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Helping students become self-aware learners

New York Teacher

How do children know what they’re learning? This question intrigues me because as a pre-K teacher, I often encounter students who have complex thoughts that they can’t fully articulate. I started to research metacognition in young children because I wanted my students to be aware of their own learning and thinking and take ownership of their own successes.

Metacognition is often described as “thinking about thinking.” To help my students become aware of their own thinking, I started to change my questioning during class discussions from “What did you work on?” to “Did anyone discover something new or try something different?” “How could you do it differently next time?” “How did it feel?” “How did you solve the problem?” “What strategies did you use?”

As the children shared, I started to encourage students to ask each other questions to see what more they wanted to find out from each other. I also tried to deliberately call on a few children who played in the same area to highlight how, even though we might play with the same materials, we have different ideas about them.

We started to create a list of different strategies we can use to fix problems, anything from “put tape on it” to “ask a friend for help.” Whenever children came to me for help, I’d refer them to the chart we made and ask what strategy they’d like to try. After they’d try a strategy, I’d ask them why it did or didn’t work out and what they could do next time.

Metacognition assumes that the brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised. I tried to create situations where my students had to be intentional in their thought processes. For example, I printed photos I’d taken of the children’s lunches and asked them to look for shapes, like square sandwiches and crescent bananas. When I asked them to pick matching photos and explain their choices, I expected them to select similar shapes. But their reasoning was the key. Sometimes they instead picked photos in which the size or colors were similar.

We also played games that combined letters and numbers so the students would have to actively tell their brains to stop and think. Repetition of these games helped strengthen the connections their brains were making and helped them to think about strategies that worked for them. Another motto of the classroom became, “I have to tell my brain: Stop, think. What should I do now?”

I created a portfolio for each child full of artwork, writing samples and photos of meaningful moments throughout the year. I tried to put in at least one entry every month and kept the portfolios out all year long for the students to look at.

These portfolios served as a great starting point for discussions. The children would often look back at a page where they had written their names for the first time or a picture of them going across on the monkey bars for the first time and say, “I remember that!” Or toward the end of the year, “I couldn’t do it before, but now I can.”

As time went on, they’d often ask me if they could put in pictures they drew. We would then have a conversation about why they wanted particular pictures in their portfolio, and I started to learn what experiences felt meaningful to them. I tried to capitalize on these moments with them, asking them how they felt now, able to do things that were hard for them before.

Linking their memories to emotions seems to help the experiences stay longer in their minds. As the statement goes, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

If we can plant the seeds now to help children be aware of their own learning and thinking, it will help them be self-aware learners for the rest of their lives.

Karen Keesling is a prekindergarten teacher at PS 116 in Manhattan.