The case for metacognition

A central argument for expanding the critical thinking curriculum has to do with the cognitive skills necessary for success in the modern world. First, globalization and technology have led to social upheavals, economic volatility, and global competition. Technical knowledge can become obsolete quickly. Linear and stable careers are becoming exceptions rather than the norm. The average US citizen born in the latter baby boomer years (1957-64) would have had ten jobs by age forty (US Department of Labor 2012). Critical thinking is of course more important than ever in this environment of accelerating changes. But it has to be supported by the motivation and ability to engage in lifelong learning. Metacognitive education can help students learn how to acquire new skills and expertise quickly and effectively.

Another facet of the modern economy is the high premium placed upon creativity. Nowadays, a good idea can leverage global capital and technology to achieve a worldwide impact never before possible. Consider Facebook, the popular social networking website. It began as an idea of an undergraduate student, but it reached one billion monthly active users in less than ten years. If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world after China and India. Its phenomenal success is a good reminder that we should never underestimate the power of a good idea. It also means companies and individuals must constantly adapt and innovate in order to deal with new challenges and opportunities. But when it comes to innovation, it is artificial to separate critical thinking and creativity. They work intimately together in solving the complex problems in our personal and professional lives. Without creativity, critical thinking is impotent in changing the world. But creativity in turn requires critical thinking in testing and implementing ideas. Yet the teaching of critical thinking in universities is typically completely divorced from the topic of creativity. If we are serious about helping students become more effective thinkers, there should be a better integration of these two topics. Metacognitive education can help students become more adept at monitoring their own thinking and reasoning, and there is evidence that this will enhance creative problem solving (Hargrove 2012). Our students can increase their awareness of the heuristics for solving problems and try to internalize them. They can also find inspiration in the thinking processes and habits of creative people and reflect upon the conditions that promote creativity.

However, it should be emphasized that the case for metacognition is not solely a response to new economic realities. Nor should it be seen as an attempt to turn universities into job training camps. Whatever projects we choose to engage in, the complexity of the modern world has created tremendous opportunities and challenges. We live in a world beset with deep problems in politics and social justice, and the destruction of the environment is threatening our survival. Social progress depends in part on an informed citizenry being able to think about complicated issues critically and imaginatively and to overcome parochial biases and prejudices. To help our students make better decisions and improve their reasoning, we need to equip them with a more versatile thinking toolkit. This requires taking into account recent research in education, cognitive science, social psychology, behavioral economics, and related disciplines. This paper argues that a converging theme from these diverse fields is that metacognition plays a crucial role in improving thinking skills in the long run.

A key insight of the metacognitive approach is that being a good thinker is not simply a matter of knowing the principles of correct reasoning. It has to be supported by an appropriate system of knowledge, skills, and character traits. Nearly a century ago, John Dewey argued for the importance of teaching "reflective thinking," which is the examination of an idea "in light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends" (Dewey 1933, 7). Reflective thinking is the precursor to what we now call critical thinking, and it includes a fair amount of logic. But interestingly, Dewey emphasized that theoretical knowledge is not sufficient for developing reflective thinking. Other personal qualities, such as being curious and open-minded, are also relevant if not more important:

If we were compelled to make a choice between these personal attributes and knowledge about the principles of logical reasoning together with some degree of technical skill in manipulating special logical processes, we should decide for the former. Fortunately no such choice has to be made, because there is no opposition between personal attitudes and logical processes. We only need to bear in mind that, with respect to the aims of education, no separation can be made between impersonal, abstract principles of logic and moral qualities of character. What is needed is to weave them into unity. (Dewey 1933, 34)

More recent authors agree with Dewey that critical thinking requires not just knowledge but a range of thinking dispositions, motivations, and attitudes. Langer (1989) argues for the importance of "mindfulness." The philosopher Richard Paul has urged that critical thinkers ought to develop "fair-mindedness" (Paul, Willsen, and Binker 1993). Costa (1991) lists fifteen "habits of mind," while Perkins, Jay, and Tishman (1993) offer seven key thinking dispositions:

  • 1. to be broad and adventurous,
  • 2. toward sustained intellectual activity,
  • 3. to clarify and seek understanding,
  • 4. to be planful and strategic,
  • 5. to be intellectually careful,
  • 6. to seek and evaluate reasons, and
  • 7. to be metacognitive.

Notice that metacognition is explicitly mentioned in this list as a thinking disposition, which is explained as

the tendency to be aware of and monitor the flow of one's own thinking; alertness to complex thinking situations; the ability to exercise control of mental processes and to be reflective. (Perkins, Jay, and Tishman 1993, 148)

Halpern (1998) also includes metacognition in her four-part model of critical thinking instruction, one of which is the teaching of "metacognitive monitoring." This includes for example checking for accuracy, examining progress, and making appropriate decisions about the allocation of time and mental effort in problem solving.

