Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Meaningful Metacognition

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“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think if only you try!” – Dr. Suess 

Growing up I loved reading this book at my Grandparents' house. They had a dark wicker basket in the playroom full of books. I loved all the silly “thinks” on each page and how it encouraged me to use my imagination to think up any “thinks” I wanted to. This book really empowered me to “think” outside the box.

This year has been a big growing year for me and my classroom. I made the decision to join the Assessment Academy in the fall, not really knowing what I was getting myself into. I thought I would glean a few new insights to boost our current 3rd grade PBLs at Liberty. What I wasn’t expecting was a major “meta-shift” both in myself and within my classroom!

I say “meta-shift” because this all came from my study of metacognition. It all started one night when I was feeling particularly tired and a little bit grumpy that I had homework to do for the Assessment Academy. I remember grumbling under my breath about the homework being “a waste of time”. The workshop was on Metacognition and the article was titled, Metacognition: Nurturing Self-Awareness in the Classroom.

Today’s fast paced world is saturated in instant gratification. The other day one of my students said that his computer was “lagging”, I had to chuckle to myself. These kids will never understand what a lagging computer is really like. Patience is a lost art in America, and I didn’t fully understand this until I spent two years teaching overseas in New Delhi, India. In a culture where “time” is a relative term and an afternoon nap is a necessity, I had to learn how to slow down and through gritted teeth embrace this thing called patience. It wasn’t until I was put into a culture of early morning meditation in the park that I realized what a frenzied life we lead as Americans. Being busy is a trophy that we parade around under the guise of hating it. We say things like “Oh I’m so busy, I just don’t know how I’ll get it all done!” secretly hoping that the other person thinks we are a superstar! Yet everything I know about good reflection involves higher order thinking: reflecting, analyzing, observing, examining, critiquing etc. Good learning takes lots of time, lots of failure, and lots of uninterrupted thinking!

Kids expect immediate results and we have to show them that steady growth is anything but immediate. Our brain is a muscle, and just like resistance is the only way to grow your arms, legs, abs, etc., resistance is also the only way to grow our brains. The first strategy for improving metacognition mentioned in the article was to teach kids how their brains are wired. The last two years I have started off the school year teaching about the brain in the first 3 weeks of school and connecting it to Conscious Discipline, which is what we use at Liberty. The students learn about their Brain Stem, Limbic System, and Prefrontal Lobe so they understand how their brains function and learn. We need to change their “self-talk” from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. I don’t allow my students to say that something is hard. If a student says to me, “I don’t get this! It’s too hard.” I respond with, “It will take time and effort. We are growing our brains.” The students hear from me often that resistance is good and when they have their “a-ha moment” when that new concept clicks, I tell them to kiss their brain. Then I kiss my own hand and touch my forehead. At this point in the year, I hear the students telling each other to kiss their brain when they see a classmate connect new learning.
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Two practices that have changed my classroom are Think Alouds and Socratic Seminars. As teachers we are already good at explaining what we are doing, now we just need to explain what we are thinking, while we are doing it. So now when I am teaching a new skill at the carpet, I tell the students exactly what I am thinking instead of what I am doing. They can already see what I am doing. They need to know what's happening behind the scenes inside my brain. So I use vocabulary like, "So then I thought..." or "Now I wonder...", or "Oh, I just noticed that...". If I make a mistake, I draw attention to it before I fix it, and when I do fix it, I tell them why I am fixing it. Metacognition is not something concrete that can be taught through words like how to read or solve math problems, it is abstract so it must be taught through actions like how to love, show empathy, and develop friendships. 

My first time leading my students in a Socratic Seminar was very enlightening. I remember laughing to myself thinking there was no way I could sit 8 and 9 years olds down and have them facilitate a meaningful conversation. Sure, for the first five minutes it was awkward, and some of the questions/statements from certain students were off topic, but it didn’t take very long before the students were drawn into the conversation. I was amazed at their questions and insights and it was a huge “A-ha” moment for me. My students weren’t really having meaningful metacognition before because they were never put in a situation where they felt like their opinions TRULY mattered. If we treat our students like they are incapable of meaningful discussion, then that’s exactly what we will get! One of my students whispered to me from the circle “Mrs. Heiple, it’s like we’re having adult conversations!” Yet, 8 and 9 year olds are more eager and ready to have these discussions than most adults because they are constantly analyzing the world and formulating questions and opinions which are often hushed by our busy lives rather than fostered through meaningful “meta-moments”. The students also needed to understand that if they wanted their opinions to be heard and valued, that they needed to really listen to one another, and reflect before they responded. This has to be both taught and modeled since we all are usually quick to respond. Most of the time we are formulating our response before the speaker has even finished. 

If we want students to value learning, they need to know that what they’re learning is relevant, that their questions are important, and that resistance is necessary!   

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