Podcast: Exploring Student Learning With Teachers - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Exploring Student Learning With Teachers

Exploring Student Learning With Teachers

Liz Keable, a specialist in guiding increased student leaning through metacognition practices, provides insights and suggestions for supporting and coaching teachers. “If we want to have a real impact on the next generation, there is one thing vastly more important than our teaching, and that is their learning.” You’ll find “look fors” and questions to build into your coaching practices.

To receive a free copy of “The A-Z of Supporting Learner Achievement,” e-mail Liz at: success@lizkeable.com

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!

Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00.000] – Steve [Intro]

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

[00:00:28.880] – Steve

Exploring student Content Learning with Teachers. Today’s guest on the podcast is Liz Keable. I follow Liz in her newsletter titled, “Metacognition in Practice.” Liz brings decades of experience from working directly with children, young people, and adults to support effective learning. As a biologist with a particular interest in the brain, she initially taught science in high schools before transitioning into an advisory role with government-funded education partnerships. With many more years dedicated to supporting the educational needs of young people in care and working with vulnerable or disadvantaged students as a success coach, Liz became convinced of the vital role that metacognition plays in learning. She now promotes the need for a whole school approach to developing metacognition learners as the most effective route to inclusion, improved mental health, and academic success. That’s a critical set of outcomes for all of the listeners to this program. So welcome Liz.

[00:01:46.460] – Liz

Thank you, Steve. It’s good to be here.

[00:01:49.100] – Steve

I’m wondering if you could start us off with a working definition for metacognition.

[00:01:56.130] – Liz

Yeah. If we take it literally, the word cognition comes from the Latin word cognoscere, which means to know. Cognition is usually used in reference to the ability to learn, to gain knowledge, to understand it, and also to be able to use it. If we put the word meta on the front, it’s taken from the Greek word meta, which indicates a change in position. In this instance, it’s being used to indicate going beyond or rising above the cognition. So metacognition is going beyond the learning itself. And it was coined by a chap called John Flavel, who was trying to describe what students need to do in order to improve their learning. They can’t just learn the facts. They have to go beyond that in order to reason things out in order to learn effectively. So I often describe it as rummaging around inside your own head to find a different way of thinking that will lead to a better result. It’s all about realizing that something isn’t working and then taking the time to work out what might work and being willing to change your mind. That’s the important thing for me, is that willingness to change your mind in line with your thinking in order to have a new way of thinking that will lead to a new set of results.

[00:03:23.140] – Steve

In your blog, you talked about the difference between teaching and learning. And those are two words that I’m always going back and forth with, so that caught my attention. And you made this statement that I want to quote and ask you to expand on it. You said, “but if we want to have real impact on the next generation, there is one thing that is vastly more important than our teaching, and that is their learning.”

[00:03:53.100] – Liz

Yeah. When schools first heard about how metacognition impacts so positively on student progress, to their credit, they started trying to use it, which is great, but they discovered that it’s not something that a teacher can use. It can’t be picked up and applied to students because it’s something that’s happening inside their students’ heads. So it’s the students that are using metacognition, which makes it a bit more difficult for the teacher to think about how to do that. In an attempt to make that work, schools tried initially, classes on thinking about thinking, which is actually using the Roman translation of the word meta, not the Greek one, where it’s about something turning attention on itself. So like a book about books or a film about films. So this thinking about thinking is a translation that’s sometimes used, but in fact, isn’t that accurate because what we’re thinking about is the learning, which is quite different. And just thinking about thinking is a philosophical exercise where the person themselves doesn’t have to visit their own thoughts at all. And also, if they do learn anything from it, it’s not then easily transferred into the curriculum because it’s been taught separately.

[00:05:11.130] – Liz

So what some schools did is they use thinking templates where there’s a set of formal questions that a learner can work through in order to reflect on their learning. The problem is that those questions that are designed for reflecting before you start working whilst you’re working and evaluating it afterwards, are too sophisticated for the average student who’s not learnt to think for themselves yet. So you imagine a struggling learner. This one always amuses me. You’ve got a child who’s really struggling to learn, and then they get told to ask themselves, “what don’t I know?” I mean, that’s going to blow almost anybody’s mind, let alone a child who’s already struggling. The problem is, is that as teachers, we’re often academic physically inclined ourselves, so it can be difficult, but we need to put ourselves inside the heads of our students.

