By Peter Worley
‘Metacognition’ is one of those words that gets thrown around a great deal in education circles, but if you ask what it means, very often you’ll be met with silence or stammering. Philosophy is put forward as an exemplar intervention for metacognitive development in classrooms in a recent programme for the BBC World Service: and in a short BBC film (in which ‘The Happy Prisoner’ from my book The If Machine is being used). So, what is ‘metacognition’ and how does philosophy help achieve it?
In short, metacognition is when one reflects on one’s own thinking or learning process, evaluating and monitoring it. Put as simply as possible, one is not merely thinking or learning when one is ‘metacognising’, one is thinking about how well one is thinking or learning in order to improve.
The Education Endowment Foundation has conducted research into metacognition and ‘philosophy for children’, but no link between the two is shown or claimed in either piece of research, and, as far as I can tell (please correct me if you know this to be wrong!) there is no research showing the link between philosophy interventions and metacognition. However, intuitively, it would seem that philosophy is par excellence the discipline of metacognition; after all, philosophy has for millennia been associated with classic metacognitive attitudes: questioning assumptions, demanding critical analysis, changing shifts of perception (even when unwanted!), problematisation and so on. Though this may be uncontroversially the case with adult academic philosophy I think we should be cautious about attributing all these metacognitive attitudes to philosophy interventions with children. Only if we can show that these attitudes are actually occurring within the philosophy sessions in schools can we perhaps make the claim that philosophy in schools develops metacognition.
I think that if, during a philosophy session in a school, the children merely respond to a stimulus and then discuss it, sometimes disagreeing with other along the way, then I would say that this is not sufficiently critical for metacognition to occur in any significant or substantive way. So, the easiest way to observe and measure metacognition (though, not the only way) is to consider how critical thinking skills are being deployed.
The Philosophy Foundation and King’s College London are currently looking into exactly this: how doing philosophy develops critical thinking skills. However, we are not only measuring and observing what critical thinking skills the children demonstrate, we are also implementing a critical thinking intervention: we are teaching the children (aged between 8 and 11) certain critical thinking skills (e.g. counter-example, distinction-drawing and conceptual analysis) and seeing what they do, in philosophical enquiries, when they have those skills at their disposal.
Ahead of the research I have been running some preliminary ‘test’ sessions using the critical thinking intervention in my philosophy sessions in schools and I’ve seen some fascinating anecdotal results:-
First of all, the children love learning skills and being presented with content in philosophy sessions; something that is usually left out of standard ‘philosophy in schools’ approaches (including our own).
Secondly, contrary to my own expectations, it is not only the high-ability children that respond well to the use of critical thinking.
And thirdly, it changes the climate of the discussions from a ‘sharing’ emphasis to an ‘evaluative’ emphasis. This, for me, is the most important change. There has been a lot of ‘talking up’ of philosophy in these recent heady days of ‘post truth’, ‘fake news’ and ‘alt facts’, philosophy and ‘philosophy in schools’ interventions are seen as antidotes to this extreme kind of relativism or ‘epistemological authoritarianism’. But I would be careful about being too confident about philosophy’s role here. Indeed, philosophy in schools – when it is done well – can provide the children with the critical thinking tools for tackling misinformation and misleading rhetoric, but philosophy when not done so well it can, I believe, itself contribute to the climate of ‘post truth’. Every time a practitioner of ‘philosophy with children’ says that ‘in philosophy no one can be wrong’ or ‘in philosophy there are no right or wrong answers’ then, I’m afraid philosophy interventions become part of the ‘post truth’ problem. This is why I think, in order to genuinely show that philosophy in schools develops metacognition we need to start teaching children critical thinking skills and have them evaluate themselves and each other. As one Year 6 child said, ‘If the counter-example against what [another child] said is a good one then [the other child] has to change what they said; they have to be wrong’. If we want children to become better thinkers and to be able to tackle what’s coming their way in the media, on the internet, or from a campaigning government, then we need to reacquaint children with the (currently ‘dirty’) word ‘wrong’. They need to accept that they, their peers and their elders can all, quite appropriately, be wrong.
If you are a school that would like to be involved in our research then please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Worley teaches philosophy in schools every week. He is a Resident Philosopher at 6 state primary schools in London and he is the founder and CEO of The Philosophy Foundation (www.philosophy-foundation.org), a charity that specialises in philosophy in primary and secondary schools, based in the UK. Peter has over 20 years’ experience in teaching and regularly gives talks and presentations about philosophy in schools. He is a Fellow of the RSA and is a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London.
He is the author of three titles for Bloomsbury Education, to find out more about any of them please click the jacket images below: