Seven metacognition-enhancing interventions I will implement this year

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Metacognition-enhancement is the area of teaching and learning that has always interested me the most as a teacher. As a researcher I investigated this area as part of my PhD 15 years ago and, as a research officer, on a classroom-based research study involving six English state schools under the supervision of Professor Ernesto Macaro of Oxford University –  one of the greatest authorities in the realm of learning-to-learn research.

This year I intend to embed the following metacognition-enhancing interventions in my teaching practice to test their effectiveness as one of my professional development targets. My ‘guinea pigs’ will be a class of 18 year 10 students of French preparing for their IGCSE examination. The reason for wanting to enhance my students’ self-regulation and meta-learning skills has to do with the nature of the examination they will sit next year and the relatively limited contact time available (two hours per week). I do believe that these students – especially the weaker ones – will benefit from the following interventions as they need to become more responsible for their own learning, more aware of their problem areas and must learn to optimize their use of the little teaching and learning time available.

The reader should note that in many cases, as a result of the self-regulatory processes and metacognitive dialogues that the activities below will spark off I will also have to model to my students specific cognitive and affective strategies to address any issues identified in their learning.

1. Reflective journal – Every week I will ask my students a different question which will ‘force’ them to reflect on how their learning is going. I have set up a google folder and google doc per student in which they will write a 50-words-minimum answer to each question. The first question – next week – will be: What aspects of French learning cause you the most anxiety? How can I help you? How can you help yourself? Every week I will change the focus of the students’ reflection; but every so often I will go back to an ‘old’ question to see if there has been any progress in a specific area.

I will not ‘mark’ the students’ journal entries, but will give them a rapid read and respond with a concise comment and/or a request for clarification or expansion. If I do think that the quality of the reflection is below my expectations of a given student, I will have a chat with them at the end of the next lesson.

2. Retrospective verbal reports on essay-writing – the week after next I will ask my students to write a short essay (around 150 words) under time constraints which I will assess through the same criteria used by our examination board. At the end of the essay I will ask them to reflect on and write in as much detail as possible about any issues they encountered in carrying out the task in the areas of grammar and vocabulary as well as any other problem they experienced (e.g. stress; cognitive block). As they write I will walk around and scaffold the process by asking probing questions if I feel they need prodding. I intend to do this twice a term.

Every time I have carried out retrospective verbal reports they have yielded valuable data and have served another very important goal: enhancing students’ awareness of their problem areas. This has always provided me with a very useful platform for starting a very productive metacognitive dialogue with my students.

3. Think-aloud protocols – later on in the term, after identifying the three students who are most seriously underachieving in reading and/or writing I will involve them in think-aloud sessions in which they will perform a reading or writing task whilst verbalizing their thoughts; I will often intervene in the process by asking probing questions to delve further in their thinking process. This technique, as I have already discussed in a previous post, has a double effect: firstly, it yields incredibly useful data as to how the students tackle the tasks and where they go wrong or experience linguistic and/or cognitive deficits; secondly, it engages their metacognition.

I will only focus on three extreme cases not because there is something special about this number, but merely for reasons of manageability/time constraints. I tried bigger numbers before and did not cope very well.

4.L.I.F.T. – I will encourage the students to use L.I.F.T in every single essay of theirs as much as possible – although I will not make it compulsory. As I have already discussed in another post, L.I.F.T stands for Learner Initiated Feedback Technique, i.e.: whenever a student has a doubt about a grammatical or lexical structure she will ask the teacher a question that she will annotate on margin (e.g. have I been right in using the present subjunctive here?). The teacher will then answer the questions in her written or oral feedback on that essay. L.I.F.T enhances students’ metacognition by scaffolding their ownership of the corrective process whilst fostering risk-taking and task-related awareness.

5. Error log – In order to raise their awareness of their problematic areas – which hopefully will have started with the first retrospective verbal report (see 1, above) – I am going to ask my students, on giving their essays back, to log on a google document five different types of mistakes I highlighted in their essays along with a concise explanation of the possible cause of those mistakes (e.g. didn’t know the rule; got confused with Spanish) and a reminder of the grammar rule broken. The process will enhance their awareness of their problem areas and may trigger the future deployment of editing strategies aiming at addressing them.

6.Lesson videoing + student ‘pet hates’ – I will video one lesson per term and ask my students to write down – anonymously – one or more things about that lesson that they found useful and enjoyable and one or more things they found annoying, tedious and/or not very useful. I will then go through the students’ comments and view the video to get a better grasp of the issues they refer to; I might do this with colleagues to get their opinions and suggestions.

