This is the third article in a three-part series on teaching critical thinking: Part I | Part II | Part III

Hand-in-hand with critical thinking, incorporating metacognition consciously in the classroom has been proven to promote the development of a growth mindset — while empowering students with strategies to help themselves learn better. Metacognition goes far beyond its common definition "thinking about thinking" to encompass observation and analysis of one's thinking, its application to learning objectives and the employment of strategies for obtaining these objectives.

Although this may sound like an area best explored in middle school and beyond, metacognition can be introduced well before. Researchers concede that by age 6, children can reflect on the accuracy of their cognition. Around the age of junior high school, dramatic improvements in monitoring and regulation in the form of planning are evident.

Dual nature

Metacognition's two components knowledge and regulation are both key in getting students to take ownership of their learning and lives.

Knowledge comprises person, task and strategy knowledge. Along with understanding how humans think in general, students need awareness of how they as individuals process information an example may be having insight into their preferred learning style(s).

They should be encouraged to explore factors — such as study environment or working in groups versus alone — that influence their comprehension of certain material or ability to solve problems in a given subject. Next, it's important that they understand what different tasks demand and finally possess knowledge of pertinent learning or study strategies. Armed with knowledge in these three areas, students must to put it into consciously-directed action.

"Simply possessing knowledge about one's cognitive strengths or weaknesses and the nature of the task without actively utilizing this information to oversee learning is not metacognitive," warns Jennifer Livingston in "Metacognition: An Overview."

This is where regulation metacognition's other component comes into play with aims setting, planning, employing strategies and evaluating outcomes. Based on their results, students can elect to revise their plans or try new strategies.

So how do teachers put their own knowledge about metacognition into action? Here are strategies compiled from recent articles and blogs show how teachers and researchers are promoting metacognitive thinking in classrooms around the country.

Teach about metacognition

Introduce the term metacognition and explain what it entails in understandable terms for your students. Dr. Saundra McGuire, vice chancellor at LSU, simplifies it for college students in a YouTube interview: "It's as if you have a big brain outside your brain looking at what your brain is doing!"

Donna Wilson, Ph.D., author of "Positively Smarter" recommends using a metaphor such as driving your brain with younger students as a "concrete way to guide them toward thinking about how they can best learn."

At any age, learners are likely to be inspired by the fact that they hold the power to increase the development of their own brains and positively influence their educational and life experience. Share relevant findings of recent brain research — your students may be fascinated to learn that even rats can use metacognitive thinking.

Provide opportunities to reflect

Some children tend to be more introspective than others. Nevertheless, all need some degree of guidance in how to reflect on their thinking along with time to do so. Practicing mindfulness in the classroom, also known as contemplative pedagogy, is one way to help them develop techniques which promote deeper self-awareness, concentration and insight.

In an online guide out of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, faculty of different disciplines share case studies of contemplative approaches to activities ranging from common academic tasks such as dialogue, reading and writing to less traditional ones like silence, guided meditation and beholding art.

"These approaches cultivate an inner technology of knowing," states Tobin Hart, author of "The Secret Spiritual World of Children."

Journal writing is widely recommended as a tool for metacognitive thinking. Adaptable across subjects and age groups, it can be linked to a specific activity to encourage reflection before, during and/or after it. Students don't necessarily have to write in complete sentences nor use words but can explore the use of images for expressing and recording their thoughts and observations.

Journal formats can reflect learners' creativity and preference. Mind maps, blogs, wikis, diaries, lists and e-tools are formats that Developmental Psychologist, Marilyn Price-Mitchell mentions in her Edutopia blog post.

Mitchell has students reflect on how not just what they learned with weekly learning journals and questions such as "What was easiest/most challenging for me this week? Why?" Subsequent questions lead them to examine the study strategies and habits that worked (or didn't) for them during the week, and finally to look at ways to improve them for the following week.

"I want the student to think about knowing on different levels, not just the intellectual level," English professor Michael Heller explains. "So I'm trying to get them to write from their experience, to value their own experience."

Heller begins most of his classes with a few minutes of silent journal writing. Every few weeks he has students do a longer piece addressing three big questions:

  • What matters here?
  • Where are you now?
  • What do you know now?

The first is about taking ownership for oneself in the world, to encourage students to care about the work and each other. The second question has emotional and psychological implications as students locate themselves "on the map of their lives." Finally, the last question refers to what the students have gleaned from and can say about the research or reading they're currently doing.

Create a structure for thinking

Seasoned educator and preservice teacher trainer Jackie Gerstein advocates framing and reflecting on classroom activities to ensure that real learning is taking place. Along with carefully setting aims for a lesson, it's crucial that students are also thinking about those goals, so she begins each activity by framing it with students.

Equally important is reflecting after the activity, Gerstein has created a board game to make this stage of the activity enjoyable. Similarly Mitchell uses a wrapper, “a short intervention that surroundsan existing activity and integrates a metacognitive practice” to promote learning and improve monitoring skills in her classroom.

Based on research conducted of teachers who demonstrated success in getting students to think beyond the superficial, Project Zero out of Harvard graduate school of education has created something called "thinking routines." According to senior research associate Ron Ritchhart in a MindShift article, the teachers in the study "had routines and structures that scaffolded and supported student thinking."

Project Zero core routines include an interpretation and justification routine called "What Makes You Say That?" and another that sets the stage for deeper inquiry called "Think Puzzle Explore." These simple structures can be used repeatedly across various grade levels and content to help students develop habits of mind that lead to more understanding.

Make thinking visible

Giving students tools to make their thinking visible to themselves and classmates in order to have the power to improve it was a key impetus behind the development of these thinking routines. One of metacognition's greatest challenges is that we are trying to make the invisible process of the mind visible. This reaches beyond just observing study habits to becoming aware of personal biases.

Not only is it helpful when students externalize their mental processes, but teachers are also encouraged to think out loud and talk through problems in order to model metacognition. Students stand to learn a great deal when teachers use higher-order thinking strategies aloud, reports Wilson in her Edutopia blog post.

"They often laugh when their teachers make 'mistakes,' and they learn when their teachers stop, recognize the miscue, and step through the process of correcting," Wilson said.

So when we're teaching metacognition, we have the opportunity to turn our blunders into gold.