Teaching Metacognition: An Evolution

Michael Fullan likes to characterize the movement towards deeper learning as optional, but inevitable. I agree. After 17 years of teaching in regular and special education, I am working to update the Ontario curriculum and teacher training so that metacognition is taught, trained, and regularly used as a vehicle for more powerful learning in schools. Using metacognition, students ask, “What obstacles will I face? How will I overcome them?”

I have been working with teams of teachers to develop a lean, mean tweak to pedagogy. Teachers agree, we must:  1) give children a basic cognitive literacy – some key vocabulary to describe the various facets of their cognitive function, 2) add short, snappy metacognitive strategy-planning sessions to everyday teaching, and 3) use feedback to help students connect their use of strategy to their success. Teachers who regularly “talk” to the most sophisticated part of the brain will bring it to life.


The tweak we’re  working on addresses an urgent and serious need. While the curriculum, technology, and aims of schools have evolved, teaching itself hasn’t changed much. A goal is set, and then, in many ways, everything falls apart. Students drift off task, they stall, they bicker, and they are disorganized. In response, teachers initiate an instinctive, age old response. Research tells us that, generally, teachers (1) express frustration or approval or (2) give specific instructions and “hints” about how to proceed. These ingrained pedagogical habits make up a huge proportion of what students get from their school experience. They are terribly outdated and fundamentally backwards, because:

  • students’ “stalled” behavior is almost always related to cognitive functions such as attention, flexibility, planning, etc, and not a lack of either ideas or the desire to do well;
  • expressions of teacher frustration are often interpreted as insults, disrespect, or existential condemnation, thus impairing student self-esteem and student-teacher relationships; and
  • appropriating the work or taking over control dramatically suppresses student engagement and motivation.

Even when teachers use the best new curriculums, outdated pedagogical habits often leave students bafflingly unproductive and “ill-behaved.” And, when students underperform, teachers retreat to more didactic lessons with tighter control and less risk-taking, which further suppresses student engagement and thwarts the intent of whatever costly retraining teachers have been lucky enough to receive.

The Brain’s Special Feature

The need to fire up metacognition as a vehicle for learning is way overdue. Are you familiar with the idea that the brain evolved from back to front? In gross generalities, the brain evolved from basic motor and sensory function toward unconscious language and informational processing. The prefrontal cortex, a highly powerful slab of special features across the forehead, developed last. The PFC is the brain’s manager, capable of self-awareness, strategic goal pursuit, and finesse. Surely, you’ve heard that humans don’t use X percent of their brains? This has been proven; the brain’s metacognitive management and oversight system cannot be relied upon to turn on automatically. Without special prompting, it often stays off.

For example, surgeons, when specifically prompted to activate their higher order thinking with a form that asks, “What mistake might you make today? What will you do to be strategic?” actually preform much better. It is a plainly empirical change – fewer perilous surgical errors are made when a metacognitive strategy-planning process is used. To keep pace with the complex, creative, and integrative demands of school, and to fulfill our potential as humans, our pedagogical habits need to turn ON the powerful capacity of the PFC.

Essential for All

This work is important at both the highest and the most marginalized levels of performance. On one hand, metacognition is a crucial life skill for children with learning disabilities, or for those who suffer from poverty or deprivation. These learners often demonstrate underdeveloped metacognition and cognitive function, the very skills they will need to navigate their obstacles and succeed in school. On the other hand, companies like Amazon and Google are scrambling to develop in-house curriculums to optimize the metacognitive performance of their top thinkers.

A deliberate focus on self-awareness, metacognition, and strategy-planning is necessary in any context in which there is an “expectations gap” – when expectations seem to exceed capability. This gap occurs at both the higher and lower ends of performance, and, if students are prepared, can and should be a thrilling part of every single school day.

World hunger? Poverty? Environmental threat? Sounds like an expectations gap to me! It is time for a big step in human evolution towards the activation of higher-order thinking,