by Chris Nash
Here we go again! So you’ve got all your staff back and you’ve successfully filled every vacancy. You’ve organised a staff training day for the first full day of the new term. You’re looking for the right topic that will set the right tone and be both supportive and challenging for every member of staff. At times like this, I think it’s worth bringing the whole staff team together, not just your teaching team, so you need a topic that has relevance to all. I would also advise you to use opportunities like this to put ‘learning’ front, left and centre of your school community.
I’d now like to offer ‘metacognition’ as a topic that has the potential to tick all of the boxes above. I know there’s a residual suspicion that metacognition is only suitable for elite students who have the luxury of being able to learn about their learning. I know too that for a number of teachers and especially non-teaching staff, this topic can initially seem obscure and lacking the hard edge of subject expertise. I disagree. Part of the problem is the name itself. Replace ‘metacognition’ with ‘learning how to be a better learner’ and we open a door into ways in which all members of staff and parents have a role to play in shaping the attitudes and skills of good learning.
Learning to Drive Your Brain
Have a look at a book called ‘Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains’ by Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, to find an inspiring range of ways in which metacognition can be made practical and real to every learner. And in my opinion, the topic offers the perfect ice-breaker. You can mix up teaching and non-teaching colleagues into integrated teams and ask them to share their thoughts on the following questions:
‘What was the most recent thing you learned? What did you do that helped you to learn well? What did you learn from the experience that might help you to be a better learner in the future?’
And in an instant, you’ve got your whole school community focused on the single most important issue for this year ( and every other year!) – learning!
At the heart of metacognition is the simple and powerful truth that everyone can become more aware of her or his learning and through this awareness take greater control of this essential life-long skill. Let’s take one simple example / managing distractions. This would be another great discussion topic for your professional development session because it invites shared thinking from everyone in the room and has the potential to discover ‘out of the box’ strategies from the ‘life manual’ rather than the ‘this is what schools have always done’ manual. From a training event of this kind, I once ‘discovered’ the incredible talents of a head caretaker who was one of the best tutors for reluctant teenage boy readers I have ever met. And even if no innovative ideas emerge, it’s time well invested in building stronger relationships between the diverse teams that all contribute to your school community. Why shouldn’t your catering staff and maintenance team have as important things to say to young people about learning as their teachers?
The Local Learning Culture:
And a final thought about your international context. You know that different cultures have their own perspectives on things like learning. Here in China, for example, there are hundreds of 成语 – chengyu, which are popular four-character phrases that express popular wisdom about all aspects of life, including learning. Thanks to training events like this where we can listen to colleagues who know the local culture much better than we ever will, my international teachers can now use these learning-based idioms accurately enough to guide my students’ own ‘learning how to learn’ processes.
Like basketball – learning never stops!
Chris Nash is the Principal of Changping Xinxuedao Linchuan School, Beijing, China
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