Amidst the discussions about content standards, curriculum and teaching strategies, it's easy to lose sight of the big goals behind education, like giving students tools to deepen their quantitative and qualitative understanding of the world. Teaching for understanding has always been a challenge, which is why Harvard’s Project Zero has been trying to figure out how great teachers do it.
Some teachers discuss metacognition with students, but they often simplify the concept by describing only one of its parts -- thinking about thinking. Teachers are trying to get students to slow down and take note of how and why they are thinking and to see thinking as an action they are taking. But two other core components of metacognition often get left out of these discussions -- monitoring thinking and directing thinking. When a student is reading and stops to realize he’s not really understanding the meaning behind the words, that’s monitoring. And most powerfully, directing thinking happens when students can call upon specific thinking strategies to redirect or challenge their own thinking.
“When we have a rich meta-strategic base for our thinking, that helps us to be more independent learners,” said Project Zero senior research associate Ron Ritchhart at a Learning and the Brain conference. “If we don’t have those strategies, if we aren’t aware of them, then we’re waiting for someone else to direct our thinking.”
Helping students to “learn how to learn” or in Ritchhart’s terminology, become “meta-strategic thinkers” is crucial for understanding and becoming a life-long learner. To discover how aware students are of their thinking at different ages, Ritchhart has been working with schools to build “cultures of thinking.” His theory is that if educators can make thinking more visible, and help students develop routines around thinking, then their thinking about everything will deepen.
His research shows that when fourth graders are asked to develop a concept map about thinking, most of their brainstorming centers around what they think and where they think it. “When students don’t have strategies about thinking, that’s how they respond – what they think and where they think,” Richhart said. Many fifth graders start to include broad categories of thinking on their concept maps like “problem solving” or “understanding.” Those things are associated with thinking, but fifth graders often haven’t quite hit on the process of thinking.