Unpacking Meta-Cognition

Last week Samuel Ward Academy Trust shared the following image, a snapshot from Dr Jonathan Sharples’s presentation on their Trust PD Day:

metacog definition

So, this week, a little more elaboration on such a promising approach within teaching and learning.

A glance at the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit will highlight meta-cognition’s low cost (single ‘£’), high evidence strength (four padlocks) and high impact (+8 months)As seen below, when plotting toolkit strategies using cost per pupil and effect size, meta-cognition is clearly highlighted as one of the most promising set of approaches and interventions that we should consider for pupils’ learning.

source: J Sharples, EEF Presentation, Jan 2018

So what is involved?

With the help of extracts from the printable EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit summary and a couple of other useful sources, here we go …

Meta-cognition and self-regulation approaches (sometimes known as ‘learning to learn’ approaches) aim to help learners think about their own learning more explicitly. This is usually by teaching pupils specific strategies to set goals, and monitor and evaluate their own academic development. Self-regulation means managing one’s own motivation towards learning. The intention is often to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from during learning activities.

Dylan Wiliam describes and explains it with clarity and precision in this short linked YouTube clip.

As broken down in the image at the start of this post, successful meta-cognition requires knowledge of task, strategies and yourself as a learner. Applying this knowledge through planning, monitoring and evaluating learning is something that we as teachers, parents and carers should take every opportunity to actively encourage and model.

This can often be done by encouraging pupils to ask themselves questions such as these from this Inner Drive poster below; the simple act of modelling this to pupils by verbalising your own thinking as a teacher, can be a powerful influence and illustrates the teacher as ‘model learner’.

At this point I would add that meta-cognition is not ‘achieved’ through a plethora of posters or checklists within lessons, rather by it being embedded within learning and instruction in the classroom. Hearing yourself and your pupils say things like these further question stems below would tend to indicate meta-cognition is ‘in progress’.


source: Pinterest

Meta-cognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently high levels of impact, with pupils making an average of eight months’ additional progress. The evidence indicates that teaching these strategies can be particularly effective for low achieving and older pupils.

These strategies are usually more effective when taught in collaborative groups so learners can support each other and make their thinking explicit through discussion.

A final example of how we can model and encourage meta-cognition, courtesy of the dual coding of Oliver Caviglioli, illustrates how just a few words/prompts can be all that is required:


source: Oliver Caviglioli, teachingHow2 library

However, a word of caution …

The potential impact of these approaches is very high, but can be difficult to achieve as they require pupils to take greater responsibility for their learning and develop their understanding of what is required to succeed.

There is no simple method or trick for this. It is possible to support pupils’ work too much, so that they do not learn to monitor and manage their own learning but come to rely on the prompts and support from the teacher. “Scaffolding” provides a useful metaphor: a teacher would provide support when first introducing a pupil to a concept, then reduce the support to ensure that the pupil continues to manage their learning autonomously.

EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit summary

So, what should we consider?

Before we implement meta-cognition in our learning environment, we should consider the following:

1. Teaching approaches which encourage learners to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning have very high potential, but require careful implementation.

2. Have you taught pupils explicit strategies on how to plan, monitor and evaluate specific aspects of their learning? Have you given them opportunities to use them with support and then independently?

3. Teaching how to plan: Have you asked pupils to identify the different ways that they could plan (general strategies) and then how best to approach a particular task (specific technique)?

4. Teaching how to monitor: Have you asked pupils to consider where the task might go wrong? Have you asked the pupils to identify the key steps for keeping the task on track?

5. Teaching how to evaluate: Have you asked pupils to consider how they would improve their approach to the task if they completed it again?


New Year Gold – a selection of ideas from schools by Tom Sherrington

New Year Gold: A selection of brilliant ideas from some fabulous schools

To kick off 2018, here are some of the best ideas I’ve come across on my travels to various schools around the UK.  I’ve limited most of this sample to practices I’ve encountered in more than one school  – to avoid the sense that things can only happen in specific contexts.  Where relevant I’ve named the schools doing something more niche.

Knowledge organisers and retrieval practice

A lot has been written about knowledge organisers this year.  However, I see a lot of variation in the way they are used.  Crucially, investing time in knowledge organisers is not about creating them or making them look pretty; it’s about using them routinely to secure good foundational knowledge.  In the best cases, students have clear quizzable knowledge organisers in their possession (not just dumped online) and engage in regular quizzing as part of lessons.  Retrieval practice can be engaging and buzzy, it is always low stakes whilst being rigorous with students showing excellent recall of prior learning.  It’s quite astonishing the difference it makes if students are given the tools to develop secure recall – the materials and the strategies.   Of course, recall is a bedrock strategy; a platform for wider, deeper learning. But when it is weak, so is everything else.

