright argues, mirrors the
distinction Vygotsky draws between consciousness in a broad sense ('soznanie') and
conscious awareness ('osoznanie'). Brown (1983) defines four strands in her discussion of
the literature on metacognition:
verbal reports as data on self knowledge of cognitive processes (e.g. Flavell)
executive control within an information-processing framework (e.g. Sternberg,
self regulation, control and management of a person's own cognition (e.g. Piaget)
other-regulation, involving the social mediation of thinking by others (e.g.
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Brown claims that two versions of metacognition are often confused, namely 'the
essential distinction between self regulation during learning' and 'knowledge of, or even
mental experimentation with, one's own thoughts' (Brown et al 1983). Adey & Shayer
(1994) agree with this distinction, which they categorise as going beyond, and going
above, the present learning behaviour. Going beyond one's present repertoire of reasoning
is linked to 2,3 and 4 in Brown's list above. This can be equated with what Newman et al
(1989) call 'construction zone activity', a concept derived from Vygotsky's Zone of
Proximal Development, which refers to mental activity, usually of a collaborative nature,
which involves children going beyond their present levels of competence. One writer has
described it, in words which could equally evoke Socratic enquiry at its best, as:
... a magic place where minds meet, where things are not the same to all who see them,
where meanings are fluid, and where one person's construal may preempt another's.
(Sheldon White, foreword to Newman et al 1989)
Going above can be described as 'self awareness judgements ...which refer to the
monitoring and control of one's own cognitive processes' (Nelson et al 1990). This
accords closely with Brown's metacognition 1 (above) and with Flavell's original
definition of metacognition as an individual's conscious awareness of his own thought
processes. However it is not clear whether going beyond and going above can be so
clearly separated, since if students have not learned how to go beyond, they do not have
anything to abstract from experience. So if teaching thinking is to include metacognitive
components it must include both going beyond and going above, which I will call
cognitive extension (CE) and metacognitive thinking (MT). Note however that the
reverse does not necessarily follow - teachers may encourage going beyond in the sense
of extending children's range of cognitive experience without any metacognitive going
above (MT). It would be a mistake to believe that CE requires MT, or indeed any of the
expanded consciousness of metacognitive activity. On this view CE is a necessary but not
sufficient condition for MT.
Pramling argues that metacognition depends on content and context: 'One reason for not
teaching strategies, in other words, is that these strategies do not exist in general terms,
but only in relation to particular content' (Pramling 1988). The assumption is that
'children's thinking cannot be separated from the world since thinking is always directed
towards something' (Pramling 1990 p11). For Pramling the focus of teaching should not
be on cognitive skills training, but on a metacognitive approach to thinking about
curriculum content. Pramling (1988) divides this process into three stages, which can be
summed up as moving from the what level of cognitive description (CD), to the how
level of cognitive extension (CE), to the why level of metacognitive thinking (MT):
focus on what the child is thinking about a content (CD)
focus on how the child is thinking about the content (CE)
focus on the child's thinking about his/her own thinking about the content (MT)
One reason why Pramling may be so distrustful of cognitive skills training is that her
research is primarily centred on pre-school children, where if children are at a concrete-
operational stage generalisable skills may not seem so relevant. However there are
cognitive education programmes for pre-school children such as High Scope which do
aim to develop general cognitive abilities, particularly in planning and reviewing, that
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include elements of both CE and MT (Hohman et al 1995). Indeed where 'thinking skills'
programmes are successful elements of metacognitive training in self appraisal and self
management will be part of the learning experience mediated by teachers (Fisher 1990).
The cognitive and metacognitive elements of thinking are clearly identified in
information processing models of the mind (Sternberg 1985a) . It has been the most
widely used theoretical model for analysing intelligent performance. As with other
researchers his analysis refers to two levels of cognitive process:
1. metacognitive skills
the higher-level processes used for decision making, planning, monitoring, evaluating etc.
2. cognitive skills
performance components or non-executive skills, which carry out the orders of the
metacomponents, providing the means such as comparing, classifying or
combining elements to achieve an end, such as to solve a problem
acquisition components, involved in learning new information
retention components, involved in storing and retrieving information
transfer components, involved in carrying information from one context to
This is only a model, and it does not provide any clear guidance on how to teach the
thinking processes it seeks to describe. Some programmes aim to teach various of the
component processes that are thought to be involved in intellectual tasks. Approaches
such as Process Based Instruction (Ashman & Conway 1993) attempt explicitly to teach
the metacognitive strategies involved in planning and evaluating problem tasks. Others
argue that such problem solving strategies are not sufficient. They also stress the need for
problem posing (Brown & Walker 1983) and what are called 'inquiry skills' which
include questioning and reflective discussion (Lipman 1985). These processes are
mediated in group settings, such as the Community of Enquiry, where group discussion
involving questioning, planning, monitoring and revising ideas in a social context
becomes a model that children come to internalise (Fisher 1996).
