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Becoming a Thinking Thinker: Metacognition, Self-Reflection, and Classroom Practice

by Daric Desautel - 2009

Background/Context: Metacognition has been a subject of study for cognitive theorists, behaviorists, educators, and others. The term metacognition has traditionally and simply been defined as "thinking about thinking," yet it describes a complex process that can result in a nuanced understanding of oneself as a thinker and a learner. Metacognition (as a process) and metacognitive knowledge (as a product) are seen as important components of cognitive development and signs of intellectual maturity. The development of metacognitive knowledge is not, however, reserved for adult learners. Robust metacognitive knowledge can help young students consciously apply learning strategies, develop effective work habits, and assess their own performance.

Objective: The purpose of this study was to explore what practices lead to successful self-reflection and promote metacognitive development in young learners. The author believes that elementary students who are aware of their tasks and have knowledge of themselves as learners will more effectively apply learning strategies, develop effective work habits, and generally enjoy a richer learning experience. In the interest of best classroom practices, the author has selected activities and routines that complement the existing curriculum and instructional program.

Setting: This study was conducted in an urban elementary school.

Participants: This study was conducted by a classroom teacher with his second-grade students. These students include English language learners of a range of ethnicities, students who receive special education services, and general education students.

Research Design: This action research study was designed as a qualitative case study. After assessing student metacognitive knowledge with a survey of reading strategies, the author began a course of instruction in skills and habits that he believed might promote self-reflection and metacognition. These skills and habits included directed goal-setting, the use of language prompts to articulate mental events, posttask written self-reflections, and posttask oral conversations. Data collected following this instruction consisted of observations of student interactions, written records of students' conferences along with the academic goals they set on a weekly basis, and the written products of reflective journal writing and posttask self-reflections.

My experience of becoming enthralled with the mental lives of my students may be typical of enthusiastic first-year teachers (and, it is hoped, veterans). It seems that I spent nearly every free minute with colleaguesother first-year teacherstalking about our students, sharing the remarkable learning connections they made, relating stories about their particular academic identities, and considering their individual learning behaviors. We shared a sense of awe and a deep interest in the ways that the young minds with whom we worked made meaning, even as we accepted responsibility for the role that we, as educators, played in that process. Toward the end of my first year in the classroom, I realized, however, that although I had spent many hours discussing the mental lives of my young elementary students with fellow teachers, I had rarely discussed the matter with my students themselves. In fact, apart from asking the type of How did you know that? questions that I felt, intuitively, should be part of a learning experience, I had done little to make the learning process explicit to my students. In particular, I had not devoted nearly as much energy to increasing their self-awareness and agency as learners as I had to thinking about it.

This inattention, although perhaps forgivable in a teachers first year, was unfortunate, particularly because I had an ongoing example of the fruitful benefits of explicitly self-reflective practices all around me during my initial year as a teacher. These practices were designed to actively involve learners in the learning process by asking them to consider and assess their own thinking, and they constituted an integral part of our education and training as teachers. During our teacher preparation, I, along with many of my first-year colleagues, benefited from these practices, which our instructors identified as self-reflective or metacognitive. Thus, when I finally began to research the topic of self-reflection and metacognition in the elementary classroom, it came as little surprise to find that these areas had already been embraced by research on teaching teachers (Bean & Zulich, 1989; Garmon, 2001; Weinstein, 1989).

My inquiry stands, in many ways, as an attempt to recreate the same robustly self-reflective, self-directed learning in my own classroom that I experienced with my colleagues during those first years as teachers-in-training. Specifically, I wanted to explore what practices lead to successful self-reflection and promote metacognitive development in young learners.

This inquiry has grown from my interest in the mental lives and processes of young students and has been shaped by observations, both formal and informal, that were made in my years as a teacher. In particular, as I began to develop a modest discourse with my second-grade students, I noticed a demarcation between those who could talk about their own mental activities with a degree of familiarity and awareness, and those who could not. I informally observed that this delineation seemed to extend laterally to other skills, such as the ability to self-assess, the ability to help other students, and success with personal narrative writing experiences. Finally, this project is rooted in the belief that students who are aware of and own their own cognitive process enrich, and are enriched by, the learning experience.

