Metacognition and learning how to learn

“That’s a good describe, Hal!” Anthony blurted out last week as his classmates gazed at the Sol LeWitt wall mural.

Their class had spent time in the lobby exhibit and then moved to the stairwell to examine the immensely tall primary colored circles on the wall. Hal’s “describe” explained how he thought the work had gone up.  Anthony’s reflection provides a key insight into a question we find ourselves constantly pondering, as educators and parents:

What are our children learning?

Rest assured, they are learning quite a bit.  But…

But, it is not what they are learning that we are interested in as much as how they are learning.

Our children are grappling with and learning how to identify shapes and colors through visual discrimination; how to add, subtract, and count items by dumping them and cleaning them up; and the unlimited potential of lines and curves when we mush them together to create a written language.


Most importantly, they are learning how to learn.  Their experiences at nursery school are designed to allow them to build the capacity for metacognition, to develop theories and test them, and to understand that intelligence is built through growth, not granted by a teacher’s judgment or test grade.

A tricky topic to nail down, metacognition “refers to the ability to reflect on one’s own performance.”  

Yes, even our young students are capable of developing their metacognitive skills. We are told by the National Research Council’s Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning that, “Metacognition does not emerge full-blown in late childhood in some “now you have it, now you don’t” manner.” It emerges slowly (painfully slow sometimes!), through the experiences crafted by our teachers and parents.  The Committee refers to Anthony and Hal’s conversation in the stairwell as the “dawning awareness of metacognition.” Through their chatter, they are coming to understand the power of reflection.

This emergence of reflection occurs throughout our classes: after playing (“What did you do during worktime today?”), after a spill during snack (“I wonder what happened?”), after an emotional breakdown (“What happened to make you feel that way?”).  The Committee also reminds us that, “short-lived transition strategies often precede more enduring approaches.” The strategies they are developing during their time here will become the bedrock of their academic and social learning for the rest of their lives.

So, yes, the numbers, letters, and words our children learn at school are important.  Far more important is how they are learning them. 

As our children are whizzed through their busy Manhattan lives, are they given a chance to reflect? To ponder? To examine their mistakes and learn from them?

Shabbat shalom,