WE Lab Classrooms is an opportunity to engage critically with research, trial a new approach in your classroom and reflect on which teaching and learning strategies are the most effective for your learners. Each Lab Classrooms strand is ‘two for one’ – improving both learners’ knowledge and wider skills, such as teamwork and communication.
Charity Novick is Assistant Curriculum Leader for English at Ely College. In this blog, she shares her experience of using metacognition to re-energise her class and encourage them to take ownership of their own learning.
Before starting this project, I had a Year 8 class which was causing me some concern. No matter what I tried, they seemed to struggle to access work and sometimes underachieved. They were demotivated and demanding, very quick to tell me that they ‘didn’t understand’ and ‘couldn’t do it’.
One small group was a particular worry, having seemingly come back from lockdown with significantly reduced subject skills and very little interest in the work. I tried many creative and bouncy things with the class without ever feeling that I had ‘cracked it’. I had the feeling that I was missing something fundamental.
I needed to find a way to get the class to take ownership of their own learning, identify ways to help themselves, and reflect on their growth areas and subject skills.
Following the Whole Education training and a lot of reading, I designed a trial which targeted the whole class, in tandem with a narrowed focus on the six students of most concern in the group. I was aiming for an immersive approach.
We had metacognitive questioning prompts in books and on the wall; we framed our classroom narrative around metacognitive verbalisation; we employed very frequent modelling; we experimented with different types of scaffolding; we developed a ‘culture of error’ which allowed students to challenge themselves in a non-judgemental environment; we did a lot of self-reflection and a lot of prior knowledge activation.
I made sure that the focus group was particularly engaged by these activities and often retaught them after I had worked with the whole class.
It was not always plain sailing. I had thought that the students would be delighted by mini-questioning sheets in rainbow colours which they could refer to frequently: they admired them politely, stuck them in their books and forgot them instantly.
I had also thought that metacognitive prompts worked into the lesson PowerPoints would be a seamless way to integrate reflective strategies: actually, these were mostly ignored too, perhaps because they increased the bulk of text on the screen and crossed the cognitive overload line.
Suggesting that students remembered work they had done last term or last year was also not as helpful as I had hoped; they ‘could not possibly remember so far back’ in many cases.
But, mostly, we flew with metacognition.
In fact, I would go so far as to say it was resoundingly successful. I now have a solid class of settled achievers who enjoy their own efficacy and are able to reflect on their skills and progress more often than not. My small focus group has improved the most and two thirds of them exceeded their expected performance in the last assessment. This feels like a tremendous achievement in this unique year for education.
So, what worked best?
The real revelation was modelling. I have always provided sample paragraphs and suggestions for longer pieces of written work, but I started modelling all kinds of other things too, particularly my own thinking processes. I had not expected the students to be interested in this sort of verbalising, but actually they were poised and silent every time I tried it.
I suspect there was a sense of relief at the understanding that writing, spelling and grammar are not natural processes – they have to be dug out of the depths of our brains in slow stages. It was really beneficial for the class to watch my own mechanical sequences as I framed complex analysis sentences on the board, crossed things out and sounded out spelling words.
Maybe students think we don’t have to think: we do, and transparent metacognitive reflection makes this explicit.
Discussing reflective questioning strategies worked well with the class too. It was easy to slip, ‘What did we do last time?’ or ‘We’re feeling a bit stuck – what next?’ into a range of classroom discussions. This was definitely more effective and collaborative than the same questions in printed lists. Asking the class to write very short reflective statements at the end of their work was also very successful and they were consistently fair and accurate in their self-assessments. I was then able to use their comments to inform my whole-class feedback as well as picking up on some individual issues.
One of the most rewarding things about the trial was that the students seemed to enjoy the experience. They were keen to do more modelling and began to reflect on their own difficulties spontaneously. Questionnaires completed at the start and end of the trial showed that they felt more able to ask for help at the end of the process, more knowledgeable about their own subject skills, and better able to understand the tasks of the lesson.
A visiting colleague commented, ‘the kids seemed purposeful, engaged and aware of their own learning patterns and development. They were also very comfortable reflecting on their own learning and had very positive answers to questions.’
My Lab Classrooms trial is over, but it feels like my journey with metacognition is only just beginning. I will be carrying the skills I have learned into next academic year with confidence and conviction. Hopefully my Year 8s will do the same.