TEACHING METACOGNITION: THE POWER OF MINDFULNESS
I am a big fan of Esalen. I would live there if they’d let me. Esalen experiences vary widely, but one common thread runs through the whole place: consciousness. The state of being acutely aware, in the moment. Immediately present and mindful.
If there is an idea ‘Kool-Aid’ that everyone drinks at Esalen, then it would be this concept of raising conscious awareness. Internal process-level thinking (metacognition) puts the thinker in a “reflective” (metacognitive) overview position. The act of metacognition is perhaps most simply described as thinking about your own thinking, or just thinking through thinking. Metacognition is the act, or the difference between conscious and conscience; the ability to oversee key aspects of your thought/process/situation and interpret right from wrong given the present scenario. To identify/describe, concretely, the how, why, what, and where of our situation became an invaluable skill long ago. But as human beings navigating a complex, technologically infused world, we call upon this skill much more often—perhaps now more than any other historical period. Modern humans routinely contemplate the here and now.
Or at least we should.
The 21st century technological landscape practically demands this cognitive overseeing. Even the simplest decisions, Which route should I take to the game?, require this kind of thinking. The answer, as visualized by Google Maps, provides the metacognitive documentation that we now expect—on-demand, and accurate to a millisecond: here is where I am; here is where I am going; here is what I am going to encounter along the way; here is when I am going to arrive. So my map app. makes me consciously aware of the here and now, but only because I took the time to consider (metacognitively) where am I now and where do I want to be by when. Step 1) be conscious, Step 2) let technology aid conscience decision making, Step 3) algorithmic-based metacognition. Whallah! Machine-assisted metacognitive thinking, how undeniably 21st century.
Yes, okay, I agree there is an element of exaggeration here for some of us can recall a very 20th century habit of digging a folded map out of the glove box. Wasn’t that just as metacognitive? Yes and no. Paper maps helped us chart the course, yes. We thought ahead, located the route and plotted our course (hopefully before we got lost!). But ‘real time’ updates, including alternate routes and time allocations, increases conscious awareness of the actual journey we will take, and thereby increases conscience-decision making—or at least increases the likelihood that we will take a minute to consider the actual moment in time with all of its intricacies (traffic! road work!) attached. For a moment we are present in that moment, not only where we are but where we are going. The machine is helping us think meta-cognitively about the ‘real time’ journey—a paper map could not do all of that for us.
And yet some of us prefer to remain meta-cognitively unconscious, thank you very much.
Over the holidays I was around Baby Boomers, Millennials, Gen X and Gen Z’ers, and I noticed younger generations view how to get from point A to point B very differently from Baby Boomers. Boomers decide where they are going, get in the car and go. In fact, my Baby Boomer mother stubbornly resists using navigation— even when she really should, like that time right after she moved to a new city, and she got lost on the wrong side of town after dark and couldn’t find her way home. Instead of using her dashboard navigation or her iPhone app, she called me. As a good Gen X’er I pulled up the Google Map figured out where she was, and then forced her to program her phone rather than give her any verbal directions (she didn’t like that very much). Boomers don’t have the metacognitive training that comes along with the skill of navigating technology.
Millennials and Gen Z think metacognitively (with the help of a multitude of apps) before they consider going anywhere. Millennials stop at examining the time, route and traffic, before making their decision, but what Gen Z’rs really want to know is do they really want to drive? How much would it cost for someone else to drive them? Is there another way to get the same experience without driving? In other words, do I really need to go? Managing the technological minutia can get existential.
So is technology, such as Google Maps, really increasing metacognition? I’ll admit that there is a bit of a sci-fi infused with this reality. One could certainly use Google Maps without a bit of metacognition. Practical Paul the engineer is not facing an existential crisis every time he maps his route to work! Not quite. But technology can help us think about our thinking, help us be more conscious. In the “my mom gets lost” case study—my mom clearly applied zero metacognition to solve the problem. She left the shopping mall and headed in the direction she thought was home.
Two hours later, when she called me scared and crying, she still didn’t practice metacognition because, if she had, she would have said to herself: Why didn’t I check the direction on the map before I left? Why did I wait until after dark before starting to try and figure out how to use my dashboard navigation? Or—better yet— why don’t I put my address into the map app on my phone like my daughter always nags me to do? These are all examples of reflective, metacognitive thinking.
One aspect of this argument not up for debate—thinking about one’s own thinking can reveal patterns of behavior. Some of these patterns may act as barriers; metacognition can help us reveal better pathways that avoid old barriers. But first one must become conscious, aware of the “doing” portion (conscience) of the here and now. And technology may help us to do that.
At least that’s what I tell myself when my Gen Z and Millenial friends turn to their screens before making any decision. As a Gen X’r, I naturally find this slow down of progress infuriating. See, I can go either way; it’s more likely I’m going to just hop in the damn car and program the navigation at the stop light. That’s here and now too, damn it! But my better (metacognitive) self, says: take a deep breath. pause. I can learn from these kids. Be more conscious. What’s the rush anyway? In fact, my Gen X’r spirit may then really kick in and I might just say: whatever. you decide.
In some ways, technology may even be encouraging our best selves, improving our metacognition by asking us to practice. Indeed, tech-babies may have higher metacognitive tendencies because they practice more. Perhaps. Either way, as educators we need to tap into these higher order skills—and support their development—because this type of internal monitoring, awareness, and informed decision making helps students get through the many challenges that accompany learning.
