• Question: I am interested in meta -cognition - what is the earliest age that children are really aware of their own learning ability. Being a Specialist Teacher working with SEN children I work with many different children of all ages and abilities and find its a big ask to expect very young children to have a self-awareness of their own learning skills. Yet these are the children that would really benefit from this approach. Any suggestions ?

    Asked by marion001 to Yvonne, Yana, Victoria, Richard, Pete, Mike, Linda, David, Anna on 30 Apr 2018.
    • Photo: Anna Kauer

      Anna Kauer answered on 30 Apr 2018:

      Somewhere between 7 and 8 years is probably the earliest you can expect children to reflect on and assess their learning strategies. However I think you are absolutely right that younger children can also benefit from metacognitive techniques. Given that by 7-8 years, most children also have a pretty developed sense of either positive or low self esteem, as well as what they perceive to be their strengths and weaknesses, one of the best things you can do before they reach this age and level of self awareness, is to have already given them the confidence to think ‘hmm, that’s tricky, how can I tackle it’ rather than simply ‘I can’t….’

      I am sure you already doing far more than you realise to encourage these kinds of attitudes. Given the range of children you are working with, probably the most straightforward approach when working with the younger ones is simply to try to model positive metacognitive techniques yourself. For example if children see you consistently take a playful and exploratory approach to learning in which things sometimes go wrong but you present these mistakes only as things to be reflected on and learned from (rather than indications of failure or not being ‘good’ at something) then you are helping them to develop positive habits which will enable them to become independent and resilient learners later. With younger children this can just be simple things like trying to build a tower that doesn’t fall over and encouraging them to explore how it could be made more robust. Or speculating as to why something happened in a story and what the character could have done to change it. In fact encouraging curiosity is one of the most valuable things you can do; There is a lot of research that has shown that curiosity is at least as significant as IQ in predicting academic achievement, if not more so, as a child who is curious about a task is one who is interested and motivated therefore. I hope this is helpful?

    • Photo: Linda Baker

      Linda Baker answered on 1 May 2018:

      This is a great question. The early research on metacognition focused on memory, and the evidence was pretty clear that even preschoolers had some awareness that their memory could fail and that they needed to do something special to hold information in memory. More recently we have good evidence that preschoolers can monitor the state of their own understanding of a story and that nonverbal signs of problem detection can be present in children as young as 30 months. I don’t know of any studies directly focused on young children’s self- awareness of their own learning skills, and I agree that such self-awareness may be later-developing. However, teachers of children as young as 4 can begin fostering self-regulated learning skills by helping them understand the meanings of mental state terms such as learn, remember, understand, and forget in the context of simple classroom tasks. Research with somewhat older children, including those with special needs, shows that a very effective way of teaching metacognitive strategies is for teachers to model their own thinking processes as they engage in a task, whether it involves reading, writing, math, etc.

    • Photo: David Whitebread

      David Whitebread answered on 3 May 2018:

      Dear Marion

      The latest research suggests that children start developing their metacognitive abilities from birth, and that the development of these abilities is mainly supported by interactions/ meaningful conversations with adults or older peers. For example, there is some evidence that parents who use more mental state words in their talk (eg how do you feel? do you know how to do this? can you remember what grandma said when we went to her house?), or engage in more reminiscing with children, support the development of their child’s metacognition. Generally, any interaction which obliges young children to reflect on their own mental processes seems to be useful. In some of my own research, for example, I have shown that requiring children to explain why they think something, even at the most simple level, encourages metacognitive development. Various playful activities, particularly pretend play, have also been shown to support metacognitive development. If you look on my webpage at http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/people/staff/whitebread/ you will find a list of my publications on this topic..