Metacognition and eduspeak – a distraction

The following post by the Quirky Teacher got me thinking.

It seems to me that there are ideas in education which are “simply assumed to be effective by circular argument”, to quote Kevin Stannard. Learning styles was one such idea until it was debunked. However, other ideas are still doing the rounds. The belief that it is vital for our pupils to be familiar with terms such as formative assessment, summative assessment, peer assessment, self assessment, growth mindset, Blooms taxonomy etc – all in the name of Assessment for Learning – is leading me to the conclusion that AfL is ripe for the chop.

I have blogged previously here about the supposed sine qua non of sharing success criteria at the beginning of lessons. Dylan Wiliam’s book “Embedded Formative Assessment” is almost taken as gospel on this point. It has even found its way into adult training courses, as I discovered on a first aid course recently, although at least we didn’t have to copy the objective for each unit. Obviously all my teachers at school were totally ineffective as they did not share the success criteria with me every lesson.

I was sad to read that the sharing of success criteria is now a “non negotiable” at a school I once taught at. In the course of my teaching career I have observed great lessons where no success criteria were shared with the learners. Equally, I have observed mediocre lessons where they were. Moreover, as David Didau points out in “What if everything you knew about education was wrong”, it is often the case that that we do not expect our pupils to have grasped something after just one lesson.

Reading Dylan Wiliam’s “Embedded Formative assessment” I came across this line on P.152. “There is no doubt that activating students as owners of their own learning produces substantial increases in learning”. I guess we all accept this, as we ordinary classroom teachers do not have time to do the research and we trust that people who write books on education will have done so. Yet if it were so effective, one would expect it to be “embedded” in the education systems of high performing countries.

Later than everyone else it seems, I am reading Lucy Crehan’s “Cleverlands”, which looks at the education systems of the world’s top performing education systems. I have yet to finish the book and if I have missed something in what I have read thus far, I am ready to stand corrected. That being said, I would have thought that if the sharing of success criteria, the language of metacognition, mini whiteboards and traffic lights really did result in substantial increases in learning, I would expect to see frequent reference to these techniques being used in the top performing countries. I would also expect that these techniques would be mentioned in Crehan’s Chapter 17 “Five Principles for High-Performing, Equitable Education Systems”. I jumped ahead in the book to look, but I couldn’t see them. This should surely make us pause for thought before we set out certain “non negotiables” in teaching and learning policies.

To me, it seems that the more students are worrying about the process of learning, rather than the content, the more likely it is they will be thinking about the wrong things. Rather than worrying about whether a particular task is a “formative” or “summative” assessment, I would rather my pupils concentrate on the subject matter and leave me as the teacher to decide what kind of assessment a task might have. Rather than holding up a red traffic light the moment they don’t understand something, I would rather they continued to concentrate as it might well make sense to them later on. If they are really stuck they can always see me at the end of the lesson.

My first year in teaching was spent in a school in eastern Europe. At the end of the year, one of the high achieving pupils said to me that she hadn’t really understood much in my first lesson with the class.

“Oh”, I said, “you should have stopped me!”

“Oh no, I realised that it was good for me to hear so much English and that I needed to concentrate” was her reply.

Now that’s what I call growth mindset!



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5 Responses to Metacognition and eduspeak – a distraction

  1. I agree with your points. Something similar swept through our school not so long ago. Teachers were exhorted to train the kids to be able to say “what they were learning, why they were learning it, what the next steps were and how they would know when they had learned it.” If the students could not say this the teacher was not doing their job. The supply of poorly evidenced, poorly thought out ideas in education is never ending. And looking at the highest performing education systems for tips always seemed sensible to me – unsurprisingly you don’t tend to see a lot of the trendy ideas common in poorer performing countries. The peak of Finland’s educational success was in 2000 and if you looked at the classrooms that produced it in the decade preceding you would have seen very traditional style of teaching taking place – textbook based, chalk and talk.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am in total agreement with your post. The amount of times I have tried to reason with administrators that I don’t want to have conversations in English about how to learn Spanish! What students need is more practice of speaking Spanish and less “activating students as owners of their own learning” in English”. What does that even mean?

    And the waste of time that writing objectives is! Yes class, we are going to give opinions again, so that I can measure you against a success criteria that you will fail in a couple of days if you don’t practice anymore, but as you have completed the plenary successfully I can safely assume that you have learned the objective.

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  3. Wise words. It’s always struck me as odd that teachers and leaders feel the need to name things which are really just professional devices. Not only formative assessment, summative assessment, peer assessment, self assessment etc, but reciting lesson objectives or knowing the term ‘success criteria’. These things may or may not have value as professional terminology, but why on earth do pupils need to know or use them?

    Throughout history people have been able to learn effectively, taking responsibility for their learning and self-monitoring effectively, without having to learn a mediating language or meta-language to do so.

    I think the fad for these things arises from a twisted emphasis on accountability. In order to prove to some ‘other’ (external scrutineer or endless monitoring to prove something to a potential scrutineer) we invent proxies – a language, a set of routines. We end up monitoring the proxies, and thus is born an industry of ‘do the pupils know the lesson objectives?’ ‘do the pupils the level towards which they’re aiming?’.

    All this not only generates a bureaucracy that is a poor shadow of the thing it seeks to capture, but it actually leads to delusion – the delusion that learning must be happening because the proxy is logged or visible or recorded as having been checked.

    Somehow we have to steer the focus back to the thing itself – the stuff being learned, and, moreover, trust its power to enliven teaching and change the student.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. John Hodgson says:

    When I interviewed university students of English for a study conducted on behalf of the Higher Education Academy, every respondent told me that they remembered being given the A-level English assessment objectives in the first week of the A-level course. They went on to describe their experience of the course as being instrumental and a matter of tick-boxing the assessment objectives as they fulfilled them. They would generally relieved to be at the University, where what mattered was content rather than objectives.

    Liked by 2 people

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