How can teachers nurture “thinking”?
Elenice Lobo, Educational Director at PlayPen Bilingual Education in Brazil, examines the ways in which teachers can help their students develop metacognitive approaches to learning.
No one can deny the importance of helping students strive towards their future goals, but what about our daily pedagogical practice? At the end of each school day, what knowledge will my students retain when they leave my class?
Recent research shows that learning is a product of thinking and that it is not related to training or the retention of information through rote practice. John Dewey’s famous quote is therefore apt: “We do not learn from mere experience, but from reflecting on it”.
When teachers need to make complex ideas accessible to students, they should lead them to perform in class as professionals do in working life. For instance, readers make predictions, interpretations, observe connections. Historians consider different perspectives, reason with evidence, build explanations. Scientists observe closely, make and test hypotheses, build interpretations. Mathematicians look for patterns, conjecture, form generalisations, construct arguments.
Group work is closely linked to this approach to learning. Many researchers advocate that students learn more effectively when they reveal their hypothesis, explanations or interpretations to classmates. According to Vygotsky, when we learn something, we rely on models: we observe what and how others are doing things, and we imitate them. That’s how we learn to dance, to sing, and so on.
Moreover, it is through working with peers that students learn positive habits such as respect, as they listen to others’ points of view; cooperation, as they realise that no one alone is better than the group; resilience to keep on trying; and enquiry, since curiosity is what compels them to move on. If carried out systematically, group work even helps build self-confidence.
In a metacognitive approach to learning, it is the questions teachers ask and the way they listen to students’ answers, provoking further thoughts, that really matter: “What makes you say that?” “I’m afraid I’m not following you. Can you explain what you were thinking in a different way?” “Can you tell me more about that?” The old formula of guessing what is in the teacher’s head has to be left behind.
In order to develop metacognitive awareness in students, teachers have to keep track of how students improve in basic practices such as observing and describing what they see, thinking metaphorically and exploring complexity to go below the surface of things. From there they must make clear to each student the progress that has been achieved, thus developing students’ ability to regulate their own learning.