Metacognition has been linked to the development of reading and writing (Wray 1994,
Wray and Lewis 1997). Although metacognitive deficits are not seen as solely
responsible for reading problems there is now substantial evidence that many poor
readers (and writers) are unaware of strategic problem solving elements in their approach
to tasks, and that metacognitive teaching strategies such as 'reciprocal teaching' are
reported as producing considerable gains in comprehension among poor readers
(Palincsar & Brown 1984, Brown & Palincsar 1989). These improvements have been
maintained over time, and show evidence of transfer and generalisation to other areas of
learning. This is a contentious area and reflects a central controversy in cognitive
education - whether there can be transfer of training in thinking skills from one domain of
experience to another, and whether this transfer, if it occurs at all, is of a specific or
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Metacognition is also linked to progress in science (Adey & Shayer 1993) and in maths
(Shayer, in press). Adey and Shayer (1993) lend strong support to the view that
metacognitive elements in thinking exist and can assist transfer of learning, especially if
the teaching explicitly targets metacognition as a key aim of the learning activity.
Students who are good at transfer show the same kinds of metacognitive strategies in
science, maths, English or whatever the subject - they plan their approach to problems,
they seek the information they need, check on progress and change strategies when things
go wrong. But how do they learn to do this?
Research suggests that learners conceptualise new experience as 'mental representations',
representing new experiences in terms of 'frames' which act as kinds of mental 'scripts'.
These individual cognitive representations derive from social and cultural experience to
provide expected sequences of events. The ways in which mental representations frame
our experience have been variously described as schema (Piaget), thinking frames
(Perkins 1986), scenarios, scripts and narratives (Bruner 1991). The way that they
construct mental representations of experience has a powerful effect on children's
awareness of tasks, and of themselves as learners. Such research points to the crucial
importance in learning of considering ways in which children internalise or 'frame' their
Researchers investigating the differences between the thinking of experts and novices
have found important differences in the ways these two groups approach or frame
problems. This research suggests that experts, studied in a wide range of fields, have
acquired a repertoire of automatic cognitive responses which are not available to novices
(Hennessy 1993). In solving complex problems a novice typically needs to focus on each
part of the task, whereas the expert recalls the appropriate technique or 'thinking frame'
from past experience, enabling their thinking to be concentrated at a broader and more
strategic level. Experts are able to review and process larger chunks of information than
novices because their thinking is strategic rather than localised. Experts tend to categorise
their knowledge whereas novices need to focus afresh on each individual task. This
research points out the importance of emphasising the structure rather than the surface
features of a task, for encouraging children to generalise their learning and to make links
between experiences. As Wood (1988) says, 'Viewed in this way, learning is taking place
on at least two levels: the child is learning about the task, developing 'local expertise'; and
he is also learning how to structure his own learning and reasoning' (p77). It is the second
level that involves metacognition and transfer of learning.
Perkins and Salomon (1987, 1989) proposed a much-quoted distinction between what
they called the low road and the high road to transfer. The low road he called the
automatic triggering of well-practised routines in perceptually similar contexts. Examples
of this would be correct capitalisation in sentence structure and the successful
implementation of common algorithms in arithmetic. High road transfer demands
deliberate and mindful abstraction of a central idea, principle or rule from one situation
so it can be applied in another (CE). Transfer tends not to occur spontaneously, but it can
be encouraged through explicit guidance and varied practice. Low road transfer refers to
domain specific skills and knowledge, whereas high road transfer refers to higher order
skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation (Bloom 1956, Fisher 1990). Adey and
Shayer (1994) argue that an even higher road to cognitive development and transfer may
exist in the 'unconscious development of a central cognitive processor'. This higher road
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transfer can also be unconscious, triggered not only by metacognitive activity, but also by
the internalisation of higher order skills through practice in supportive contexts. If one
way to improve transfer of learning is through metacognitive thinking (MT), how does
this develop, and can we teach it?
Meta-learning: how does metacognition develop?