Metacognition and Teams
Metacognition can be deeply personal and independent of others. However, if working collectively, metacognition helps teammates accurately identify, plan and discuss issues even as they encounter them, with metacognitive thinking there is a way forward. If teammates cannot plan and discuss issues as they encounter them—if they cannot effectively identify the who, what, where, why—then they may quickly reach a dead end.
Patty McCord describes this trait as “radical honesty” in her book about Netflix culture, “We wanted people…telling one another, and us, the truth in a timely fashion…” McCord admits this idea was met with reluctance, even resistance. After all, being honest with ourselves is challenging enough but “giving totally honest feedback to people face to face” is downright scary. Metacognitive thinking as a first step toward “radical honesty” provides a strategy for how to go about doing this. If honest personal reflection starts the process, then the chances of getting this interaction wrong greatly diminish. Team projects should include deliberate instruction on reflection. Ideally, built-in individual and team-based reflections support all collaborative projects.
Metacognition as a 21st Century Skill Set
Interesting that one of the 21st century’s darling skills, documentation, the very underpinning of science and engineering process— requires metacognition. Documentation puts order to this chaos, and the ability to document requires metacognition. What did I do? How did I do it? What happened? What didn’t happen? Again, nothing new here but how do we teach/hone these invaluable skills in a web-based world where novel complexities arise every day, sometimes every hour, minute?
How do we ask students to document their learning in the educational landscape? Can students think meta-cognitively in a complex context that demands critical self-evaluation? Can they question their own process, thinking and behaviors and describe this milieu to others? Not so much. Not without guidance anyway.
Problem solving strategies that require metacognition: developing questions, capturing key metrics, analyzing evidence/data, identifying best/worst case scenarios, visualizations (images, maps and infographics) and SWOT—help move thinking forward through any problem solving project, and provide a framework for this kind of thinking.
Or provide models for them to see how this type of thinking drives innovation. For example, here is a (metacognitive) documentation blog that details the evolution of Amazon’s music app:
Sample list of mindfulness prompts in a STEM writing class Reflection Portfolio:
This prompt is the first in the series and is designed to focus the students on the subject-matter of the course from the ‘big picture’ perspective. This is a contextualized writing course and the so students are learning about the subject of “sustainability” and environmental science as they acquire and practice professional writing skills. This short video interviews astronauts who participated in NASA’s first successful mission into space. This mission was focused on getting to the moon, but they discovered during the journey that the view of Earth from space was the most profound aspect of the mission.
A view we have seen thousands of times in photographs and screens, this video takes us back to the time when we became consciously aware that we were on “spaceship Earth.” This reflection is the first step in situating the students in a state of conscious awareness of the subject-matter.
This second prompt defines “mindfulness” but also locates the importance of this concept in the students’ field:
What is Mindfulness?
As you have discovered, the field of engineering requires life long learning. An important element of learning is metacognition.
- Connecting with how your prior experience and/or emotions are shaping your thinking
- Noticing the quality/intensity of your thinking
- Directing/Correcting your thinking
Reflecting on these aspects of your thinking helps you to acknowledge your strengths and redirect yourself in areas that are limiting to your learning and development. This process is especially important when you make mistakes, or are disappointed with an outcome. What can you learn from that experience? All success is riddled with failure, so get in the habit of reflecting deeply on this important aspect of learning.
Did you know that Stanford’s School of Engineering developed a consortium just to get engineers to reflect? Indeed. Bottom line: they believe that mindfulness improves engineering. According to Stanford’s Consortium to Promote Reflection in Engineering Education website, “examin[ing] a past experience or performance on a task is a simple strategy that successful engineers use on a regular basis.”
All reflection assignments are classified as participation points, and graded CR/NC. This third reflection asks students to self-evaluate by rating their performance on Formal Paper #1. Students also just completed the peer-review process, and they can often leave that process feeling empowered, or intimidated. This reflection helps build awareness of this experience and process their reaction to criticism.
How successful were you on completing your resume project? What would you rate yourself on a scale of 1-10? Explain your answer.
Thank you for participating in peer-review! What did you learn about yourself in this context? What strengths did you notice?
What areas do you want to focus on so that next time you can improve your experience/outcome? If you did not participate fully, please reflect on this decision. Remember: Think meta-cognitively (think about your thinking). Why did you make that choice?
By the time students complete this reflection, they have had a few successes and a few failures…in fact, I try to time this reflection following a round of tough grading…typically after the Mechanics quiz, which tests their APA style and editing prowess.
1. Reflect honestly on your reaction to a “bad” grade or test score. How do you feel? What do you think? What do you do? Peer Discussion post.
2. Next, read the excerpt from Saga Brigg’s “25 Ways to Develop a Growth Mindset” (below) and label your response in #1 as either a growth or a fixed mindset. Explain how your mindset may help you or hinder your success when navigating failure.
A “growth mindset,” as Dweck calls it, is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a tendency to believe that you can grow. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Links to an external site.), she explains that while a “fixed mindset” assumes that our character, intelligence, and creative ability are static givens which we can’t change in any meaningful way, a growth mindset thrives on challenge and sees failure “not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.”
The consequences of believing that intelligence and personality can be developed rather than being immutably engrained traits, Dweck found in her two decades of research with both children and adults, are remarkable. She writes:
“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character, well then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”
The fixed mindset can negatively impact all aspects of your life, Dweck says.
“I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves in [a learning setting], in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”
But when you start viewing things as mutable, the situation gives way to the bigger picture.
“This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments, everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
This is important because it can actually change what you strive for and what you see as success. By changing the definition, significance, and impact of failure, you change the deepest meaning of effort.