In science class, a sixth grade boy’s eyes locked on the etrog, entranced by the delicate balancing of the pitom. After the class exploration of plant reproduction, the student’s view of this mitzvah was forever changed! Even though he may have looked at an etrog many times, he was now observing through the prism of his wider knowledge and deeper understanding. He had connected his scientific comprehension of a structure and its function to his mitzvah observance. This approach, where the student is self-aware and directs his learning experience by explicitly asking questions, exploring sources in order to find answers, and then bridging his learning across multiple domains, is the crux of a metacognitive school experience.
...Invisible, as Music-/ But Positive, as Sounds -/ It beckons, and it baffles -...So Emily Dickinson wrote in poem 373, but also, how true for children! Learning beckons our elementary school students; it is electrifying, positive, dominated by young children’s curiosity, and yet, it baffles them, too. Many aspects of the learning process are invisible to the young. The processes of academic success, the wherewithal to self-regulate emotions and the ability to navigate social situations all benefit from direct and explicit instruction. Learning is all about making the invisibles of this world visible.
As the fresh school year begins, each teacher focuses on what invisibles to make visible to enable greater classroom growth. Are there invisible school cultural barriers for some students? Are there invisible procedural steps that are not fully articulated and, therefore, frustrating for students? Are there students whose needs are unmet because the subtle gaps in their skill set are invisible? Are there invisible abstract concepts that are the root of a procedural difficulty? Is there an invisible foundational skill that needs strengthening? Is a child’s learning style invisible to herself and/or to her teacher?
In a metacognitive classroom, there is a strong emphasis on making the wide spectrum of invisible aspects of the learning process visible to students. Let’s explore some real-world examples I recently observed in two RPRY classrooms.
Many common invisibles with young children are related to time, numbers and body regulation. A short while ago, I witnessed the kindergarten teacher supporting a student through changes in a weekly job chart. Using concrete objects and clear language, the teacher practiced the job chart with the student so that the student could kinesthetically understand what to expect. By making each and every step of the process explicit, the student was able to genuinely understand his job. Each child’s picture was attached to a popsicle stick and there were eight rotating jobs. She had the student move the student pictures into each pocket with her so that the process was tangible. He comprehended that eight students each week had a job and the other half of the class was “in the bag,” and as each student moved down the chart, the last student went back in the bag and a new student was pulled out of the bag to start at the top. In addition, there was another “invisible” aspect to this chart, and those were the jobs themselves. Subsequently, the teacher continued on successive days to model with the student what each job entailed. Each time a new job was anticipated, she practiced with him in advance and asked questions that encouraged verbalization of self-monitoring.
“What do we do with our body when we are the line caboose?”
“What do we do with our body when we are the door holder?”
“How do we use our hands when we are the paper giver?”
In this way, the student was integrated into an important social and cultural aspect of the class.
This past week, the eighth grade language arts teacher wanted to introduce his boys’ and girls’ classes to a short work that was written in the stream of consciousness style. Through socratic dialogue with the students, he realized that the students’ conception of a story was still entirely shaped by their focus on a traditional plotline with concrete actions. By encouraging self examination, he had the students generate questions about the structure of the story.
“Where is the rising action?” one girl asked.
“What is the climax here? Does it actually happen in the story?” a boy queried.
“Why does the paragraph jump from one topic to the next in each sentence?” another boy questioned.
Next, the teacher guided the students in a self-awareness exercise to demystify a little bit of their own thought processes. He asked them to become cognizant of the multitude of thoughts that were passing through their heads in class at that time and document them. The students were thus able to grasp the technique and it concretized in a meaningful way that people have about 50,000 thoughts per day! However, the teacher realized there was still another invisible barrier. The students were conflating the author and the story narrator. Through further socratic dialogue and deep teacher questioning, the students discerned for themselves that the author was imagining the stream of thought for a particular character, and it was not the stream of consciousness of the author herself.
Metacognitive teachers are self-reflective so they anticipate what will be stumbling blocks to successful learning and plan accordingly. The invisibles of learning can be opaque and it is the task of the teacher to be nimble and uncloak them.
By Chana Luchins
Mrs. Luchins is the assistant principal of general studies at the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva. She is a consummate educator with over 20 years of experience, from early childhood through grade 12. She holds a master’s degree in special education from Touro College. Mrs. Luchins has extensive professional development across subject areas, including reading instruction with Wilson/Orton Gillingham reading, math instruction with both constructivist and metacognitive/Neo-Vygotskian training, writing instruction with Hochman, as well as in the thoughtful incorporation of blended learning.