Encouraging Metacognition in Adolescents

‘Messy Desk’ photo by Ali West https://www.flickr.com/photos/alismith44/357361903
Adolescence is a sensitive period when brain plasticity is heightened. Each part of the brain develops and changes. This period offers great opportunities for effectively rewiring the brain, resulting in better memory and processing, and a person who can make mature, ‘adult’ decisions and follow through on their intentions.
The area of the brain which controls executive function and cognitive processes is the last area to undergo this rewiring. This area, the pre-frontal cortex, is involved in activities such as organising multiple tasks, or setting appropriate priorities.
When this area of the brain is fully mature, we can expect students to be able to exhibit these characteristics:
  • organisation of multiple tasks
  • impulse inhibition
  • self-control
  • setting goals and priorities
  • empathising with others
  • initiating appropriate behaviour
  • making sound judgments
  • forming strategies
  • planning ahead
  • adjusting behaviour when situation changes
  • stopping an activity upon completion
  • insight
Parents and teachers might find it helpful to reflect on how many of these skills your teenagers exhibit at the moment, and how many they need help with. Also, be aware that adolescence is now thought to last until around 25 years old. Of course, each child goes through adolescence differently, but it would help everyone if we do not expect our teenagers to be able to show cognitive maturity straight away.
How can we help them?
To help our teenagers to develop cognitive maturity, we can introduce them to metacognition, or ‘thinking about thinking’. This involves skills such as:
  • Reflecting on their learning
  • Being aware that their brain is changing and that they can learn from mistakes
  • Being aware of study techniques they can use
  • Being aware of distractions and influences that may lead to less effective learning
  • Linking new knowledge to existing knowledge
  • Establishing what is true and accurate
  • Thinking critically about claims that may not be true or accurate (‘claim testing’)


Furthermore, we can demonstrate and scaffold these skills for them until they are able to use them for themselves.

For example, if we expect that a project will take 10 hours of classroom time plus 6 hours of homework time, we can take them through the process of organising their studies. This may include:

  1. writing a timetable for themselves and noting when they are already busy;
  2. deciding how to split up the six hours depending on their availability and preferred way of working (4 hours plus 2 hours, three sessions of 2 hours, six sessions of 1 hours?);
  3. making sure they are studying in a suitable environment (organised desk, right temperature, quiet music or ear protectors to block out outside noise etc.);
  4. identifying where they might find help or information;
  5. identifying if there is preparatory work they need to do before even starting the project;
  6. reviewing the task criteria several times to make sure they have actually addressed the requirements.

We can also help them review their project when they have received the marks. I know that my own children have displayed a tendency to think that something is ‘done’ when they have the marks back. I am sure they are not alone in this. We want students to see each assessment or project not as a self-contained unit but as part of a lifelong approach to learning and growing.

This information is partly from a FutureLearn course, Supporting Adolescent Learners, which I am studying under recommendation from another home educating parent. I’ve also found some useful information in this 2006 article by Nancy Joseph at Oakland University, Michigan and a blog post on Psychology Today.

project management.png
Image from Victoria Agbey’s article ‘Post-Its for Project Planning’ https://medium.com/innovateforward/post-its-for-project-planning-f402c70f21cf

Eat the frog

I can put my hand up and say that I am a mistress of procrastination. I have certain items that seem to be permanently on my ‘to do’ list – not because they are recurring events but because I have never got round to doing them in the first place. So I loved it when a friend of mine mentioned the idea of ‘eating the frog’.

The idea supposedly comes from a Mark Twain quote,

Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you for the rest of the day.

Mouth Frog Man
Image by Marcus Lieghio

Don’t worry, you don’t have to go around eating live frogs… but the idea is that you do whatever you have been putting off, and do it FIRST THING in the day. Then you have the rest of the day to enjoy. It’s not my idea: someone has written a book called “Eat The Frog” which I have never read but I thought I’d steal the title anyway.

This term I felt the concept was particularly appropriate for one of my students. He has been dreading his English assignments and instead of just getting on with them and doing them, has been putting them off for so long that just the idea of doing them grew worse and worse in his mind. I told him about the idea and then realised I should start to practice what I was preaching.

So at the weekend I tidied my desk. I have had ‘tidy desk’ on my list for at least two months (probably more) and you really don’t want to know what it looked like before I tidied it. I am so pleased that I’ve tidied it, that I’m actually typing this with the laptop on my desk instead of on the dining table.

My next big ‘frog’ is to book the car in for a service.

What’s your frog? Go on, try to get it done. Or at least take steps to help you to get it done. I mean it. Then you can enjoy the rest of your day!