Piaget called thinking about thinking 'reflective abstraction', and said that this develops in
children through their growing awareness of different viewpoints and the experience of
self-conflict when their understanding is challenged. The years from 4 to 9 see significant
developments in children in their growing awareness of themselves as thinkers and
learners. An illustration of this is provided by Istomina (1982) in studying the ways
children of different ages set about a shopping task using a class shop. The 4 year olds
ran impusively back and forth 'buying' things on their oral list, the 5 and 6 year olds tried
to memorize what they had been told by asking for it to be repeated, the 7 year olds tried
to make some logical connections between items on their lists.
Metacognitive development in individual children varies widely. Poor learners show
marked delays in metacognitive devlopment (Campione 1987, Watson 1996). They have
the metacognitive awareness of much younger children, they tend to over-estimate the
capacity of their memory, they fail to try different approaches, fail to see that similar
problems can be solved by similar means (Sternberg 1985). Pupils with learning
difficulties fail not only because they have less knowledge about tasks, but also because
they fail to utilise the knowledge and skills they have, they tend not to plan, have no
strategy in attempting tasks and do not monitor their progress. What these studies point to
is that these pupils need is not only the most explicit teaching but also metacognitive help
to improve their self regualtion and monitoring of learning.
If there is one characteristic of very able or gifted children it is that they have more
metacognitive awareness than less able peers (Sternberg 1983). They have a clearer grasp
of what they know and what they do not know, they know what they can do and what
they cannot do, and they know what will help them gain the knowledge or understanding
they need. One researcher found that very able children could 'describe in detail how they
managed their mental learning resources and what they did to improve their learning
strategies. (They) ... also knew about the importance of involving the whole self -
intellect, emotion, amd body - in their learning' (Freeman 1991). Metacognitive skill in
able pupils does not necessarily show itself in evidence of 'quick thinking', but in their
ability to use quick or slow thinking when the occasion demands. Creativity is not related
to quickness of thinking. Indeed evidence suggests that children with high IQs tend to be
slower not faster than those with lower IQs in creative problem solving, but show more
insight and success (Davison, Deuser & Sternberg 1996).
Children vary in their ability to solve problems and to learn from experience. These
individual differences are related to differences of intelligence, differences in experience
(including the experience of being taught) and to differences in the use of metacognitive
processes. Four metacognitive processes seem to be especially important in solving
problems. These are:
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recognising the problem, identifying and defining the elements of a given
representing the problem, making a mental map of the problem, comparing it with
planning how to proceed, deciding steps, resources and setting targets
evaluating progress and solutions, knowing about what you know
Many problems can be solved by cognitive methods alone, for example number problems
or editing a text for correct punctuation, which require the application of set rules. Many
of the steps however that children make in solving a problem are not simply about
applying rules. Problem solvers need to direct and guide their problem solving, know
how to define the problem and select appropriate strtategy or rule. Also many problems
in learning and in life are ill-structured, complex and made 'messy' by containing many
kinds of variables. Many problems have no simple solution. What do you do when you
don't know what to do? What is needed is not only the application of knowledge but also
the application of metacognitive skills, and evidence shows that these develop with age
and through practice (Metcalfe & Shimamura 1996).
Metacognition helps children make the most of their mental resources. We might use the
metaphor of the machine and the workshop manual. Our mental machines are very
similar, what makes variation is the way that the operating instructions differ from person
to person. Some of us have clearer mental representations of the way our minds work on
problems than others, some have more effective metacognitive mechanisms of operation
and control . One way to explore this is in children (and in adults) is to encourage self
reflection. But how would you represent the workings of your own mind? Research into
ways children represent, using drawing and metaphor, the workings of their minds show
that their ability develops through the process of maturation but that this process can be
accelerated through the mediated experience of self reflection (Fisher 1990, 1995).
Metacognitive awareness includes knowledge of ourselves (how we usually do or do not
perform in such a situation), and knowledge about the strategies we use to tackle tasks
(how we do things). We might sum this up by saying that the metacognitive includes
cognitive elements, but cognitive activity does not necessarily include the metacognitive.
Another way of representing this is on a continuum of awareness. Below is a guide to
levels of awareness in thinking that are increasingly metacognitive.
Levels of awareness
Tacit use : children make decisions without really thinking about them
Aware use: children become consciously aware of a strategy or decision-making
Strategic use: children organise their thinking by selecting strategies for decision-
Reflective use: children reflect on thinking, before, during and after the process,
pondering on progress and how to improve
adapted from Swartz and Perkins (1989)
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If metacognition is an essential ingredient in intelligent mehaviour, the challenge for
teachers is in finding ways to aid and accelerate the child's naturally developing
awareness of self. So how do we teach for metacognition?
