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Metacognition: One Teacher's Journey


Ann LoCicero

As Mrs. Smith walks down the main hall in the middle school where she teaches "computers," she is greeted by a group of energetic seventh-grade girls who simultaneously chime, "Mrs. Smith, we want to come back to YOUR class."

They had been in Mrs. Smith's connection class during the previous rotation. Mrs. Smith knows that the girls are sincere. She also knows that the reason why students want to come back to her class is because she teaches students how to learn.

You could say that an evolution has occurred in the way Mrs. Smith has incorporated metacognitive skills into her lessons using computers over the years. But, it has been a very s-l-o-w evolution at that.

Mrs. Smith began teaching in 1991. She taught third grade. There was one computer lab in the school. There were no computers in teachers' rooms. Mrs. Smith, like so many other teachers at that time, had no previous experience with computers, let alone using them in instruction. She took her class to the computer lab every week when it was their scheduled time and had students work on skills drill programs in reading and math. There was no "teaching." There certainly were no metacognitive skills being developed either on the part of Mrs. Smith or her students.

As time passed and productivity software such as Microsoft Works became available, Mrs. Smith moved away from using skills drill programs exclusively and began having her students use the computers to "type-up" final drafts of their creative writing and research papers. Eventually, Mrs. Smith began having her students use the programs Hyperstudio and Powerpoint for reports. Still, these programs, like Microsoft Works, were used only in the "publishing" stage of students' writing. They were used to "make a project pretty," but that's all.

Eventually, Mrs. Smith was able to get a computer for her classroom. It was a discard, but it was better than nothing. She continued "begging, borrowing, and stealing." until she actually had four computers in her room. And, as more and more software became available, Mrs. Smith found programs such as the Living Books for reading, the Math Blaster series for math, and Crosswords and More to help students with their vocabulary in all content areas. She even heard about a program called Co:Writer which she thought would have a positive effect on students' spelling. Mrs. Smith felt good about the many "computer" learning opportunities she was providing for her students.

Mrs. Smith did not know NOT to feel good. She was using technology more in her classroom than most teachers and receiving kudos from the administration. At that time, the focus on "effective use of computers in the classroom" was years away. Most school districts were still focused on accessibility.

In her professional development classes, Mrs. Smith was learning about Cooperative Learning, Thematic Units, and Motivation. She began to examine her own teaching practices. In her classroom, her students (at least most of them) were doing what they were told to do: listening to her lectures, doing the activities that she had planned for them, and then regurgitating the information that they had "learned" on tests. She wanted her students to be more responsible, independent, and self-regulated learners. She decided to make some changes.

She assigned her students to research a topic and do a multimedia presentation using Powerpoint. She thought that this would force her students to be actively involved in their learning. Through experience, she learned differently.

Instead of her students becoming actively involved and taking responsibility for their learning, they wasted an enormous amount of time on the Internet and "played" with the program's fonts, backgrounds, and transitions. They cut and pasted information with little regard for content (or copyright). And, when they were finished, they believed that they had completed quality work (and, of course, that they deserved an "A.")

Mrs. Smith began reading everything she could about how to teach students to take responsibility for their own learning. She learned the difference between active and passive learning, and she learned about metacognitive strategies.

She kept a journal of all of the new activities and lesson plans that she tried out with her class reflecting on the effectiveness of each. She made adjustments to her lesson plans as a result of her reflections.

Years passed and Mrs. Smith was offered the opportunity to teach in a computer lab. She began by teaching computing as a survey course. She incorporated basic computer skills into her teaching, and eventually began teaching specific software programs. She still wanted her students to be more responsible, independent, and self-regulated learners, but they weren't. They came to class and did what they were told to do, but they had no spark. They were not actively involved in their learning.

After much trial and error, Mrs. Smith decided that teaching "computers" isn't about teaching discrete computer skills, nor is it about teaching specific computer programs. It isn't about teaching discrete metacognitive skills as they apply to computers. It's about setting up learning environments in which computer skills and metacognitive skills become invisible. Both are simply tools that lead to effective learning. The way to set up learning environments in which computer skills and metacognitive skills become invisible is to structure lessons around solid instructional models that have at their foundation the principals of metacognition:

1. Connecting new information to former knowledge

2. Selecting thinking strategies deliberately

3. Planning, monitoring, and evaluating thinking processes

Today, Mrs. Smith teaches "computers" by focusing on teaching students how to learn. The content area of her lessons varies: social studies, science, etc. but she plans her lessons with specific instructional models in mind. Why? Because several of the instructional models such as Project-Based learning, Problem-Based learning, Learning by Design, and the Six C's of Motivation focus on making sense of the topic at hand, self-assessment, and reflection; teaching practices that manifest a metacognitive approach to learning. Computer skills and instruction on specific computer programs are taught as needed and in support of the lessons.

Besides planning her lessons with specific instructional models in mind, Mrs. Smith also models various metacognitive strategies. She guides her students by "thinking aloud" questions that they should be asking themselves; and eventually will. For example, when a student asks a question that has a factual answer, instead of giving the student the answer, Mrs. Smith might respond by saying, "Hmmm, where can I go to get that information? I know! I can do a quick Google search."

Mrs. Smith teaches students how to use graphic organizers such as the KWL (what the student Knows, Wants to know, and has Learned) chart to help them access their prior knowledge. As she does so, she talks about thinking and she asks questions about why the KWL chart is helpful and how it can be used in other situations.

To help students plan a writing assignment, Mrs. Smith shows them the program, Inspiration. As she does so, she talks about how Inspiration can help you organize your thinking. She asks students how they might use Inspiration in other situations.

Following each project, Mrs. Smith guides her students through a debriefing. They review the thought processes that they used as they progressed through a project and evaluate those that were successful and those that were not.

Truly, you could say that an evolution has occurred in the way Mrs. Smith has incorporated metacognitive skills into her lessons using computers over the years. In the beginning, her lessons included no metacognitive skills. Now, they provide the foundation of her lessons. Her students are actively involved in their own learning.

Still walking down the main hall in the middle school where she teaches "computers," Mrs. Smith is almost to her room. She turns the corner and sees Mario, an energetic 7th grade boy, waiting in front of her classroom door. "Hi, Mrs. Smith; Mrs. Jones wants to know if you have an extra mouse." And, almost in the same breath, Mario says, "Can I come back to YOUR class?"


Why do students want to be back in Mrs. Smith's class? Students want to be back in Mrs. Smith's class because she teaches them how to learn. Mrs. Smith examined her own teaching methods and decided to make some changes. Those changes led to incorporating metacognitive strategies in her teaching which then led to her students becoming more responsible, independent, and self-regulated learners.

Metacognition, as illustrated in this story, includes both executive control and strategies. Executive control is evident in this story as it tells about one teacher's journey from using computers in her classroom with no thought of incorporating metacognitive skills into her lessons, to an awareness that she could use computers more effectively than she was using them, and finally to making changes in her teaching methods by planning her lessons with specific instructional models such as Problem-Based learning in mind while using metacognitive skills as the foundation.

Examples of the metacognitive strategies used by Mrs. Smith with her students include:

Modeling thinking aloud

Accessing prior knowledge through the use of graphic organizers (KWL chart)

Using the program Inspiration in the planning stage of writing

Debriefing-- review the thought processes