Planned Reading

I’ve encountered some superb strategies for planned reading.  Two particularly good approaches were:

Structured reading at Michaela: an amazingly thorough approach with pre-printed texts showing key words, numbered lines and a taught routine for whole-class reading.  Above all, students are given high-volume diet of subject-specific reading every day.

Early morning daily reading at London Academy: Every tutor group in Year 7-9 starts school half an hour early so that they read together every day: that’s 150 minutes of reading time per week  – extra! This was also coupled to lunchtime tutor periods where reading interventions took place for those that needed it.

I would say that in too many schools students don’t read enough each day – but it can be done.

High Frequency, Low Stakes Developmental Lesson Observations

The best practice I see is where schools have dropped set-piece formal lesson observations altogether replacing them entirely with learning walks or with multiple short unannounced observations.  In at least five schools I’ve visited, staff spoke very positively about this: no more showcase lessons, no more grades, lots more feedback.  Teachers like to get feedback.   Of course flags can be raised if things are not going well but mainly teachers are evaluated on a more rounded picture and get a steady flow of feedback. Leaders devote a lot more time to being in and around classrooms which has lots of spin-off benefits.

Systematic QA Systems

I’ve encountered some excellent simple systems that leaders use to make sure they are keeping on top of things and safeguarding against the possibility of things slipping:

The power of 10: a big school where 10 leaders would drop in on 10 lessons by different teachers with a focus on 10 identified students, one per lesson, every 10 days. This was all mapped in advance but with leaders having the freedom to plan their set of 10.  This meant they really knew what was happening in quite a systematic way.  Teachers got feedback on the specific agreed focus for the cycle.

One-a-day; five-in-five: Various schools tackle the challenge of parental contact – with hard-to-shift persistent absence cases for example – with pastoral leaders or tutors identifying the priority cases each week and setting the goal of addressing one per day or five in five days.  This makes a long list manageable; better to succeed with five than be overwhelmed by 20.

Weekly light touch departmental book scrutiny, one year group at a time: Year 7 one week, Year 8 the next and so on. This was a 30 minute scan each week by subject post-holders, all book sets gathered and then sampled; nicely manageable and routine for everyone.

Built-in CPD

I’ve now seen several schools that follow ‘the Huntington model’ -as I call it. This is where time is taken from the timetable once a fortnight or every three weeks, to create a routine slot of time for staff CPD.  Various other schools have taken every minute of directed time and given it to weekly staff meetings, a high proportion of which are exclusively for CPD.  One school made Mondays and Tuesdays longer, freeing up the whole of Friday afternoon for weekly CPD. Yes, weekly!

CPD should not be snatched, begged or borrowed or confined to INSET days.  Built-in CPD is the way to go and lots of schools are showing the way.

Alternative Parents’ Evenings

At School 21, they replace regular parent-teacher conferences with termly exhibitions where student work across the curriculum is showcased with students on hand to talk about it. This changes the focus entirely, doing a different job to the usual progress check, but is a great way to engage families and to put the work at the centre.

At Parliament Hill, Year 7 parents’ evenings involve key staff and senior leaders seeing parents for an extended appointment where the students present a portfolio of their best work in the year.  This puts students and their work at the centre and helps to embed the school’s learning culture with students developing the capacity to talk about their learning and progress from an early stage.

Family Dining

I’ve only seen this at Michaela (and Eton!) but I’ve heard of other schools that do it: students sitting at tables together to eat shared meals in a family style – not the normal canteen queue.  It’s quite wonderful to see in action, all part of building cultural capital and the school ethos.  I wrote more about my Michaela visit here.

Intelligent Data Reporting

To be honest, there’s a lot of misdirected effort in this area but some schools are breaking through to report attainment and progress in a meaningful way. The best systems I have encountered have a similar basis: cohort-referencing.  This means that subjects assess in their own way, using appropriate modes of assessment to generate scores of various kinds.  These are then processed into standardised scores – usually around 100 in common with other national standardised tests – that are reported alongside raw scores.  This system is much more secure than using 1-9 scales and flight-paths or the horror-show of learning statement banks.  It’s honest about standards having meaning in relation to the cohort and allows different subject methodologies to work without having to fudge the equivalence of grades across subjects.

