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Nikki Torchon takes a look at metacognition in the Middle School
Under hundreds of brightly colored paper cranes, their wings dancing in the columns of sunlight shining through the windows from above, seventh-graders happily chatter in the Middle School Commons. They debrief about last block’s test, plan to enjoy the good weather during lunch, and get excited about baseball practice.
The same neurons firing in their brains as they take those breaks between classes are just as active in their lessons. There is a lot of growth in the brain in the middle school years. “Some neuroscientists discuss this growth at this stage as being as rapid as when children are very young and learning to walk and talk,” explains middle school principal Pip Curtis. “During this stage of development, the brain goes through a process of synaptic pruning, so essentially what you're not using withers and dies. Your brain doesn't grow this rapidly at any other time in your future life.”
This is one of the reasons why middle school students are encouraged to enjoy all of the wide range of electives ASIJ offers —from visual art and design tech to foreign languages, for example – so that this architecture of their brain can be accessed later in their lives.
Among the myriad of social-emotional and academic lessons middle school faculty are teaching is the concept of metacognition, sometimes described as learning to learn or thinking about thinking. But it is also the process of constantly reflecting on what one knows and how one learns to fill those knowledge gaps. This seems like an intensive exercise for an adult, and even more so for a middle schooler. As the brain builds from the back to the front, where emotion and impulse regulation happens, thinking about thinking and layering it with emotional response can be a difficult habit for middle schoolers to develop.
And so the instruction of metacognition in middle school has started with reflection. Curtis describes a reflection exercise for a reading assignment. For example, a student might have successfully completed a reading log and made notes in the margin. But perhaps there was a disagreement during a book club meeting. It is important for a student to reflect on how each aspect of a process has affected the outcome and then to determine what steps can be taken to enhance the outcome next time. In this situation, a student could speak with the teacher, remember that their peer has some good ideas, or ask for a partner to check their work.
Emotion and confidence play into self-assessment and can affect its accuracy. “We know that accurate self- assessment has a huge impact on learning,” says Curtis,” so it is important to help middle schoolers produce evidence.” Whether a student is feeling very confident in their courses or the opposite, the learning progression rubrics for ASIJ’s Portrait of a Learner (POL) competencies are helpful to give students signposts and indicators to chart their progress and learning.
“Teachers have been thinking with students about how to self-assess accurately on the Portrait of a Learner competencies. They have coached students to provide their own evidence using the progressions and then curating that evidence, student quotes, to use in report cards.” In this way, students can work with faculty to learn this skill, to thoroughly understand their progress in a class. “Teachers have been really creative with the ways that they're using the progressions and how they're having kids track their evidence to produce this metacognitive response. When students own their learning, they know what the next step is on the progression. They know they need to produce evidence. It becomes much more genuine for them. The child needs to be able to get in that process themselves and then they can be an independent learner who is inspired to be their best self,” emphasizes Curtis.
Justin Jacobson, middle school humanities teacher, described this process in the context of his eighth-grade class. “I had the students take a long look at the Portrait of a Learner competencies, and then we chatted about which ones had been activated in our unit. The unit was about segregation and citizenship and how laws and public policies developed in the United States to create the Jim Crow South. It culminated with a student inquiry project where students created a museum featuring artifacts that showed the impact of laws and policies on the everyday lives of African Americans. Students then had a reflection session where they chose one or two of the POL competencies to reflect on the progress they had made with those in the course of the unit.”
Jacobson then took a part of his students' quotes (mostly verbatim, but sometimes lightly edited for clarity) and added them into their report cards, with a sentence or two for context. The product was designed to be a thoughtful, evidence-based reflection that students understand and can use as they move on in their education.
The learning progressions for each competency, developed in partnership with New Pedagogies for Deep LearningTM, are detailed and, at first glance, aspirational. At their core, however, they are accessible and reflect the best parts of not just student learning but of our hopes for the next generation.
“A third-grade student or a seventh-grade student is capable of reflecting and thinking, ‘Hey, you know, when I listen to that person and I really hear what they need, I was able to do something differently to be able to support them. And it actually made all of what we were doing together better,’” emphasizes deputy head of school for learning Scott Wilcox.
This approach is evident across the middle school curriculum and in PE classes the focus is on positive wellness behaviors that center on mindset and collaboration. Although each grade level has a different focus, the teachers use common language. “The aim is that students build each year on what they have learnt about mindset/ collaboration and with that comes different expectations of what we would like to see,” said PE teacher Emily Fichardt. “ Obviously it's an easy marriage when you have these two competencies linked with physical movement and what some perceive as physically tough challenges. One frustration that we had in the department was tracking student progress. How do you truly know students are improving?
What could we do to track how students are feeling?” Their solution was to trial a simple QR code feedback form that is quick and easy for students to fill out at the end of each week. The prompt is simple: "Rate how well you positively contributed to your team today." Fichardt explains that while this is not a perfect model, it gives teachers a student perspective of what is going on in their head week to week. “We can then see how a student is managing throughout the year,” she adds.
Metacognition “puts a lot more focus on the process of thinking and learning —on taking risks and trying again and again— than it does on the result,” Curtis adds. For example, “eighth graders did an assignment called CRISPR, where they looked at modifying genetic material. It's really incredible.” The middle schoolers worked with the high school AP synthetic bio class to take pieces of DNA and modify the piece that is responsible for sickle cell anemia. She adds that: “The eighth-graders were learning from their high school peers who were explicitly saying, ‘you know, it might not work. It doesn't always work. And then we have to figure out what we did wrong.’ The eighth-graders kind of giggled and said, ‘what if we fail?’ And then the high schoolers said, ‘Well, then we try it again. We go back and rework some things and talk to our peers about what they did differently.”
While Wilcox says that metacognition instruction is a differentiator, he is quick to point out that it has purpose beyond that. “What we're shooting for in terms of student metacognition and students understanding themselves as sophisticated learners is very unusual. Even though we are early in our journey to get all kids there across all areas, there is clarity about that goal. We have awesome teachers and awesome kids who are doing great metacognitive work right now and we want to support any other school in the same journey. Ultimately, we need whole generations who are having these types of conversations.”
As ASIJ students practice these competencies during their time as a Mustang, this behavior will become a habit that they can repeat in every situation. If, in the future, whole generations are continually practicing accurate self- assessment and reflecting on knowledge and progress, they can shift cultures and norms and lead with understanding of themselves and others.
ASIJ is early on its journey of deep learning and metacognition, and the progress made already is exciting. “When a child leaves school, what they're bringing with them is what's in their minds. That's where all the learning takes place and how they view things,” explains Wilcox. “Our goal is to develop these lasting competencies because that's actually what kids need to thrive and survive. And if you focus on, say, content or answering questions... We all know at this point content is ubiquitous. Competencies are what really matters. Because the learning is inside the student's head, what matters is their understanding of themselves as a sophisticated learner and their ability to speak to themselves with sophistication as a learner. That's metacognition.”
Life at school is full of stories and the narrative of where our vision will take us is told each day through the learning our students experience in the classroom and beyond.