Why you need to teach students metacognitive skills in middle school

In my class of 6th grade students I would always start the school year with a conversation and a rationale as to why I taught in a certain way. Then, over the course of the school year, I would revisit this rationale as I would walk them through what my thinking about a particular lesson or activity we were about to start. Let me explain.

I would start the year with a conversation about Maria Montessori. Yes, that Montessori. As part of my education to become a teacher learned about the cognitive stages of development within a child’s brain. Montessori postulated that at or around the age of 11/12 years old, the human brain begins process and comprehend abstract information in a way that normally is not possible for younger children. I talk to my students about this fact and how they are right in the midst of that rapid change to their brains ability to understand abstract thought. I talk about to rise in white matter and the fall of grey matter in their noggins. They obviously don’t get much of what I’m saying but what they do get is this:

  1. I’m treating them not as children, but as hungry learners.
  2. I’m telling the the scientific truth about what is happening inside their heads.
  3. I’m telling them how what I’m doing fits into this change and if they think about that while working in class (and at home), they will start to open doors and window into ways of thinking that they have not been able to comprehend before.

Talk about motivation!

It’s all about thinking about their thinking.

My purpose is to get them to think metacognitively. When students approach a lesson with the idea of why they are doing something AND how doing it is actively changing the way their brain works, it spurs them into action! They become more engaged lessons, and more importantly, intrinsically motivated to help each other. They become open to constructive feedback and take more time to revise and reflect on their work. I have personally witnessed classes move towards functioning metacognitively as a whole class. It was an amazing thing to watch happen over the course of a few months. Imagine students who lead lessons and ask follow-up questions to their peers, all the while the other students in class would be actively listening and tracking the conversation using hand gestures to acknowledge when a good point is made or when they have an objection.

Students at this age need more teachers to explicitly teach metacognitive skills. I was in a Twitter chat earlier this week with a bunch of higher ed instructors and the conversation was about why college students don’t have good critical thinking skills. Students become motivated when they know that their teacher truly wants to help them help themselves. By helping them think about what is happening to their brains right now, in the moment you can help them get to a place of presence. A place where they are actively thinking about why they are taking part in your lesson and why you have designed it in a particular manner.

Helping students see the big picture from a teacher’s perspective in class helps to build intrinsic motivation to get things done, especially if they understand why and how it helps them grow as a lifelong learner.


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