Higher Education Visits and Aspirations

In some schools, the ‘we’re all aiming for university’ aspiration is a tangible feature of the ethos and curriculum.  Some schools take whole cohorts of students on a university visit at least once.  At London Academy their goal is to take every student in KS3 to a university every year: it’s an impressive commitment.  At other schools the programme of university engagement – with visiting speakers, returning students etc – starts in Year 7.  It’s not left to the Sixth Form.

Building Test Confidence

This is genius.  At Parliament Hill, students in science (especially those in the middle sets) are given advanced notice of topic tests.  They see the actual questions perhaps a week before the test and are given detailed learning checklists supported by revision material directly linked to the tests. Students begin to see that, if they learn the material, they do well on the tests; that they are not doomed to fail. For some, this realisation is a break-through. It’s obvious really but if students can’t get 80% on a test they have seen in advance, they won’t get 80% on a test that is a surprise.  The aim is build confidence; to show less confident students how to link learning activities around certain bits of content to the process of being tested.  They’ve had huge success with this – and their excellence FACE It strategy.

Behaviour Systems that really work

In a couple of schools I’ve visited  – including Bedford Free School when I visited in April – they use a card system for all minor transgressions. In every lesson, if students do everything they are meant to, they give themselves a tick; if not, the teacher marks their card.  At the end of the week, students with 100% ticks get a reward – they go home earlier than those students with less than perfect cards who stay on for an additional study period.   It was a powerful motivation to keep meeting expectations; a system students valued.  And it worked incredibly well.

At another school, they had really cracked the issue of students missing central detentions after school. Anyone missing would have an internal exclusion the next day running 10am to 5.00pm – so the missed detention was wrapped in.  Very well structured work was provided in the behaviour centre.  They would not be allowed to attend lessons until this day was completed, however long it took.  By sticking to this absolutely – even when students were absent for days avoiding the internal exclusion – they had brought numbers of detention-duckers down to a tiny handful.  This meant that fewer students would then get detentions and everything was improving on a positive spiral.

Personal Development Programmes

Around the country schools are developing some superb programmes to incentivise students of all ages getting involved in character developing activities as part of the wider curriculum.  The Ely College PLEDGES system is a brilliant example.  It combines incentives around attendance and achievement with service, participation, leadership, diversity and giving.  The Prior Academy Trust Baccalaureate developments in various schools are also excellent – as featured in this post –  with programmes for KS3 students and Sixth Formers.

Specialist PSHE lessons

Generally speaking, PSHE is treated horribly badly across the system.  I’m not a fan of drop-down days or of morning tutor slots being used to teach SRE, drugs, careers – and all of the other massively important areas that make up a good PSHE programme. Where it is done particularly well, PSHE is given a weekly lesson and teachers are divided up into rotating teams where they develop a degree of specialism in one area.  This allows students to be taught a proper programme of SRE by people who have the confidence and knowledge to do it well.   It’s a good model.


Thank you to all the schools for the great work you are doing!

One for the festive season…

Why we can’t have a fun lesson today

This scene has played out at the door to my classroom day after day for years.

Surly youth: Are we having a fun lesson today?

Me: No. We are doing Geography. It isn’t meant to be fun. It is meant to be rigorous. It is meant to be hard. It is going to challenge you and blow your mind. It is going to make you think because memory is the residue of thought.

Surly youth (tutting): You always say that.

 I have been thinking a lot today about such exchanges after a discussion with @HeyMissSmith and @oldandrewuk on twitter.

Every so often I ask pupils what they think makes a fun lesson (often a tutor group after hearing them moan on for a while about school being “boring”) and they always say the same things. Projects, group work, role play, films. But you know what? I’ve tried it. I spent the first few years where a big piece of sugar paper would feature prominently. They would complete more diaramas than a whole season of Community. There would be role play news reports and more glue sticks than you can shake, well, a glue stick at. And you know what? Not only would they have learnt nothing (this isn’t the place to rehearse debates about progressive vs traditional methods) but after about 5 minutes they would be bored. Fun isn’t as much fun as you’d think.

Let us return instead to the relative calm of my classroom the surly youth has just entered. On the board there is an image of a what looks like a volcano erupting from under the ocean. The instruction says “Comment on this image” (A typical A level task but this is Year 10 and the new specification is tricky) and he ponders this while writing down the title and date. I ask some questions and they get some initial thoughts down on a wipe board.

Next I talk them through constructive plate margins and they answer some simple questions based on some resources and using previous knowledge from last week. We look at the the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and how exciting it is that the earth is being ripped asunder. We look at some images of shield volcanoes and clips of them erupting and I talk through some of the principles behind it with some cold calling (“If the lava has a high silica content what will happen? Let’s look at Mt St Helens and see!”). They use this to answer an exam question on the features of shield volcanoes before using a mark scheme to improve their answers.