Meta-teaching: how do we teach for metacognition?
Teaching strategies can be broadly divided into three categories: didactic, directed
discovery and teaching for metacognition (what I will call meta-teaching). Didactic
teaching is where the educator assumes complete control in setting tasks, prescribing
procedures and evaluating results. This kind of teaching suits particular purposes in terms
of exposition of knowledge and practice of skills, but it limits the scope of the child to
benefit metacognitively from the experience. Directed discovery teaching enables
children, under direction to 'discover', for example through investigation and problem
solving, particular strategies and teaching points. The teacher facilitates transfer of
learning by bridging new learning into existing knowledge through encouraging
reflectiuon and making links. This kind of teaching encourages the child to engage in
cognitive description (CD) and extension (CE). Meta-teaching aims to mediate
mecacognition to help the child make explicit their thinking and learning for the purpose
of self appraisal and self management (MT).
One way of teaching for metacognition is to make explicit and infuse the language of
thinking and learning into the planning of teaching and into classroom discussion. The
aim is to model the vocabulary we want children to use in their own thinking and
understanding of learning by using it ourselves to describe our teaching, with such
prompts as 'The thinking we are going to be using today is ...', 'This lesson is about ...',
'What thinking have we been doing ...?' This will also involve the direct explanation of
terms being used, and also challenging children to define these terms in their own words.
The following is a list of words compiled by teachers in a nursery school to provide them
with a common vocabulary about thinking and learning for use in their planning and in
their teaching of young children to raise awareness of metacognition:
Key words in teaching thinking and learning : a list devised by teachers in a nursery
thinking learning understanding teaching mastering trying persevering wondering
rehearsing practising modelling describing telling asking repeating exploring wondering
investigating imagining creating listening choosing deciding planning assessing
evaluating demonstrating explaining remembering talking discussing guessing predicting
suggesting testing sketching checking considering reconsidering reviewing recalling
noting noticing hypothesis idea summarizing etc.
One way to raise awareness of such words in a classroom setting is to post a 'thinking
word' relevent to a lesson on the board and to ask children to share definitions and
applications of the word. Similarly if we wish as a teacher or member of a teaching team
to develop metacognition in our pupils it might be helpful to create and share our own
understanding or definition of 'metacognition'. The following are some definitions offered
by a group of teachers:
Metacognition is ....
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'thinking about thinking and developing the process of solving problems and
'the examination of how we think about how we do things, how we go about
finding solutions, how well we can understand and analyse the systems, strategies
and techniques we use to think to do things'
'an awareness of the process of how an answer is found, what strategies and type
of thought has gone on and the previous experiences that have been used'
'to consciously apply a process, a procedure to a problem or activity and to be
aware that the result is satisfactory or otherwise. To be able to 'unpick' that
strategy/those actions and so improve performance'
'awareness of the different processes involved in thinking'
'the ability to take out our thinking, and examine it, and put it back, rearranged if
'thinking about thinking rather than just remembering facts and recalling events'
We need to encourage children to probe deeper into what they have said and what they
think, through what has been called 'empathetic challenging' (Bonnet 1994). Enquiring
into a child's thinking facilitates thinking. Metacognitive questions can offer the
challenge children need to become conscious of their thoughts and feelings, either before,
during or after an activity. 'What helps us to learn in this lesson?' 'What do good readers
do?' 'How should we plan this?' The following is a progressive list of questions that
moves from describing their kind of thinking children have engaged in, to describing how
they did their thinking, and to evaluating their thinking.
Metacognitivee questioning: to raise levels of awareness
1. Describe what kind of thinking you did
What kind of thinking did you do?
What do you call this kind of thinking?
Was this kind of thinking .........? (name a kind of thinking)
2. Describe how you did your thinking
How did you do this thinking?
What did you think about? Why?
Did you have a plan (or strategy)?
3. Evaluate your thinking
Was your thinking good? Why?
Did you have a good plan (or strategy)?
