March 31, 2016

Metacognition: What’s the Fuss About?

“We don’t learn from experience, but from reflecting on experience.” (John Dewey, although disputed)

I know the buzzwords in education have invaded us in the past few years and, hopefully, we can navigate media better so as to not get trapped in them. As fancy as they may sound, they are not far from what we have already been doing as teachers and I am not certain an inflation of edu-words helps us in our practice, on the contrary. However, since these words are being circulated often, I decided to discuss one, “metacognition”. My source is Handbook of Research on Learning and Instruction, more specifically chapter 10 (pages 197-219).

Historical roots

In the educational literature two terms are being used interchangeably despite having different conceptual roots and theoretical perspectives.

Metacognition theory: it originated from developmental psychology with Piaget (Inhelder & Piaget, 1958) and Flavell (1970) as progenitors. It focused on “reflective abstraction of new or existent cognitive structures”; simply put, a person’s thinking about own thinking/cognition.

Self-regulated learning (SRL): emerged from metacognition theory above and Bandura’s self-regulation theory. The emphasis is on the regulation of learning processes and outcomes (Dinsmore et al, 2008; Zimmerman, 1995). In other words, knowing what, how and when to apply a specific strategy to monitor, carry, and self-evaluate learning.

The line between the two, however, became fuzzy over time and researchers themselves plead for more clarity in conceptual and operational definitions.…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Why does this matter?

Wang, Haertel, and Walberg (1990) concluded from their literature review that metacognition is the most important predictor of learning performance.

Veenman , in an overview of studies with learners of different ages, performing different tasks in various domains (2008), estimated that metacognitive skillfulness accounted for 40% of variance in learning outcomes.

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February 25, 2016

Transfer of Learning: Is There a Solution? (2)

In part 1 of this blog post I provided some reasons as to why transfer is difficult, particularly in mathematics. The use of concrete materials as well as of highly contextualized tasks may increase the probability of short-term comprehension but hinder learning in the future.


  • “Any extraneous detail in the presentation of information tends to distract learners from the relevant content, leading to poorer recall for that material. “ *see the “seductive details effect” (Garner et al., 1989; Harp and Mayer, 1998; De Loache 1991, 1995; DeLoache  and Burns, 1994; Son and Goldstone, 2009)

That can happen if the way you introduce a concept or practice a skill is overly “engaging” (I can think of many examples, starting with “food math” – pizza fractions, gummy bears counting etc., and ending with “pretty” worksheets).

  • “More insidiously, even those concrete details that are integral and relevant to the examples may harm learning by impairing transfer to new situations.” (Clement et al., 1994; Goldstone and Sakamoto, 2003; Kaminski et al., 2008).

This means that the features that may have enabled students to perform an initial task made it difficult for them to transfer the learning to an analogous situation in which the surface details were changed, and to perceive the connection between the two contexts.

This leaves us with an apparent paradox: the very qualities that enable knowledge acquisition (concreteness, familiarity, personal relevance) are detrimental to knowledge transfer and generalization. Continue reading

February 24, 2016

Transfer of Learning: Is There a Solution? (1)

Following some conversations with George Haines on Twitter, I attempted to embark on a very complicated topic: transfer of learning. The literature is full of unanswered questions and the research is equally equivocal or sparse.

What does “transfer of learning” mean?

The definitions seem to branch out with every paper that I read but, despite this variety, the basic meaning can be resumed to the ability to extend what is learned in one situation to new contexts. The major classification is between:

  • near transfer – when knowledge is applied in a similar situation (e.g. adding in a class math –calculating change in a store)
  • far transfer – application of knowledge or general principles to a more complex or novel situation (e.g. learning about the scientific method –applying its principles in designing and conducting an experiment, testing hypotheses, critiquing other experiments etc.)

Transfer is implied, to some extent, in any new learning otherwise we wouldn’t be able to learn anything new (you can’t really learn, say, how to conjugate verbs unless you have some previous knowledge about verbs).  Yet the ability to transfer information or ideas is not a given. Quite often, information learned in a specific way, or in a particular context, does not transfer to another. For instance, students may very well ace your vocabulary quiz yet fail to use the very same words in their writing. Or they may have very well learned a mathematical fact but do not know how to apply it in a new problem.

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February 22, 2016

Myths in Education, or How Bad Teaching Is Encouraged

“Opinions don’t affect facts.