One can imagine the possible results, both at a classroom level and at an educational policy level, that recognition of the centrality of self-reflection to effective learning might yield. The purpose of this inquiry was to explore some of the results of this orientation in the classroom. It is hoped, however, that a corresponding emphasis on a policy level will continue to be explored, particularly at this time, when the desire for assessment data threatens to reduce the focus of evaluative agencies and, in turn, cripple the classroom learning endeavor. To the extent that practices that develop metacognitive knowledge and enable students to become self-directed learners counteract any destructive influence of teaching to the tests, they warrant attention.


As stated, the research supporting the use of self-reflective activities in the preparation of new teachers is established. This research rests on a wide body of literature on the more general subject of metacognition. A fruitful and evolving topic, metacognition has been a subject of study for cognitive theorists, behaviorists, educators, and others. It has been explored in frameworks from the technical and theoretical to the practical. In my own preliminary investigative process, I discovered that there is much room for contributions from educators on the role of metacognition in the classroom learning dynamic, and particularly on the practices that can contribute to the development of metacognitive skill. I have found it helpful to organize my study of the available literature into the areas of definitions and theoretical overview, literature that is concerned with the formal study of metacognition as a specialization within cognitive research; metacognition and meaning, which deals with metacognition as an element of the meaning-making process; self-reflection and self-assessment, in which self-reflection is seen as integral to a regulatory practice that contributes to metacognitive development; and metacognition in the classroom, which explores the metacognitive import of preexisting classroom practices and suggests additional areas for elaboration. It is in this last area that the present study might seem to be, most modestly, participating.


Metacognition first surfaced as an element of cognitive research in the 1970s. Brown (1975) and Flavell (1976) posited the delineation between normal cognitive processes and overarching, reflective functions that controlled those processes and constituted an increased level of self-awareness. The oft-rendered definition of metacognition, thinking about thinking, echoes Flavells (1979) first formulation: knowledge and cognition about cognitive phenomena (p. 906).

Numerous scholars have explored the subject and made various contributions to the emerging construction of a taxonomy of metacognition. Flavells (1979) initial model identified metacognitive knowledge and metacognitive experiences as the two components of metacognition (p. 906). Brown (1987), building on the clarifications offered by Kluwes (1982) use of the term executive processes to describe regulatory behavior, broadened and strengthened the idea of metacognitive experiences by associating them with the use of metacognitive strategies. These strategies have received much attention from scholars (see, for example, Borkowski, Carr, Rellinger, & Pressley, 1990; Paris, Wasik, & Westhuizen, 1988).

Scholars have also pursued the idea of metacognitive knowledge. Bereiter and Scarmadalia (1983), as well as Paris, Newman, and McVey (1982), treat metacognitive knowledge as constructed, like any other kind of knowledge. More recently, Reynolds, Wade, Trathen, and Lapan (1989) have identified task awareness, strategy awareness, and performance awareness as components of metacognitive knowledge. The salient theme common to the wide variety of scholars who have explored metacognition is the idea of a process that happens when individuals consider their own thinking and use regulatory strategies to reinforce or alter that thinking. Metacognitive knowledge, a hallmark of metacognition, is knowledge the thinkers have about themselves and may inform both a present, task-oriented situation and the thinkers more global conception of themselves as thinkers and learners.


As metacognition became an intriguing and valid focus of study among cognitive theorists, educators began to examine fundamental meaning-making activities in the classroom. A wealth of literature attests to their discovery that metacognition plays an important part in activities as diverse as recall, comprehension, and evaluation, as well as in critical thinking skills central to establishing meaning in learning endeavors. In addition to the thorough analyses of reading strategies offered by Paris et al. (1988), Schmitt (1990) has found that metacomprehension strategies [are] characteristic of good comprehenders (p. 454). This focus, along with the continual refinement of reading strategies themselves (as developed, for instance, by Cooper, 1997), has shown that many effective reading strategies, such as inferring, self-questioning, monitoring, fixing, and summarizing, all contain metacognitive components and require metacognitive skill. The self-reflective analysis of these strategies and their use produces metacognitive knowledge about the learner. That is, conscious, active, and purposeful employment of metacognitive strategies results in the kind of global meaning that Bereiter and Scarmadalia (1983) may have had in mind when they spoke of the informal self-knowledge that appears to constitute a natural part of intellectual maturity (p. 62).


