Developing learning and teaching practices for adults: perspectives from conceptual change and metacognition research

Theoretical issues concerning adult learning - Combining conceptual change and metacognition research to adult development

In adult development and learning research there has been wide discussion concerning how adults develop knowledge and understanding through different phases or levels. Many of the models have already been discussed in this book. We can illuminate adult learning by two theoretical approaches, conceptual change and metacognition, that have widely inspired the research done on learning and instruction during the past 50 years. Our leading question is: how do adults learn and how can their learning processes be facilitated in formal or informal learning environments from the perspective of conceptual change and metacognition? By conceptual change, we mean a specific form of learning in which an individual more or less radically changes their existing knowledge or conceptual structures and perceives the world from a qualitatively different perspective (Sinatra & Mason, 2013; Vosniadou, 1994). Research into conceptual change has been multidisciplinary, stemming from philosophy of science, science education, developmental psychology, and educational psychology.

The metaphor “conceptual change” comes from Thomas Kuhn (1962) who, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolution, describes how changes in paradigms in the scientific community take place. Scientific thinking does not develop logically in a linear way but often seems to be incoherent — requiring researchers to solve cognitive conflicts when counterintuitive evidence is emerging. The changes among paradigms, scientific revolutions, seem to follow a pattern from normal science with a paradigm, to a dedication to solving puzzles, then serious anomalies may come up, leading to crisis and then, finally, resolution by a new paradigm takes place (Kuhn, 1962). The paradigm shift seems not to be a “direct line to the truth, but progress away from inadequate conceptions of, and towards interaction with the world”

(Hacking, 2012). In this process, researchers work hard on problems: they reflect and share their ideas in scientific articles, and become more and more aware of the problems as well as regulating their working towards appropriate theoretical and practical solutions. That is, they work in a metacognitive way.

Metacognition traditionally refers to knowledge of cognition and regulation of cognitive processes (Brown, 1978, 1987; Flavell, 1976, 2000; Flavell, Miller, & Miller, 1993). This means that metacognition consists of two intertwined parts. On the one hand, metacognition refers to knowledge of cognitive matters, e.g., to knowledge of properties of human mind and that a learner is aware that sometimes he or she, some other person or people, in general, understand, do not understand, understand incorrectly, or misunderstand something (Flavell et al., 1993). On the other hand, metacognition consists of a procedural pan (e.g., Efldides, 2006; Veenman, 2011; Veenman & Elshout, 1999), which is the executive function for regulating actual cognitive activities (Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, & Campione, 1983; Flavell & Miller, 1998; Veenman & Elshout, 1999), e.g., a learner controls during the learning process: “how I am doing?”, “does this make sense?” (see Brown & DeLoache, 1983). In successful learning, both parts are needed. For example, a learner might have knowledge of strategies to achieve a learning goal (see Flavell et al., 1993; Veenman & Elshout, 1999). However, this kind of metacognitive knowledge does not necessarily mean that the learner is using that knowledge during the process to achieve the learning goal, for example to understand something (see Veenman, 2011). That is why metacognitive regulation processes are needed while the learner monitors the use of strategies during the process and purposefully changes them if needed.

However, it is important to note that metacognition differs from cognitive strategies as the role of cognitive strategies is to make cognitive progress and to achieve cognitive goals, whereas the role of metacognition is to monitor and regulate them and to make sure that the goal is achieved (see Flavell, 1979, 1987). Thus, metacognition can be seen as a cognitive mechanism which monitors (Flavell, 1979, 1987) and controls (Wertsch, 1977) other cognitive processes. As the prefix “meta” shows, metacognition signifies “cognition about cognition” (Flavell, 2000; Flavell et al., 1993).

As Deanna Kuhn (1989) states, the idea of metacognition can also be seen in many earlier theories of cognition and development (e.g., Piaget, Vygotsky) that view it as a characteristic of human capacity, a person’s ability to reflect on his or her own thinking. Also, the conceptual change tradition uses the concept of meta-conceptual awareness which refers to a person’s awareness of existing conceptions (Vosniadou, 2013). In this article, in line with Mason and colleagues (2017), awareness is seen at a meta-level, referring to a learner’s awareness of his or her own conceptions and scientific conceptions. Thus, the focus of metaconceptual awareness is seen, especially, in the conceptual point of view, whereas the scope of metacognitive knowledge can be seen as broader (e.g., focusing on the nature of knowledge of a person’s thinking, tasks and strategies; see Flavell, 2000) and more general (e.g., not so close to actual cognitive processing; see Efldides, 2001) without a specific focus, in particular, on the conceptual point of view.

However, different concepts, such as metacognitive knowledge, regulation, as well as metaconceptual awareness, are regarded as essential in the conceptual change process. In line with these viewpoints, metacognition deals with “reflective abstraction of new or existing cognitive structures. (...) [and] emphasizes learner development over learner-environment interactions” (Dinsmore, Alexander, & Loughlin, 2008, p. 393). Thus, metacognition, as well as strategies, can be seen to have a central role in conceptualising the development of scientific thinking processes and, in this process, thinking about theories and evidence is needed (Kuhn, 1989). This requires learners to inspect and become aware of their thinking processes to gain control over the theories and evidence in their own thinking. If learners are not aware of the nature of theories and their logics and limits, this can cause difficulties to inspect how these theories are or are not made up of evidence (Flavell et al., 1993; Kuhn, 1989, 2000). Hence, metacognition can be seen as a profitable vehicle for inspecting learners’ thinking processes and promoting conceptual change. However, the conceptual change and metacognition research traditions have mostly developed separately without close interaction with each other.

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