This process will serve three important purposes. Firstly, it will involve students more actively in the learning process by getting them to think about how my teaching impacts their learning; secondly, it will give them the feeling that I heed their opinion; thirdly, it will pave the way for the kind of activities illustrated in the next point.

7. Videoing of student speaking performance with introspection – After showing the students that I am willing to be videoed, evaluated and assessed by them, I am less likely to encounter resistance when I ask to do the same to them. Once a term I will video students I have concerns about for five minutes as they converse with me in French and spend 15-20 minutes going through the video together, discussing key points in their performance and possible strategies to address any issue identified. The metacognitive element of this process refers not simply to problem identification but also to the introspection that my questions will trigger.

At the end of the year I will interview my students in order to find out how the above interventions impacted their attitudes to French and their learning.

Although the above list may look like a tall order, it is much more manageable than it seems as it is mostly student-led. I am particularly looking forward to activities 6 and 7.

To what extent does Bloom’s taxonomy actually apply to foreign language teaching and learning?

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Bloom’s taxonomy of higher order thinking skills has acquired a mythological status, amongst educators. It is one of those reference frameworks that teachers adhere to with some sort of blind allegiance and which, in 25 years of teaching, I have never heard anyone question or criticize. Yet, it is far from perfect and, as I intend to argue in this article, there are serious issues undermining its validity, both with its theoretical premises and its practical implementation in MFL curriculum planning and lesson evaluation in school settings.

Why should we be ‘wary’ of the Bloom taxonomy, as the ‘alarmist’ title of this article implies? Mainly because people forget or fail to consider that the Bloom Taxonomy was not meant as an evaluative tool and does not purport to measure ‘effective teaching’. In fact, the book in which the higher order thinking skills taxonomy was published is entitled: Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. However, in the last twenty-thirty years, the taxonomy has often been used in UK secondary school to evaluate teaching performance and how effectively students are engaged in higher order thinking skills. The main problem lies exactly here, the hierarchy that Bloom and the authors of the revised version (Anderson et al, 2000) devised being not necessarily a valid construct, especially not from a Foreign Language acquisition perspective rooted in sound Cognitive theory.

The first set of issues refers to the top three levels, and to their hierarchical and sequential arrangement. On what basis does one decide, as the revised taxonomy does, that Creating (which in the new version replaces Bloom’ original construct: Synthesis) is a higher order cognitive skill than Evaluating? Let us look at the following definitions of the three higher skills (adapted from: http://thesecondprinciple.com/teaching-essentials/beyond-bloom-cognitive-taxonomy-revised/ )

  • Creating: Putting elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganizing elements into a new pattern or structure through generating, planning, or producing. Creating requires users to put parts together in a new way or synthesize parts into something new and different a new form or product.
  • Evaluating: Making judgments based on criteria and standards through checking and critiquing. Critiques, recommendations, and reports are some of the products that can be created to demonstrate the processes of evaluation.
  • Analyzing: Breaking material or concepts into parts, determining how the parts relate or interrelate to one another or to an overall structure or purpose. Mental actions included in this function are differentiating, organizing, and attributing, as well as being able to distinguish between the components or parts.

In modern language learning all three levels equally require ‘depth of processing’ and the processes that underlie these three cognitive skills often unfold concurrently and synergistically in our brain. Think about the process of writing an argumentative essay in a foreign language: is generating ideas about a given question/topic a higher skill than evaluating their degree of relevance to that question/topic, as well as their suitability to the task and audience? Aren’t the two levels so closely interwoven for anyone to be able to separate them? And how can one determine which one is more cognitively demanding than the other, especially in a foreign language, where evaluating the accuracy of the grammatical, lexical and sociolinguistic levels of the output is extremely challenging? It is my belief that the two sets of processes and even the third one, Analyzing, are parallel in foreign language processing rather than sequential.

Let us consider, for example, the task of inferring meaning from a text containing a fair number of nouns, verbs, adjectives and discourse markers unfamiliar to the learner. The task demands the learner reader to analyze how each word relates to another syntactically and semantically (in terms of meaning); every time an inference is made about the meaning of each unfamiliar word, he/she will be creating meaning; every inference’s correctness needs to be evaluated. There you go! You have the three higher order thinking levels co-occurring in the execution of the same ’humble’ task – a reading comprehension. Yet, one wonders whether the average curriculum planner or non-linguist observer would perceive that task as ‘hitting’ the highest level of the Bloom taxonomy.

