Teach Kids to Think About Their Thinking — Metacognition

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Teaching children to think about their thinking, or metacognition, is essential.

Confucius said, “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it is committing another mistake.

Or, as Dr. Phil asks his dysfunctional guests, “How’s that working for you?

When learners become conscious of their thinking, they can become aware of their strengths and the strategies that are useful to their own learning.


Thinking About My Thinking from One Extra Degree

Last week, I watched my nine-year old daughter AJ studying for her spelling test. Dad asked her the words and she spelled them — incorrectly. Over and over — wrong, wrong, wrong, again.

I’d finally interrupted and asked if we could stop. I asked what strategy was she using to spell the words.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I see that you’re rolling around the floor and it seems like you’re randomly guessing the words, do you think guessing is your strategy?”

“I don’t know.”

(The goal here is for AJ to know what strategy she is using AND to know if the strategy is working or needs to be reconsidered.)

“Did you know that good spellers see the word in their mind like it’s written on a chalkboard? That’s called visualizing. Before you answer daddy’s question the next time, I want you pause and not answer right away. Try to picture the word in your mind and then spell what you see.

Let me show you how I do it. I’m trying to think of spelling the word heart.” [I close my eyes.] “Okay, I see it. h – e – a – r – t. Heart.”

Sensory Interruption: Unfortunately, AJ didn’t change her strategy and got very frustrated. Watching her behavior I realized that I needed to do some OT to calm her down. I brushed her and gave her a tight bear hug for about ten minutes. This is how it goes for a child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) – and when her senses calmed down we could always try again.

But, you get the point, right?

Like creativity, metacognition is not an add-on to a learning activity but embedded during the learning experience.

If we can help our children think about their strategies, we can help them become more skilled learners.

Metacognition Metacognition in Three Areas

John Flavell, researcher of metacognition, believes kids need awareness in three areas:

1. An awareness of knowledge: understanding what they know

surveying, questioning, reading, reciting, and reviewing –SQ3R (Robinson)

2. An awareness of thinking: understanding cognitive tasks

selecting strategies for the task

3. An awareness of thinking strategies: understanding approaches to directing learning




“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)

Okay, but how do you teach kids to do this?

1. Model your own thinking

Kids learn by watching us so they need to see into our brains (scary!) Imagine your brain is printing out a ticker-tape of all your thoughts for you to read aloud. Saying your thoughts out loud shows kids what you’re thinking, or “thinking aloud.” See a video of a teacher thinking aloud.

2. Scaffold the thinking

In other words, don’t teach a baby to run before he can crawl. Step by step scaffold the learning. Start first with introducing thinking strategies, then move on to noticing the thinking strategies the student is using, noticing if the strategies worked, and reflecting.


3. Facilitate and provide opportunities to notice thinking

Thought Bubble from A Teacher’s Treasure

The authors of Making Thinking Visible suggest seven routines for metacognition:

1. What Makes You Say That? Interpretation with justification routine.

2. Think Puzzle Explore A routine that sets the stage for deeper inquiry.

3. Think Pair Share A routine for active reasoning and explanation.

4, Circle of Viewpoints A routine for exploring diverse perspectives.

5. I used to Think… Now I think… A routine for reflecting on how and why our thinking has changed.

6. See Think Wonder A routine for exploring works of art and other interesting things.

7. Compass Points A routine for examining propositions.

Challenge yourself, my friends. Try one this week. See how it goes.

**Find more information about thinking strategies for reading comprehension.

Check out Diane Dahl’s metacognition lesson with pipe cleaners and these Think Cloud prompts.

“When the mind is thinking, it is talking to itself.” – Plato

Teach Kids to Think About Their Thinking -- Metacognition 

The difference between convergent and divergent thinking

33 Responses

  1. Muchammad Arif Muchlisin says:

    hai melissa nice to see your blog, i.m arif from indonesia. thanks for sharing
    could you send into me about metcognitive development in early childhood. because it is very important for my theses. please send into me in my email: muh.arif.muchlisin@gmail.com.

  2. Melissa,
    Please contact me at tanny@fuse.net
    This is in reference to your previous post about Metacognition.
    Tanny McGregor
    Author of Comprehension Connections (Heinemann, 2007)

  3. This is great!! I teach first grade and I love the break down of your explanations. I wanted to share your comments with parents in my class but it seems that some of your links are inactive (atleast from my end). When you explain The authors of Visible Thinking suggest seven routines for metacognition: – each of the explanations appear to be a link, but are unfound. If they aren’t intended to be links, then never mind. 🙂 I was just racking my brain on what to do for my observation with my principle this year and I think I’m going to use the pipe cleaner activity to teach kids about their thinking. So fun!!! Thanks!!

  4. Lenkaland says:

    Love this! We get caught up in “what to learn,” we forget to notice “how to learn.” And everyone learns differently. Spelling is a big struggle in our home, too. Hopefully it will all come together for both of our girls 🙂

  5. Janna Jennings says:

    I love your blog! Thank you for this great article and for keeping it real. My son also has SPD. I’m sorry y’all have to deal with it too, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only parent who has to do things differently.

  6. Andrea Gardner says:

    Ah Sensory days. Gotta “love” them. Is it odd that what I mostly got out of this is “Wow. I am glad my kid isn’t the only one who rolls around on the floor when I am trying to teach him.”

    I really enjoyed this post. It affirmed how I handle certain teaching moments with my kids. My special needs kid has more trouble than his brother with this, but I still try. He has to eventually get it, right?

    1. Andrea Gardner says:

      On a side note, visualization also helps with SPD. Have you ever tried it? We use the term “engine” to describe their state of being. We want a warm/normal engine. If they are having a down day their engine is low and we work together on ways to get it up. When they are anxious or having “moments’ their engine is high and we work to get it lower. When I see the signs of “engine trouble” I tell them so that they can learn the signs also. It helps. It takes a lot of work, but it does help.

  7. This is great…we are studying the brain and this is really helpful…thank you 🙂

  8. These strategies are so important. The push back is going to be “but I don’t have time.” The reality is if we don’t take the time to reflect and think about how we are learning–the time we are spending is not productive.

    We go slow to go fast.

    Somehow we’ve accepted a banking metaphor for thinking. Everything we do has to be in a debit or credit column. But in reality thinking doesn’t work like that.

    Thinking takes time, it’s not neat and tidy and it’s not necessarily linear.

  9. LOTS of great info here, Melissa! I think a lot of us don’t really appreciate (or even understand) the role that metacognition plays in our everyday thinking and problem-solving. And if we don’t understand it, we certainly can’t help our kids develop it, so thank you for doing such a great job of explaining ways to help children thinking about their own thinking. In my own researching, I’ve learned that even preschoolers can learn to use mental strategies to solve problems or deal with challenging situations. What they aren’t very good at is coming up with strategies in the first place. So giving a child an example of mental strategy (like you did with your daughter) is especially helpful. I’ve written a blog post that I think compliments yours well, for those of you who are interested in the development of strategic thinking in younger children. http://www.childwiseresources.com/index.php?/blog/strategic_thinkers_in_the_making/

    1. thanks for sharing that excellent post, Kathy! We really are giving our kids a gift if we help them be metacognitive, aren’t we? I love your reminder that it’s for young kids as well.

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