But facts should affect opinions, and do, if you are rational.” (Ricky Gervais)

I thought I would not have to blog about these fads again but it seems they have the strange ability to be reborn every single year and surface in professional development courses as well as in tweets, blog posts, and conversations within the education community. The reasons are different, ranging from ignorance to vested interests, but the effect is the same: poorer teaching. And no, you are not a bad teacher because you used them but you are a less effective one. We need to learn to dissociate our practice (which can have flaws) from our beliefs formed in the background of consistent bad professional development provided by schools.

Let’s see these monsters in their entire splendor:

  1. The Cone of Learning / The Learning Pyramid
  2. Learning Styles
  3. Right-Left Brain
  4. Brain Gym
  5. Brain-Based Learning
  6. Multiple Intelligences

The Learning Pyramid – a complete bogus

Where does it originate? Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience (1946) was an exclusively theoretical model for audio-visual media, it did NOT include any percentages, and Dale himself insisted that the classifications should NOT be regarded as “any sort of hierarchy or rank order”.

Where did the percentages come from? Don’t laugh. They were first published by an employee of Mobil Oil Company in 1967, writing in the magazine Film and Audio-Visual Communications. This employee, D.G. Threichler, provided NO evidence for the figures but the education community accepted the percentages nonetheless.

PicMonkey Collage

References: Continue reading

April 7, 2015

Where Direct Instruction Fails: Willingham, Memorization, and Conceptual Understanding (2)

In my previous post I wrote about the overemphasis on memorization and drills and brought some arguments for balancing all three aspects of knowledge in mathematics: factual, procedural, and conceptual. Let’s review:

  1. Memorization of math facts is important. It allows for complex tasks to be carried out.
  2. Procedures should be taught after or in tandem with concepts. One supports the comprehension of the other.
  3. Block practice (in textbooks and in teaching) is detrimental to learning. The overlearning as well as familiarity effects occur.
  4. Excessive modeling and examples in math can actually interfere with learning. They increase performance in the short term but hinder learning in the long run.
  5. Space out practice and interleave mathematical concepts. If you focus on a topic (i.e. fractions) make sure your students not only apply it in different contexts, but are also engaged in solving problems you previously taught (i.e. geometry or measurement topics). Even better, use fractions, measurement, and geometry together (Example: 1/3 of the area of a rectangle is red. Knowing that the perimeter is 64m and one of the sides is 1,000cm, find out what part of the rectangle is red. – Knowledge of area and perimeter, knowledge of fractions, and knowledge of measurement conversion).

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April 7, 2015

Where Direct Instruction Fails: Willingham, Memorization, and Conceptual Understanding (1)

I have been on Twitter long enough to notice an idea that is increasingly taking hold, especially in the U.K. education: memorization as the main tool for learning. Danniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist whose work I consistently shared for a few years now, has irrevocably (and most likely unintentionally) created a meme when he wrote in one of his widely known books (Why Don’t Students Like School?): “Memory is the residue of thought.” The truth of the sentence is obvious, almost trivial: to remember something you need to have thought about it quite hard. What happened though is that its meaning got completely twisted in some educational settings and turned into “Memorization is the only way to learn”. Continue reading

November 9, 2014

No, I Don’t Personalize Learning

Personalized learning. Differentiated learning. Individualization of learning.

Three jargon elements that twist any teacher’s grey matter in spectacular motions. Which is what? Add to that the pressure that may come through a school PD (“We need to individualize learning!”) and you have the perfect combination for confusion.

There seems to be a continuous debate around the first (“personalized” learning) but I think clarification of terms is always useful before engaging in any argument. Also, a little historical background helps one understand the causes, underpinnings and implications of any educational approach.


A bit of history

1914 –  The inception of the concept rests with Helen Parkhurst who was heavily influenced by Maria Montessori and John Dewey’s work when she created the Dalton Plan, plan that was introduced in 1914  and was extended later in several countries across the world (from the U.S. and Australia to Japan and The Netherlands). It was designed as an “experiment” where teachers were observers mostly and they would “study the children to find out what environment will best meet their immediate educational needs.” Its main aim was to design learning experiences tailored to the students’ interests, needs, and abilities.  Continue reading

August 15, 2014

Gender, Math, and Achievement Gap

Jo Boaler’s article was interesting (Britain’s Maths Policy Simply Doesn’t Add Up) and prompted me to blog.  She shows concern about girls’ math achievement in Britain:

 “But when I sat with the PISA team recently, I was horrified to see that of 64 countries assessed, Britain has the biggest gender gap in ‘maths mindset’. Simply put, the data showed that British boys believe they can do well in maths; girls don’t.”

