Thomas Armstrong

Consultant

Cloverdale, CA

Interests: Brain and learning,...

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6 Metacognitive Strategies for Middle and High School Classrooms

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This is Video #10 in my 12-part video series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students. In this video we take a look at how teachers can use metacognitive strategies or strategies to help teens think about their own thinking processes. The six strategies are:
1. Engage Students in Critical Thinking
2. Show Students How to Use Metacognitive Tools
3. Teach Goal-Setting
4. Instruct Students in How Their Brains Work
5. Explain the Importance of a Growth Mindset
6. Provide Opportunities for Existential Questioning
The use of these strategies can help improve students” critical thinking skills, help them differentiate truths from lies in the media, give them new tools for organizing their thinking in academic course work such as heuristics and cognitive organizers, and teach them about the neuroplasticity of their brain and why a growth mindset is so important for success in school and life.

You can watch the video on my blog, or read a copy of the transcript of the video below:

‘’Hi, I’m Dr. Thomas Armstrong, and this is Video #10 in my video series based on my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain:  Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students (published by ASCD).  As part of this series we’re looking at eight practices that middle and high school teachers can implement in the classroom which are in line with recent research concerning how the adolescent brain develops.  In this video, we’re going to focus on adolescent brain-friendly intervention #6:  metacognitive strategies.

We’ve been speaking in several past videos in this series about how the limbic system or emotional brain matures in early adolescence while the more rational prefrontal cortex, behind the forehead, doesn’t fully mature until the early twenties.  What this means as far as cognition is concerned, is that adolescents frequently tend to think through their emotions without necessarily critically examine the truth values of their thought processes.  This can result in teens grabbing a hold of slogans, images, and beliefs, that have an emotional appeal to them, which can lead to associations with toxic political movements, media hoaxes, strange cults, and other institutions not tempered by sound rational principles. This risk of uncritical thinking in the adolescent is a danger that the secondary school classroom, I believe, has an important role in ameliorating through helping students to think more critically and thoughtfully about life issues.

One useful approach to accomplishing this is by engaging students in the process of metacognition throughout the curriculum.  While young adolescents often see the world through emotional eyes, there is evidence that changes are taking place in their brains just before puberty, that are moving them toward a more rational judgement of the world.  Neuroscientist Jay Giedd and his colleagues revealed several years ago, that while grey matter in the brain, tends to decrease during middle childhood because of a process of pruning that makes the brain more efficient, there is a spike in gray matter just around the beginning of puberty. Since gray matter consists primarily of neurons or brain cells, this spike is an interesting neurological development.

I see a connection between this spike in gray matter to the Swiss scientist Jean Piaget’s observation that around the same time, kids move into a higher cognitive stage of development which he referred to as ‘’formal operational thinking. ’’This is when the young adolescent can begin solve logical problems using metacognitive strategies. It was, in fact, one of Piaget’s chief disciples in America, John Flavell, who coined the term ‘’metacognition’’ to describe the process of being able to ‘’think about thinking.’’  This newly formed capacity of the adolescent, which continues to develop as he matures, is extremely important from an educational point of view, because if students can begin to understand how their mind works, they can start to use strategies to make their minds more efficient tools in comprehending themselves and the world around them.  In this video, we’re going to look at 6 strategies for engaging students in metacognition.

The first strategy involves helping students develop their critical thinking abilities, which in the context of this video can be looked upon as one aspect of metacognitive learning.  There are many ways to develop critical thinking. The first way to develop critical thinking is for teachers to ask open-ended questions to their students.  If teachers primarily ask students questions designed to elicit a unique and definite answer to the material being studied, then all they’ll be doing is training their students to be regurgitation machines, not thoughtful human beings.  To help nurture open-minded students, teachers need to give them open-ended questions, ones that may not have any single answer but that force the students to think things through for themselves. So, for example, if a teacher asks the question: ‘’what is a democracy?’’, he is likely to receive a canned response from a student gained by memorizing a textbook, whereas a more open-ended question ‘’do you think we live in a democracy?’’ requires an understanding of the definition of democracy, but more importantly creates the possibility for a variety of viewpoints to be expressed and helps establish a foundation for a spirited discussion of the question.