[00:06:07.960] – Steve

I’m laughing as I hear you use that example because the one that I always used was when a kid gets in a fight and he hits someone and he’s down in the principal’s office and the principal looks at him and says, “what were you thinking?” Do you really believe that this kid went through a thought process?

[00:06:26.950] – Liz

Yeah, exactly.

[00:06:32.020] – Liz

Yeah. The reply to that is always, “I don’t know.” But the thing is that because we don’t always get inside the heads of our students, we end up teaching the curriculum, which is our job as as teachers, whatever the curriculum is, that’s what we teach. But we can do that without anybody actually learning anything. We’ve got too many students who leave school without qualifications, feeling rubbish about their own abilities. That’s really actually unnecessary because the reason is because we focused on the curriculum rather than on their ability to learn. If we can focus on their ability to learn, then we’re going to get somewhere.

[00:07:15.000] – Steve

It’s interesting, I took some pieces that I read, and I’ve been playing in my mind with the difference between students mimicking and students thinking. If students can get through our curriculum by mimicking, they end up in serious trouble because that’s not going to hold up when they get to a more complex problem and so planning for that thinking becomes the critical teacher role.

[00:07:45.610] – Liz

Yeah. And there are universities and employers who are now complaining that they are receiving students from schools who are not able to think for themselves. They don’t use their initiative. They can’t problem-solve. So it’s a real issue.

[00:08:02.050] – Steve

So does the term learning how to learn fit in with what you’re describing?

[00:08:08.270] – Liz

Yes. It’s knowing what the process is, which I will come on to in a minute. If you want to carry on, I’ll give you an explanation in a moment.

[00:08:18.520] – Steve

Okay. And then can I also connect that questioning is an important part of that then? So it is the learner knowing how to question him or herself.

[00:08:30.230] – Liz

It is. It’s just not throwing them in at the deep end. It’s about helping them to learn that method gradually. But you’re right, it’s very much about questioning. In the adult world, metacognition is very closely related to our decision-making processes where we question ourselves. So that is something that students really need to learn.

[00:08:52.340] – Steve

So what are some of the important questions that leaders or coaches might be asking teachers to cause teachers to reflect on how students are learning?

[00:09:04.310] – Liz

Yeah. For someone to learn effectively, they need metacognition. If we’re talking about learning in formal settings, which is what we’re doing here, they do need metacognition. And there are three things that really need to be in place before they can think in a metacognitive way. So we need to encourage teachers to ask themselves questions relating to that. So the first one would be, do my students have a positive self-concept? So how do they view themselves as a learner? Because belief is everything. The belief that a learner brings with them into a classroom is going to make a huge difference to what they do or don’t achieve. So the other question apart from what’s their self-concept like is, if they don’t have a positive self-concept, what am I going to do about that as a teacher? Because we can’t move forward if if we don’t ask ourselves that question. Then the second thing would be, do my students understand the learning process? So the learning process consists basically of believing in yourself to start with but then coming across a challenge, in other words, something you’ve not met before, so it’s new, so it seems challenging, being prepared to meet that challenge, being prepared to make the mistakes that engaging with that challenge will bring because it’s new and different and we to try it out to see what happens.

[00:10:32.950] – Liz

And then thirdly, the being prepared to practice. Once we understand how a thing works or the way that we’re supposed to think about it, that then requires some practice. And we’ve got plenty of students who feel unable to face challenge, are afraid of making mistakes, who don’t see the need to practice, they’re embarrassed if they get it wrong first time, and don’t see that you can have multiple goes at something. So following that process, is really important. So as teacher needs to ask themselves, do my students understand that that is the learning process? And if not, what will I do about that? And then the third thing, again, we’re talking about the three things that a learner needs in order to think effectively in a metacognitive way. And the third thing is having an active role. So that’s another thing that teachers need to learn to ask, do my students appreciate that they have an active role to play in their own progress? And if not, what What will I do about that? It’s no good identifying there’s a problem there if we don’t then work out how we’re going to address it. And then some other questions.

