Volume 29 Number 4, December 2001
A thinking geography curriculum
Geography was, and perhaps for some, still is often associated with memorization of facts such as the locations of features, names of capital cities or products of countries. My goal is to facilitate a desire and capacity to be a lifelong learner in all students with a particular emphasis on the rich role that the place of Geographic learning can play. To do this I am striving to provide conditions that will result in independent lifelong learning. If students leave school able to be independently learn for work and leisure all their lives, they will have developed values and skills to live a fulfilling life. For those not going on to a geography specific career, this could mean that as adults they plan their holidays more effectively, are able to choose the best location for their business or research, design and implement a landscaping plan for their home. Throughout my recent Master of Education studies, I keep returning to the key role of metacognition in achieving my goal.
Learning should be something that the student does rather than something that is done to them (Zimmerman 1998:1) Learning and teaching should be designed so that students are active learners who can research and construct knowledge. This provides students with opportunities to make decisions about their learning. Tasks need to be open ended so that students can develop their own means of solving problems. Both the process and the content are important. Geographic educators should incorporate a constructivist approach. These are the conditions in which the metacognitive elements in students learning can be developed.
This article will address
1. What is metacognition?
Metacognition is the knowledge and awareness one has of their own thinking processes and strategies and the ability to evaluate and regulate one’s own thinking processes. (Wilson: 14) It is learning to think about the how and why of what one does.
Baird (1999) describes three components of metacognition:
When teachers ensure learners describe their own processes of learning and use this information to inform their decisions about how they will proceed with further learning they are using the principles of metacognition. An example of this might be when a student is asked to describe how they went about a task such as fieldwork or research and then suggest ways they would complete the task differently next time.
Geography teachers routinely use the key geographic ideas of location, distance, distribution, movement, region, scale, spatial association, spatial interaction and spatial change over time in the design of their curriculum. These concepts underpin geographic education and are explicitly included in the VCE Geography study design and CSF 11. Geographic educators need to explicitly develop metacognitive strategies for these concepts that are collectively unique to geography.
2. What is self-regulated learning and how does this relate to metacognition?
What is the nature of effective learning? Teachers ought to be striving to develop students as self regulated learners. Self-regulated learning is a general construct in education and crucial to independent lifelong learning. Self-regulation is the ability to use and develop knowledge, skills and attitudes acquired in one context in another context. (Boekaerts 1999:446). Boekaerts (1999) develops a three-layered model of self-regulated learning. The inner layer is that of regulation of processing modes which involves choosing from cognitive strategies. The middle layer focuses on the regulation of the learning process. It is the use of metacognitive skills to direct one’s own learning. The outer layer is the regulation of self by choosing between goals and resources. Each of these three layers is essential to study self-regulated learning.
I agree with Boekaert’s (1999) contention that these three layers should be integrated to form a comprehensive model of self-regulated learning. However, I would like her model to explicitly incorporate conation comprising motivation and volition in the outer layer.
Metacognition is central to self-regulated learning.
Integrating a metacognitive dimension into Geography could only work if the delivery of the course is — to some degree — student centred and constructivist. Students can experience an extensive range of metacognitive strategies in a thinking curriculum. A curriculum comprising reading set text and answering comprehension questions, quite apart from its likely boring effect on students, allows few opportunities for students to make choices about how they will achieve open-ended tasks. How then can they reflect on the effectiveness of their work and incorporate what they have learned to future tasks? Fortunately most modern textbooks move beyond comprehension to provide a range of open-ended tasks.
Zimmerman (1998:1) describes learning as ‘a proactive activity, requiring self-initiated motivational and behavioural processes as well as metacognitive ones.’
3. Is reflection an important underpinning concept?
Reflection can be the act of thinking before, during or after an event. The purpose of reflection is to learn from experiences. Ertmer and Newby (1996) developed a model of expert learning. Expert learners are strategic, self-regulated and reflective (Ertmer and Newby 1996:3). Ertmer and Newby (1996:10) state that learning is managed by planning, monitoring and evaluating. They incorporated reflection at all stages of the learning process as well as linking self-regulation with metacognitive knowledge. Ertmer and Newby (1996:10) state that the three stages ‘interact and dynamically impact on each other in a recursive fashion’. Reflection is one of the keys to self-regulated learning. Reflection is more than a final step as it occurs in action and on action (Schon 1987).
Reflection is an integral element of metacognition as it is the means by which one monitors thinking processes. Although the process of reflection does not have to take the form of questions, self-questioning can facilitate metacognition. (Ertmer and Newby 1996: 19). Reflections often contain elements of self-regulation. For example, asking "how would I do this differently next time?" Reflections are an important process in metacognition, which is crucial to self-regulated learning.
How can reflection be encouraged in learners? Reflection can be an ephemeral process where potentially powerful judgments are lost. Systematic reflection, which is recorded and acted on, is important. The writing of reflections explicitly values the process of reflection and asks students to analyse and synthesise thoughts and actions. This record can also be reviewed to monitor changes over time.
