Using technology to promote student metacognition through ‘think alouds’

Claire Badger, Senior Teacher, Teaching and Learning, The Godolphin and Latymer School, London, UK

The Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit lists metacognition as its second most effective intervention (Higgins et al., 2018). One of the seven recommendations from the EEF’s recent guidance on the topic is that teachers can help students develop their metacognitive skills by modelling their own thinking – what is often referred to as ‘thinking aloud’ (EEF, 2018). The rise of tablet technology makes capturing these ‘think alouds’ more straightforward and is a technique I have tried with success in my own teaching.

Capturing teacher ‘think alouds’

In chemistry, equations and calculations are notoriously tricky. When I first started teaching, I relied on PowerPoint slides to detail the steps of my calculations. The power of the worked example has been shown to be highly effective in maths and science learning, most notably through John Sweller’s work on cognitive load theory (Sweller , 2006). However, I realised that presenting students with a fully completed example didn’t allow me the necessary opportunity to explain what I was doing and why. I now endeavour to work through problems on the board and worry less about making mistakes in front of my students; in fact, I have come to realise that modelling checking mechanisms to spot these mistakes can be really valuable.

Useful as the ‘thinking aloud’ approach is, my commentary is often lost after the lesson, and students who attempt to write notes on the process while trying to follow the method invariably end up confused about both. Utilising tablets allows us to take ‘thinking aloud’ one step further by capturing these processes. To achieve this, I have used Explain Everything (explaineverything.com), an interactive online whiteboard app which allows for easy creation of screencasts – short videos demonstrating how to work through a particular problem alongside an audio recording explaining the method.

I Initially tried to capture my chemistry processes in real time during lessons but soon found that taking a few minutes to record the screencast prior to lessons resulted in much better-quality recordings. I now have a bank of screencasts that I can re-use every year, in a variety of different ways; sometimes asking students to watch the screencast in advance of a lesson, sometimes in the lesson, and sometimes after the lesson for consolidation or revision.

Student-produced screencasts

Getting students to produce their own screencasts is a way to promote understanding of learning strategies and engage them in metacognitive talk, both of which can help them direct their own learning (Education Endowment Foundation, 2018). Self-explanation has also been shown to be much more effective for learning than commonly used techniques such as re-reading and highlighting (Dunlosky , 2013).

This approach has also proven valuable when students are correcting their work, particularly in practice exams where I have asked students to pick two or three questions where they didn’t do so well, explain the error in their original thinking and then describe how they arrived at the correct answer. In these cases, students often reveal misconceptions in their thinking which often go undetected in written answers. Thus, screencasting has given me more useful assessment information, allowing me to focus my feedback better.

Student responses

I have elicited feedback from students in a number of ways, including anecdotal classroom conversations, and an anonymous survey for my current sixth form students, conducted using Google forms. Responses have been mixed. The students like listening to recordings, which they can follow at their own pace. When I’ve asked them to watch videos for homework, they have seemed more confident than if I’d just asked them to review worked examples from a textbook. However, there is a reluctance, particularly among older students, when it comes to making their own recordings. I think a great deal of this reluctance comes from a difficulty students have in distinguishing between effective long-term strategies, and those that feel more comfortable in the short term but do not lead to long-term learning (Soderstrom and Bjork , 2015). Students became progressively more comfortable with this way of working, finding that re-watching their videos was a helpful way to revise, with several voluntarily making screencasts on other topics.

It is not practical for students to create screencasts for all their work. I have found that screencasts are most useful for the more complex, abstract concepts. For example, explaining changes of state and working through chemical calculations. As an additional tool in my teaching toolkit, it has proved immensely valuable; it allows me to unpick and address misconceptions far more easily and for my students, it provides a different revision method and a way to deepen their understanding of a topic.

Tips for using screencasting in your teaching
  • Invest in a good stylus
  • Plan what you are going to say before launching into the recording
  • Don’t feel that screencasting has to involve solely using digital media; taking photos of written work and explaining the thought processes behind it is a great way to combine traditional and technological approaches
  • Be explicit with the success criteria when asking students to create their own screencasts by creating exemplars and setting clear time limits
  • Expect students to be initially quite reticent about creating their own screencasts.

Metacognition with Rosendale Research School

Sarah Horrocks, Director, London Connected Learning Centre, UK and Christian Turton, Deputy Director, London Connected Learning Centre, UK

London Connected Learning Centre (CLC) in Clapham, South London, was one of more than a hundred centres across England opened during the early to mid-2000s to support local schools in making innovative and effective use of ICT.

Recently, the CLC has worked closely with Rosendale Research School (part of the Education Endowment Foundation and Institute of Effective Education network of research schools) on a trial that used digital portfolios to support metacognition. In conjunction with London CLC, Rosendale developed a programme known as ReflectED – an approach to learning that teaches and develops children’s metacognition skills. Technology plays a supporting role in this programme. iPads sit in the middle of the table and pupils pick them up when they want to record a reflection. They use an app (originally Evernote, now SeeSaw – web.seesaw.me) that gives the teacher access to their catalogue of reflections. It is easy to enable rapid teacher and peer feedback via text or voice recording, as the recording picks up expression in the voice, making the reflection more impactful. Reflections can then be organised and stored in an accessible way so that pupils and teachers can easily revisit their reflections.