I was curious whether the claim was true and I checked PISA reports, summaries and Excel tables. She was right. Boys not only outperform girls in math but also have higher confidence and are more likely to pursue math-related careers.  Continue reading

August 7, 2014

Play, Cognition, and Learning

It is difficult, if not impossible, to shed any bias when the word “play” in relation to children comes up. We played as children and that conjures some of our best childhood memories. We cannot fathom a world where children are not allowed to play. Nor should we.

However, the question raised these days on Twitter is not whether play is important to children, but to what extend it aids development and learning, and whether play-based pedagogies are justified in early years.

For that reason, I won’t discuss play through anthropological, historical or cultural lens. I am linking David Whitebread’s paper (The Importance of Play) and invite you to read it. Play is “ubiquitous among humans, both as children and as adults, and children’s play is consistently supported by adults in all societies and cultures. Cultural attitudes, transmitted to the children predominantly through the behavior of their parents, affect how much play is encouraged and supported, to what age individuals are regarded as children who are expected to play, and the extent to which adults play with children.”

I will focus on a review by Lillard et al that was published two years ago (2012) –The Impact of Pretend Play on Children’s Development: A Review of the Evidence. I chose this one because the findings are in dissonance with what most people believe(d). We all hear how play is “crucial” for the development of creativity, for instance. Well, according to the evidence, it is not. Continue reading

June 14, 2014

How to Argue With a Traditionalist – 10 Commandments

*Take this piece exactly for what it is – and smile.

  1. Before you even attempt to engage in dialogue, anticipate the first “solid evidence-based” argument: Project Follow Through. (Sure, you will wonder why there was a conspiracy theory in place for so many years and traditionalists wouldn’t apply its methodology.)
  2. When that (predictably) comes, make sure you do not ask a traditionalist why they don’t use Engelmann’s Direct Instruction if it was so effective – they will fail to give you an answer. (Wait. It was a packaged program, with scripted lessons, where everything was determined – from tasks and timing *from 3 to 12 minutes for each task!*, to teacher talk  and student “signals”.)
  3.  While you are still wondering, brace yourself for the next leap: knowledge. Of course, as a progressive that you are, you endorse ignorance and promote student inequality. (You know, that is why you became a teacher in the first place.) 
  4. Don’t give up – they now revert to cognitive psychology! You feel relieved – there might be a common ground. No, wait: they keep mentioning Cognitive Load Theory ad nauseam. (Of course, the theory has both conceptual and methodological flaws but, hey, whatever the means to achieve the ends.)
  5. Somewhat amused, somewhat confused about their tactics, you smile – they bring up Hattie! The meta-analysis means you can actually discuss the effect-size of direct instruction (0.59) vs., say, classroom discussion (0.82). Bad luck. They cherry pick from his work again. (At this point, you are less and less surprised. It looks like a denial of critical thinking they praise so much.)
  6. Less enthusiastic about the possibility of a real dialogue (one in which people actually share to understand not persuade) you bring other research. Tsk, tsk – it is not conclusive (despite being a 500-page research book). (But of course. A two-decade meta-analysis shows that inquiry can have a great effect- size , ranging from an average of 0.65 to a high 0.80 -see page 317, and it was successful – it so NOT traditional.)
  7. You raise your eyebrow. Hm. Evidence is not enough. Odd. You thought they would *rely* on evidence at all times. Let’s move on. Maybe educational psychology would help bridge this discussion? No, too “fuzzy” for a traditionalist. (In time, though, you see blog posts on “grit” or “motivation”, for instance, that was earlier dismissed as irrelevant, as engagement was. Begin to smile – this *is* amusing.)
  8. If you try to bring other arguments be prepared to be dismissed – everything that falls outside direct instruction, obedience, and teacher talk is rendered as ruining children’s education. (Large smile. Huxley was one of your favorites. You feel it is time to remind them that “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored”. Successful schools that do not use the three genius ideas above exist.)
  9. If they use sarcasm to cover for their lack of perspective and critical thinking, make note of that. Wait. 1,2,3. “Tone does not matter.” (Except when it does and they feel victimized. Implicit insults are poured about blog posts of progressives without actually commenting on them – too much of an effort to make your argument clear.)
  10. How could I forget??? Kirschner, Sweller and Clark!*The* piece that is the backbone of a traditionalist?  The one that, you, too, had tweeted and referenced (because you think research should be disseminated so that people are informed)? KSC might undermine any attempt to try out anything but direct instruction…except it doesn’t. Keep calm…and smile. (The paper has been criticized on several points. Sure, a pure traditionalist will argue even against the arguments of other researchers. A pure traditionalist has the research expertise and the wisdom, unlike those who actually…work in the research field.  Amen.)

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