A second way to stimulate critical thinking in your students is to engage your students in brainstorming. Brainstorming is a positive educational practice because it opens students’ minds to a multitude of ideas that may be stirring inside them, and provides the opportunity for students to learn about what others are thinking about as well.  Once a wide range of ideas have been proposed, then the teacher can help students evaluate them against a set of criteria, such as ‘’will it work?’’ ‘’is it reasonable?’’ ‘’will it contribute to the public good?’’ and so forth.

A third way to stimulate critical thinking is to help students learn how to evaluate sources in the media.  The rise of mass media over the past fifty years, and especially the emergence of the Internet in the past twenty years, has posed a major challenge to educators, in that by far the greater part of the ideas expressed on the web have not been vetted by reputable authorities, at least not in the way that was done when knowledge mainly resided in books and in the minds of respected leaders.  Thus, adolescents are constantly bombarded by information without possessing the tools necessary to discriminate between what is true, what is false, and what is somewhere in between. This results in some students coming into class believing that the moon landing was a hoax, that the Holocaust never happened, and that space aliens are being housed in a secret place by the government.  This problem has been compounded recently with the conscious political use of ‘’fake news’’ and what have been dubiously christened ‘’alternative facts’’ to press for specific political agendas.  Students need to be given ample time in school to learn how to discriminate truth from lies on the Internet by investigating who says what, what their credentials are to say it, what might be their hidden agendas, what ways there are of verifying the information, and what criteria should be used in evaluating the credibility of the sources involved.

A fourth strategy to develop students’ critical thinking skills is to give them opportunities to take opposing sides of a question.  I was a high school debater, and every year we received a different proposition to which we had to prepare a pro and a con view of the topic and then argue it out in the presence of faculty judges.  The use of debate, discussion groups, student congresses, and other venues for taking on opposing views, helps students understand that truths are not always hard and fast, and that there may be value in what both sides are saying (although I hasten to add, I don’t believe this applies to Holocaust deniers or space alien advocates, although such a question would make a good topic for a pro and con discussion).

The next major strategy for engaging students in metacognition is to teach them how to use metacognitive tools.  I’d like to share four such tools. The first one is the use of cognitive organizers.  These are graphics that help organize one’s thinking. Most teachers have used cognitive organizers in their teaching at some point in their careers.  One of my favorite cognitive organizers is the so-called ‘’mind-map’’ where a central idea is placed in the center of the page, and associated thoughts are placed around that hub like spokes on a wheel.  While mind-maps are usually done primarily with words, this example shows how a good mind-map can contain pictures as well. There are literally hundreds of cognitive organizers available for teachers to use for a wide range of purposes.  My only caveat here would be to stress that cognitive organizers should be used as the term implies: ‘’to organize thinking’’ and to do this, I believe, for some further purpose.  I don’t feel they should be used as ends in and of themselves, that is, as worksheets simply for plugging in information which is then turned in and graded.

A second metacognitive tool is the use of ‘’Think Alouds.’’ Think-Alouds are where the thinker talks out loud to articulate the mental processes that are going on inside of their mind. So, for example, a think-aloud for someone who is reading a novel might go: ‘’So, now, who is the character that stole the jewels, was she the one in mink, you need money for mink, and how could she have gotten money otherwise since she doesn’t work, but maybe it was the butler….’’  Think alouds can be used for moving step-by-step through a math or science problem, for organizing one’s school day (‘’let’s see, math is first, so I’d better bring my math book…’’), for organizing a writing assignment, or for starting a project  Sometimes students are taught ‘’script-like’’ think-alouds, and that’s okay, but the best use of this tool is when students are taught how to listen to, and externalize through talking, the actual thinking that is going on in their brain, so that they can ultimately discover ways of improving their thought processes over time.

