Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Thinking about Thinking: A Key Process to Effective Learning

I caught a glimpse of my dolly deep in thoughts.

Me: What are you thinking?
Dolly: I am thinking of what I am thinking.

I could tell she did not say this absentmindedly and that she meant it. After that incident, there were many more evidences that all my previous effort of nurturing her self-awareness of her thinking process is bearing fruit.

I blogged about metacognition, the process of thinking about thinking, back in Nov 2009 when I wrote extensively in this blog about Teaching a child to question and fostering curiosity in young minds.

Metacognition refers to higher order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning. Activities such as planning how to approach a given learning task, monitoring comprehension, and evaluating progress toward the completion of a task are metacognitive in nature. (source)

Why do some children and students learn better than others?
While many will be quick to point out factors such as higher IQ (intelligent quotient), exposure to better resources (including better teachers, lessons, schools etc) or having nurturing environment, one important factor that is often overlooked is the child's ability to think about his thinking process.

This self-awareness of one's thoughts helps children become more effective learners as they learn to focus on what they still need to learn to achieve the learning objectives. Research shows that this self-awareness evolves during childhood and that this metacognitive ability improves with age. In fact, most growth of this metacognitive ability happens between ages 12 and 15. 

However, for most children, the development of this ability may not happen as early or efficiently, especially if they were not taught or shown how to think.  In fact, given the way Singaporean students are taught in schools from age 7 onwards, it is probably fair to say that by the time they are in Secondary schools, many teenagers still do not fully realise they possess this metacognitive ability, let alone learn to utilize it to become a more effective learner.

It is definitely less common for kids under 6 to develop this self-awareness, since most parents and educators are most likely unaware of what they can do to nurture this self-awareness.

But it is also not impossible. First, we need to understand how children gain a deeper understanding of how they think, feel and act. But this alone, is still not enough.

As I have seen in my own children and students in my Bright Minds Lapbookers classes, kids under 12 can be taught how to think through the systematic introduction of metacognitive exercises.

Every lapbooking activity that we do in class (and at home with my own kids) is coached in a manner that trains the child's metacognitive ability, in addition to honing their skills (such as fine motor, eye-hand coordination, listening, problem-solving, critical thinking, creative imagination etc) and developing their key executive functions.

In classes where kids under 4 years old attend with parents, I explain the rationale of how and why I introduce certain activities, so parents can learn from observation of their children's performance and practise coaching tips straightaway with their kids. This precious transfer of knowledge to parents empowers them to reinforce continuous learning in the intended manner, which is another reason why students who were with us for extended period all developed this cognitive ability early enough.

Our K1 and K2 (age 5 & 6) students get to put their metacognitive ability to practice at every lesson as they are coached through the inquiry process.

Like most skills, the more practices we do, the better we get. The abilities to think critically and creatively begin with the nurturing of metacognitive ability and these skills improve exponentially with structured training.

As children's metacognitive abilities increase, research suggest they also achieve at higher levels. Just like how the rich gets richer more easily, widening the income gap between the rich and poor; children with such abilities and skills also learn at accelerated pace with ease, hence widening the achievement gap between the advanced learners and the masses. It is simply a fact of life.

Needless to say, the benefits also extend way beyond academic learning into life experiences.

What I find fascinating too, is how neuroscientists had gathered at an international workshop in 2014 to discuss how self-awareness and this higher order thinking strategy actually changes the structure of the brain, making it more flexible and open to greater learning.

In a few days, we will begin Term 4/2016 classes. I cannot wait to share my knowledge and method with parents of my students, and empower them to effect amazing changes to their children's learning journeys.

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