What we have learned: Metacognition Meets

This term has been a wonderful opportunity to hear from a range of different schools talking very honestly and openly about what it means to them ‘to become a Thinking School’ and what it involves to get started and how to keep the momentum. I am very grateful to the schools that have willingly opened their doors, invited us in and talked in detail about what metacognition means to them.

When we first floated the idea of regional meetings, it was to help bring together schools in our network and mainly to give everyone a chance to share ideas and challenges. In reality, it has become more than that, many of the host Drive Teams have enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on the steps they have taken towards their common vision. The very process of organising their ideas to share has allowed them to assess the wider impact and reflect on the commitment shown within their school. We started in Leeds at Alwoodley Primary School, an accredited Thinking School, in September. Their key focus was considering ‘what do our learners need in order to future-proof them for the next stages of their education and careers?’

They linked their own curriculum which is centred around the concept of ‘cognitive education’ to the National Curriculum which requires students to become fluent through varied and frequent practice, able to apply knowledge, reason, following lines of enquiry, conjecturing relationships, developing arguments and solving problems by applying their skills and knowledge as they persevere in seeking solutions. This underpins their ‘why’ as they embarked on this journey to become a Thinking School. Everything is focused around their three golden threads.

Two of their key ways to implement metacognition are through meta tools: Thinking Frames and Thinking Hats. As we walked around the school and spoke to the students, observed lessons and looked at their working walls it was evident that these tools were being used fluently across the school. They were not just part of the teacher’s planning, every child was able to articulate the type of thinking being used and could also highlight what they found difficult. A month later found us at Wellington Primary School in Hounslow. Their journey began in 2006 as many of their students were emotionally challenged as a result of the trauma they had experienced as refugees. The leadership team, including the current Deputy Head, Kuldip Kahlon wanted to provide their students with a vehicle through which they could express their thinking and feelings using a common visual language. Some of their big milestones involved their staff presenting at Thinking Schools conferences, visiting Malaysia, presenting with Carol Dweck and training schools in Paraguay. Applying metacognition to their practice means that monitoring and reflecting on their journey has continually been reshaped over the years. It was a delight to meet and interview some of their Year 3 and Year 6 pupils who proudly shared their work and happily talked about their brain. No matter what question was posed by the visiting group of adults, they were able to confidently reflect and talk about their learning. Their students understood the value of reflective thinking and were used to completing processing and connecting questions at the end of a task along with their reflection sheet. Their students’ attitudes in learning had changed, many of them sought challenges, identified failures as a stepping stone to success and embraced repeated practice to get them towards their goal. The Thinking Week at the start of this term had revisited neuroplasticity and made explicit links with growth mindset.

Just before half-term we were welcomed to Gatcombe Park Primary School, Portsmouth. Gatcombe started their Thinking School journey in January 2022 so aren’t yet accredited by Exeter University. We were very thankful that their Head, Ian Baker, talked about why he had embarked on this approach and the importance of support from the leadership of the school for any element of success. The Drive Team leads talked us through their approach from the start of the year, firstly setting out their vision and intent so they could share this with the staff and explain why this matters. In order to embed the Science of Learning, they wove it into: assemblies and lessons; reinforced key language repeatedly; used lots of activities and analogies to help students make connections; and created a specific display in each classroom. As we walked around and spoke with their students it was evident that it had paid off, they could coherently talk about neural pathways and schemas (even in Year 1!). The Learning Line was one of the visuals they adopted and in Reception it was linked to the specific topic being studied and enabled their students to know why learning something for at first was hard.

After introducing the Thinking Frames across the school, their working walls were now all examples of a specific frame and teachers regularly modelled examples. A term later, their students are now able to identify a particular cognitive process, use the correct tool and reflect on their thinking. To help students devise questions as part of developing curiosity and for the Reflective Lens, the Q Matrix was also in use in many classrooms.

In November, we were greeted by Notting Hill Prep, West London, an advanced Accredited Thinking School. As a school that has been embedding Thinking for over 10 years, it was great to see the different stages of their journey and how embedded the tools and habits are within their curriculum and language of learning. Nicola Swales, Deputy Head Academic, talked about the impact of metacognition for Senior School preparation. It was a powerful reminder of ‘why a Thinking School’ and the importance of preparing children for the future and developing their capacities as happy, healthy learners. They want their students to ask a multitude of questions, be curious, to read widely and not be flummoxed by unfamiliar material. How they achieve this is through the use of meta tools – Thinking Hats, Thinking Frames, NHP Habits and P4C. As we walked around the school, with our student guides, we could see all of the meta tools in action being used confidently and dexterously. Arabella Chute, Thinking School Coordinator reiterated the importance of THINK: Tools, Habits, Infusion, Nerds (The Drive Team!) and Knowledge to help embed whole school metacognition.  

Last on our tour this term was a trip to Newton Abbot to meet with the Drive Team from Colyton Primary School. They had kindly made the trip to one of their sister schools within the First Federation MAT to help those coming from further West. It was great to hear from a school that has only embarked on their journey of metacognition this year as they talked about what they had discovered, learned and their reflections. We were given a good range of Thinking Frames and Visible Thinking Routines to ensure that everyone in the room was actively using their brain! Aerfen Mills, Head of Colyton Primary, shared their starting point and referred back to Bob Burden’s definition of a Thinking School and why that resonated.

They began next to develop their curriculum to match their Thinking School vision; linking back to an example shared by the Drive Team at Alwoodley comparing The Simpsons to This is Us. For their school it was key that their children know more, remember more and apply it! As they have adopted a range of meta tools, they have embedded the use of Thinking Frames, Questioning, Thinking Routines and Habits of Mind. For example, the impact of using Thinking Frames is the ability to contextualise learning, embedding key knowledge, helping students to map out ideas and plan their thinking and best of all they can more readily recall that information. Another area that they have applied the metacognitive cycle is structured reflection by helping their learners evaluate their planning using key questions and ensuring that time is given to this process.

What a rich opportunity to spend time listening to each and everyone talk about what they have learned and share their passion for thinking. I thought it might be useful to summarise some of the key ideas that were shared again and again.

Key takeaways:

  1. Setting a Vision is important so that everyone knows where you are aiming (after all, you can’t monitor and evaluate if you have no plan). Yes, your vision might be adapted along the way, but it is important that everyone knows the direction of travel.
  2. Language is important, everyone needs to be using the language of thinking so that students repeatedly become familiar and start adopting for themselves.
  3. A suite of meta tools is part of developing student-led mindful learning. The job of the cognitive coach is to introduce, to model, to guide and lead students through the process to become experts who can deftly use a range of tools at their disposal.

Please do join us for our next events, all details can be found here.

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