Self-reflection is a term that identifies a wide range of activities and processes. In addition to its uses in teacher education, self-reflection has been employed in a wide variety of childhood and adolescent educational settings. Schultz and Delisle (1997) and Yancey (1998), among others, have commented on the encouraging results that reflective activities such as journal writing and directed conversations have had on student comprehension of learning experiences. Oftentimes, however, self-reflection seems to be referred to in research as it is employed in classrooms: in a nonprescriptive yet vaguely laudatory way. That is to say, self-reflection is often encouraged both in professional literature and in the classroom, but seldom explored or explained as a phenomenon.  

What exactly do students do when they self-reflect? Prescott (2001) identified the process as self-awareness of individual learning styles. It has been my suspicion that self-reflection serves the goal of constructing metacognitive knowledge by making formerly unconscious, intangible, or reflexive processes or events explicit. Thus, a robustly self-reflective experience would result in a state commensurate with that evoked by Flavells (1971) description of metacognition as an awareness of oneself as an actor in his environment, that is, a heightened sense of the ego as an active, deliberate storer and retriever of information (p. 272).

Just as self-reflection may serve the goal of metacognitive knowledge, self-assessment may facilitate the potentially tricky project of self-reflection. Techniques for encouraging successful student self-assessment, such as student-generated rubrics, portfolios, contracts, and goal setting, have been seen as important tools for further involving students in their own learning (Herbert, 2001; Jackson & Larkin, 2002; Yancey, 1998). In addition to inviting students to set their own terms regarding learning and to invest more fully in their own performance (summative assessment), these practices encourage students to attend to the processes within their tasks (formative assessment), permit peer-assisted and cooperative learning, and afford unique opportunities for self-commentary and self-reflection. As Carr (2002) wrote, when students self-evaluate, they step back and reflect on what and how they learn (p. 195). Here again, however, the link among self-assessment, reflection, and some useful metacognitive knowledge is not explicit. It is hoped that by closely examining the processes of metacognition as it is facilitated by self-reflective experiences, a fuller understanding of these dynamics can be reached.


As is implied in the discussion of research into reading strategies and reflective practices, metacognition has long been a part of classroom learning. Ogle (1994) demonstrated that many accepted teaching practices, such as the creation of KWL (What I Know, What I Want to Know, What I Learned) charts and semantic maps and the use of learning journals, have built-in reflective import. Similarly, Opitz (1995) offered goal setting and self-evaluative techniques that can easily be incorporated into classroom learning centers. The findings, particularly the endorsement of practices that produce a visual record of student learning, corroborate those of Blakey and Spence (1990) in their survey of strategies that develop metacognition. A greater understanding of how students use classroom practices to reflect on their learning, and thus develop metacognitive knowledge, would permit educators to make predictions about the development of metacognition in a wider range of populations and environments.


In light of the internal and idiosyncratic nature of metacognition and self-reflection, as well as the focus I placed on mental processes and the forms of data that they produce, this study was conceived of as a qualitative, narrative inquiry. In accordance with my interest in best practices, it was conducted as action research while I participated fully as a teacher in the classroom. The methodological intent was to employ explicitly self-reflective activities with a sample set of students in a variety of settings and tasks to determine if and how these activities contribute to the development of metacognition. I chose four classroom activities: weekly goal setting, oral language prompts and practice, posttask written self-reflections, and oral conversations.


This study was conducted in a Queens, New York, public school throughout the 20052006 school year. The school has approximately 350 students in prekindergarten though second grade, making it an Early Childhood Center. About three quarters of these students are Hispanic, roughly 12% are Asian/Pacific Islander, and African American and White students each constitute around 4% of the overall population. Over a quarter of the population have been identified as English language learners, who receive intensive English instruction, and English is a second language for nearly 80% of the student population as a whole. Additionally, nearly 15% of our students receive special education services, including speech, occupational, and adaptive physical therapy, as well as counseling. Our school is in an economically disadvantaged area in New York City, and over three quarters of our students are eligible for free lunches.

Although our young students do not face many of the standardized tests that other elementary students in New York City do, this school has attracted a lot of attention for its successful teaching practices. Teachers here have spent a great deal of time and energy studying, practicing, and eventually modeling a literacy curriculum and methodology that was adopted by the city school system at large in 2003.

