One of my most important goals as a special education teacher is to build metacognition–to not just increase the amount of stuff my students know, but to develop their understandings of how they come to know stuff. I want my students–both the geniuses like Finn and the kids with the most profound cognitive delays–to take ownership of their minds and the processes which grow them, to be able to advocate for themselves as learners and recognize the things that they still need to know.
Metacognitive instruction looks different for every student I work with. For Ja’Neesha, it’s mostly just me explaining out loud, to the people around her but also, fundamentally, to her, what might be going on inside her mind as she grapples with the world around her. My hand on hers, guiding the pencil. “You want to make the lines quickly–your arm is reaching to scribble. But it’s important for you to learn that we go from left to right, top to bottom. You don’t like that yet. It doesn’t make sense yet. We’ll keep practicing. It will.”
For Finn, we go all-out into discussions of human cognition–extrinsic versus intrinsic rewards, the importance of chunking information into manageable units, neurons and the subconscious and the marshmallow study. Finn’s brain is a prodigious item, and I want him to master it. I think, when I think of him, of Plato’s analogy of the human mind as a charioteer, controlling two horses–reason pulls in one way, and passion in another. Finn’s life-long struggle will be to keep his in-the-moment impulses from derailing his long-term intentions. For now, this looks like me invoking David Eagleman’s “team of rivals” concept as I encourage the angry current Finn who wishes to destroy the standardized test (or, barring that, just fail it quickly) to imagine the future Finn who will get the score envelope in the mail next month. I want him to see his great mind for exactly what it is–his best possible friend, and his worst possible enemy. And I want him to see how he accesses both.
For Charles, for Natalie, for Yosef and Saleem, most talk about “Brain” is just “Brain in the Group.” We start each learning session in my office with me overviewing what we need to cover. The kids, at this point used to the routine, immediately ask about the snacks or little games that often happen at the end, and then I connect them to the need to be on task. “Well, I have (attractive item), but I don’t know if we’ll have time for it. How can we make sure that our brains stay in the group? What can we focus on to get our work done?” For several consecutive days during the winter holiday art project season, Natalie knew exactly what her downfall was. “We mustn’t talk about the glitter on the floor and on the table. I like to do that, but it takes too much time.” I help them catch themselves in the midst of a tangent, give them strategies to recognize when their focus starts to waver. Over time, the direct verbal prompt of “We’re talking about THIS right now” has become, “Is that what we’re talking about?”, and then faded, now, to my particular eyebrow raise. At times, I watch them realize, themselves, when they’re on and off-task, and it makes me want to shower them with off-task rewards.
Last week, Juan Carlos and I had a conversation about metacognition and his brain. It’s time again for progress reports, which means that a part of our sessions is spent collecting work samples. For Juan Carlos, chief among these is a 9Lines Chart: I give him a blank one and ask him to fill in all the multiplication facts he knows.
Afterwards, we review the new chart and the one from the previous work sample, usually taken a couple months ago. For most students, this is an opportunity for a little celebration. Look–this chart only has 7 numbers on it, and this one’s got 42. Remember back when you only knew the ones and zeros? See how you’ve grown.
For Juan Carlos, though, the most recent chart was bittersweet. He was pleased with himself for learning the sixes, but painfully aware that he used to know the fours.
“Ms. Beth, I think my brain is failing,” he said to me, sincerely.
“Juan Carlos, I don’t think that’s true. I think you have a very good, strong brain. But there is one thing we know about how you learn, that we might not have paid enough attention to.”
“What is that?”
“Well, you tend to learn best when you get lots of chances to practice. Sometimes, every day, for awhile. And I think at times, I might get so excited about teaching you new things that I forget to make sure you’re also holding on to what you already learned. And when that happens, we need to go back and work for awhile on getting the old stuff back into your brain.”
He gave me a puzzled look. Another key thing about how Juan Carlos learns: things are most salient for him when they’re personal connections. We’ve gone through the different operational cues of word problems in the context of AC Transit buses; snack food became a lesson on Fact and Opinion. I thought a moment, and tried again.
“Juan Carlos, you eat breakfast every morning, right?”
“Yes, I eat breakfast every morning.”
“And I bet you don’t eat something different EVERY TIME you have breakfast. I mean, there’s really only so much breakfast food in the world, right? So, Juan Carlos, is breakfast different all the time, or is it often the same?”
His answer, which involved cereal, bumped the edges of Tangent but didn’t quite cross over.
“Well, just like you have breakfast every morning, you can feed your brain, too. And just like it can be good to have the same breakfast, I think it’s healthy for your brain to keep practicing the same things. Every day, I want you to practice your 3s, and 4s, and 6s.”
Juan Carlos sat with that awhile, thinking it over.
“I fed my brain the 4s. But then my brain threw up.”