DO WE NEED TO TEACH SELF-REGULATION?

Achieving independence and self-regulation in learning is the holy grail of education, but how to go about it is as equally mystical. Essential to the quest is developing a rich schema through the building and interaction of knowledge, and whilst belief in the explicit teaching of students in how to think about their thinking processes (metacognition) and how to evaluate them as being an integral part of self-regulation is gaining momentum (EEF), this 2 part post will seek to extend the current understanding by discussing whether it is necessary to promote critical and creative thinking inside subject domains. The essay also expounds on Zimmerman and Moylan’s 2009 paper that theorises that motivation is inextricably linked to both of these metacognitive processes, can’t be omitted from the discussion, and in fact needs to be explicitly taught to students in equal measure. As Kuhn exhorts, ’People must see the point of thinking if they are to engage in it.’  

WE ALL WANT 21ST CENTURY SKILLS 

Whilst many argue that labelling skills such as critical thinking and creativity as ‘21st century’ does an injustice to those who for thousands of years exhibited such proficiency in them, few could argue that there is a growing demand for graduates to be strong in these areas in the age of increasingly automated and mechanised jobs. How to equip students with such skills then has become the mission of educators, but many well-intentioned educators have erroneously conflated the desired outcome with a direct pedagogy, succinctly stated by Kirschner: the epistemology of a discipline should not be confused with a pedagogy for teaching or learning it. The practice of a profession is not the same as learning to practise the profession. There are plenty of excellent voices who assent to this notion, none better then Daisy Christodoulou, specifically pointing to the fact that thinking critically or creatively relies entirely on a strong bedrock of knowledge and can’t be taught in the abstract. If we think about this it seems rather logical – you can’t think about things you have no knowledge of, and most creativity is the accommodation of knowledge already in existence. Such constraints make the application of such skills heavily context and domain dependent. But what tends to be lacking from such unequivocal pedagogy is the answer to this question: once the foundations of knowledge are secure, do students need explicit modelling of how to think critically and creatively with that knowledge? I contend that the answer is yes.  

If we consider how learning is characterised by the acquisition of schema, and how crucial modelling is in that continuum, I would argue that modelling how to play with knowledge is no less important than modelling the knowledge itself. However, it is something that is often overlooked in modern curricula for three reasons:  

  • Because we sometimes assume that students will naturally think in these ways  
  • Because of the need to fit in so much content in so little time  
  • Because it is hard to assess, relying on subjective and therefore unstable evaluation 

The first relies on Geary’s theory of primary vs secondary knowledge. The exposition of the theory is that once sufficient knowledge is obtained, the mixing/matching and challenging/critiquing of what is understood should become axiomatic. From my experience though, without the continuous prompting by the teacher to engage with the knowledge in this way, such an outcome tends to rely heavily on a student being highly motivated in a specific domain of knowledge, with the less interested, but equally as capable student, content with achieving in assessment but not necessarily interested in exploring the content further. But what is notable however about the self-motivated student, is that they still will undertake a process of learning in how to mix and match and challenge what they know, albeit, independently: it is through the experimentation of their thinking and its evaluation that they may eventually arrive at something unique and interesting, but this ostensibly natural skill is actually being practised and refined to be maximised – and quite possibly, inefficiently, compared to what some guidance in the process could afford. When motivation to pursue a discipline is not as high, students need to be prompted to engage in ‘higher order’ thinking. Interestingly, sometimes it is only after these higher order prompts that real interest and motivation is sparked, and so the explicit provocation of them in a learning environment is important.

Sweller’s addition to Geary’s thesis, that : ‘Organizing general skills to assist in the acquisition of subject matter knowledge may be more productive than attempting to teach skills that we have evolved to acquire automatically…’ supports the earlier statement that teaching critical and creative thinking in the abstract is pointless, but it is the focus on the word ‘organising’ that is crucial here: the conclusion then is that it’s not enough to assume students will naturally engage with this type of thinking – it is only through the explicit organisation and modelling of it that will facilitate students being able to self-regulate this thinking.

Practising the application of critical and creative thinking needs time and space for it to be strengthened, and this is why the existence of the 2nd obstacle in educational contexts is so concerning. The impetus of non-invigilated exams has certainly made apparent the need for assessment to involve the application of knowledge. But to do so requires a carefully designed curriculum that facilitates such opportunity in the sequence of learning.  I tend to promote a sequence patterned by the rhythm: learn, practise, apply. New knowledge is introduced by the expert, students interact with and practise using the knowledge to confirm understanding, students then apply their knowledge to do something with it. The application doesn’t have to be a large project type task. It may simply be the asking of higher order questions that include hypothesising, creating analogies, exploring various points of view, wondering if the content can be applied in other contexts, what the connections are to other aspects of the course, or brainstorming with a view to generate new ideas for a real-world context. The latter is especially relevant for the later stages of higher education.  

It is such a pattern of learning that models for students how to interact with the understood knowledge they now have in their possession, a modelling process that observes what Volet (1991) imports as the necessity of identifying and making explicit how an expert thinks. This is relevant to not just when the expert is presented with new problems, but also how they think with the knowledge they already have. Palincsar &Brown (1989) concur, ‘By demonstrating the different activities by which subject matter may be processed, problems solved, and learning processes regulated, the teacher makes knowledge construction and utilization activities overt and explicit that usually stay covert and implicit.’ Like all learning, the goal is to take the metacognition to automaticity so the propensity for self-regulation in the next sequence of learning isn’t compromised by cognitive overload.   

