Let’s get meta. Meta-learning that is.

|5 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post published on December 9, 2019.

Meta-learning or “learning about learning” helps children understand how they learn. Practicing it in your classroom moves learning to a whole new level.

“As a learner, I am a shadow. I am very quiet in class, but I learn from what I hear around me.”

One of my students expressed this when we were talking about ourselves as learners. I asked the class to share their best experiences of learning and create a symbol or metaphor to represent it.

I didn’t come up with this idea by myself. I was encouraging my students to develop meta-learning: the active process of thinking about how we learn. Meta-learning helps us notice great or difficult learning moments and lets us get to know ourselves better as learners.

Here’s why I believe meta-learning is a key part of a reflective classroom, and some steps you can take to practice it with your learners.

What are the benefits of meta-learning

Meta-processes help learners change their perspective. Instead of, “have I done it right?”, they take a step back and ask themselves, “what was my learning experience?”.

Taking the time to reflect gives children an insight into their learning and develops their understanding of the art of learning. They can then apply a whole variety of strategies to their own learning. Some examples from my classroom include: “I gave myself time to stop and think”, or “I got stuck, and then I used my imagination to take charge” or, “I concentrated and believed in myself”.

This way of thinking shifts a child’s concept of learning from a checklist, surface mentality to a more in-depth, experiential view. It also changes the equation from learning is equal to being taught to learning is equal to individual sense-making or learning is equal to building knowledge with others.

How can we practice meta-learning in the maths classroom?

Meta-learning makes learning more effective and exposes some of the hidden aspects of student’s experiences as learners. So, how can you create a classroom environment full of rich dialogue for meta-learning?

Educational researcher and theorist Chris Watkins suggests there are three main ways to develop the flow of conversation, reflection, and awareness of learning within the classroom:

1. Noticing

You can encourage reflection by asking learners questions like, “what did you notice about your reading?” or, “what did you notice about how you solved that maths problem?”.

Questions of this type promote natural conversations about learning which then become infused into the classroom culture.

2. Narrating

Narrating is the process of remembering, telling, and discussing stories of yourself as a learner. There are lots of ways to inspire learners to describe their learning experiences.

The activity I mentioned at the start of the blog (asking a child to use a symbol or metaphor to describe themselves as a learner) is a springboard for ongoing conversations about learning.

Storyboarding is a useful framework for students to remember and capture learning experiences. Another way to spark a conversation is to provide a sentence starter like, “things I do that help me to take charge of my learning are…”.

3. Navigating

Navigating uses the metaphor of a journey to develop learner agency and self-direction. Other effective concepts in this framework are the sense of seeking a destination, making choices on the road, using a map, and finding direction. Viewing the learning process in this way means you can ask questions like:

  • Where do we want to get to?
  • How are things ‘on the road’?
  • Where did we get to at the journey’s end?

Want to encourage reflection? Try maths journals

Watkins also suggests that introducing a learning journal can be a great way of encouraging students to reflect on their learning, asking “what would you like to remember about today’s journey?”.

Asking students to reflect on their learning after or during a maths lesson gives them an opportunity to express their thinking, describe strategies they may have used, and identify what they’ve noticed.

Communicating their mathematical thinking in this way as well as being aware of learning itself deepens the experience and could lead to some fascinating class discussions.

Shift your focus from teaching to learning

Taking the focus off teaching and transferring it on to learning has a significant effect on learning outcomes. The following steps can serve as a foundation to work from:

  • Make learning an object of attention in the classroom
  • Encourage conversations about learning
  • Provide space for reflection
  • Enable students to experiment with their own learning

Now, the student is taking the driving seat in their own learning which is a key aspect of maintaining intrinsic motivation. As Chris Watkins says:

“If learning is the process of creating knowledge by making sense of your experience, meta-learning is the process of making sense of your experience of learning.“

If you’re already championing maths mastery, ‘maths talk’, and journaling, then you’ve laid the groundwork for practicing meta-learning in your classroom. Meta-learning empowers children to take control of their learning rather than settling for a mechanical approach to gaining knowledge. It moves learning to a whole new level.

Watkins, C., Carnell, E., Lodge, C., Wagner, P., & Whalley, C. (2000) Learning about Learning: resources for supporting effective learning. London: Routledge.
Watkins, C. (2005) Classrooms as Learning Communities. Routledge.
Watkins, C. (2015) Meta-learning in Classrooms. In D. Scott & E. Hargreaves (Eds), The Sage handbook of learning. London: Sage.

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Illustration of two primary mathematics journals