Metacognition: You’re Never Too Young

MetacognitionFew things are more enjoyable than helping students discover individualized strategies that help them succeed.  Recently, I was working with a second grader, an extremely clever, creative, and energetic young man.  Despite a fairly optimal school environment, his written language skills were emerging slowly and with great difficulty, which is not uncommon for children his age.  These challenges were spilling over into other areas.  For example, when I first began working with him, I evaluated his ability to write the numbers 1-20.  First, I had him write 1-10. This first attempt was challenging, and he reversed the direction of many numbers.  We were able to clear up those reversals quite quickly with a number of engaging activities.  When we began to work on the numbers 10-20, however, another challenge arose. He was able to correctly write 1-11, but for 12 and up, he found it virtually impossible not to reverse the numerals.  Twelve became 21, and 13 became 31.  What was immediately evident to me was that when he was hearing the number 13, his brain was registering the 3 first, which compelled him to write the 3 and then the 1.  Even with corrective feedback and a number of other strategies, this type of reversal persisted.

One day, before we got started on number formations, I said to the boy, “I am going to teach you a grown-up word, a word that you are not expected to know.  We’re going to focus on the meaning of the word, not the word itself.  The word is metacognition.” I asked the young man to repeat the word.  With some effort, he was able to say it. I said, “Wonderful! That’s a grown-up word. Now I’m going to explain to you what the word metacognition means.” I went on to explain that metacognition is thinking about thinking.  Now this lad, the intellectual sort that he was, enjoyed this discussion and the idea of thinking about thinking. I then said, “When we begin learning our number formations, we are going to use metacognition to address an area that has been a little bit challenging for you.”

I started by pulling out some of his previous work, showing him that that when he writes the numbers 12-19, he frequently reverses the order of the numerals.  I guided him into a discussion of why this was occurring.  We talked about how the word “twelve” does seem to start with the word “two,” and the word “thirteen” does seem to start with the word “three,” and the word “fourteen” certainly does start with the word “four,” and how that was challenging for him. We discussed how these numbers are actually written differently from how they sound.  I then explained that what we were going to do was write the numbers 1-11 and then stop. We would then have a discussion about metacognition and how it would help him correctly form the remaining numbers 12-19.  For several weeks, we would write the numbers 1-11, stop, discuss the meaning of the word metacognition and how he was going to use metacognition to form the remaining numbers up to 19. Although at first there continued to be the occasional numeric reversal, in very short order, this student began to correctly form the numbers 12-19.

Several months later, while doing a presentation to a small group of teachers at this boy’s school, I saw him walking past the room.  Knowing that he enjoys an audience, I waved him into the room and introduced him to the teachers. I asked him what the word metacognition means, knowing that he would know the answer.  Indeed he did. “Thinking about thinking,” he stated proudly.  And among the group of teachers there were several audible gasps of surprise and delight, which were followed by a great round of applause.  This brought an immense smile to the face of the young man, who continued on his way almost certainly happier, prouder, and more confident in himself and his ability to learn and develop strategies to help with other challenging areas.


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