Larry Kugler is volunteering in a South African school this month.  This is a reposting of a previously published blog.

It’s a provocative question.  In contrast to this question is the prevailing mantra, which is, particularly in high needs schools, that we need to work harder and do more for students who come from impoverished backgrounds.  For example, we need to break learning into small, manageable pieces introduced sequentially.  And for our average and gifted students need we need to create better lessons and curriculum that specifically address and provide for their needs.  Let me be clear – both these practices are beneficial for our students and I am not implying they should not be done.

 However, they place a real burden on our Leadership and Instructional Teams, and teachers, specialists, and staff in our schools. Yet, there are those who question what we are providing for all of our students and who suggest we are doing too much for our students.  Let me explain. 

Their argument centers on the concept of metacognition.  Metacognition, in its simplest form, is defined as thinking about thinking.  The online Psychology Dictionary defines metacognition as the, “… ability to become conscious of ones own cognitive processes and hence have the ability to attempt to control them.”  So it’s not just the ability to think about your thinking, but there is an active component that you have control over your thinking and can adjust your behavior.

As stated on page 13 in the book Best Practice: New Standards for Teaching and Learning in America’s Schools, “This mental self-awareness helps students develop more effective cognitive strategies for accomplishing tasks, making decisions, and reviewing their own work.” In other words, becoming metacognitive independent learners.

 Some examples of metacognitive abilities include:

  • having a plan for how to approach a learning task
  • knowing what works and what doesn’t work for you and selecting the most appropriate strategy for a particular task
  • monitoring your own comprehension while reading
  • having a strategy to fix errors when comprehension breaks down
  • evaluating your progress on a task

 So in what way are we doing too much for our students?  Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien wrote a blog for Edutopia “Hands-off Teaching Cultivates Metacognition”in which they posit that teachers are the ones doing all the hard (and productive) thinking when they plan lessons.  Teachers work to develop lessons that will engage their students and hold their attention. They consider many aspects as they develop these lessons, including:

  • How they taught this before
  • What worked and what didn't work
  • What needs to be changed to make the lesson more engaging and effective
  • What the students know about the topic
  • How they will adjust the lesson based on what this new group of students knows and can do

These are all metacognitive tasks that the teachers engage in. The authors suggest that this makes it too easy for the students.  The message the students get is that all they need to do is become passive receivers of the knowledge.  The authors portray a year after year series of lectures from which the students internalize the message that the person in charge of their learning is someone other than themselves.  This results in a lack of metacognitive skill development for the students.  They should be doing much more of this work. 

 OK.  Timeout.  I think these authors portray a one-sided picture of teachers and classrooms where students are passive receivers of knowledge and rarely, if ever, engage in higher order thinking and the use of metacognitive strategies. Where teachers lecture to students and then expect them to regurgitate back the information without experiences where they can practice and then apply their knowledge and develop their metacognitive abilities.  I don't think they give enough credit to those teachers who work hard to develop lessons that do require students to think. Where teachers present challenging tasks that require students to consider their strategies and apply those that are most productive followed by thoughtful analysis and debriefing to determine the effectiveness of those strategies.

Having said that, I do think it is productive to analyze what we do as teachers through various lenses to determine if what we are doing is effective and productive for students.  So I’m going to use what was in the blog to suggest what we know good teachers do.  The authors reference Eric Mazur, a Harvard professor of physics who changed his practice to get his students to think more.  He made them teach each other the content.  Of course, we know this technique as Reciprocal Teaching, and it is referenced in Wise Ways (135), which states,”

  • All teachers encourage students to check their own comprehension.

In addition to the reference to Reciprocal Teaching in this Wise Ways, is a reference to John Hattie’s research, which I’ve mentioned in numerous blogs.  As I’ve stated before, Hattie compiled meta-analyses of factors affecting achievement. Of the 138 factors he ranks, metacognitive strategies rank number 13 on the list.  Reciprocal Teaching is the 9th ranked most powerful strategy. So it behooves us to consider what we do in our classrooms that support the development of our students’ metacognition (thinking about thinking) strategies.  It’s not enough that we, as teachers, are engaged in metacognitive thinking as we develop and plan our lessons. Like Eric Mazur, we need to get our students to do more of the thinking.

 So the question is what I started with – Are We Doing Too Much For Our Students?  Do we need to do less? The authors of this blog determine that we do too much for our students. As they conclude,

A great teacher doesn’t teach as much as possible. A great teacher teaches as little as possible, while modeling the behaviors of how to figure something out. Perhaps it seems too obvious to say that your goal should be for students to think as much as possible during your class.  But in this case, “thinking” really means thinking about the material plus how to dig in, break it apart, understand it, and build on that. It means thinking about how to constantly get better.”

Until next week, we’d like to hear what you think?

  • What are you doing in your classroom, school, district, or state to help students develop their metacognitive strategies?
  • Would you share your thoughts on IndistarConnect?  For directions how to do that, open any of my last few blogs and scroll to the bottom.  It really is easy, and we would love to get your “thinking about your thinking.”








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Paul Axtell

With more than thirty years of experience helping organizations and individuals be more effective, Paul Axtell has honed his insights in executive offices and training programs for everyone from office staff and line workers to managers and team leaders.

A large focus of his work is how to run effective and productive meetings—to turn them from something people dread into useful, productive sessions with trackable results.

Paul is the author of multiple books, including Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, Being Remarkable, and Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids. He can be reached at <a href=""></a> and via email at
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