Metacognition and Learning: What can the Renaissance teach us about how to learn best?

The narrative

It was a terribly cold day in April 2019 and I was incredibly frustrated at my failed attempt to drive for the very first time in the UK. About 10 minutes after I had picked up the car and started driving, I had a minor accident that knocked my left wind mirror off in a very stupid way. To defend myself, I was just getting used to driving on the left side of the road and a big white van was parked on the sidewalk. Since my brain was only getting adjusted to this rather challenging cognitive task, I couldn’t really tell how close I was when it happened. That van shouldn’t really be there.

I put the past behind me and enjoyed the rest of my journey to Liverpool where not only was I going to visit the city of one of my favorite bands, but I was also attending the IATEFL conference for the first time too. Right at the entrance, I bumped into the wonderful Vinnie Nobre, a reference in ELT and one of the founders of Troika, an educational consultancy based in São Paulo. I congratulated him for the enormous success and after talking and watching a few sessions together, he invited me to teach a course at Troika when I returned from my master’s course. I was certainly thrilled, no doubt, and I really wanted to offer a course that would help teachers reflect on their practice.

From coming back to Brazil to getting in touch with Troika and working out the details of the course, considering it all happened in the middle of the pandemic, it took around a year for me to actually teach it. But all the process helped me fine-tune my idea and create possibly one of the most interesting courses I’ve ever taught in my life.

I chose a topic I had been studying for a while and that I felt would make a difference: metacognition. This is the poster Troika designed for my course and I have to admit I simply loved it. They gave me, perhaps unintentionally, the perfect narrative for the course. That narrative was the Renaissance.

May be an image of 1 person
Troika’s poster of my course

I was inspired by the works of Titian, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Rafael, Michelino and, especially, Da Vinci to create the slides of my course, which made reference to the cultural revival expressed through the art and science represented in the Vitruvian Man and in the perfection of Leonardo’s sketches.

The Renaissance was about questioning the status quo and learning about how things worked, particularly the human body, in order to create the most perfect depictions of the human figure on canvas, paper, stone or marble. It was about observation, questioning, and experimentation of different techniques and paradigms.

Metacognition

You might be wondering what the Renaissance has to do with the idea of metacognition. Before we can establish their relationship, let’s understand the term metacognition, which will require us to first think about the word cognition. According to the Free Online Dicitionary:

the mental process of knowledge, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning and judgment

what becomes known through perception, reasoning or intuition; knowledge

Free Online Dictionary

A more technical definition is offered by the American Psychological Association:

Attention, use of language, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity and thinking

American Psychological Association

If we think about our language classes at school, we might remember that the prefix meta comes from the Greek and it means beyond or transcending and it’s usually employed to give us the idea of the category within the category. That means that metalanguage is the language of language and metadata means the data about data. In that case, metacognition means the cognition of or about cognition. Since cognition is the object of study for many researchers concerned with our thought processes and how we learn, metacognition has been popularly referred to as thinking about thinking or learning how to learn.

Going back in time a few decades, we find out that the term metacognition was coined and popularized by American psychologist John Flavell. In his 1976 work, he describes metacognition as:

knowledge about one’s own COGNITIVE PROCESSES. Ability to CONTROL, ORGANIZE, MONITOR, ADAPT and REFLECT on one’s own thoughts

John Flavell (1976)

Notice the keywords. Metacognition involves not just learning things but questioning whether the way we learn is the best or most appropriate and regulating how we study. Its main question is:

Is there a more effective way to learn this?

In order to answer that question, Flavell discusses three categories of metacognition

  1. Metacognitive Knowledge
  2. Metacognitive Experiences
  3. Metacognitive Control Strategies

The first one refers to the knowledge people have about themselves and others as well as tasks and strategies. Let’s say someone wants to learn how to play the violin. If they have metacognitive knowledge, they’re aware that people who learn how to play the violin need to have access to the instrument, an adequate place to study (a quiet studio for instance), the ability to read sheet music, a varied routine of exercises with lots of repetition and so on. The learner must also understand how people can learn music and how to play an instrument, that is, some basic universal principles of learning that particular skill, which is quite different from learning something like History. A metacognitive learner should also know how their teacher works and what they expect and, mainly, what works best for themselves. Perhaps they can only practice the violin at night when it’s quiet or maybe they consider themselves an early bird and prefer to do it in the morning.