This instructional methodology promotes explicit strategy instruction, coupled with teacher modeling, developed through routine independent practice and small-group support. As I began my 3rd year of practice with this literacy instruction model, I took note of a now familiar struggle my young readers encountered: They had great difficulty understanding the idea of adopting and employing explicit strategies to solve decoding or comprehension problems when reading. I soon began to suspect that this difficulty with consciously adopting specific reading strategies was part of a larger issue of student investment in the learning process. My theory is that such an investment is only made when students begin to see themselves as learners; further, my experience suggests that practices or methods that aim to trick students into learning, particularly in early childhood education, fail to induce that investment.

The method of this study owes a great deal to Bereiter and Scarmadalias (1983) idea of the coinvestigative nature of research into metacognition. It also employs some of their suggestions about the roles of cooperative learning and prescriptive versus descriptive tasks, as well as the self-reflective and self-evaluative practices referred to elsewhere in the literature. Following their coinvestigative model, I intended to gather data on the interactions that these students had with both the reflective or evaluative apparatus and the content itself. These data consisted of observations of student interactions, written records of students conferences along with the academic goals they set on a weekly basis, and the written products of reflective journal writing and posttask self-reflections. These data were compared against an informal initial survey of student metacognition in the form of early posttask written reflections and a variation on Schmitts (1990) Metacomprehension Strategy Index (MSI). I adapted the MSI to accommodate my second-grade students reading levels and patience. It consisted of a 12-question multiple-choice survey that was designed to measure student familiarity with reading strategies that incorporate metacognitive skills.

This endeavor did not, nor was it expected to, generate quantitative data. Its strength, and its weakness, perhaps, is its focus on the intangible mental processes that indicate metacognition. Additionally, the studys reliance on student testimony and commentary raises issues of interpretation while offering intriguing insight into students own self-conception. In light of this, I have kept in mind the discussions surrounding issues of validity in action research, such as Karen Watkinss (1991) examination of how Lincoln and Gubas (1985) guidelines can strengthen teacher research. Recognition of Elliots (1991) recommendations resulted in my use of a range of different data collection techniques and an awareness of both intended and unintended outcomes. These data, then, will be presented as an anecdotal record of student interactions with self-reflection, content, and each other. By closely examining the particular dynamics at work in several classroom practices that are already encouraged (and indeed that were explicitly taught and, to varying degrees, employed in the classroom at large), it is believed that a deeper understanding of how these practices contribute to the development of metacognition was reached. To the extent that these practices may empower students with the capacity to become mature, self-directed learners, this aim seems worthwhile.


My assumption that students metacognitive knowledge can be developed through familiarity with self-reflective processes such as goal setting and tracking was incorporated into my planning of content and strategy instruction during the fall. While the demands of prescriptive, skills- and content-based literacy and math curricula compelled me to sneak the development of metacognitive skills into these areas, a greater degree of freedom in the subject of social studies allowed me to incorporate related activities without compromising either content or strategies. An overview of the instructional plan follows, with a brief description of some of the apparatuses and activities.

The instruction I had planned in support of this study was roughly divided into two units. The first unit was built around the two ideas of self-reflection and conversation and was part of the ongoing effort to develop students ability to engage in more substantive and meaningful conversations (sometimes referred to as accountable talk and a key component of the Institute for Learnings Principles of Learning; see Institute for Learning, 2007). It was implemented sequentially and augmented with instruction in self-description, mentalistic vocabulary, and the habit of thinking about oneself (what we in the classroom came to call looking in). A dominant motif that emerged from this unit was the idea of the mirror. Some mini-lessons from this unit included Talking about others; talking about ourselves, Thinking about yourself, Writing your thoughts, and Giving directions. An important component of this unit was a series of lessons around oral language prompts that we found useful in describing the things that happened in our minds while working on a task (what I came to call mental moves). These lessons resulted in a chart of prompts and phrases. Ah-ha meant that the thinker had had a realization; rewind described the process of backing up in the train of thought; dead end indicated that the thinker had been stumped or lost an idea; and what if meant that the thinker had tried an alternate explanation or strategy. Although some of these lessons aimed at transferring awareness from a behavioral or interpersonal realm to an intrapersonal one, or using prescriptive tasks to circumnavigate difficulty with self-descriptive tasks, the common thread to these and the other lessons was that they were all oriented toward increasing students self-awareness.

