Metacognition and Self-Apprenticeship

“All apprenticeship begins with the instructor’s capacity
to describe the performance and/or product of the novice.”

I’ve used this quote often in talking about an apprenticeship approach to teaching, and somewhere along the line I’ve lost track of the source. But that doesn’t make it any less true.

In order to move any novice along a continuum, the expert must be able to describe to the novice exactly what she is doing, where her performance places her in relation to the goal, and what she needs to do to bridge the gap. It starts with the ski instructor saying “You’re locking your knees. Can you feel that?” Then, “You need to keep them pliable in order to respond to the terrain,” and then, “It looks like this. Follow me.”

It makes sense then, that if we can help students increase their ability to do this kind of observation, reflection, and navigating for themselves, the more effective learners they become. They begin to exercise self-apprenticeship—or, to use the current buzzword, they learn to practice metacognition (jazz hands).

Individuals with well-developed metacognitive skills can think through a problem or approach a learning task, select appropriate strategies, and make decisions about a course of action to resolve the problem or successfully perform the task (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1995).

In her article “Metacognition: The Gift That Keeps Giving,” Donna Wilson shares the metaphor that resonates with many of her students. Learning cognitive and metacognitive strategies offers them tools to "drive their brains."

But how do we actually teach metacognition? Inquiry By Design incorporates regular opportunities and structures for metacognition in the form of Closing Meetings, which wrap up each class session of our units of study. Thus, you can find many helpful strategies in the teacher’s manual of each unit. Beyond those, here are our top three tips:

1. Teach the meaning and value of metacognition. Students “buy in” to practices more readily when they are provided rationales and purpose. A helpful article on this, also from Donna Wilson, is “Engaging Brains: How to Enhance Learning by Teaching Kids About Neuroplasticity.”

2. The biggest challenge might be squeezing in the time and space for reflection. This is not something that our culture offers us freely or abundantly. We have to create it, claim it—even fight for it. In a recent podcast, Rob Bell he discusses the importance of unplugging from technology and other distractions in order to create time and space to “process,” which is really just another word for metacognition.

3. Model and encourage students to continually monitor or “drive” their own learning through questions. The following are suggestions from the LINCS article “Metacognitive Processes”:

  • During the planning phase,learners can ask: What am I supposed to learn? What prior knowledge will help me with this task? What should I do first? What should I look for in this reading? In what direction do I want my thinking to take me?
  • During the monitoring phase, learners can ask: How am I doing? Am I on the right track? How should I proceed? What information is important to remember? Should I move in a different direction? Should I adjust the pace because of the difficulty? What can I do if I do not understand?
  • During the evaluation phase,learners can ask: How well did I do? What did I learn? Did I get the results I expected? What could I have done differently? Can I apply this way of thinking to other problems or situations? Is there anything I don’t understand—any gaps in my knowledge? Do I need to go back through the task to fill in any gaps in understanding? How might I apply this line of thinking to other problems?

So, in the end, with the right practices, the quote we began with becomes “Self-apprenticeship begins with the learner’s capacity to describe her own performance and employ relevant knowledge, skills, and strategies to guide her forward.” 

How do you help your students to practice metacognition and to apprentice their own learning? Leave us a comment.