What Is Metacognition? Mindfulness, Meta-Awareness, and Other Metacognitive Strategies (#34)

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What is metacognition? Metacognition is a modern term coined in 1979 by the American developmental psychologist John H. Flavell. He defined it as “cognition about cognitive phenomena,” or “thinking about thinking”. But the concept of metacognition has been around long before that in philosophy. "Meta", meaning beyond or above, signals that metacognition is a form of thinking above our usual cognitive processes. And in this podcast episode, we work through the varying layers of metacognition and meta-awareness and how metacognitive skills can make us better learners and better people.

Timestamps:

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What Is Metacognition?

There are multiple levels to understanding what metacognition is. On a basic level, metacognition happens anytime you assess the methods and strategies involved in your thinking processes. These lower-level metacognitive strategies occur anytime you evaluate your particular learning processes—your strengths, weaknesses, and style of learning—and use that knowledge for more successful learning. But on a deeper level, you can achieve meta-awareness (aka mindfulness), which is a true detachment from the mind. And science is increasingly showing that meta-awareness not only leads to more successful learning but that it also increases our feeling of well-being in the world.

Metacognition And Learning Strategies

Metacognition is an amazing tool for both students and teachers. When solving tasks and processing new information, metacognitive knowledge tells us what learning strategies are most likely to work. When teaching, you should encourage students to evaluate how their minds work and explain what learning strategies gave them the best outcomes in the past. Some people learn best visually, and some people learn best aurally. Others need to physically participate in a task for comprehension to occur. As learners, we should regularly make an evaluation of our cognitive processes, especially our weaknesses, and practice the particular strategies that are most successful. Whether you are teaching students or a learner yourself, metacognitive strategies give you the ability to control your learning and progress. Throughout the various learning contexts, watch your thinking take place from above it to find out what parts of your cognition lead to the best outcomes. And remember that metacognition is a skill, which means figuring it out will get easier the more you practice it.

Meta-awareness And Mindfulness

In one sense, the instruction for mindfulness and meta-awareness is pretty simple: sit down and observe your mind from a distance. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), defined mindful awareness as the "awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally". And even though it sounds easy on the surface, avoiding mind wandering for even a few breaths is insanely difficult. Most of the time, we fail to achieve meta-awareness or mindfulness because we are lost in thought. And most students are never even taught this concept or the skills you can practice to develop meta-awareness. The first layer is to become aware of thoughts, body sensations, and emotions arising in the present moment. But on a deeper level, meta-awareness makes a lower-level object out of awareness itself. You become that which is aware. When people are taught the appropriate strategies in mindfulness and meta-awareness, they develop the ability to detach from their mental phenomena. Research by John D. Teasdale, linked below, shows that the metacognitive skills discussed in this episode allow patients to switch from thoughts like "I am depressed" to "I am aware of my depressive thoughts".

Conclusion

What is metacognition? Hopefully, after hearing this episode you'll realize that it is much more than a learning strategy or a trick you can use in the classroom. At a deeper level, it will allow you to get to know yourself and become a better person. Spending time in metacognitive space allows you to detach from opinions and emotions and embrace the contradictions that exist in every single mind. It will make you kinder to yourself and others!

Links:

What is Metacognition: Scientific Resources

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