Building in self-assessment ‘is the key to progress’ (White and Baird 1991:151). Self-assessment is the monitoring of one’s own learning. Self-assessment encourages meaningful reflection. It requires the use of both reflective and metacognitive skills. In this way, students are challenged to be more aware of themselves as learners. Regular self-assessment promotes the development of reflective and metacognitive skills.
The incorporation of reflection and metacognition in learning and teaching will facilitate students to become lifelong learners. As citizens who are and will cope with rapid technological and social change, the ability to learn independently of formal ‘instruction’ is crucial.
4. What strategies can I use to the develop students’ metacognitive skills?
The following strategies are identified for Geography, but ideally they would also be found throughout the curriculum.
a. Fostering a classroom environment conducive to the development of metacognitive skills
As previously mentioned, the classroom environment should encourage more active and constructive learning processes. The classroom climate must be built on trust. Each child must be valued as an individual. Team skills and cooperative relationships must be fostered. (Wilson & Wing 1998:7)
Teachers should model cognitive and metacognitive skills for their students. Other students provide effective models too. Teachers verbalise their own thinking, encourage students to verbalise, question their own and their teacher’s thinking. Conferencing is a strategy that teachers commonly use to monitor students' progress. In conferencing, students can be asked to articulate their metacognitive thinking. e.g. Why have you decided to do it that way?
c. Facilitated group interaction
Schraw and Moshman (1995:364) describe a case study where students were asked to solve a problem requiring metacognitive insight individually or in groups of five or six. Only 9% of the students reached the correct solution individually whereas 75% of the groups did so. They speculate that facilitated group interaction is at least as important as reflection in the metacognitive thinking. Whilst they do not say that the group work must be cooperative learning, this should be an explicit strategy due to its strengths. Classroom dialogue is an opportunity to articulate, justify and negotiate the modification of metacognitive skills. Wait time is crucial to give students optimum time to think and respond. It is difficult to do more than encourage these elements of class dialogue as class and classroom size impact on the likely effectiveness of this and teacher preference is likely to influence the extent to which it is used.
The importance of reflection in developing general awareness has been outlined in section 2. Reflective thinking strategies must be explicit, valued and practised. A practical technique to encourage the practice of reflection is the use of logs or journals that should became a part of the assessment of Geography. This was the case in VCE Australian Studies course and in the evaluation required for CAT 1 in the previous VCE Geography course.
e. Self-assessment and peer assessment
Self-assessment ought to be incorporated routinely to maximise the opportunity for self-regulated learning to occur. ‘Self-assessment is monitoring of one’s own levels of knowledge, performance, learning, abilities, thinking behaviours and/or strategy use.’ (Wilson & Wing 1998:2) It is an analysis of what has been done.
Peer assessment is an effective means of getting students to reflect on others’ work and make connections with their own experiences. Peers can be asked to focus on particular skills and highlight their observations. For example, peers might be assessing how well their peers can support statements they make during cooperative group work.
f. Improving regulation of cognition
Schraw (1998:121) has developed a regulatory checklist that students can use to monitor their own metacognitive control. The prompts form a checklist to assist students in becoming more strategic and systematic in their progress through a task. Strategies like this provide explicit ways of encouraging elements of metacognition.
Figure 2. A regulatory checklist (Schraw 1998:121)
One of the key features of geographic education is fieldwork. I distinguish this from excursions in that fieldwork requires the collection of primary data. Students are asked to conduct fieldwork many times over the course of their schooling. To build in the ideas suggested in this article, students would be – at least to some degree – involving in devising the fieldwork. Groups may work on questions such as what do we want to find out? What techniques will we use to collect data? How will we know when we have enough data? How will we process this data? What is the most effective way to get report the findings to a particular audience? Victorian teachers have vast experience in this and often use a model in which student s develop a hypothesis. This uses the first section of Schraw’s regulatory checklist. The other sections of Schraw’s could be similarly tailored to fieldwork. I hear you say that we do this already and I agree. However is it the teachers asking the types of questions that are listed on Schraw’s regulatory checklist? Our goal is to develop students’ ability to monitor their own learning – to have students routinely asking themselves the questions and confidently answering them.
5. Should metacognition be a whole curriculum imperative and what are the implications for each learning area?
Schraw (1998:113) asserts that metacognitive knowledge is domain general in nature. By this he means that the knowledge and regulatory skills that are used to control one’s cognition is the same across different key learning areas in the curriculum. He claims, for example, that the four general metacognitive strategies of "identifying main goals, self-monitoring, self questioning, and self-assessment" have been shown to improve learning in all domains (Schraw 1998:116). However he notes that many researchers believe that metacognitive knowledge is initially domain or task specific. As students develop metacognitive knowledge in a number of domains, they may ‘construct general metacognitive knowledge and regulatory skills that cut across all academic domains’ (Schraw 1998:117). This suggests that each key learning area should incorporate a metacognitive dimension but that common terms and strategies should be used to facilitate the construction of general metacognitive knowledge.
The challenge in geography is to educate for the present and for the future. This means to facilitate the learning of knowledge that can provide building blocks for future knowledge as well as to educate for metacognitive thinking skills. Both are necessary. Metacognition is often not systematically developed in the curriculum. The key to developing metacognition lies in the professional development of teachers as well as the development and use of support materials.
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