The second unit was more compact and focused on the concept of goals and the process of setting, tracking, and meeting them using goal-setting worksheets. Our class used the metaphor of climbing a tree to better understand the skill of setting goals. The unit began with a general discussion of the concept of goals and progressed through a set of mini-lessons in which we examined the ideas of personal and academic goals, planning to meet goals, and recognizing and evaluating achievement. The six lessons devoted to this instruction resulted in some tangible products and a wealth of intangible discoveries and areas for further inquiry. Products included a classroom definition of a goal (A goal is something you want to do or be. It can be big or little but has to be specific), class charts of academic goals, and individual goals sheets with personal goals.

Areas rich with discovery for further exploration included the idea of specificity, realism, and attainment; for example, I was challenged by the essential task of teaching my second graders the concept of specificity (I want to finish Chapter 2) versus generality (I want to read a lot) and the value of setting goals that are not only realistic in the classroom setting but also whose attainment is verifiable. The common result of these lessons was an enriched understanding of the student as agent in the classroom and of the students general self-conception as a learner. This seemed to support the use of accountable talk by giving concrete talking points for discussion and reflection. Additionally, the use of goal-setting sheets provided a routine apparatus to which many students responded. The formalization of this self-reflection seemed to aid in many students ability to make sense of the abstract idea of metacognition. Whereas a Monday morning request to commence self-reflection would likely have been met with giggles and blank stares, many students eagerly anticipated the goal time with which we began each week. The unexpected volume of goal sheets that the students produced confirmed this for me, and we began posting many of them publicly in the classroom. This formal reflection time became a regular routine and an important part of our sense of community.


The phrase looking within came to mind early on when teaching the skills within the first unit, and I used it often with the students. As they developed, to varying degrees, an awareness of the process associated with the phrase, it took on new meaning for me as well: I began to look within the minds of my students, too.

Several students became prominent in my exploration of metacognition. Initially, I was drawn to investigate the metacognitive knowledge of the most verbal students. In this group was a boy named Christopher (whose name, along with all others in this article, has been changed), who was prone to sudden ah-ha announcements. Other, quieter students, however, began to demonstrate similar proclivities when their conversation was contained within peer groups or other trusted situations. In general, I assumed that oral language development was closely tied to the ability to participate in self-reflective activities leading to metacognitive knowledge but wondered if this correlation was the consequence of the centrality of verbal activities in my classroom. Accordingly, I developed a keen interest in the mind of a girl, Vicky, who offered an interesting developmental case study. Vicky was a very quiet student who rarely contributed to whole-class or large-group discussion but who was animated in small groups. Additionally, Vickys writing skills were noticeably more assured than her oral language skills, and she demonstrated promising descriptive skills. Finally, I included in this set of student case studies Jose, an energetic and motivated student with strong academic and oral language skills but a tendency to rush through tasks and focus exclusively on project completion.

As an aid to my initial, anecdotal, and subjective assessment of these students, I created and administered a variation on Schmitts (1990) MSI as a diagnostic tool (see the appendix). This questionnaire asks students to respond to questions about reading comprehension strategies and offers an assessment of their knowledge and use of those strategies that have been shown to have metacognitive components. The results of this questionnaire (see Table 1) seemed to confirm my initial thoughts on Christopher, Vicky, and Jose.

Table 1. Results of the Metacomprehension Strategy Index (MSI)

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Christopher performed well on the MSI, selecting 8 of the possible 12 strategies indicative of metacomprehension awareness. This suggested to me that his metacognitive development had already begun and that it either contributed to, or was enhanced by, his use of certain literacy strategies. Vicky, conversely, scored at low level on the MSI. This, coupled with the knowledge that Vickys performance in reading comprehension assessments was inconsistent and that she occasionally selected strategies on the MSI that were illogical in terms of the phase of reading (i.e., before, during, and after), led me to suspect that Vicky did have emerging metacognitive development but that her literacy comprehension skills were neither contributing to nor reflecting it. Joses high performance on the MSI seemed to corroborate my impression of his reflective, insightful use of reading strategies. It may be that his desire to finish books quickly had inspired him to internalize a number of different reading strategies, or that his command of different strategies enabled him to read faster. Overall, the MSI offered a helpful starting point for the purposes of this inquiry, as well as some suggestions for future literacy strategy instruction.