Heuristics represents a third tool that can assist in metacognitive thinking.  Heuristics refers to any problem-solving strategy that employs a rough-and-ready approach to getting an answer that may not be perfect but is good enough for one’s purposes.  This slide illustrates a general approach to solving problems by identifying a problem, coming up with ideas, selecting the best idea, trying it out, and then evaluating the results.  Other heuristics might include: starting with an answer and working backwards, thinking of an approach that has worked in the past and trying that on the new problem, or creating a simpler version of the problem, solving that, and then using that approach to solve the harder problem.

The final critical thinking tool is thinking journals.  These are usually notebooks that students keep where they record ideas as they come up related to the activity at hand.  Thinking journals might consist primarily of words in an English class, numbers in a math or science class, or images in an art class.  The example provided here is from Charles Darwin’s notebooks showing through a tree-like image the idea of some species evolving into other life forms, while other species are dying out.

The third major metacognitive strategy is teaching students how to set goals.  The acronym SMART is one framework that can help students set goals.  SMART proposes that the best goals are:  1. specific, 2. measurable, 3. achievable, 4. realistic, and 5. time-bound (that is, have deadlines for attaining them).  Students can use this or other frameworks for setting goals that are short-term, such as finishing homework assignments, medium-term, such as achieving an A in science class, or long-term, such as preparing oneself for a future occupation as a health technician.

The fourth strategy for helping students develop their metacognitive capacities involves teaching them how their brain works.  With so much new research on how the adolescent brain works coming out, it behooves educators to share some of this information with students.  My book The Power of the Adolescent Brain, while written for teachers, can be adapted for classroom use, while another book, The Owner’s Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain by JoAnn and Terrance Deak, is specifically written for teens.  The concept of neuroplasticity could be used, for example, to explain how important it is for adolescents to surround themselves with the best possible influences to help grow their brains.

A related strategy is based upon Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s ideas about developing a growth mindset. According to Dweck’s research, people who have a growth mindset and believe that it’s personal effort that leads to success in school and life more likely to achieve success than individuals who believe that intelligence is largely inborn, and you either have it or you don’t – a condition she calls a fixed mindset.  Teachers who help students understand the practical value of cultivating a growth mindset, and assist them notice the activities in their minds that incline toward one direction or the other, are providing students with important life skills that can help them develop a ‘’winner’s mindset.’’

Finally, another important metacognitive strategy that is all too often absent from secondary school classrooms, involves providing opportunities for existential questioning. Howard Gardner has talked about the possibility of an intelligence he terms existential, or the intelligence of concern with ultimate life issues.  Existential thinking goes on all the time during adolescence, as teens wonder about the purpose of life, the nature of truth and reality, questions of time and space, the origins of life, the scope of the universe, and much more.  They need opportunities to talk about these issues in school in ways that are directly related to course material.  For example, in science class they can explore different theories about how the universe began and when and if it will ever end.  In literature class, they can read novels with characters who themselves ask deep questions about life, mortality, and ethical behavior.  In math class, they can explore the nature of infinity as a mathematical concept.  In art class, they can learn to appreciate the works of artists who sought answers to existential questions through their creative work.

If you’d like more information about using metacognitive strategies at the middle and high school level, or want to know all eight interventions that are adolescent brain-friendly, get my book The Power of the Adolescent Brain, available through Amazon or other online sources including the publisher ASCD.  You can also find the other videos in this 12-part series on my blog or on You Tube.  For more information about my work, go to my website:  www.institute4learning.com, or contact me at: thomas@institute4learning.com.  Thanks so much for your attention.  I hope this information helps you appreciate the need to teach students about their own thinking processes.  This will ultimately pay dividends as students become more critical in their thinking, more open-minded in their outlook on life, and more growth-oriented in their mindset for taking on new challenges.

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