‘Thinking about thinking’; maximising academic standards and efficiency

Not all the savings schools need to make can be made on procurement – or other such ‘usual suspects’. There’s also room for savings to be made in the classroom. Metacognition, and simply understanding how we learn, can be high-impact, low-cost ways of improving student progress and attainment.

Stuart Gardner, chief executive of The Thinking Schools Academy Trust, discusses how cognitive education has driven the success of a leading multi-academy trust.

The challenge of how to maximise both academic standards and efficiency in schools is universal and long-standing – but, in these straitened times, it may be more at the forefront of educators’ minds than ever before. Funding challenges or not, those of us in the education sector should always be aiming for school improvement strategies which are also cost-effective. The answer is paradoxically simple: using neuroscience to offer a cognitive education.

Thinking about thinking
At the Thinking Schools Academy Trust we have pioneered an ethos focused on metacognition – or ‘thinking about thinking’ – and it underpins all our teaching. Time and again it’s been shown to be highly successful in improving student outcomes; its impact has been highlighted by researchers, including at the Education Endowment Foundation.

Metacognition, and developing an understanding of how the brain learns, are demonstrably high-impact, cost-efficient ways of improving student progress and attainment.

It certainly works for us and our schools, having had a hugely positive impact on both student engagement and student performance. Three of the four secondary schools in our trust joined us between 2013 and 2015 – either in special measures or re-brokered because of weak school performance – yet, all are now rated ‘good’ or better by Ofsted. Further, in January, the Department for Education ranked us as the leading multi-academy trust in the country for Progress 8, which measures progress by students from age 11 to the end of their GCSEs. At the same time as achieving significant improvements in academic results, these three schools also cut their expenditure by almost £2m.

Healthy in budget and mind
Cognitive education is all about understanding how the brain works. It’s about having a ‘second mind’ which can stand back and reflect on how well one is thinking and how well one is taking in information. British educationalist Dylan Wiliam has described it as, “The single most important thing for teachers to know.” It enables students to become masters of their own education and to think independently and creatively.

Yet many teachers, while aware of it, don’t necessarily know how to harness the power of metacognition. In 2014 the Wellcome Trust reported that only one in four teachers had knowledge of neuroscience, but that more than four in five were interested in how the brain worked. This suggests that teachers instinctively know that understanding how the brain works is an important part of good teaching and learning – but they have not acquired this knowledge as part of their training or ongoing professional development.

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It’s all easy…if you know how
The trick for schools is making metacognition and neuroscience work consistently, at a whole-school level, in order to generate a real impact. We have used the Exeter University ‘Thinking School’ accreditation programme to drive the development of metacognition and the use of neuroscience in our schools.

In essence, metacognition is not about teaching children, as such, but about teaching their brains. The human brain can only do so many things at once – and the more it’s doing, the less capacity it has for new learning. Therefore, teachers and schools should be trying to reduce students’ ‘cognitive load’ as much as possible to maximise the capacity for learning.

Unburdening the cognitive load
How language is used, for instance, can be a barrier to learning because it can add significant, unseen cognitive load to students. For example, teachers in the same school may use different phrases to describe the same process – spider diagram; thought shower; brainstorm; list – all are different ways to describe the same process of jotting down your thoughts about a particular topic. For a student who is taught by as many as 12 different teachers this adds up to a significant cognitive load, as the student has to hold on to different phrases or instructions used by their different teachers to describe the same processes as they move from lesson to lesson.

To overcome this we have developed a common ‘language of learning’ within our schools where we have agreed terminology and structures for most learning activities. We have used Dr David Hyerle’s ‘Thinking Maps’ to describe most processes in the classroom – defining, classifying, describing, comparing and contrasting, sequencing, cause and effect and creating analogies. We have then added in De Bono’s Six Hats to enable students to recognise the type of thinking they need to engage in – process, facts, feelings, benefits, creative and cautious. In combination, this approach gives a common framework to describe almost any classroom activity imaginable.

Maximum income, minimum cost
At a time when schools are looking to maximise impact on student performance in the most cost-efficient way possible, it makes sense to focus on ensuring that the way in which we teach our students in the classroom has the maximum impact on their progress and attainment.

The real challenge is for school leaders to manage the change, to embed these practices at a deep level across their schools, and to support educators to understand that teaching and learning is a team game where consistency creates benefits far beyond the sum of its parts.

When this is achieved, the end result is much greater cost-efficiency, superb academic results and a group of students whose thinking skills enable them to tackle any problem confidently, perform brilliantly, cope with whatever is thrown at them – and then go on to succeed in life after school.

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