The Science of Learning: Metacognition in Education

Not only is it difficult to measure and develop metacognitive skills, but the current state of education systematically stifles metacognitive development. One of the hallmarks of metacognitive development is divergent thinking. Divergent thinking requires an individual to think of different ways that a solution can be reached. It requires cognitive flexibility, as well as critical analysis of where the process you have chosen is taking you.

Formal education is almost always about convergent thinking. Convergent thinking would be considered the opposite of divergent thinking. Convergent thinking requires you to come up with the same solution that others come up with, write an essay on a particular topic, answer an exam question (closed or open ended). When you think of learning arithmetic, not only do we all have to come up with the same answer (makes sense in the content domain), but we usually have to “show our work” so that we can demonstrate that we have all used the same method to arrive at the solution. There is no room for a learner to critically evaluate the process used to learn, only to memorize the approved approach. There is no cognitive flexibility, and such thinking is actively discouraged. Formal higher education is about convergence and conformity – the exact opposite of what is needed to foster the development of metacognition.

Heller and Reif were teaching physics at Berkeley. When they started, Heller and Reif found that students that averaged a B or above in a foundational physics course were only able to solve 35% of the textbook problems that required them to apply their theoretical knowledge to obtain a solution. Looking into why, the researchers found that the students were using “primitive” problem-solving methods to arrive at a solution. The problem wasn’t their knowledge, it was their lack of metacognitive skills that would have allowed them to analyze what cognitive tools they had at their disposal that would bring them to successfully arrive at a solution.

When Heller and Reif taught the students how to deconstruct the problems that they were faced with into sub-problems that they could understand and solve, 70% of the students were able to solve complex physics problems with no errors, while the percentage of students able to solve the problems, when they were not trained in the process of evaluating their available strategies, was at about 10%. The students content knowledge, in both cases, was the same. However, being able to think about the process of solving a problem improved the performance of the majority of the students.

Berkeley is a good school. Being highly selective, the students entering Berkley are the most likely students to have gained metacognitive skills during their primary and secondary schooling. Primary and secondary schools all over the world claim to teach and practice metacognitive skills in children. How could they? Metacognitive skills are a part of higher order thinking. Higher order thinking skills aren’t even available until late adolescence, so how could they be taught in primary and secondary school?

This is an example of how teaching, in general, ignores the Science of Learning. Although the teaching of metacognitive skills is admirable, if children are unable to acquire the skills, then teaching them is a waste of time. However, teaching metacognitive skills in higher education is what is needed – if the curriculum coverage (which we set) and research demands didn’t get in the way.

In a world obsessed with memorization, the right answer, and standardized testing, there is no room for developing metacognitive skills – regardless of the rhetoric that claims otherwise.

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