The first small-scale, randomised trial in 2013 showed that ReflectED had a positive impact on attainment. Pupils who participated in the study made an average of four months’ additional progress in maths and developed a more positive attitude to learning compared with the control group (reflectedlearning.org.uk/the-reflected-project). Following the success of this initial trial, Rosendale Primary School is now carrying out a whole-school efficacy trial of ReflectED, sponsored by the Education Endowment Foundation. More than 100 primary schools around England have signed up to take part in the new trial and Rosendale has teamed up with the University of York, which will be evaluating the impact of ReflectED applied as a whole-school intervention on attainment in both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.

In rolling this out to a larger number of schools, there have been challenges, not least that technology in schools is of mixed quality. Many schools had older devices that were no longer supported, highlighting the importance of having an equipment refresh strategy in school, as well as problems with slow internet or Wi-Fi connections. The skill set of staff was also another challenge. We have found that ongoing, sustained CPD or peer support is essential for schools to effectively embed tools such as SeeSaw. Time needs to be allowed for teachers to support each other and disseminate their learning in external CPD, and formal structure and roles in the school help with this.

In choosing how to make the most of technology to support learning, we must always remember the context of the learners, school and staff and ensure that decisions are informed by research, learning theory and teacher practice. Technology is not an end in itself.

Developing metacognition in young children: The impact of talking about thinking using video reflection as a stimulus

Helen Lewis, Yr Athrofa, University of Wales, Trinity Saint David, UK. This article is based on an original research article published in Impact, issue 3 (2018)

At the heart of effective classroom practice is the need to teach children to think well. This fascinates me, especially the question of whether or not young children can think metacognitively. To investigate this, I explored the development of metacognition in four-to-six-year-olds.

Flavell (Flavell , 1976) described metacognition as ‘knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes’. For my study, I defined metacognition as:

  • The awareness individuals have of their own knowledge, strengths and areas to develop, and their beliefs about themselves as learners.
  • Their ability to regulate their own action in the application of that knowledge.

There is a key debate around the age at which metacognitive awareness and behaviour are demonstrated (Larkin , 2015). Shamir et al. (Shamir et al., 2009) suggest that it may be that the tools researchers use (such as interviews) are not appropriate for the youngest learners: young children may be thinking metacognitively, but lack the oracy skills to explain their thinking. Adult–child dynamics also incite reticence in some children, who tell adults what they believe they want to hear. I needed to use tools appropriate for young children and explore ways to develop their thinking.

The research

My study took a mixed-methods approach, utilising tools which did not rely on oracy alone. I used video-stimulated reflective dialogue (Moyles et al., 2003) which involves using a video clip as a scaffold for dialogue. The children worked in pairs to make videos of children in their class doing ‘good thinking’. The pairs watched the clips together and decided which showed ‘better’ thinking before discussing this with me during 10-15 minutes of dialogue in a quiet learning space. I observed the children during classroom activities three times during the study, looking for metacognitive behaviours and using a coding framework based on Larkin’s (Larkin , 2010) research.

Six schools of varying size, location and demographics in Wales participated. The study ran for one academic year and took place in one class per school. In total, 36 children (aged 4.6–6.6 years) were involved. I visited each class on three occasions during the school year and worked with the same six children on each visit. The study followed BERA (BERA, 2011) ethical guidelines, and appropriate, ongoing verbal assent was gained from all children.

Findings

During our discussions, the children were asked what they thought ‘good thinking’ looked like. Table 1 gives examples.

Initially, the children viewed good thinking as commensurate with good behaviour. Yet by the end of the study, children described ‘good thinkers’ with reference to strategy – such as the ability to ‘make connections’. They suggested strategies for when thinking was hard, such as visualising a number line. Transcript 1 illustrates a dialogue. 

Transcript 1: VSRD episode (end of study)

Sofie: We filmed James, he looked at his work.

Me: Why was that important for good thinking?

Grace: He was looking, concentrating.

Me: What was he concentrating on?

Sofie: The number line.

Me: Oh, I can’t see the number line.

Sofie: He didn’t have one, only in his brain, so he was thinking hard about how to do it with the numbers in his head. He uses these ’cos when the numbers are big it’s good to use the number line in your head.

At the start of the study, the range of metacognitive behaviours was narrow, and influenced by direct adult intervention. By the end of the study, the range of behaviours widened and occurred increasingly independently. My findings support Robson’s (Robson , 2016) suggestion that the type of talk that occurs in reflective dialogue may be ‘particularly supportive of young children’s self-regulation and metacognition’.

I cannot conclude that VSRD ‘caused’ the children to become more metacognitive. Over the year-long study, maturational effects may account for some differences. The children also saw me as someone who was interested in talking about thinking, and this may have encouraged them to discuss thinking with me.

Implications

Firstly, VSRD engaged children in a dialogue in which they had ownership, and the choice element of what to film became aligned with metacognitive behaviours.

Secondly, VSRD involved young children in the research process. Valkanova (Valkanova , 2004) suggests that although reflection is a ‘crucial issue in learning’, motivating children to reflect is a challenge. VSRD encouraged active participation, and all children were keen to talk about their videos.

Finally, transcripts illustrate how children articulated their thinking in response to the questioning that took place. Robson (2016, p. 190) suggests that when adults and children share videos, it forms a ‘site for joint meaning making’. As teachers, we need to reflect on our role in supporting children to think about their own thinking. VSRD can act as a stimulus for this.

Conclusions

VSRD was a useful tool, enabling young children to reflect on their thinking. Children moved from equating thinking to behaving well, towards regarding thinking as a more varied activity. They became better able to articulate their understanding and demonstrated metacognitive behaviours more frequently. VSRD requires time and access to appropriate technology, so is not an approach that could be used regularly. But thinking well is empowering, and we can support even our youngest children to think more effectually.

References

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