[00:11:39.740] – Liz

Again, these are questions that teachers need to be encouraged to ask themselves. So am I just throwing information out there hoping it will stick? Or am I actually planning lessons in such a way that students become involved with their own learning? And then to follow on from that, does my planning schedule actually have a column for what the student is doing at any given time in order to engage with the learning? Or is it just about my role as the teacher? And again, in line with that, am I planning how students will learn rather than what they should learn? So a teacher should really be starting from, okay, yes, I have to follow a curriculum. What comes next on the curriculum? What do I need the students to learn rather, what am I going to teach them? What do I need them to learn? And how am I going to make sure that they learn it? So it’s coming at it from the opposite direction, really. And one useful question that teachers can ask themselves is, what does it feel like to be a student in one of my classes? Put yourself behind one of the desks in an imaginary way and think about what experience the students are having in your classroom.

[00:12:57.940] – Liz

Is there any opportunity, actually, for them to think for themselves? And particularly, my pet thing is, what does it feel like to be a student in one of my classes for someone who finds learning difficult? Which is another step on that thought process. So there’s lots of questions that we can encourage teachers to ask that will open up this idea of having a more metacognitive classroom, if you like.

[00:13:25.440] – Steve

Thank you. Your descriptions were terrific, and I’m smiling all the time I’m listening because my big phrase is, teachers don’t cause student achievements, students cause student achievements.

[00:13:37.130] – Liz

Yeah, exactly.

[00:13:38.660] – Steve

If the teacher has to figure out what is it they have to do and how do I go about getting them to do it? Because that answer is different for different kids.

[00:13:50.360] – Liz

Exactly. And it’s one of the things that I point out to schools as well, when they talk about the need to raise attainment, and they turn to the school or the school leaders or the teachers to raise attainment. And I have to point out to them, it’s not none of you that are going to raise attainment. It’s going to be the students. So that’s where you need to focus. So I agree with you.

[00:14:12.940] – Steve

I love it. So a lot of our listeners here are coaches and school administrators. They’re in classrooms. And my big push when I’m working with them is that most value will come if They spend their time observing the students more than observing the teacher. So could you label some things – I was first thinking, label some things that will signal you that the students are engaged in this cognitive process, but maybe we need to know some of the things that would signal that they aren’t. You decide the best way to paint the picture

[00:15:01.890] – Liz

I think what’s interesting here is if you’re looking for signs that students are engaging in metacognition, it’s not necessarily the ones who are looking at the teacher intently or who have their heads down. Because a learner can be looking at the teacher and their head can be completely empty. Some teachers are obsessed with everybody looking at them, but it means nothing at all when it comes to learning. Or if they’ve got their heads down working, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doing the right thing or that they are engaging with the learning. They may be copying something or answering questions, but they’re not necessarily thinking about the learning. So the way to identify students who are thinking in a metacognitive way is that they’ve got certain characteristics. So one that comes up frequently is they will ask extra questions. They want to understand. They’re thinking about it, and therefore they ask extra questions. They will often turn and chat to others to try clarify their thinking and often want to talk about it out loud. They often seek alternative views. They will ask people what they think to see if they can add to their own thought processes.

[00:16:12.910] – Liz

They’re comfortable with trial and error. So they tend to be the students that have a lot of crossing out on their work because they’re experimenting with ideas and they’re going, oh, no, that’s not going to work, and crossing it through. So they can appear messy in their working. They take time to think about what they’re doing. So they sometimes take longer to complete work because they’re not just following the instructions, they’re actually trying to work out. And they’re more concerned about understanding the concept than they are about having the evidence in their book with their written answers to the questions. So sometimes the work just isn’t complete, but they’ve understood it. And once they’ve understood it, they often feel, well, why do I need to write that down? I got it. And so they’re happy to work things out for themselves, and They don’t always want an explanation from the teacher. They get bored with explanations from the teacher because they want to think it through and have the thrill that comes from working it out. They tend to be the ones that are comfortable with challenge. They relish a challenge. They’re happy making mistakes, and they appreciate the need to practice, and will do so.

