Education Quandary: At a parent-teacher evening our son's form teacher kept saying he used 'metacognition' in teaching. What was he talking about?

Hilary's advice

Hilary's advice

I don't think this is a query about vocabulary. I think it's a yelp of embarrassment and annoyance at being made to feel small and stupid at a parent-teacher conference. But, believe me, it's this teacher who is small and stupid.

Any teacher who cannot talk in jargon-free prose to parents is not up to one of the fundamentals of the job, and is probably poor at communicating with pupils as well. In addition, any teacher who clutches a single idea about teaching and parades it as if it were the answer to all things pedagogical is an idiot. Good teachers always keep up to speed with new ideas about teaching and learning, they incorporate the best ones into their practice, and monitor them to see how well they are working.

But they also understand that teaching is as much an art as a science, and that they will always need a whole toolbox of tricks to help every child in their classroom learn and grow.

For the record, metacognition means knowing the answer to things, and knowing how you know the answer. Pupils are helped to be aware of their thinking processes, and how they research, evaluate, analyse, select, synthesise and conclude. It's a useful approach to learning that builds confidence, and one that really helps pupils understand things properly, but it isn't the secret to the universe and this teacher is absurd to talk as if it is.

Readers' advice

Metacognition generally means that the teacher keeps at the forefront of the cognitive processes involved in learning and designs lessons that will help students to be aware of how they learn best.

Metacognition involves ''thinking about thinking''. For example, teachers show students how to question themselves as they read a text. (Why did this event happen? What might the character be thinking). This is using metacognition to help to understand the text.

In easier terms, it just means that the teacher will be using higher-order thinking skills and activities to help the students learn and achieve best.

Shannon Dipple, Dayton, Ohio, US

Your son's teacher was talking about an important idea in modern teaching, but he should have explained it properly and not just used the professional term. Metacognition means helping pupils to think about how they are thinking, and all the different techniques they can use to acquire and apply knowledge. Pupils who are taught in this way are much better equipped as learners than those who are simply taught traditional stuff.

Mike Winterbourne, Guildford

My last head always talked about "scaffolding" learners. It was her favourite term. We actually started calling her Mrs Scaffold behind her back. She had got hold of this term like a dog with a bone, and used it to everyone, all the time. I can't imagine what parents made of it. Some teachers hide their inadequacies behind important-sounding jargon and I suspect that this is what has happened here.

Ginny Clayton, Essex

Next Week's Quandary

We have objected to our daughter’s school showing Disney films during 'wet play'. The head has suggested setting up two rooms for the children, one showing films, the other with play activities. We think this is unacceptable and ridiculous. Children will always choose films if they are offered. What can we do?

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