Musings on Metacognition (and other hurdles of Middle School)

Many parents ask me how they can help their kids maintain a school-life balance without risking their high school, college, and future professional potential. In other words, “I want my kid to be happy, but I also want him to get straight As. How do I do that?”

Let’s start with an analogy.

Suppose you want to run a marathon. Without making comment on anyone’s current level of fitness, this is a tall order. You are given two choices:

  • Run as far and as hard as you can every day until you can manage 26.2 miles, or

  • Find a training regimen, preferably administered by an expert marathoner, and apply the techniques over the course of many months until the regimen and your trainer believe you are ready.

This is an obvious choice, yes?

Not only does Choice B give you a much better chance at succeeding at such a monumental task, Choice A likely puts your health at risk. In addition, the repeated failures likely to occur through the “beat yourself over the head” method would deeply scar your self-confidence, making other similar pursuits more difficult in the future. Certainly, you may end up finishing the marathon distance sooner with Choice A, but at what physical cost?

Choice B’s more measured approach, curated by an expert, would allow you to set reasonable and achievable physical goals, attain them regularly, and subsequently set new more challenging goals. Over time, your body and mind would be attuned to the enormity of the attempt, and you will be able to run with confidence and with far less risk.

Another analogy for the musicians in the room:

You want to learn a Chopin Etude (a very difficult solo piano piece). Two different approaches to learning it:

You attempt to play it through once or twice per day until you can manage to do so without stopping, or

With the guidance of your teacher, you develop an approach, prioritized and planned, to learning the piece. You practice difficult passages out of context, more slowly than indicated in the music, and slowly, with guidance, you reconstruct the piece.

Anyone with any experience on an instrument knows that the second approach is the better one, at least if your goal is fluency, consistency, and musicality. Sure, the first approach may satisfy the amateur whose interest is only casual, but it would never bring mastery.


What do these analogies tell us about academics and learning, especially for the adolescent?

The challenges faced by the average early teen are not dissimilar to those faced by the casual athlete intent on completing his first marathon. Most of primary/elementary school is spent in service of developing the ability to read and a basic understanding of what the school environment is. This is not the case in 7th grade and beyond. Schools begin to fix their sights on broad and deep learning: multiple subjects taught by multiple teachers, each with daily homework, weekly assessments, and a reliance on student learning outside the classroom. The transition into this alien world of middle and high school is fraught with peril, and to expect so much of an adolescent or early teen is ambitious at best.

The first thing to remember is that grades are not an indication of how smart your child is. That bears repeating, so I will repeat it.

Grades are NOT an indication of how smart your child is.

A test, paper, or other graded assessment is a tool for teachers to determine how well the lesson covered has been communicated to the students in the class. The value in that assessment is to help the student, parent, and teacher know what has been mastered and what needs more work. The grade itself is merely an indicator of the effectiveness of the work your child has done.

Effectiveness is not necessarily quality or quantity. Good quality work can be ineffective if it is not supported by repetition and challenge. High quantity work can be ineffective if is does not address conceptual misunderstanding and is rooted only in rote repetition. Effective work is mindful, engaged, and reinforced.

To truly be effective, students must develop what is called “metacognition,” higher-level thinking relating to study skills and self-monitoring. The ability to come home, review the day, figure out what is expected, create a priority list, and execute that list successfully is the great hurdle every middle schooler must overcome.

What does this all have to do with the marathon runner?

Depending on your child’s academic “fitness,” he or she may not be ready to tackle all of this, all at once, on the first day of middle school. A more measured, coached approach may be necessary, and the priority must be placed on these meta-skills in favor of perfect grades. We must adopt a long-term, incremental plan to ensure that our children develop naturally, holistically, and with a sense of academic self.

OK, blah blah blah what do we DO? Here are some places to start:

Facilitate, don't dictate
Give your children the best opportunity to finish their work to the best of their abilities, but LET THEM DO IT THEMSELVES. If they have questions, answer those questions by leading them to their own conclusions.

Let them fail.
Through struggle, failure, review, and persistence, we learn. We adapt. We grow. When others do for us, correct for us, edit for us, we only learn to rely on that person. Example: autocorrect and spell-check. How many of you believe that those tools teach us to spell?

Focus on growth, not success
What matters more than an A on a paper is writing a better paper the next time. We all have more to learn and should strive to do so, so make sure your kids know that your priority is on their improvement and not their achievement.

Listen, observe, and adapt
We all know that every kid is different. Every kid’s education is different as well. What worked for you may not for them, what worked for kid 1 may not for kid 3.

Stay positive, keep it fun
This may seem obvious, but there are so many ways that we communicate negativity and consequence to our children.

In short, don’t lose sight of what is really important for your kids: your love, support, and wisdom as you guide them through what is a confusing and difficult time. They will thank you for it and be happier because of it.