I continued to observe, listen to, and converse with Vicky, Christopher, and Jose as the course of instruction unfolded, and I noted many expected and unexpected connections to my own thoughts on this topic. During the phase devoted to accountable talk and self-reflection, I encountered an important, although perhaps not surprising, consideration for instruction in metacognition and comprehension in general. While Jose (and, to a lesser extent, Christopher) adapted with anticipated ease to the lessons on talking about our own mental moves, Vicky was unable to contribute significantly to these discussions when they occurred in groups of more than four or five students. Initially, I felt comfortable only in taking this to mean that instruction in, or assessment of, metacognitive skills that relies inordinately on verbal proficiency, oral language, or large-group settings was less than ideal. This seems to align with theories of multiple intelligences, different learning styles, and instruction for English language learners.

An interesting and accidental anomaly in this pattern of performance with Vicky was her ability to talk in a larger group, and then later with me, about a literary character who illustrates self-awareness. After reading Jamaica Louise James by Amy Hest, Vicky spoke animatedly about the character and identified that she knows what she wants. Although time constraints prevented further exploration of this particular effect, I would like to have looked within Vickys preference for this particular character. I can imagine a narrative-based approach to metacognitive knowledge being explored with Vicky, based on her higher confidence in textual situations and her inclination character analysis.

This second intellectual hallmark was illustrated in another interesting and somewhat accidental discovery involving both Vicky and Jose. After reading aloud from a historical fiction text (Revolutionary War on Wednesday by Mary Pope Osborne) that was presented in a cross-curricular unit with both expository and fictional historical texts, I asked students to share their general responses with partners in conversation. Jose responded with characteristic enthusiasm to the story, saying, I liked the story a lot and it was fun. I like soldiers and that is why it was fun. Vicky, however, offered a simple, I didnt like the story. It was not fun, it was boring and confusing. When I asked Vicky to elaborate for me, she had difficulty telling me much more. When I prompted her to think about the characters and why the story was confusing and boring, however, she had more to say. She soon stated, I dont like books [whose characters are] mostly boys [or when] the people arent like me. Both students responses indicated a high level of metacognitive knowledge with regard to their own preferences for literature and how that preference affects their comprehension. Joses comment suggested that he could make use of the knowledge that his comprehension of literature was affected by his enthusiasm for the subject matter or content, and Vicky would benefit from thinking about her empathic relationship to the characters in a book. These insights seemed to align with the distinctions between task and strategy awareness delineated by Reynolds et al. (1989) and the relationship between self-awareness and learning styles explored by Prescott (2001).


In addition to their success in developing oral language and conversational skills, I was eager to see the students grow in their ability to produce written self-reflections. Christopher and Vicky, in particular, had produced bland, platitudinous, and undifferentiated self-reflections after writing tasks early in the year (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. I feel happy about my story: An early posttask written self-reflection from Vicky


Figure 2. That was nice: Vicky has written her reaction (top half) to a story by Christopher; Christopher has written his own comments at the bottom (including, I like my work).

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After a number of lessons that stressed incorporating our mental language into written self-reflections, focusing on goals, and remembering the experience of the writing process, I began to see more robust self-reflections. Often students merely found new adjectives to describe their creative, thoughtful, realistic, gripping, surprising, and moving stories. Increasingly, however, the student self-reflections indicated a greater awareness of the effort and process involved in their writing, as well as a self-referential orientation. Beyond pride in their work, some students displayed insight into their own lives as writers, such as Joses declaration that he like[d] nonfiction books better than stories (Figure 3). Christopher displayed a particularly astute understanding of the relationship between reading, writing, and knowledge when he commented that he learns about a topic as much from writing about it as from reading about it (Figure 4).

Figure 3. I like nonfiction books better than stories: Joses written self-reflection after publishing an informational report.

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Figure 4. When I write I get more thoughts: Christophers written self-reflection after publishing an informational report.

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I was greatly encouraged to see this increased level of self-awareness, and I was particularly heartened to see examples of it both in the students conversations and in their written self-reflections. These self-reflections, in particular, proved to be a very valuable component of our classrooms writing workshop and allowed the students a rare but indispensable opportunity for self-assessment. Student self-assessment became not only a very powerful way to enrich specific learning experiences and strengthen student understanding of specific content but also an important way to undergird academic accountability in the classroom and promote self-directed learning.


