An in-depth study analyzing the metacognitive patterns of our Middle Schoolers was launched in September. Has a team of bespectacled Ivy League scientists in lab coats descended upon the division? Not quite. Fourth and fifth grade students themselves are the ones engaged in learning about their brains, examining their learning styles and considering big, essential questions like “How do I think?” and “How do I learn?”
Whether a child at any one moment in time is excelling, struggling, or somewhere in between, "having knowledge of oneself as a learner helps all students," explains Lisa Johnson, Middle School Coordinator. “At some point in everyone's education, there will come a time when something is difficult, and knowing about ourselves will help everyone work through these times.”
Explaining how such self-awareness empowers students, Lisa continues, “Having knowledge of oneself as a learner allows a student to more effectively devise strategies, self-advocate, and reflect on his/her own learning. When vulnerability plays out in an educational setting, students who understand how they think/learn can use that information to ask for help, to think about their work, and/or to make a new plan, whereas students who do not understand why something is challenging for them run the risk of simply viewing it as a personal failure. This can impact their sense of self and confidence as a learner.”
The burgeoning knowledge about the human brain and how humans learn, a hugely important topic within educational research today, is at the center of the metacognition work in Middle School. “We are learning more about the brain every day, and what we are finding is that we all think and learn in complex and diverse ways,” Lisa says. “Shedding light on the many ways we can be ‘smart’ normalizes different ways of thinking. No longer do our language and logic skills completely define our intelligence. We are encouraging students to look beyond that single focus and to think about themselves and others in new ways.”
The move of Grade 3 to the Lower School opened up new options for Grades 4 and 5, and out of this the metacognition work grew. “When thinking about the possibilities of the new Middle School set up, we realized that we had a unique and wonderful opportunity in front of us. The reconfiguration focuses the age group and allows for cross-grade activities that are not only age-appropriate but dynamic and powerful learning tools for this group of learners,” Lisa says. “The reconfiguration allows us to think about new challenges for the fourth and fifth grade students, challenges that empower them as learners and prepare them for Upper School, high school, college and life.”
Since September, the students have been immersed in various projects and activities including stations at which students learned about multiple intelligences; surveys and discussions on how to identify one’s learning preferences and learning styles; and ongoing conversations about how
learning styles/preferences/strengths/vulnerabilities relate to class activities and class work.
For example, when the topic was initially shared with the students, each fourth and fifth grader received a pair of glasses that featured a picture of the student on one lens and a picture of the globe on the other lens. Students reflected on what the glasses symbolize and responded to a writing prompt that asked “How can I make myself a better student? How do I manage myself within a community? How can I empower myself to become a better student and person?” The responses and self-knowledge varied widely, but students were intrigued and enthusiastic.
“I can commit to making Brookwood a better place by helping anyone who looks like they need a smile,” wrote one student, while another pointed out, “I can make myself a better student by practicing multiplication more.” Still another wrote, “I will make myself a better student by talking less and listening more.” The reflections are part of a bulletin board display lining the Middle School’s hallway. As the project continues throughout the year, reflections will be added and the display will continue to grow.
In another metacognition project, students and teachers discussed different learning styles and engaged in activities that utilized or highlighted various kinds of learning: Madlibs and Boggle, which draw on verbal skills; “Name that Tune” and song writing, which demonstrate auditory learning; chess and strategy games, which use logic/mathematical learning; tangrams, optical illusions, and design studio, which highlight visual learning; and hand-eye coordination activities, charades, and juggling, which demonstrate kinesthetic learning.
After that, students chose one of the activities, identified which learning style the activity represented and wrote about it considering two questions: “This is challenging for me because . . .” and “I like this because . . .” Later they considered the questions, “What am I comfortable with?” and “What am I challenged by or uncomfortable with?”
“There are so many interesting things to learn about our brains – things like neuroplasticity, neurodiversity, and more. Through the exercises the students are discovering that people’s brains differ in many ways - and that’s not a value judgment,” Lisa says. “And they are learning that our brains are capable of so much more than we think. We all have strengths and weaknesses and preferences, but we are all capable of learning even a difficult subject if we approach it in a way that fits us. We’re helping our students learn how to play to their strengths and strengthen their weaknesses.”
Because fourth and fifth graders in general are at a developmental stage when they are becoming increasingly more capable of prolonged interest and abstract thinking and reasoning, Lisa says it is an opportune time for them to begin learning about the topic of metacognition. The skills of reflection and self-analysis, she adds, have life-long implications.
“Developing metacognition skills is a lifelong process, one with which many adults struggle,” she says. “The goal is to begin the conversation with the students, to push them to think more about their learning so that they can continue this exploration throughout their lives.”