In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed everything we know about learning in a paper called How Students Learn. In this report, 600 pages of research culminate in a single word, which the NAS identifies as the key to effective learning: metacognition. Metacognition (or thinking about thinking) is the secret to and driving force behind all effective learning. If you want your students to learn as much as possible, then you want to maximize the amount of metacognition they're doing. It's a pretty simple equation.
The only problem is that most classrooms are set up to promote metacognition in the teachers, not the students. To succeed, you need to think about your own thinking (How did I learn this? How have I taught this before? What worked and didn't work?) as well as your students' thinking (What do they know? What will keep them engaged?). However, it's far too easy for your students to kick back, disengage, and wait for you to simplify the material for them.
You're like a personal trainer who says, "I'm going to help you meet all your fitness goals. Now sit back and watch me lift all the weight."--Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien, Hands Off Teaching Cultivates Metacognition
In our work with students, we often talk about the need to create "lifelong learners." But in reality, in many cases we are teaching young people to be "lifelong passive recipients of information." For students to become lifelong learners, they need more opportunities to think about their thinking and more opportunities to teach, rather than just to listen or engage in a teacher-directed activity.
So how can you become more "hands-off" in your classroom and help young people take more responsibility for their learning? Here are some simple ideas, several of which come from the article Hands Off Teaching Cultivates Metacognition:
- When students ask a question, don't automatically give them the answer. Instead, say "I don't know--let's find out" and then have them look things up for themselves.
- If you are marking a young person's work--say reviewing a resume or a cover letter, for example--don't mark and correct the errors. Instead, tell the young person how many errors you found and then challenge them to identify the errors and to suggest corrections themselves.
- Challenge students to give "mini lessons" to their classmates. Have them become the "expert" in a topic area and then teach others how to do something.
- Do some "Q-Storming" when you introduce new topics. Rather than focusing on answers when you introduce a new topic, try having young people brainstorm all their questions about the topic. For example, what are their questions about job interviews? Or what questions do they have about the workplace? Once they've identified a bunch of questions, then consolidate the questions and challenge them to work in teams to come up with their answers that they can then share with their classmates.
- Have students "learn out loud." If they are working through a problem or questions, have them narrate out loud the thinking process they are using to get to the answer. It might be helpful for you to first model this process yourself, demonstrating to young people what you are thinking as you solve a problem or challenge yourself.
Becoming more "hands off" will increase student engagement and help them take greater responsibility for their own learning. What "hands off" strategies do you use with your students? We'd love to hear from you in comments!