The introduction of the unit on goals and goal setting seemed a logical extension of the work done in the first unit in two respects: First, it built on the critical self-appraisal that was introduced by oral and written reflections, and second, it allowed students a consistent and (important for some) written venue in which to monitor their own learning. As all the students adapted to the idea of creating specific, attainable goals in the classroom, they began to refer to themselves in terms of their performance in meeting those goals. The technique of identifying weekly classroom goals on Monday or at the onset of a unit of study proved amenable to both conversation and written scaffolding. Whereas some students preferred to discuss their goals with partners or with me before committing them to paper, Jose felt comfortable enough writing down his goals to do so without extensive consultation.  

A key component in the goal-setting work, in terms of developing metacognitive knowledge, was establishing regular routines and following through. We eventually kept our goals in a public part of the classroom and revisited or tracked them on a weekly basis throughout the 5 weeks of the unit. The public nature of the goals became a source of pride and subtle accountability, and the goal-tracking worksheets offered a valuable way to assess student performance with respect to those goals. Jose, for instance, tackled his overzealous speed-reading in one goal sheet, committing to try and take a picture walk before reading (Figure 5). His weekly follow-up worksheet (Figure 6) indicates not only that he experienced some success in willfully changing his behavior as a reader but also that he was cognizant of the strategy he used to overcome his desire to dive straight into the text (I covered up the words).

Figure 5. I want to take a picture walk : Joses goal worksheet indicates that he wants to use a preview strategy before beginning to read.

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Figure 6. I covered up the words : Joses goal-tracking worksheet shows a high level of self-awareness while consciously employing a corrective literacy strategy.

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Most students, to my delight, made very concrete use of their goals in self-assessment. The weekly goal sheets became more than abstract standards or hopes; they became useful yardsticks for evaluating learning at the end of a given learning period. Christopher and Vicky both used their identified goals as talking points in oral conversations and written reflections to evaluate their success at achieving those goals. This functionality took varied forms but most often appeared as a starting point for What I did, what I didnt do conversations. Of particular significance for the development of metacognitive knowledge, students (such as Jose) were able to discuss or explain why they felt they succeeded or failed in meeting a goal. This unexpected benefit of goal setting and tracking leads me to believe that such devices can be particularly useful in cultivating latent self-awareness in learners who struggle with oral language.


A short but profound quoteI did goodpropelled me into this inquiry. This was the most my student Vicky could offer by way of self-assessment after what felt like a half hour of my questioning and coaxing. A statement such as this, indicating a flat perspective, limited evaluative vocabulary, and little attention to the experience of learning, troubled me greatly. Wouldnt students who were invested in their work have more to say about it? Are students who seem unconscious of the process of learning missing something significant in that process? My readings into the subject convinced me that both awareness of the learning process and awareness of oneself as a learner were valuable intellectual qualities and led me to wonder what practices could develop this metacognition in young students. Several consistent themes emerged from my experience exploring some of these practices.

First, although metacognitive knowledge may not depend on oral language ability, a robust vocabulary greatly helps young students develop and articulate it. As Bereiter and Scarmadalia (1983) observed, young children often lack the mentalistic vocabulary needed to describe the events that occur in their own minds. Practice articulating these events, particularly when supported by an established collection of prompts or phrases, enables students to make their learning manifest to themselves and others. My experience with cooperative learning and peer-to-peer reflective conversations suggests that students may also be able to sidestep articulation challenges by switching from a descriptive to a prescriptive mode. That is, students who have trouble describing the steps they perform in their minds while engaged in a given task may be able to direct someone else through the same steps. This intriguing difference warrants further exploration.

A second and related observation is that metacognition may be both an intra- and interpersonal matter for some students. Acknowledging Gardners (1983) theory of multiple intelligences, many educators diligently seek out creative ways to tailor their instruction to students aptitudes and inclinations. This process of identifying specific students cognitive profiles can be made significantly more profound when that process is made open to, and even in collaboration with, the students themselves. A practice such as weekly goal-setting routines, valuable in its own right, becomes even more powerful when implemented as a communal activity. When the goals of my students were made public in the classroom, we seemed to gain more than just a spirit of accountability. The communal nature of these goals seemed to encourage the spread of the very idea of creating goals from the original setting, literacy, into other academic and social areas. This leads me to wonder what potential for developing metacognition in an academic sense lies in tapping metacognitive knowledge in another schema, such as social relations. Prescott (2001) has explored the connection between individual learning styles and the capacity to develop metacognitive knowledge. If students are able to reflect on their social selves, might that emergent metacognition be transferred to some academic tasks? This idea, too, merits further study.


