Thinking About Thinking

Metacognition—this is a word I liked to teach students. And we had fun with its definition: thinking about thinking before, during, and after the act of thinking.

“Faster,” I’d tell students, “say it faster.”

After a little practice, they’d rattle it off in under five seconds. And for the rest of the year, I’d call out the word at random times—to open class, or in the middle of a discussion, to wake up a dull afternoon—and they’d recite the definition back to me in unison.

Playing with a word—I liked to do this with students. But more important the idea of metacognition gave students a framework, a tool to manage their thinking:

Before: When you develop a plan, ask

  • What do I already know that will help?
  • What should I do first?
  • In what direction do I want to go?

During: When you are maintaining a plan, ask

  • Am I on the right track?
  • What do I do if I’m stuck?
  • What information is crucial?

After: When you evaluate a plan, ask

  • Did my thinking produce?
  • What could I have done differently?

I posted these questions in my classroom. I’d refer to them before we stared a class project or when I conferenced with a student who was stuck. The last set of questions was good for students as they wrapped up an assignment.

My students, I hoped, would continue to think about their thinking well beyond the classroom. And so, when I run into my grown-up students, in the grocery store, for example, I’m delighted when one of them says, “Hi, Mrs. Swartz! Metacognition!”

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