We agree there is a whole spectrum of attitudes and dispositions that are conducive to critical thinking. We also firmly believe that metacognition enhances critical thinking (see Magno [2010] for a review of the empirical evidence). Our approach builds upon these observations but is different in at least three ways. First, we think metacognition should not be conceived as just one among many thinking dispositions. Rather, it is a set of higher-order cognitive skills and dispositions that help us acquire and regulate other thinking dispositions. Thinking dispositions are often described as intellectual virtues. Like their moral counterparts, putting special effort into one of them might mean less cognitive resources for the rest. Metacognitive self-regulation helps us achieve a better balance between these dispositions. Moreover, as Aristotle has pointed out, virtues lie between excesses and deficiencies. Being careful is a good disposition, but being overcautious can be just as bad as being careless. It is good to have a plan and be reflective, but it is also possible to overdeliberate. Given individual differences, we each have our own pattern of excesses and deficiencies. Higher-order monitoring is needed to correct and fine-tune our cognitive dispositions, and this is precisely a central function of metacognition.

The second distinctive feature of our approach concerns the role of knowledge in metacognition. Perkins, Jay, and Tishman (1993) and Halpern (1998) focus on the self-monitoring and self-regulatory aspect of metacognition, such as paying attention to our reasoning and tracking our progress. These dispositions are of course very important for critical and creative thinking. But we want to emphasize that these dispositions have to be supported by a suitable level of scientific knowledge about cognition. Reasoning itself is a cognitive process.

There is a wealth of information from psychology and cognitive science about how reasoning might fail, and how it can be made more accurate and efficient. Recent research has found that our thinking processes and dispositions are very much affected by the quirks and biases of our cognitive architecture, often in surprising and unexpected ways (Kahneman 2011). For example, we ought to be aware of our own thinking, but we often overestimate our abilities and underestimate our susceptibility to biases. Seeking more alternatives is a good habit of thought, but having too many choices can be counter-effective and leads to decision fatigue (Iyengar and Lepper 2000). Objectivity and fair- mindedness are admirable traits, but in some situations priming a sense of objectivity can actually increase discrimination (Uhlmann and Cohen 2007). What this means is that a careful, critical, and reflective attitude has its limitations. We can achieve a lot more when this attitude is combined with a suitable level of psychological literacy that helps us combat hard-to-detect biases and enhance the accuracy and effectiveness of our thinking.

The third distinctive aspect of our approach is that the teaching of critical thinking is conceptualized as one component of metacognitive education, rather than the other way around. There is widespread agreement that critical thinking ought to be one of the central aims of education. But it is also hard to deny that there are many other cognitive skills that are desirable for our students. We have already argued for the importance of creativity and lifelong learning. Others might add that our students also need to enhance their social and cultural sensibilities, emotional intelligence, and leadership and self-management skills. Again, it is worth emphasizing that this is not just a matter of getting students ready for the workplace. It is simply a recognition that there is a multitude of skills that helps us become successful at our projects, whatever they are. However, the cultivation of these skills is a lifelong process, depending on factors such as intelligence, upbringing, and personal effort. It is unrealistic to think our students can achieve their full cognitive potential with just a few years of university education. Ultimately, our students have to be responsible for their own learning and personal growth, taking into account their own unique circumstances. This implies putting critical thinking within a larger framework of higher-order cognitive skills that helps students embark on their lifelong journey of self-development. Such a framework will include basic competence in critical thinking and problem solving, an enhanced awareness of the importance of self-knowledge and positive personal habits, and the use of empirically validated methods to acquire new expertise and improve one's performance. This is what metacognitive education is all about. As we shall see later in this paper, metacognitive competence not only enhances critical thinking. More generally, it is also linked to many positive outcomes in life, helping us attain achievements that go far beyond our IQ or innate talent. We shall now discuss the nature of metacognitive education in more detail. In particular, we propose that the curriculum should include four main components:

  • 1. Meta-conceptions. These are our core concepts about the nature and norms of high-level cognition. These concepts are of special importance because misunderstanding can prevent us from adopting the correct principles of thinking and learning.
  • 2. General knowledge about cognition. This refers to more specific principles about cognition that can improve our thinking. They include: (a) knowledge about good thinking skills, such as the principles of critical thinking, heuristics for creative thinking, problem-solving methods, and decision theory; (b) scientific knowledge about psychological processes such as memory and reasoning, and how their performance might be affected by biases and other factors.
  • 3. Meta self-knowledge. Having an accurate understanding of one's thinking skills and related dispositions, as opposed to general knowledge about cognition that applies to most people. Accurate self-understanding is important for knowing our strengths and weaknesses and for identifying areas of improvement.
  • 4. Self-regulation. How to monitor and control our cognitive processes and resources effectively and develop cognitive dispositions and personality traits conducive to better thinking and learning and other positive life outcomes.

We now discuss each of these four parts in turn.

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