In the course of these explorations, I feel that I am constructing some useful knowledge about the value of some activities in promoting metacognitive development. I have challenged my initial assumption that advanced oral language development is somehow a prerequisite to metacognitive knowledge. Indeed, I now believe that activities or practices that are biased in favor of the orally expressive student not only fail to give a complete picture of all students metacognitive development but also may inhibit that development. Additionally, I have confirmed my own confidence in the value of instruction in oral and written self-reflection, coupled with academic and personal goal setting, as a means to enrich students self-awareness as learners.

These classroom practices cannot exist, however, without school system practices that support them. On this basis, I make the following policy recommendations:


Curricula should contain, as an objective, the development of student self-awareness as a learner. Instruction should support this goal by allotting sufficient time for these or similar activities: goal setting, explicit strategy instruction, and self-reflective writing and conversation. Consistent and sufficient instructional time should also be allotted for activities that permit open-ended inquiry and emphasize process discovery rather than product completion.


Classroom instruction and assessment should include activities in which students are included as partners in both the creation of rubrics and the assessment of work. Student self-assessment should be a regular component of learning experiences.


Professional development resources should be allotted to familiarize elementary school teachers with the importance of self-reflection to the development of their students and to provide teachers with training in techniques that support that development.


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What do you do when you read?

Think about the kinds of things you do to help you before, during, and after you read a book.

Read these questions and circle the answer that you think would help you the most.

1. Before I begin reading its a good idea to:

- See how many pages are in the story.

- Look up all the big words in a dictionary.

- Make some guesses about what I think will happen in the story.


- Think about what has happened so far in the story.

2. Before I begin reading its a good idea to:

- Look at all the pictures to see what the story is about.


- Decide how long it will take me to read the story.

- Sound out the words I dont know.

- Check to see if the story is making sense.

3. Before I begin reading its a good idea to:

- Ask for help with the difficult words.

- Reread some parts to see if I can imagine what is happening.

- Look for little words inside bigger words.

- Decide on why Im going to read the book.


4. Before I begin reading its a good idea to:

- Retell all the main parts that have happened so far.

- Think of questions that I have about the book.


- Look for homophones.

- Look for synonyms.

5. Before I begin reading its a good idea to:

- Check to see if there are any pages missing.

- Make a list of the words Im not sure about.

- Use the title and the pictures to help me make guesses about what

   will happen.


- Read the last sentence so I know how the story will end.

6. Before I begin reading its a good idea to:

- Think of what I already know about what I see in the pictures.


- See how many pages are in the story.

- Choose the best part of the story to read again.

- Read the story out loud to someone.

7. Before I begin reading its a good idea to:

- Check to see if I am understanding the book so far.

- Check to see if the words have more than one meaning.

- Think about whether or not I will like this book.


- List all of the important details.

8. While Im reading its a good idea to:

- Read the story very slowly so that I will not miss any important parts.

- Read the title to see what the story is about.

- Check to see if there is anything missing from the pictures.

- Ask myself if the story is making sense so far.


9. While Im reading its a good idea to:

- Have someone read the story out loud to me.

- Keep track of how many pages I have read.

- List the storys main characters.

- Check to see if my predictions were right or wrong.


10. While Im reading its a good idea to:

- Keep track of the parts that didnt make sense and reread them.


- Take my time reading so I can be sure to understand everything.

- Imagine how the ending could be different.

- See if the pictures match the words.

11. When Im done reading its a good idea to:

- Think about what made my predictions right or wrong.


- Check to see if I skipped any of the hard words.

- Imagine how the characters could be different.

- Make a guess about what will happen next in the story.

- Look at the title and imagine what the story could be about.

12. When Im done reading its a good idea to:

- Think about why I liked or didnt like the story.


- Write a review of the story.

- Make predictions about what the story will be about.

- Read the story out loud to someone.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 8, 2009, p. 1997-2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15504, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 7:02:00 PM

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About the Author
  • Daric Desautel
    Millsmont Academy
    E-mail Author
    DARIC DESAUTEL is an elementary educator with interests in research, policy, and advocacy. He currently teaches in Oakland, California.
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