[00:17:21.500] – Liz

But I think what’s really important when it comes to that is what we are praising as teachers. What is it we praise? Because if you think about the things that students in school often get praised for, it’s completing the work, it’s the work being neat and tidy, it’s having all the correct answers, it’s about having sat and worked quietly and not interrupted anybody, not challenging the teacher, not disrupting anybody else, listening carefully. And those are the things we praise and yet a child can do all of those things and learn absolutely nothing. So the things that we need to be looking out for praising, if we want students to think in a metacognitive way, is who’s putting in the effort? Who’s really trying? Who’s willing to engage their brain and try and work things out. Who’s asking relevant questions to help them understand it? Who’s collaborating with other people and asking about what other people are thinking in order to help their own understanding? Who’s trying to reason things out for themselves instead of automatically asking someone else for the answer? And who’s showing resilience in the face of challenge, again, without resorting to support from someone else to do it?

[00:18:44.650] – Liz

Those are the students who are thinking in a metacognitive way, and yet they’re the ones that often get disciplined for talking to other people, being out of their seats with the enthusiasm that they show, questioning the teacher, and going in their own way, as it were, thinking independently, they are more likely to receive discipline for that than they are praise. So we really need to think about what it is that we are praising if we want students to learn to think for themselves.

[00:19:16.600] – Steve

As I was listening to you, I just thought we could actually take the list that you gave us there and almost give that list to the students in a conversation of when do you show these behaviors? Powerful. When you were talking about the behaviors, a picture came to my mind – my wife is an elementary counselor, and she goes in the classroom sometimes to do workshop sessions with kids. And so she was doing one on perseverance. And she put this diagram puzzle up on the board for the kids to try and solve and gave them a length of time to solve it. And it was getting near the end of the period that she had, and she had to leave, oo she said, Okay, I’m going to clip on a video clip now and show you how to solve it. And this little girl, just fourth grade, she turned her chair around so that she was basically away from the board. She covered up her ears.

[00:20:21.960] – Liz

[laughter] Spoil the fun, why don’t you?

[00:20:24.570] – Steve

[laughter] No way are you spoiling this for me. I’m taking this home tonight. We laughed about, to capture that on video and be able to show it to teachers. Now you know you’ve got a kid that’s truly engaged in thinking.

[00:20:38.930] – Liz

Yeah. And we do far too much of that, spoiling their fun.

[00:20:42.910] – Steve

Yeah. So how about leadership behaviors? What are some of the things that you talk about school leaders doing that best impact the likelihood of getting their teachers to be exploring the approach coach to teaching that you’re describing?

[00:21:02.170] – Liz

Yeah. I think the really important thing is to lead from the top. Nothing’s going to happen if the school leaders are not already modeling, if you like, what they want done. They have to make a conscious decision to have a metacognitive focus and then share that across the staff. This is what we want to achieve in the future. So that’s why I always encourage a whole school approach, because you’ll often get an individual teacher who gets really excited about this thing, and we’ll have a wonderful classroom, but then the students move in to another teacher and it all changes again. So you need that whole school approach. It’s useful. What some schools in the UK are doing is appointing someone that’s taking the lead on metacognition, a metacognition champion, if you like. So appointing somebody like that who will be keeping an eye on or mentoring staff who are interested in improving that. A good idea if the current plan the planning templates don’t include a student activity column to create new templates so that what the student is doing and what the student is learning is the main focus on the planning rather than what the teacher wants to teach.

