Action Research – Metacognition Part 1


My research aim is to evaluate the impact of metacognitive strategies on learning and progress in a secondary school.

Focusing on research by:

  • Daniel Kahneman: Thinking: fast and slow
  • Peter Brown et at: Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning
  • Carole Dweck: Mindset
  • David Didau: what if Everything I knew about Education was Wrong
  • Daniel Willingham: Why Don’t Students Like School?


What the Literature Says:

In every piece of educational research or research on metacognition there is one key phrase that is repeated: “it is OK to be wrong.”

To put this phrase into context, the literature suggests that quintessentially, learning can only improve and progress if you are secure in the knowledge that it is “ok to be wrong”.

Hanging on this premise is the development of each of the pieces of literature that I have read to encourage students to become better learners and more self-conscious learners they must first embrace the acceptance of failure and also the willingness to put in effort.

Why has this research gained such ground of late? Is this not a known fact: learning is challenging and hard work? I think the message, due to the large influx of metacognitive research, is that, no, students, and to some extent teachers, believe that learning is easy and education should help as much as possible to ensure that all children succeed. The literature, to some extent is not negating this fact, instead it is suggesting we have misread the way in which we approach inclusivity. Instead we seem to have swayed to the polar opposite: dependence and a fixed mindset that has been nurtured throughout the twenty first century society and media.

 “we are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we are not. When the going is harder and slower we are drawn to strategies that feel more productive. But these strategies are temporary and short term.”


If we first take into account the basic sciences: Dweck and Kahneman, both recognise that we have two types of brain, metaphorically. Nobel prize winner Kahneman notes that our brains have two reactions (fast and slow) and typically our immediate reactions tend to be how we live our lives. Our emotional reactions, remembering our phone numbers, brushing our teeth, yet it is also the fast reactions that causes us to make mistakes. The best example of this is optical illusions or logical puzzles; we tend to jump to immediate reactions without slowing to take in other views and new information. Thus demonstrating a fatal flaw in learning: if we always go to our immediate reaction and believe ourselves right then how likely are we to spot out mistakes AND therefore develop our learning by correcting them? I know as a student this was something I was unaware of but, as Brown points out it is one of the most prominent flaws to our learning. He suggests:

Calibration is the act of aligning your judgements of what you know and don’t know with objective feedback so as to avoid being carried off by the illusions of mastery that catch many learners by surprise at test time.”

But how do we encourage students to think slower? How can we develop a culture of independence in our students?

This ultimately is where this action research stems from; students are not independent. They are spoon feed, for whatever reasons: be it pressure, time, disengagement, behaviour or any other number of stresses in the educational environment. Yet, what is this dependence culture created? Students who, as Carol Dweck calls it, a fixed mindset:

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

This fixed mindset has been nurtured through shot lived reality TV stars, football players and their wages, parents praising intelligence and an ‘I don’t know the answer, Miss,’ attitude; amongst many other examples. The lack of motivation to succeed is reduced heavily if your mindset is already fixed in the “this is all I can do” phase. It doesn’t seem to matter what a teacher does then, the students as already accepted this as their limit. So what do we do?

In Dweck’s words, we need to help students create a “growth mindset” through John Hattie’s top strategies: teacher relationships:

“-growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

If we are to follow Dweck’s train of thought here she states that anyone who is willing to have a sustained growth mindset in their learning “especially when it’s to going well” is more likely to develop and grow as a learner and a person. Her research, which compared students given fixed mindset comments and growth mindset comments found that “those people with the growth mindset were not labelling themselves and throwing up their hands. Even though they felt distressed, they were ready to take the risks, confront the challenges and keep working at them.”

This seems like the best environment in which to develop metacognitive strategies for students in order for them to become better independence, lifelong learners.

Daniel Willingham points out:

“people are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.”

So, teachers, how do we encourage students to think? What strategies do we give students to enable them to develop their own curiosity and take control of their learning?

This takes us back to Daniel Kahneman: thinking is slow and we have to encourage students to work with slow thinking.

This takes us another step deeper in the understanding of learning because what has been recognised as important for real deep curious thinking is knowledge: “we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge parallel with practicing critical thinking skills.” Again, Willingham points out, like the other researchers and psychologists, that thinking is not a skill we can isolate. In the broader sense in education we cannot, therefore, detach and teach skills from the knowledge?

English for example has a set of core skills that are tested across a broad range of texts. Can I critically teach the effect and impact of metaphorical language without linking to the contextual and social representations in Animal Farm or Frankenstein? The research here suggests no; how can students think about the effects of language if they do not have previous knowledge of its use by other writers in other contexts in order to compare and develop the analytical effect? Not to mention the knowledge of vocabulary that will need to be looked at and understood in relation to historical context.

So to summarise so far:

  • Thinking for learning is slow
  • We don’t develop our learning if we think we cannot improve
  • Learning from mistakes and resilience develops learning and progress
  • Critical thinking takes effort: a growth mindset
  • Critical thinking cannot occur without knowledge

Therefore, it seems the next step is to ensure that students are given strategies to develop their knowledge and thus apply it to critical thinking tasks. And this is where the reintroduction of Peter Brown et al is needed.


Published by krystaljem

Having taught English in secondary for 12 years, I have developed a serious passion for educational research, how we learn, how we communicate and love that I get to continue to support new teachers in training to do one of the most challenging but rewarding jobs there is. I am proud of my experiences and expertise and hope to share that with others. I have a Masters in Education, AST, SLE, Lead Practitioner, been Head of English, Whole school Literacy, coach, mentor to NQTs, trainees and lots of other staff members. I am also training to be a Person Centred Counsellor and really feel it has a place in the educational setting too.

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