Improvement requires conscious practice. Simply putting in time is not enough. I have played football for more than 10,000 hours, but am still terrible in my control and movement. 

Any inspiring teacher makes his or her student complete difficult work on a consistent basis. Yet there needs to be reflection on that difficult work. This is where metacognition is needed. 

I think the thing with metacognition is for students to move beyond listing subject-specific strategies (which isn’t that tricky), and instead to actually conceptualise what they might mean. Writing is an idiosyncratic process so what works once may not work again (at least for a while…). It is also a fairly tacit process, so just articulating a strategy again is not necessarily helpful. Conceptualising strategies is more ideal – understanding them to point where they can be aptly transferred. 

But let’s be frank: we are teaching pupils, not students, and we do so in a classroom. If our students can articulate strategies, I would say that almost every observer would be happy with that, and those students would be ahead of most peers in other schools. As I say in my essay, the term metacognition is used by some researchers to mean exactly that – the ability to articulate strategies. However, other researchers are more ambitious in seeing metacognition as a self-regulation of the employment of strategies. Can that sense of timing, of when to use these strategies, be taught? 

So what are essay scenarios?

One pedagogy that I am writing about (for publication) are ‘essay scenarios’. Let me give the metaphor of a sporting event. You give the students a scenario of being 2-0 down with 5 minutes remaining in a football match. You tell the students to devise a plan in 90 seconds. It is likely they will push the wingers up to play as attackers and play directly to them. 15 seconds before they play, you then tell them they are not allowed to do that, and the wingers have to stay below the half-way line.

The students then experience the socio-emotional intensity of really wanting to use that strategy, but not being able to! In elite sports, this means that they are more likely to want to tacitly choose this strategy in that given scenario.

This can, of course, be transferred to our context as an essay scenario. How about 15 minutes left to go in an exam answer on descriptive writing and they are only allowed to start sentences with nouns and determiners (which are often 80% of sentences). Their desire to use a different sentence type might become more ardent now, and perhaps more tacitly likely later.

What are the key points on metacognition in the English classroom?

I have led several CPD session on metacognition and have read the field. These are my materials:

I also wrote an essay summarising what I read in relation to English:

Key Points:

1) Most metacognition involves students conceptualising strategies. What is more needed is students developing a sense of the best time to employ those strategies.

2) Metacognition is defined in very different ways by academics, whose job is literally to be precise in their language. Classrooms teachers therefore interpret the word in very different ways as well.

3) To reflect on our thinking is very difficult as adults and relative experts. For young people to do so is incredibly difficult and often results in fairly banal and rudimentary comments about strategies (vary sentence length etc).

4) Much knowledge is tacit, and so to understand metacognition in terms of a narrative of strategies somewhat misses the point.

5) Most metacognition in classrooms is functional for exams: students just understand what the question requires.