[00:22:15.470] – Liz

That’s the difference I’ve discussed with teachers sometimes, and they talk about objectives and outcomes, that the objectives are what the teacher is planning to do. It’s their objectives, what they’re planning on teaching. The outcomes are what’s going to change for the student as a result of that lesson. So we need to focus more on that, on the student outcomes and how they are going to achieve that. Another thing that works quite well is to have a whole school weekly question, because you were saying earlier on about it being this questioning process that is too complicated to just throw all the questions at them to start with. But you can do it as a school to have a weekly question starting as long as the students are old enough. I would have said probably at least over six years old, maybe seven. The first question that they need to learn to ask themselves is, what have I actually been asked to do? Because some children fall at that first hurdle. They have not yet registered what it is that they have actually been asked to do. And then the teachers can all teach that question to every child in every class for that week.

[00:23:25.470] – Liz

And then don’t forget what this week’s question is, what have you actually been asked to do? And then the following week, you could add another one, which could be something like, what should the finished product look like? What am I aiming for? And just gradually build up the question so that in every class, the teacher is modeling and leading on how to ask yourself questions. The important thing is that they have to allow the students valid ways of finding out. It’s no good saying, what have I been asked to do? And then telling them off, if they turn to ask the person next to them, what is it we’ve been asked to do to check? You have to allow the scope for them to follow up on those questions and find what you want is for them to find out for themselves without asking the teacher again, if possible. Asking the teacher would be a valid way of doing it, but maybe the last resort. So we teach them how to go through that process for themselves. So what we really want is for them to become more independent. Anything that contributes to them thinking for themselves and knowing what to do to help themselves.

[00:24:32.100] – Liz

But I think your point about the fact that that needs to come from the top, that school leaders need to say, this is how we’re going to be doing it, and then help the teachers, train the teachers to work in that way so that it ends up impacting on the students. Because as we’ve said earlier, that’s where you want the impact is on the students, not anywhere else, really.

[00:24:55.470] – Steve

You’re connecting two models to that. I was just working with a principal this week, who’s looking to increase student engagement and thinking. And I said, well, the first starter is going to be at your staff meetings. How do we design the staff meeting so that you’re causing the teachers to engage at the level you want the kids to engage in. Then a lot of the work that I do in the area of coaching, so instructional coaches and administrators, having conversations with teachers about observations or planning should be looking to take teachers through that same metacognitive process that we want with kids.

[00:25:40.160] – Liz

I think one of the biggest changes that we can help teachers with is to – I mean, teaching is a great profession, but one of the things that we need to do is take a step back and maybe think of ourselves as facilitators. So we’re facilitating opportunities from which children can learn, and we are there to support. We’re providing the opportunities, we’re providing the activities, and we’re there to support their learning, but just take a step back and let them learn.

[00:26:10.700] – Steve

I work with one school that actually changed from teacher to facilitator. They use that term. Here’s your child’s facilitator. This facilitator is working in this room as part of helping them to communicate that message.

[00:26:25.630] – Steve

Well, Liz, I am just delighted that you and I connected to set this up. I was smiling the whole time I’m listening. I’m so glad to get my listeners the opportunity to hear your words and you’re thinking. What’s the best way for listeners who might want to follow up with you, maybe connect with your online newsletter and know more about the work you’re doing?

[00:26:53.650] – Liz

Yeah, there’s two or three things they can do. If they want to email me, then the email address is success@lizkeable.Com. The website, lizkeable.com, has a downloadable document which is about 30 pages called “The A to Z of Supporting Learner Achievement,” which is full of success stories from my own career. So if anybody’s interested, they can download that from the website. Just be aware that if you do, that it will automatically put your name onto to my email list. So as long as you’re happy for that, then go ahead and download it. Or people can connect on… If they’re on LinkedIn, then they can just let me know, just put my name in and find me and then just ask to connect. But let me know it’s as a result of this podcast so that I accept their connection.

[00:27:49.660] – Steve

Terrific. We’ll post all of those in the lead-in to the podcast. So if listeners missed it, they can go back and find them.

[00:27:56.420] – Liz


[00:27:57.480] – Steve

Thank you again. Just delightful.

[00:27:59.620] – Liz

You’re Welcome, Steve. We’re on the same page.

[00:28:04.370] – Steve

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn at Steve Barkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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