This is a post I have been thinking about writing for some time after reading a comment that preschoolers are not capable of metacognition... and yet I have seen young children thinking about thinking... and using it to their advantage. I would say that metacognition features strongly in young children's learning... it may not always be verbalised the way adults are used to being able to recognise it as metacognition.
For instance children, from the very start, observe and learn. They watch others, test things and adapt what they see to their own context. This is easy to see when young children are trying out knew motor skills... they observe others doing something and then make the decision to try that out for themselves - they have to think about the movement, they have to consider whether they want to also try it... and then afterwards they assess whether they were successful or whether they need to do it a different way to be successful. Children are clearly thinking about their thinking and not just their actions and the experience.
With a group of preschoolers this thinking about thinking through physical activity can be supported as an educator by scaffolding the children to scaffold each other... some children learn to master climbing a wall, stone, tree or climbing frame faster than others and it is of benefit to encourage them to explain to their peers how they managed it... they think about their actions, they reflect on why it works and they share this and show this to their peers.
The advice is not always going to work (sometimes there are physical differences, for instance a taller child is going to be able to reach a better foothold that a shorter child cannot) - but they then think through this together and try to devise a new way for success.
I often film the children in their attempts... so they can look at what they are doing and learn from the footage. What they thought was a good idea does not look as successful on film, and sometimes what feels hopeless in real life suddenly looks more hopeful on film.
Getting the children to pause and reflect on their activity - not only opens up the opportunity to think about their physical thinking, but also creates a space to calm down and allow frustrations to die down so that only determination is left. Frustration can be a good thing - as long as it does not get overwhelming.
Documenting the children's activities, learning and play offers a great way for the children to think about their thinking. Children do not simply play devoid of thought - play is a chain reaction of thinking, from one idea to another, exploring.
By sharing the images with the children... not just on the wall as memories, but as purposeful triggers of thought. We can support how children express their metacognition with others. They can share their theories about the play they experienced the day before, the week before or even years before... but this means as an educator we are not just asking them questions about what they have done, not asking them to recount the experience... but to reflect on the experience in the photo or film. How did the play make them feel? How do they think other's feel in the play... why do they think that? This can be done individually or together... by sharing thinking together children have the opportunity to think about how we do not all experience the same play in the same way...
For instance a few years back a group of preschoolers and i were evaluating play-spaces in Stockholm. Each day we visited a new play-space and on our way back to the preschool we rated it from1-10, 10 being the best and most enjoyable. As educators my colleague and I secretly did our own rating based on our observations of the play (as a way to see if we were understanding the children's play). We found that we got it almost right, but learned that even though we thought one play space offered the best and most harmonious play all week, it did not rate as high as other spaces that had more novelty features... and access to trikes and bikes was high on the desirable.
At one playspace there were only a few trikes available, and very many preschools... only one child from our group got to ride on a trike and once on it, did not leave it, despite the request from the other children in the group. My colleague and I made the decision not to force the child off, but to only point out the feelings of the other children.
On our way back to the preschool, the trike riding child rated the playspace a 10, the rest of the children rated it a 6 (the lowest score of the week) and made it quite clear that the lack of access to the trikes was a big part of the reason. With support the group were able to convey their feelings about the experience and the trike child really got the opportunity to think about thinking... the rest of the groups thinking, his own thinking about his thinking... I contacted his parents during my break to let them know, what had happened so that they were able to support the thought process at home... and we continued the thinking the next day on our way to a new park about how choices we make and how they impact others and about how choices of other impact us. The trike child never monopolised trikes/bikes or any other play equipment again. By being given the opportunity to experience the other children's thinking, and also by being given the chance to explore those thoughts, with support of us his teacher and his parents - and also his own thoughts about the experience - he was able to make an informed choice about taking pleasure but also to enjoy giving pleasure.
This was a group that I worked with for almost four years... we used philosophical dialogues as a tool to share ideas, learn, and also to develop their metacognition - their awareness of thinking, and thinking about thinking... and also how to share that process.
We focussed on active listening - that we listened with our ears, eyes, mind and heart... it was not just about hearing words, but also thinking about what others were saying. So already in the listening there was an awareness in the thinking process.
We had thinking pauses. The children regularly took thinking pauses... always at the start of the dialogue the question or stimulus was introduced and the children were asked to take a thinking pause... not to just think about the answer, but to also think about why they thought that answer... The children were being encouraged to think about their own thinking from the very start.
At the end of the dialogue we found the children (I started these sessions when they were 2-4 years old) were too tired to engage in a meta-dialogue... so we read back their words to them... as we wrote down everything during the dialogue. The children were asked to listen carefully and let us know if we had written down their words correctly, or if they had changed their minds... this was our form of meta-dialogue of a not too exhausting nature... it allowed the children not only to think about their own thinking, their friend's thinking but also the group thinking.
All of this takes time... the children gain trust in each other and feel safe to share more of their thought processes. The children become more sophisticated in their language use and are able to share their thinking on a deeper level - it might not always be that their thinking is deeper, but their ability to share has developed to an extent that it allows more depth for the listener.
For me, the most important element for metacognition - and for the sharing of this metacognition is creating a safe atmosphere, allowing enough time and providing enough situations and tools for the children to test out sharing their thinking about thinking.
I also believe rest time is essential for metacognition. Plain old doing nothing time. Many children think this is boring, but a 30 minute pause everyday to lie down and be quiet. To get comfortable with your own voice in your head is essential for metacognition. If we are not comfortable with our own voice, how are we going to be comfortable with thinking about our own thinking. If we are not taking the time to be quiet and to reflect or dream... when are we going to get the time for metacognition - especially our own, personal metacognition. It is all well and good that I have philosophy sessions where the children are thinking and thinking about thinking, but despite the fact I work as a facilitator in their dialogue... this is still an adult lead activity, I will not deny the power I have on the group as an adult, despite my desire to create a democratic learning space where all voices are equal.
I believe that young children are more than capable of metacognition, and if we give them the time and support to develop the skills we will be able to follow their thinking about thinking.
I also believe that metacognition is a part of Original Learning.
Key words of Original Learning - Wonder, Curiosity, Joy, Risk, Collaboration, Time and Reflection
Original Learning is fuelled by
Interaction, Imagination, Play, exploration, experimentation