This brings us to the biggest issue with the way the Bloom taxonomy is used in education: the misinterpretation or failure to understand the true nature of language learning and the cognitive mechanisms that regulate it at various developmental levels. Being creative in Modern Foreign Language has to do less with content, tasks and production of artifacts, at lower levels of proficiency, than with creating hypotheses about how the target language works, risk-taking (creatively seeking opportunities to test those hypotheses), coming up with communication strategies (creatively compensating for lack of knowledge of foreign language words), figuring out by oneself better ways to learn (creatively applying metacognitive strategies). The mistake often made by some language teachers is that they equate creativity in language learning to getting students to create a digital artifact or a language learning game; these activities tap into creativity but not the type of creativity that is conducive to greater linguistic proficiency. I will come back to this point later on.

Another important problem relates to the way humans process language in foreign language comprehension or production. The way learning occurs along the acquisition continuum is such that the brain gradually automatises the cognitive skills subsumed in the three categories the Bloom taxonomy places at the bottom of the pyramid. This process of automatisation speeds up the brain’s performance during language production so that cognitive processing can concentrate only on the higher levels of processing (analyzing, evaluating and creating) while executing the lower order levels ‘subconsciously’. Thus, for instance, in speaking, an advanced learner, having automatized the lower order thinking skills, will have to focus all his/her cognitive effort only on the top half of Bloom’s pyramid; on the other hand, beginner-to-intermediate learners will have to  juggle demands from all six levels with potentially ‘disastrous’ consequences for grammar, pronunciation and accuracy in general. The obvious corollary is that engaging less proficient learners at the top three levels of the taxonomy in language learning can indeed happen, but through less cognitively demanding tasks in terms of processing ability.

Furthermore, a very important issue relates to the pressure many teachers feel to be working at the higher levels of the Bloom taxonomy as much and as often as possible, especially when they are being evaluated by course administrators. This is understandable but wrong and unethical on their part, when it comes to foreign language learning, as the nature of L2 acquisition is cumulative; jumping from one level to the next must be justified by the learners’ readiness to cope with the cognitive and linguistic demands that that level places on their procedural ability. Once one level is acquired, one can move to the next, each level providing a scaffolding (in Vigostkyan terms) for the one/ones immediately above. If a teacher feels that the learners are still ‘stuck’ at a level which needs more extensive practice, class work should stay at that level and it would be ethically wrong to move any higher merely to hit the top of the Bloom taxonomy.

Finally, and more worryingly, some educators posit that Puentedura’s SAMR mirrors the Blooms’ taxonomy, and fancy diagrams circulate on Twitter and teachers’ networks making the link explicit, further damaging teachers’ perception of what is expected of them in the 21st century Modern Foreign Language classroom. But does such overlap between the two models, actually exist? Does Bloom’s notion of Creative thinking overlap with Puentedura’s Redefinition? The answer is that the creation of a complex high tech product through ‘App-smashing’ or other digital media can only engage Creative Thinking with and through the target language in highly proficient learners, but categorically not at lower levels of linguistic fluency and cognitive ability (see my article “Of SAMR and SAMRitans” on this blog for a more extensive treatment of this point). Only at advanced levels of linguistic proficiency can Redefinition be seen as overlapping with the highest order thinking skills in Bloom’s taxonomy.

In conclusion, Benjamin Bloom’s model, especially in Anderson et al’s (2000) adaptation, should be used for what it was meant to be: as a holistic classification of the different objectives that educators should set for students across the cognitive, affective and motor domains of learning. Bloom’s wheel (see picture below) was meant to help curriculum designers and teachers keep in sight the scope and main goals of effective learning. But Bloom was not an L2-acquisition expert and created this model before Cognitive psychologists of the likes of Eysenck, MacLaughlin, Baddeley and others unveiled the mechanisms involved in foreign language acquisition and processing and how Working Memory operates.

Foreign language teachers must be wary of any approach that straightjackets their efforts to enhance their students’ ‘healthy’ linguistic development by prescribing vertical progression at all costs. There are developmental stages in language learning which must be consolidated ‘horizontally’, so to speak, before we climb any cognitive ladder in the name of intuitively appealing pedagogic constructs. Horizontal progression is about developing Working-Memory processing efficiency (i.e. procedural knowledge), that is, the learner’s cognitive ability to cope with the huge demands that L2 comprehension and production put on his/her brain and motor-sensorial functions as he/she decodes, generates, retrieves or transforms knowledge into discourse under real operating conditions.