At the end of the lesson they return to the first image showing the Island of Surtsey and write an explaination of how it was formed including the key words from this lesson. They leave knowing there will be a quiz next lesson to check what they have learnt.

Looking back this does not sound like a “fun lesson” and yet… fast forward to parents’ evening and the surly youth is there with his mum. “So this is your geography teacher! He talks about his lessons all the time.” So far so much hot air but then… “That volcano island, that dam in South Africa, fracking. The other day he came down and made us all watch some documentary on the Sudan”.

This conversation is very common but somehow still a lovely surprise. I never plan a lesson to be “fun” or for that matter particularly engaging. I plan to transfer knowledge, skills and understanding and the ability to transfer this to new situations (if you have a better definition of the purpose of education I’d love to hear it). So why do pupils leave the classroom buzzing? Why do they say “Thank you – that was great” on their way out (other than manners)? Why do they stop me in the corridor to discuss something relating to the lesson?

I would suggest it is because children don’t actually know what they will find “fun” in a lesson. What excites them is learning new things and feeling they are making progress. If you don’t think this is the case then I am not sure what gets you up in the morning. I also think that passion helps. I don’t set out to entertain my class. A glimpse through my twitter feed will show you just how dull and un-down-with-the-kids I am (I’m fairly sure a Dab is a sherbet sweet) but I love my subject and this passion comes through. I litter my lessons with examples and interesting tangents. It’s like an episode of QI in my room.

So no my young surly friend. You cannot have a fun lesson. It isn’t meant to be fun. It is meant to be rigorous. It is meant to be hard. It is going to challenge you and blow your mind. It is going to make you think because memory is the residue of thought.

But then I always say that.

The Question of Knowledge


PTE has produced this pamphlet in conjunction with The Association of School and College Leaders. In it, several headteachers from across the country detail their experiences and the challenges they faced when attempting to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum to their students, often with no resources or base to begin from. The pamphlet is free to download from this page.


Parents and Teachers for Excellence.


Mini whiteboards

Show Me: Maximising the Use of Mini Whiteboards in Lessons

Mini whiteboards can be an excellent way to gather information about class ‘understanding’ quickly and efficiently. When used badly, however, they cease to be an effective responsive teaching tool, and they can get in the way of learning and become a distraction. This post draws upon some of Doug Lemov’s ideas in Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (Show Me – technique no. 5), along with my own experiences, to offer some tips on on how to maximise your use of mini whiteboards.

Before the Lesson:

Plan questions in advance

As with most things in life, the better something is planned in advance the more likely it is of being executed successfully later on. In this case, the chances are you will have more success if you map out the questions you are going to ask your students to check understanding in advance. Too often we make the mistake of trying to come up with good questions whilst we teach. Often they are not precise enough to capture the data we need to guide our next steps, or we ask for lengthy responses we cannot possibly see from the front of the class. Well-considered questions avoid this problem and increase our chances of getting the valuable information we need in the moment.

Standardise response format

Format matters. Of all the ideas in Teach Like a Champion, I would say Standardise the Format is one of the most powerful and easiest to implement. I insist that all my students ‘Fill the board’ with their answers so that I can see them clearly when I am scanning the room. It also makes a difference what colour students write in. Blue or black pens have the most chance of being seen and not getting distorted by the play of light from the windows or from the flickering overhead artificial strips.

Standardise show me format

It is not just responses that benefit from being standardised; the format of the reveal does too. I use a simple 3-2-1 ‘show me’, but other instructions can work just as well, as long as they are understood by all and insisted upon in practice. All students should cover their answers once they have written them and raise their boards on the agreed command simultaneously. This approach reduces the likelihood of students being influenced by other people’s responses, which undermines the validity of the check. Wobbling boards the in the air is also unhelpful. And very annoying.

Screenshot 2017-10-21 10.57.14During the Lesson:

Insist on agreed formats

There is no point spending time establishing protocols for recording responses and showing them at the same time, if you don’t enforce them in practice. It is far better to sacrifice a bit of time in the short term getting these basics right, so that in the long term the process becomes so slick you can effortlessly question the whole class and gain immediate feedback on their current understanding.

Scan boards from front of the class

This probably seems so trivial and self-evident it is not even worth mentioning, but you would be surprised how many times I have seen teachers standing to the side or positioned in front of the first row of desks, where they cannot possibly see all the answers. The whole point is that you scan all the boards as quickly as you can and make a decision about whether to move on or to respond.