WHAT ABOUT TRANSFER?

Whether or not this explicit process of thinking within specific domains can be transferred to new contexts remains to be seen, but Simon, Anderson, & Reder (1999) arouse our curiosity when they suggest that transfer happens far more frequently than we might think. They cite reading as a prime example, but more specifically challenge a famous study by Gick and Holyoak who demonstrated that students were unable to see the abstract similarities between two problems even when they were presented side by side:  

One of the striking characteristics of such failures of transfer is how relatively transient they are. Gick and Holyoak were able to increase transfer greatly just by suggesting to subjects that they try to use the problem about the ‘general’. Exposing subjects to two such analogues also greatly increased transfer. The amount of transfer appeared to depend in large part on where the attention of subjects was directed during the experiment, which suggests that instruction and training on the cues that signal the relevance of an available skill might well deserve more emphasis than they now typically receive–a promising topic for cognitive research with very important educational implications.’  

They then continue to suggest that: ‘Representation and degree of practice are critical for determining the transfer from one task to another, and transfer varies from one domain to another as a function of the number of symbolic components that are shared.’ It follows then that for Dignath and Buttner’s claim to be valid, in their meta-analysis on Components of Fostering Self-regulated Learning, that ‘Providing students with opportunities to practice strategy use will foster the transfer of metastrategic knowledge to real learning contexts’, relies on students being able to recognise patterns or connections between contexts where they can apply their metacognition.  

As stated earlier, you can’t think critically and creatively without a strong foundation of knowledge, and further, some of that thinking will be only relevant in specific domains. But it does seem likely that some of the higher order strategies stated above (hypothesising etc) would be able to be applied in a range of disciplines, and that a student observing the modelled thinking processes of a teacher in a second context will recognise some (if not many) elements learnt from their first. Once reinforced through this observation, students will begin the regular learning continuum of taking the skills to automaticity through practice. Once achieved, being able to apply the thinking in new contexts is made more possible – it will be up to further research to ascertain whether, having met these conditions, such transfer is actually possible.  

WHAT DO WE WANT FROM EDUCATION? 

 Another consideration when teaching critical thinking draws from Kuhn, who exhorts that the development of epistemological understanding may be the most fundamental underpinning of critical thinking. In no uncertain terms, she beseeches that teachers provide the opportunity for students to reach an evaluative level of epistemological understanding, realising that simply possessing an absolute epistemology constrains and in fact eliminates a need for critical thinking, as does a ‘multiplist’ stance, allowing students a degree of apathy characterised by statements such as “I feel it’s not worth it to argue because everyone has their opinion.” The explicit modelling of an evaluative epistemology, where students are encouraged to the fact that people have a right to their views with the understanding that some views can nonetheless be more right than others, sets up a learning culture where students see the ‘weighing of alternative claims in a process of reasoned debate as the path to informed opinion, and they understand that arguments can be evaluated and compared based on their merit (Kuhn, 1991).’ Such a pedagogy may satiate an interesting question posed by Martin Robinson: ‘Should the result of a good education include all students thinking the same or thinking differently?’

The 3rd obstacle also looms large. Assessing creativity especially is a difficult thing due to its subjectivity. Rubrics are notoriously imprecise as a reliable reference in determining success or failure of creativity: what I may think satisfies one element of a rubric may be argued against by a colleague; maintaining consistency even with myself in marking is difficult. And if we don’t assess, will students not particularly interested in the topic lose motivation, and make the process a challenging one to manage? I think the answer lies within the answer to Martin Robinson’s question: surely we don’t want everyone robotically programmed. We want students to engage critically and creatively with concepts, and participate in the building of a dynamic and interesting world, so we have to have faith that the knowledge taught to our students, when learnt well, will provide avenues for curiosity that will engage them to participate. Such an epistemology then satisfies stakeholder desires to employ graduates who can think critically and creatively in a modern workplace.      

So how is motivation linked to it all?

 In the next post, I will extrapolate on Zimmerman’s imperative that metacognition is inextricably linked to motivation, and how educators can ensure they incorporate both in learning design.  

References 

Anderson, J. R., Reder, L.M., & Simon, H.A. (2000, Summer).Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics Education.Texas Educational Review. 

Dignath, C., Buttner, G. (2008). Components of fostering self-regulated learning among students. A metaanalysis on intervention studies at primary and secondary school level. Article in Metacognition and Learning · December 2008 retrieved from here 

Geary, D. (2001). Principles of evolutionary educational psychology.
Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri at Columbia,
210 McAlester Hall, Columbia, MO 65211-2500, USA here

Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1989). Classroom dialogues to promote self-regulated comprehension. In J. Brophy (Ed.), Advances in research on teaching, Vol. 1 (pp. 35–67). Greenwich, CO: JAI Press. 

Sweller, J. (2008) Instructional Implications of David C. Geary’s Evolutionary Educational Psychology, Educational Psychologist, 43:4, 214-216, DOI: 10.1080/00461520802392208

Volet, S. E. (1991). Modelling and coaching of relevant metacognitive strategies for enhancing university students’ learning. Learning and Instruction, 1, 319–336. 

Zimmerman, B., Moylan, A. R. (2009). Self-Regulation from:
Handbook of Metacognition in Education. Routledge.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

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