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But I shall mainly argue that the important meaning is:
However in reality and in psychology, there are different meanings to the term, as the wikipedia entry makes clear. Next I'll list Ann Brown's set of pre-existing research areas to which the term must be related now that Flavell has introduced the term. Later, in Part B, I'll discuss the different areas that seem important to me for learning and education.
A simple glimpse of this is the idea that young ravens are said to treat any new object by first fearing and fleeing it, then attacking it, then trying to eat it, etc. Anyone who has seen a human infant try putting everything into their mouth, then try throwing it ... realises that this is a widespread strategy. It is an example of a method of choosing, which does not rely much on understanding. It is also not very different from how many people tackle new problems: try the first thing you think of, then the second, .... Thus looking at how real organisms do self-control, makes you realise that understanding how to think and thinking are two separate subjects of study. So one field is to study the ideas people have about thinking; another is how they in practice direct their own thinking.
Another stance of the same kind is to say that in theory everyone has a metacognitive strategy, it is just that it may be really crude, unconscious, and fixed (like the ravens') or it may be or become much more informed, conscious, flexible, and evidence-based. I.e. "metacognition" becomes an a-priori analytic idea or framework, and the empirical work addresses the developmental transformation from unconscious and crude, to conscious and more effective.
So: the big division is seeing metacognition as either:
Thus much of metacognition is not a study of thinking about thinking, but of how thinking is limited, controlled by simplistic rules. We certainly often make decisions about how and what to think, and this is as conscious as our awareness of what passes before our eyes; but that doesn't mean that we reason about or reflect on such decisions, any more than we reason about flinching when an insect nearly flies into our eye.
Thus reconciling Perry's idea to actual learners requires us to view what he thought of as epistemology (a general view about the nature of knowledge) as instead, extra meta-information about the status and use of knowledge in each area separately.
I will skip over a possible term "meta-knowledge", since we use "know" to mean both recall ("I know John's address") and understanding ("I don't really know why the sky is blue").
"Meta-understanding" might be used to label a capacity to know whether or not we understand something. This is a crucial issue in education, especially higher education. Students do most of their learning alone. If they cannot judge whether or not they understand something, then they cannot know whether to move on or to spend more time on a topic. The evidence is very mixed.
Essentially, if something draws our attention to a deficit in understanding (a contradiction, a peer disagreeing, even just asking ourselves how confident we are about something) then we will look for some resolution of the problem, and may keep the problem in the back of our minds until we come upon the answer much later. On the other hand, we show almost no seeking out of such problems. For instance, students will re-read passages, and often highlight passages for the feeling of "active learning" this gives; but will not test themselves, despite the evidence that highlighting does not produce learning, but self-testing does. Perhaps the resolution of this apparent contradiction is simply that we cannot doubt all our knowledge: there is not time for that, any more than a car owner will sit by their car 24 hours a day but instead uses a crude and unreliable car alarm.
Thus our "meta-understanding" is important for self-improvement of the accuracy and depth of our learning, yet few if any go further, and actively reason about how to improve their understanding and then apply that. Indeed, science is a social practice: it seems that even our our best thinkers, working on what they value most, are still improved by external stimuli to improve their cognitive functioning.
Learning how to learn is a way of expressing the general topic and mental capacity which the discussion of meta-understanding shows is highly desirable, but not very widespread or advanced amongst actual HE students.
This definitely tends against any idea that meta-cognition develops from reflection and understanding of thinking, and towards the view that it is taught, is topic-specific, and piecemeal. Other- and self- regulation are one way to label this issue (which is thereby shown to be one important sense of metacognition).
Stone & Wertsch (1984) [footnote 2, p.194] go further, and note that to be able to do reflection and describe strategies, and to be able to execute the strategies are independent abilities: you get all four combinations.
Stone,D.A. & Wertsch,J.V. (1984) "A social interactional analysis of learning disabilities remediation" J. of learning disabilities vol.17 no.4 pp.194-199
At the overall level of who decides what should be learned, "self-regulation" still seems ambiguous between rational self-control (learner control of the curriculum) vs. merely impulsive learning, such as flicking through a magazine to see what catches your eye. Both are not controlled by teachers; both are cases of learner, not teacher, control. But only in the former is there a sense of a prior goal, with self-regulation referring to self-correction towards that goal.
At a lower level, "self-regulation" can describe learners as simple control-engineering devices like thermostats, who receive feedback and self-correct towards a fixed goal state (in this case, completely accurate knowledge of something). The catch in practice with human learners, is that receiving feedback from a human teacher tends to go with adopting a passive approach in which the teacher is called on (increasingly loudly) to deliver something but the learner then does not spend a moment's thought on it, and so fails to learn anything. Actual self-regulation in this sense requires the learner to process the feedback, and then act on it: both require effort and time, which the passive-reception frame of mind does not trigger. (Practical solutions include a) Reciprocal peer critiquing, where the origin of feedback in peers causes critical and active judgement of its value, rather than passive acceptance of authoritative sources; and b) prompting the processing of feedback.)
The unconscious error by both teachers and learners in which they tend to assume that processing feedback is effortless (which is certainly true of self-regulation feedback mechanisms such as room heating thermostats) is perhaps partly due to the unexplored complexity involved in actually using feedback. To take a really trivial example: what should you do when someone points out a spelling error in your writing?
It raises and illustrates an issue far too little discussed. "Flow" is the term used to denote our happiest moments, which are characterised by not having to reason out difficult decisions, but making progress by just doing from moment to moment the first thing that comes into our heads. All our familiar skills are organised like this. What is seldom discussed, is that what is so hard about giving up an addiction, or losing weight by rational control of how much we eat, is that we have to give up listening to our feelings: which also means giving up joy and natural action in that area of our life and instead, acting by some imposed calculation.
Both CBT and Lessing's wisdom bring out a kind of metacognition we should aspire to, though many of us never test ourselves like this. In doing so, they bring out a different latent criticism of the idea of metacognition: that even though it may be important to improving our lives, it can also entail undermining both joy and the meanings we had used to underpin our lives.
Or to put it another way: How people actually regulate, control, manage their thinking (and how their ability at this develops and improves) is far more important than a fantasy that we decide this by reasoning about it, then formulating a conscious and articulate theory, and only thus change. But "metacognition" is perhaps not the best term for this. After all, even if we lean toward the view of metacognition as a kind of conscious reasoning, our knowledge about what we know, and our ability to reason about this, is surely just a branch of "critical thinking".
An extensive (though not complete) bibliography of Ann Brown's work.
Lessing, Doris (1994) "Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949"
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