Approximate class understanding

As far as I’m aware, there is no hard and fast rule as to what percentage of students need to get the right answer for you to feel secure enough to move on. The obvious answer is 100%, but in reality it doesn’t always work out like that. Depending on the teaching point, you can sometimes correct one or two students’ understanding quickly there and then, but at other times you can spend several minutes trying to clarify something only for one individual to still miss the point. I aim for between 80-90%, and then make a beeline for students who got the wrong answer later on in the lesson.

Screenshot 2017-10-21 10.57.33

Mini whiteboards are just one of many tools that can help us respond better to students’ need, but they are largely useless if you don’ think through how to use them and plan accordingly.

Thanks for reading

The same homework for 3 years – how and why…

an interesting piece by @missdcox

We have a 3 year key stage 4. Students that opt for GCSE Religious Studies have 3 different homeworks that carry through every year. I have blogged previously about some of these (see links in headers) but not as our key stage 4 homework programme as a whole.

  1. Learning keywords

Students are given mini booklets of keywords that they need to know to understand the key beliefs and teachings of the religions studied. They are given these before they have studied their context. The idea is that they learn these ‘off by heart’ and then when we cover them in lesson their meaning and application to the religion becomes clear.

All keyword sheets are available in our classrooms and are always attached on ShowMyHomework when set.

We also have made Quizlet quizzes on all the words here. We also give students index cards to create their own testing set.


The students then have weekly keyword tests. One week they are the ‘current’ keywords that they are learning (one of the pages of words) and the other week are ‘random’ from all previous pages learnt. They complete the test in class and then they peer mark using the correct answers. They get very good at this. In fact from when I give out the sheets for them to write on, they run this part of the lesson themselves.

The basis for these are that retrieval practice is good for long term memory. The second random test allows for spacing of retrieval as they don’t know which words will come up and how often. I am currently editing Dave Paterson’s random generator so I can automatically generate and monitor the frequency of these repetitions.

Scores are recorded out of 20 marks each time. On the current keywords they have to make progress every fortnight. They chose a focus word that they will focus on getting correct next time to slowly increase their score.

2. Writing multiple choice questions


Student feedback on this system is overall positive with the caveat that they’re boring. I don’t care as long as they remember them.

After a few lessons of a new topic I set this homework. Students have to write a minimum of 6 multiple choice questions on the topic.


The rules are clear (see above).

The rationale for this homework is two-fold. Firstly it is really easy to see their misconceptions. If they indicate a correct answer that is in fact incorrect then I can see what they’ve misunderstood. Depending on the frequency and seriousness of the error I will give whole class feedback or individual feedback on that issue. Students then need to rectify their error.

I use their questions for the next homework.

MC template

3. Quizzes

The third type of homework uses the questions they previously wrote. I type them up onto a google form and then set them as a multiple choice quiz. There may be one or many correct answers. They must achieve full marks. Google forms records their scores.


They can actually cheat by doing the quiz once and then keeping the answer tab open. I’ve told them how they can do this! However I don’t care. The point is that the answers are shuffled so they still have to fully engage with the correct/incorrect answers. This exposure is important.


My screencasts on how to create these quizzes is here.

Once we have covered several topics, I can then start to repeat, space and interleave the quizzes. So year 10 currently have  quiz from a couple of weeks ago and one from January or year 9. This repetition supports the idea of retrieving information at spaced gaps of time during the time needed to learn them long term.

We have a class website and I also put a copy of these quizzes on there so any motivated student can go and complete these independently at any time. I’ve put a notification onto those sheets that email me when they’re completed so I can see straight away who has been doing some independent study.

The benefits of only 3 homeworks

  • Students always know what they need to do; it doesn’t change
  • All of these support research from cognitive science on long term memory
  • Parents know what to expect
  • Students can’t ‘get stuck’. There’s no new concepts (the keywords are initially just a memory task)
  • They need few resources: keyword list and a piece of paper to write the MC questions
  • It’s very little work for the teacher. I just check their MC questions which takes max. 15 minutes for a class. The online quizzes mark themselves. I just put the results on the screen. They mark their own keyword tests.
  • All homework set is of the same quality; no last minute rubbish made up by the teacher just because they have to set homework
  • All 3 homeworks feed into important knowledge and skills they need for their exam

The only issues have been if a student cannot access the internet for the online quizzes however, with plenty of time to complete these I always offer break/lunch access using our devices at school. In an extreme case you can print the quizzes but of course they won’t self mark.

I have been doing this for a couple of years now. I think our results show that this is significant in long term memory and consequently performance in their exam. To me, these are so important, I can’t imagine setting any other form of homework at key stage 4 that would make a bigger impact on learning