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Metacognition will set you free

Here's a thought experiment.

Close your eyes and try to not think of anything for the next ten seconds.


Whatever you noticed during that exercise, you just took part in the process of metacognition - perhaps the most powerful idea I have ever come across. Powerful because it's an emancipatory mechanism. Metacognition enables us to understand who we are, why we think what we think - and how we might carve out a different future.

Much has been written and said about metacognition in recent years. But despite the widespread acknowledgement of its importance, there is a surprising amount of confusion among both teachers and researchers about what metacognition means - and what it looks like in practice.

I recently spent 8 years doing a PhD in self-regulated learning, and so I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time thinking about such things. Much of my work now centres around helping teachers and school leaders understand how to harness the power of metacognition in their learners - and in their own lives.

Put simply, metacognition is monitoring and controlling your thought processes.

Hang on a minute. Controlling your thought processes? That seems a bit ambitious. In the ten second experiment we just did, *several* thoughts entered my mind - unbidden and uninvited. How can you control which thoughts enter your mind?

Well, now we're getting to the heart of the matter! It's true that you can't just suddenly start controlling which thoughts come in to your mind, like a conductor bringing in the trumpets and then the strings. The key words here are monitor and control, and one leads to the other.


By monitoring our thought processes - by becoming aware of them, witnessing them, describing them and so on - we can start to notice patterns. (Like many human phenomena, our thoughts are often habitual - and, therefore, predictable and malleable).

There are loads of ways in which we can monitor our thought processes. Journaling, meditating, reflective questioning - that sort of thing. 'Thinkalouds' are one of my favourites, where you simply narrate your thoughts while completing a task. This is super powerful in the classroom because it enables teachers to 'see inside' their learners' minds. It also helps pupils develop more self-awareness and enables them to learn effective learning strategies from one another.

Once we start to identify thought patterns, we can begin to interrogate them a little - to prod and poke them, to sort them into different categories, and to test how truthful they feel. Perhaps most importantly, we can start to identify which thought patterns serve our needs - and which do not.

Here are some common examples of unhelpful thought patterns that children and young people often experience:

  • "I'm no good at [subject]; I'll never be any good at it."

  • "Ooh, I know the answer to this one. Maybe I should raise my hand. Hang on. What if I'm wrong? What if everyone laughs at me? Better play it safe and keep my hand down."

Adults, too, are not immune to negative self-talk. Often, this takes the form of criticising ourselves over things that have happened in the past - or worrying about things that may or may not happen in the near future:

  • "Nobody laughed when I cracked that joke. They probably all think I'm an idiot."

  • "I should have tipped that waitress more. She probably thinks I'm a horrible person."

  • "I'm dreading teaching that class / having that meeting / seeing that person tomorrow. I just know it's going to go horribly."

Sometimes, we may notice that our thoughts are contradictory. One day, someone might think 'I am a good person. I deserve to be happy'. The next, they may feel entirely the opposite. At this point, they may be ready to grasp the powerful insight spoken by many a meditation teacher: 'You are not your thoughts'.

This brings me to a series of questions that have driven much of my work for the last 15 years or so, and they all begin with the same two words: What if?

To return to the student forever telling themselves 'I will never be any good at maths', or the adult who tells themselves 'I'm dreading seeing that person/having that meeting/teaching that class'...

  • What if that's just a story they're telling themselves?

  • What if that story is wrong - or simply unfinished?

  • What if there might yet be a twist in the tale?

  • What if we could start telling ourselves a different story?

  • What if we started believing that story?

  • What if that story came true?

  • What if we could train ourselves to reflect on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours in a spirit of compassionate curiosity, rather than harsh judgment?

  • What if we could develop the habit of reflecting on the thoughts that enter our minds, and controlling how we respond to those thoughts?

  • What if - further down the line - this started to influence the kinds of thoughts that enter our minds in the first place?

  • What if, through regular metacognitive reflection, we can learn to overcome the forces that have shaped our thinking and our lives to date?

  • What if we could each learn how to carve out a different future - a future of our own design?

When I first started learning about metacognition, I mainly thought about it in the context of academic learning. For example, it might enable a student to learn to write an essay plan before they start writing their first paragraph, so that their essay writing could have a tighter structure.

Metacognition can definitely help you do things like this. The evidence is in: if you want to drive scores up, metacognition is a helpful way to achieve this.

But it is so much more than that.

Metacognition can set you free. It can help you overcome the forces that have shaped you up to this point, and carve a different path. It has done so for me personally in all kinds of ways. And it can do so for you also.

On Friday June 23rd, 2023, I’m co-hosting a one-day workshop in central London with Roger Sutcliffe, the author of the brilliant book 'Thinking Moves A-Z: Metacognition Made Simple’.

The workshop is called Metacognition in Action and it’s mainly aimed at teachers and school leaders. But it should be of interest to anyone with an interest in how to become a more effective learner / parent / human being.

There are only 50 places available. If you're interested, I recommend booking soon. Early bird tickets are available until May 31st - these will give you a 20% discount. Early bird folks also get some free goodies:

More information about this one-day workshop is available here.

Any questions - drop me a line.

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