Brown (1978, 1987); Flavell (1976, 1979)

The second and the third one fall under the category of metacognitive regulation (see image above). They’re about knowing which strategies work best and how to use them to achieve the desired result. That means that only possessing the knowledge of how to play the violin will not make anyone learn it if they are unable to plan their study, engage with the activities and stay on task, and assess whether it is working or not. A metacognitive learner is able to make the necessary adjustments to the process in order to reach the desired outcome. Let’s say our violin student realizes that they can’t practice at night because they’re disturbing their neighbors. They’ll have to either find another time or another place to practice because they understand its importance. They might even make the room where they practice soundproof or purchase an electric violin with an amplifier so that they can hear themselves play through headphones. A metacognitive learner develops regulation mechanisms to make sure they accomplish the tasks they are supposed to and evaluate what needs to be changed.

Metacognitive Cycle (Ambrose et al. 2010)

Ambrose et al. (2010) offer an insightful framework to help us become more metacognitive. In this metacognitive cycle, the first step is to evaluate the task at hand. What many learners do quite often when writing an essay or working on a project for instance is making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. They sometimes don’t read or understand the instructions and overdo the task or don’t do enough. Evaluating the task and what is asked is paramount if they want to be successful. The next step is to conduct a fair assessment of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Students who cannot successfully assess that, can over- or underestimate their abilities and not plan enough time to accomplish the task.

Then comes the approach stage. Different tasks require different approaches and depending on how much time learners have, they might waste too much of it on ineffective or even useless strategies or simply not allocate enough of it to get things done. Students may often just skip this planning stage and go straight to the task without really understanding how they accomplish it the best way they can. Moreover, it’s important to keep track of the most suited strategies according to the task and make sure it all becomes part of the learning routine. Simply thinking about these strategies and not applying them won’t generate positive outcomes.

The final stage is perhaps the most important for metacognitive learners. It’s the stage of reflection and it allows learners to evaluate whether all the other stages were done properly and what worked and what didn’t. Reflecting on the learning process can be quite painful but it can tell us a lot about what might not be working and what would take to change things. Here are some questions that might help:

  1. Was my plan adequate/realistic?
  2. Did I allocate enough time to accomplish the task?
  3. Was I committed/focused when I did the task?
  4. Did I have access to the right materials/resources?
  5. Did I seek help when I didn’t know what to do?
  6. Did I make the proper adjustments when things didn’t work out?

The question then is:

Does being a metacognitive learner pay off?

The research suggests that it does. As a matter of fact, a paper by Zulkiply (2009) summarizes many of the findings of other studies and states that:

recent research has revealed the significance of metacognitive awareness in learning. For instance, learners who score high on measures of metacognition are more strategic, more likely to use problem-solving heuristics, better at predicting their test scores, and generally outperform learners who score low on metacognitive measures. Metacognition has been shown to predict learning performance. Learners who are metacognitively aware know what to do when they don’t know what to do; that is, they have strategies for finding out or figuring out what they need to do. More importantly, research has demonstrated the value of metacognition in predicting academic achievement. For example, greater metacognitive ability has been linked to grade point average, math achievement, and reading skill. In addition to this, studies explicitly show that metacognitive skills play an important role in effective learning that leads to academic success, and that academically achieving students are better on metacognitive measures

Zulkiply (2009)

Da Vinci: a man ahead of his time

When I think of all the things Leonardo Da Vinci created, it simply makes me admire his vision even more. He was undoubtedly a man ahead of his time. And to think that many of his sketches of the human body are still used in medical schools today for their incredible degree of precision. Da Vinci used to go to underground morgues to study human anatomy. Can you imagine what a terrible hobby that was? Spending hours in the dark surrounded by putrid and stinky corpses lit by candles while he drew the most perfect lines. It sure wasn’t easy but his curiosity kept him going.

Human anatomy, by Leonardo Da Vinci (1509-1510) "At a time in history when  few people had methodical… | Human anatomy drawing, Anatomy sketches,  Anatomy for artists
Da Vinci’s sketches of the human body. Retrieved from pinterest

Da Vinci was certainly the epitome of mastery and talent and is revered until today for his incredible contribution. I think he is the perfect illustration (no pun intended) of a metacognitive learner. He not only drew beautiful sketches and painted amazing canvases, but he also designed machines and ingenious devices that were way ahead of his time. A good example is his obsession with flying and how his early 15th-century designs of flying machines are remarkably similar to modern gliders and helicopters (which were invented more than 400 years later).

Leonardo da Vinci - Drawing | Da vinci sketches, Da vinci inventions, Leonardo  da vinci
Da Vinci’s flying machines. Retrieved from pinterest

Naturally, we can say that other Renaissance artists were experimenting on different things, trying new techniques and thinking outside the box. Michelangelo was definitely quite metacognitive when he had to come up with a plan to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Can you imagine how daunting the task was? Michelangelo not only pulled it off magnificently but he also created one of the most fascinating and beautiful works of art the world will ever see. But Da Vinci’s legacy and record really deserve special attention. They give us a glimpse of what this man did and how he thought. He was a questioner, a problem solver and a scientist at heart.

