The Power of Meta Cognition and Reflection in the Classroom

Have you ever stopped and really thought about how your day or week or even year is going?  Who has time for that, you’re probably thinking.  And while that response certainly makes sense, you need to find a way to make time for reflection in your life.  If you don’t stop periodically throughout your life to think about how things are going, then how will you know what to do next?  How can you ensure that your life is going the way you want it to go if you don’t set goals and then reflect upon your progress in working towards them?  It doesn’t need to be a big deal or all-encompassing task.  It can literally take no more than five minutes.

  1. Stop what you are doing, but be sure to keep breathing.  My students love taking me seriously, and so I want to be sure that I’m providing you with safe instructions.
  2. Take a few deep and slow mindful breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Try to sweep out the distracting thoughts littering your mind’s work space.  Focus only on your breathing and nothing else.
  3. This step can be done in written form or mentally.  You choose.  I like to document my reflective process in case one day I wake up and forget my past, like in that amazing movie Memento.  Think about how you have been progressing towards meeting the goals you set for your life.  They could be short term or long term goals.  Have you met them?  What’s going well in working towards them?  What struggles have you faced along the way?  What do you still need to do to meet those goals?
  4. Again, like step three, this step can be done using your calligraphy set or your mind’s eye.  Create a plan for moving forward.  What will you do to ensure that you will work towards and meet the goals you’ve set.  If you met all of your previous goals, set new ones.
  5. And finally, to make sure that you go back into reality calm and ready to tackle any situation that may come your way, take a few more mindful breaths.

That’s it.  That’s all you need to do to keep moving up and to the right in your life graph.  Stop, reflect, plan, and go.  I think you will find it life changing.  Try it.

Borrowing from my own playbook, I utilize this meta cognition strategy on a weekly basis.  As I want my students to always be growing and developing as humans, individuals, thinkers, creators, problem solvers, and team players, goal setting and reflection is crucial in my classroom.  We began this process on day one when I had them reflect in writing on their first day of fifth grade:  What went well and why?  What struggles did you face and how did you overcome them?  What do you need to work on tomorrow to keep growing and learning?  Three simple questions that enabled my students to begin to see the power of reflection.  At the end of the first week of classes, I introduced the concept of goal setting.  Why should people set goals?  What can goals help us do?  What’s the most effective way to create goals?  I then explained the concept of SMART Goals to the class.  They seemed to understand this idea quite easily.  Each student then set three, short term, academic goals for the following week.  On Tuesday of the second week of school, I had the students revisit their goals and write an update on their progress in meeting them: How’s it going in working towards meeting your goals?  What do you still need to do to meet your goals by Friday?  This task allowed them the opportunity to put a plan in place to help them be and hopefully feel successful.  Then, last Friday, I had them reflect on their goals and set three new goals for this week.  And the process will continue and repeat all year.  In the coming weeks, I will have them work towards setting a few long term goals as well.

While this schedule of reflection seems like it would be helpful for students, it also feels very one-sided, you might be thinking.  And you’d be right.  This is only one half of the process I use in the classroom.  While self-reflection, goal setting, and thinking are all wonderful skills, without feedback and support from others, how can you really know if what you’re doing is actually working?  So, in addition to all of this weekly and daily reflection the students are doing, I am also providing them with feedback daily and weekly.  The students earn a daily effort grade for their ability to be ready to learn, put forth effort to learn, and afford others the opportunity to learn.  Each afternoon, I enter their effort grade into our Google Classroom page with feedback on their performance.  How did they do in class today?  I then make sure that the students are regularly checking these grades and reading the feedback with which they are provided.  I do this by providing them time in class each morning to do so.  Each Friday morning during our silent reading period, I conference with each student on their effort and work in the classroom.  How is their effort?  Are they meeting the graded objectives?  What do they need to work on to continue to improve and grow?  I attempt to begin each conference by focusing on a positive piece of feedback before getting into the constructive suggestions and areas in need of improvement.  I end the conference by providing the students a chance to ask me any questions that may be on their mind about anything related to our school or the fifth grade in general.  While the bulk of the students usually don’t have any questions for me, a few do.  This time allows me the opportunity to practice and model mindful listening and reflection.  Not only does this conference, that usually only lasts 1-3 minutes in length, offer me the opportunity to provide the students with oral feedback on their progress in the class, but it also gives the students some fodder for new goals, which they set each Friday afternoon.

This feedback that they receive from me, coupled with their self-reflection, helps guide them forward on their journey in the fifth grade.  They know what they need to do to continue to grow and develop, and they have a plan for how to do so.  It’s quite the power-pack of awesomeness.  But, does it work, you’re probably wondering?  It seems like a lot of class time and energy devoted to reflection and feedback.  Is it worth it?  The short answer is, Yes.  Here’s what I’ve observed in just the first three weeks of school using this meta cognition and feedback loop.

  • A student that struggled to put forth much effort during the first week of school, began to really challenge himself during the second week.  Could this be as a result of the feedback with which I provided him?  Or could it be because of the meaningful SMART Goals he set for himself that included staying more focused in class to do more than just finish a task or assignment?  Perhaps it was a combination of the two.
  • Another student had great difficulty staying focused in class during the first two weeks of school.  He would often loudly play with his water bottle, stare around the room, or just sit and stare off into the distance during class lessons or work periods.  He also wasn’t accomplishing his nightly homework assignments.  After providing him with feedback last Friday, he set some really specific SMART Goals that, I believe, allowed him to hone in on those areas of struggle for him this week.  In the two days that we’ve been in school so far this week, I’ve seen a huge change in his behavior and effort.  He is completing the nightly homework well, focusing in class, not distracting others, and accomplishing his work.  It’s amazing!  Is it because of the feedback and reflection process?  Maybe.  It could also be the fact that I spoke to his parents about this issue at the end of last week.  Or, maybe it’s that I provided him with a fidget object that he can use in the classroom, at the start of this week.  Who knows?  Maybe it’s all of the above reasons that has fostered this change within him.  I do wonder if the change would have occurred had I not provided him feedback or the opportunity to reflect on his progress.
  • Another student struggled to not talk while others were working quietly or talking during the first week of school.  The following week, I needed to redirect him much less often.  He seemed to self-correct on his own.  Was this because of the feedback he received from me?  Or was it his self-reflection?
  • A few students struggled to understand the expectations of our classroom during the first week.  They talked over their peers and were distracting to others quite a bit.  Then, their behavior seemed to magically change, and this was no longer an issue during week two.  What happened?  Was it my feedback?  Was it their self-reflection and goal setting?  Or maybe a combination?

The results I’ve seen so far in the classroom are telling me that this combination of teacher feedback and student self-reflection is making a positive difference.  My students are growing, developing, and learning because of this, I feel.  I see this meta cognition and feedback as mental hydration for the students.  Their brains need to process and think about what is happening in the classroom and what they are learning.  At the same time though, they also need an outsider’s perspective to know if what they are doing is as it seems.  Does their perception match the reality?  This process I use in the classroom seems to really help students attune to what’s going on.  I love it and have already seen its amazing impacts in just a few weeks.  While I tried a similar approach with previous classes, I never had the time to do it this purposefully or meaningfully.  It’s working, and so I’m going to keep working on it with the students.  Learning and growing is not an easy process by any means, and so the more tools that we can equip our students with, the better off and more prepared they will be.  Success can truly be measured by looking both internally and externally.  Is what you were hoping would happen really happening?  And that’s the power of meta cognition and teacher feedback.

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