Keeping Metacognition ‘the Main Thing’ when Managing Change

Priory Integrated College, Holywood, County Down is an 11-18, all ability, integrated school which has been progressing the Thinking School approach since 2019. Nicola Wilson, Principal and Deirdre Scarlett, SLT member and Drive Team Leader, recently met with TM Consultant Lorna Gardiner to discuss how they have sustained the focus on whole school metacognition through a time of considerable change.

As Stephen Covey[1] says The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”,  but this can be a challenge when encountering significant change. Within its first year of introducing the Thinking School approach, Priory Integrated College experienced a change in principalship and the disruption of lockdown due to the Covid pandemic and at the same time has managed to remain firmly committed to keeping metacognition ‘the main thing’.

Nicola, the principal, explained why the Thinking School approach is such a good ‘fit’ with the integrated ethos and ‘esprit de corps’ of Priory IC which welcomes young people of all abilities and backgrounds. 



The school ethos believes that everyone is capable of learning and achieving, values the unique talents and skills of individuals and embraces diversity. As developing metacognition and self-regulation addresses not only cognitive skills, but also intelligent learning behaviours and positive dispositions, this has synergy with Priory’s aim to support, not only young people’s academic progress, but also aspects of character development underpinned by core values of respect, tolerance and kindness.

Drive Team Leader, Deirdre, described how whole school metacognition became an obvious next step in their school improvement journey. They  had previously invested in a significant review of their curriculum provision and pedagogy the outcome of which prioritised staff development in the areas of differentiation and literacy, with a particular focus on extended writing and ‘thinking to learn’.


Thinking Frames

Having explored elements of the EEF’s ‘Guidance Report on Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning’, and connected with Thinking Matters, a Drive Team (DT) was established and Priory began whole staff training in the Thinking School approach in 2019 with Thinking Frames being introduced across the school.

During the first year of implementation, as well as facing the implications of the Covid pandemic, the school also experienced a change of leadership. Nicola explained why she felt it important to continue to prioritise whole school metacognition on her appointment as principal in June 2020. Firstly, she had personal interest and experience of developing metacognitive approaches in her previous role and had seen the benefits for students first-hand. Secondly, she recognised the progress that was already evident in Priory IC, particularly noting how the careful monitoring strategies established by the DT were already demonstrating evidence of positive impact.


Priory IC Drive Team

In addition to leadership vision and support, the role of the DT has clearly been a key lever in sustaining momentum during this period of significant change. Careful thought had been invested in establishing the Drive Team, which represented all faculties across the school and a broad range of background and leadership experience, which has significantly contributed to buy-in from the wider staff team. Deirdre outlined some of the key strategies which she felt had been particularly effective in sustaining focus during the recent period of challenge:

  • The creation of a detailed action plan for implementation guided the implementation process, particularly prioritising time for regular DT meetings and identification of robust strategies for monitoring.
  • The DT had recognised the importance of ensuring that the visual environment communicated clear messages about metacognition, so have utilised shared spaces, noticeboards, etc to create stimulating displays.
  • Whole staff training opportunities led by the DT were scheduled to supplement that provided by TM and ongoing opportunities to share good practice in use of Thinking Frames has been prioritised.
  • A gallery walk facilitated during a training day ensured a ‘quick win’ as staff shared examples of completed Thinking Frames across departments, which reassured early implementers and stimulated further creative practice.
  • As an ipad school, staff had recognised the benefits of creating Thinking Frames digitally which had contributed to supporting their continued use in remote learning during periods of lockdown.
  • The effective internal IT system within the school has enabled easy DT access to examples of work for monitoring purposes.

A key driver contributing to continued investment in the Thinking School approach has been the evidence of its impact to date. In addition to a general trend of continued improvement in student outcomes, there is noticeable growth in the use of a common thinking language by staff and students during recent lesson observations.

Staff are reporting demonstrable progress in student capacity to plan, organise their thinking and to articulate their thoughts. Thinking Frames are being used by students, with increasing levels of independence, to record and revisit lesson content, to support extended writing and coursework and to help with revision and recall of information. Similar reassuring feedback has been gleaned from recent surveys and focus group meetings with two cohorts of pupils.


Examples of Thinking Frames from the Gallery Session

There is also evidence of improvements in the quality of teacher questioning prompted by the use of the Reflective Lens. From a leadership perspective, Nicola believes that the focus on whole school metacognition is contributing to the development of first-class pedagogy as well as higher levels of thinking for students.

When asked what advice they would give to other school leaders who are managing change, Nicola and Deirdre both highlighted the importance of ensuring staff ‘buy-in’ by articulating a clear rationale for the change and how it will build on existing practice. They also emphasised the importance of identifying a clear road map which includes planning for short-term wins and tracking and celebrating progress. A key feature also is the provision of meaningful research-informed professional development for staff in which the ‘big picture’ is profiled from the outset and which offers practical strategies for implementation.

The collective motivation and efficacy across Priory’s school community to keep metacognition ‘the main thing’ has been achieved through inspired and committed leadership, with a clearly articulated vision for change, within a supportive culture that ultimately has the needs of the young people at its core.

Lorna Gardiner
Thinking Matters

Visit Priory Integrated College’s website

[1] Covey, S. (1989). “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”.

Find out more about how to develop metacogntive learners and become a Thinking School.

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