His most famous painting also gives us the perfect illustration of what metacognitive should not be about: procrastination. It is said that Da Vinci spent around 12 years to paint the lips of probably the most enigmatic smiles in the art history: The Mona Lisa. It might have been so because of procrastination or Leonardo’s obsession with getting the smile just right or even a hand paralysis he suffered from. Be it as it may, this interesting mystery gives us some insight into how some things might take a lot longer than what we might expect.

My car accident and Final Thoughts

Da Vinci’s designs and schemes did not have as great an impact on the society he lived in because they were exclusive then and forgotten for a long time. His inventions could have created unimaginable technological advances in his time. The idea of joining science and arts to create amazing work and to rethink the status quo is evident in Da Vinci’s work. His curiosity and obsession to try different things and really think outside the box, analyzing not only the object of his art but mainly how he created his art are more than enough proof of his metacognitive personality.

I wonder now if I was any metacognitive when I picked up the car to drive to Liverpool. The answer is probably no but I did try something new. I certainly watched videos of people telling their experience of driving on the other side of the road. I imagined myself doing it a couple of times before I got the car. I wrote down a few things to make sure I wouldn’t forget them. I definitely drove around a few times to get more confidence while performing the task. But none of those things prevented me from having a minor accident. I hadn’t anticipated that a large van could be parked on the sidewalk for maintenance and the rest is history. Perhaps, if I had thought of that variable and had practiced a little more before driving around 3 hours from Bristol to Liverpool, I would have done better.

In Liverpool, before attending IATEFL’s first day of sessions, as a big Beatles fan, I decided to visit the Cavern Club where the four lads used to play. They were also a metacognitive bunch, weren’t they? Their musical legacy is so rich and innovative that they’re actually a great example of metacognition. The Beatles spent quite a lot of years recording in studio some of the most unusual sounds anyone had listened to because they constantly asked themselves if there were better or more effective ways to accomplish what they wanted. And look at what they gifted the world with!

If you are a teacher working with different subject areas or teaching English in a bilingual context, get inspired by the amazing artists of the Renaissance like Da Vinci, musicians such as The Beatles, or other incredible people who were not afraid to question things. People who understood the object of their work so well that they were able to create new paradigms and invent new techniques. We don’t have to be as brilliant as they were, but it will certainly be good enough for us to learn how learn more effectively.

Around a couple of months after my minor accident, my wife, her sister, and our nephew came to visit me in the UK. We rented a car to drive from London to Rochester, then Brighton, Salisbury, Bristol, Cardiff and back to Bristol. I certainly learned my lesson as I didn’t cause any accidents that time. The irony, though, is that someone hit our back bumper on the way to Stonehenge although I was driving quite comfortably and confidently. I can tell you one thing: it was certainly not my fault.

The lesson here I suppose is that even though metacognition can help you achieve your learning goals and improve your performance, you still can’t control all the variables. After all, accidents do happen.

But the most important lesson I want to leave you all with is the following: being metacognitive requires us to understand a little bit about cognition and how we learn so that we can base our strategies on research and make better informed decisions about which strategies might work more effectively. If we don’t do that, we might cause minor accidents along the way like the one I had. My bias of many years driving on the right side of the road made me misjudge the distance I was driving from the sidewalk. After that mistake, I realized I had to compensate for my bias and really monitor what I was doing. My accident made me more metacognitive and it may have prevented another accident.

References

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.

Brown, A.L. (1978). Knowing when, where and how to remember: A problem of metacognition. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology ,Vol.1 (pp. 77-165). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Brown, A. L. (1987). Metacognition, executive control, self-regulation, and other more mysterious mechanisms. In F. E. Weinert & R. H. Kluwe (Eds.), Metacognition, motivation, and understanding (pp. 65-116). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906 – 911

Roediger, H. L. I., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x

Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 3(1), 2.

Zulkiply, N. (2009). Metacognition and its relationship with students’ academic performance. The International Journal of Learning15(11), 97-106.

Published by

André Hedlund

André Hedlund is a Chevening Scholar from Brazil, MSc in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in the UK, and a pedagogical consultant for National Geographic Learning. He has been an EFL teacher for over 15 years and has worked both as an academic coordinator and a CamLa (Cambridge and Michigan Language Assessments) examiner at a Brazilian Binational Center. Currently, he is the president of an ONG called Partners of the Americas Goiás and the representative of the Brazilian TESOL's Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group in the Midwest.

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