How could you improve your thinking next time?
adapted from Schwartz & Parks (1994)
Another way of introducing metacognitive language to children is through the use of
'think alouds', which model metacognitive processes. Here we raise awareness by using
metacognitive language and self questionning in the way we present explanations to
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pupils and model a particular problem solving process. We aid metacognition by bringing
to conscious awareness our thoughts and feelings, and communicate them by thinking
aloud. We need to help children do the same. Posting a list of metacognitive questions on
the wall can help to remind children of the sorts of questions they can ask themselves, for
example questions that assess awareness of learning (What have you learnt? What have
you found out? What did you find hard? What did you do well? What do you need to
learn/do next?), assessing attitudes and feelings (What do you like doing/learning? What
do you feel good/not good about ...? What do you feel proud of?) and in setting targets
(What do you need to do better? What would help you? What are your targets?)
In a secondary school the following strategy card was used as a set of metacognitive
reminders for group discussion with a group of below average attaining children. The
strategy card was designed to remind pupils and children of the language of learning as
well as being a useful reminder for small group discussion. The strategies were devised
after discussion with the pupils.
Teaching the language of learning
A strategy card for group discussion with Year 7 children
We must remember to:
1. Get ourselves in a learning mood.
2. Talk about what we have to do.
3. Look and listen carefully.
4. Decide who is going to do what.
5. Stop and think - work for several minutes without talking
6. Work on the task - have a go - allow everyone to speak - listen to what they say -
7. Check our work.
8. Think ahead.
(adapted from Quicke & Winter 1994)
A child with learning difficulties recently said to me: 'I learn a lot in class, its just that I
don't really understand what I'm doing'. How can we help such a child? One way is
through meta-teaching, which occurs when metacognitive discussion is built into the
lesson plan. This is based on the premiss that talking about our learning helps improve
our learning when such talk includes the metacognitive discussion. Obviously some tasks
are better than others in terms of accessing the metacognitive. The following are some
types of task that provide both cognitive and metacognitive challenge:
difficult, novel or puzzling tasks, such as those offering more than one solution
tasks which include cognitive conflict, such as debates or Philosophy for Children
having children teach others, such as reciprocal teaching, peer or cross-age
The following is an example of lesson plan format which builds in time for metacognitive
discussion of the learning activity:
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A meta-teaching lesson format : planning to include metacognitive discussion
1. FOCUS introducing the theme of the lesson
2. LESSON OBJECTIVE discussing the thinking and learning objectives
3. INPUT / STIMULUS providing information and stimulus to learning
4. STRUCTURED ACTIVITY engaging in active learning task(s)
5. METACOGNITIVE REVIEW discussing as a group what they have thought and
learnt, reviewing objectives, setting targets, lesson closure
Plenty of time should be allowed for the review stage, where the community can share
and reflect on their activity and try to come to a common understanding about the
methods and ideas involved. A philosophical or 'thinking skills' approach will focus not
only on the cognitive outcomes (CE) through asking students questions such as: 'What
happened?' 'Why did it happen?' 'What does it mean?' but also the metacognitive
outcomes (MT), the thinking about thinking, through asking such questions as:
'What kind of thinking were you doing?'
'How did it help you find out/solve the problem?'
'What was special (or mathematical / scientific / historical etc) about your
A metacognitive approach can enrich any lesson not only through the planning and
review stages, but also in bridging activities to other elements of the curriculum and to
world of everyday experience. Without this bridging or linking to meaningful activity in
everyday life lessons can seem to have limited relevance, instead of being something that
helps them to make sense of themselves and their world.
Questions that can help in this bridging process might include some of the key questions
of philosophy, such as:
What kind of reasons have we used?
Where else might we use this kind of reasoning? (logical questions)
Do we know this or believe it? How do we know?
What kind of knowledge is this? (epistemological questions)
What does this help us to explain or understand?
What is there left to explain or understand? (possibly metaphysical questions)
How might this help us, or other people? Is it useful? (values/moral/ethical
Was there anything interesting , well-designed or beautiful about this? (aesthetic
According to the philosopher Peirce scientific knowledge 'rises from the contemplation of
the fragment of a system to the envisagement of a complete system'. Metacognitive
review can help children link fragments of experience during a lesson to the wholeness of
Examples of such metacognitive discussion include the child who said: 'One important
thing I've learnt about my own thinking is that to be creative I need time. When I don't
get in a panic I am able to solve most problems'. Another child responded: 'Having a
Page 13 of 15
thinking time afterwards is a good idea because it gives you time to think about things
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of thinking'. But it is the kind of thinking we all need to engage in as teachers and as
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About this paper
This paper may be quoted but not reprinted without permission. The reference for this
paper is: Fisher R. (1998), ‘Thinking about Thinking: developing metacognition in
children', Early Child Development and Care, Vol 141 (1998) pp1-15.
© Robert Fisher