How We Learn

This pilot  5-session plan helped a group of Year 7 students  to generate their own theory of learning and to apply this theory using the New Skills framework. This approach to Metacognition should be a key feature of all school induction programmes.


Metacognition is the understanding of how we think and learn. It is a fascinating topic for psychologists and teachers. For more reading on Metacognitive Theories click here. In summary, the better children understand the processes involved in their thinking and learning, the more effective, responsible and independent learners they will become.

It is therefore imperative that we take every opportunity to help children to be aware of how they learn.

In a recent PsyDog blog, New Skills to Learn, I described my adaptation of Ben Furman’s Kids’ Skills, a copy of which can be downloaded from this website. This is an excellent and uncomplicated framework to use both with individuals and whole classes. In this article I describe how I introduced  metacognition to a  Year 7 class,  thus raising awareness of their own skills and learning experiences and helping them to apply this new knowledge in a programme of personalised learning.

Whole Class Approach

The impetus for this piece of work came from a discussion with the Head of Learning Support of a Secondary school. She had only been in the post for a term and was concerned that the least able students appeared to be highly dependent on the teachers’ instructions and unable to show initiative in their own learning. We started to discuss ways of building the confidence of these students in their own ability to learn, and I agreed to run an exploratory session with one of these classes, to assess their levels of awareness of their own abilities and learning behaviours, and to help them to see themselves as resourceful students with great potential.

Lesson 1: Ten Years of Learning

We started by talking about toddlers and describing all the 2-year-olds they knew and the funny things that they did and the mistakes they made. Next, the students listed and elaborated upon all the things they could do that a toddler could not: dress themselves; ride a bike; read; make a sandwich; and so on. They became aware that some toddlers are more advanced than others and also some of them had skills that the other students had not yet acquired, or may never acquire, such as the specialist skills associated with a particular sport or musical instrument.

How did you learn that?

Armed with this magnificent list of skills, the class was then asked to reflect on how they learnt these skills, and try to work out what had helped them to learn these things.

This question generated a lot of discussion and debate. However, they came up with some great theories and generally agreed that the following had been either necessary or helpful:

You had to want to do it
Someone else believed you could do it, as well as you
You had to have access to the right equipment
You needed to have seen someone else doing it right first
A lot of practice
Keeping trying even when it was difficult
Someone to help you to learn it… and so on.

Lesson 2: Choose a New Skill to Learn.

After a recap on the previous lesson, during which a number of students shared observations and reflections they had had as a result of the first lesson, I introduced the idea of learning as a planned activity. This was important as the discussions of the previous week had given me the impression that they thought that learning was an ad hoc activity that just happened or didn’t in a natural way, and they hadn’t referred to any aspect of planning in their responses. I was glad that I did make this explicit because one student suddenly became excited when he realised that this is what teachers were doing in school: making plans for students to learn new things. It was as if a light bulb had lit up and several of them joined in with the “Hey, yeah!” agreement of this discovery.

I then told the class that we were going to do an experiment in learning. I was going to ask everyone to choose a skill that they wanted to learn. After many questions and much discussion, they all came up with at least one skill that they wanted to learn, that they believed was possible. I gave each students a blank copy of the New Skill to Learn sheet ( see downloads) and they wrote their name and the name of the New Skill on the sheet.

I said that we would be looking at the questions on the rest of the sheet at the next lesson, but if they wanted to start thinking about these questions, that would be helpful. It was interesting that at the end of this lesson, a Learning Support Assistant who was observing the lesson asked if she should collect up the sheets so that they would not be lost before next week. I told the class that it was part of my experiment to see what happened to the sheets, but if anyone wanted to hand them in, they could. Nobody did. They all said that they could take care of them as they were very keen to move to the next part of the plan.

The skills chosen included, amongst others: doing wheelies on a bike; learning the guitar; improving my spellings; learning Pythagoras’ Theorem; drawing better; learning Indian drums; handstands.

Lesson 3: New Skill plan

I was prepared for some students to have mislaid their sheets, but only 2 out of the 20 had and they knew where they were and were at pains to point out that they had not lost them. I gave them new ones anyway, for completion in this lesson.

At the outset I was unsure about the number of sessions I needed to pilot this approach, but today’s lesson made me glad that we had not tried to both choose a skill and complete the plan in the same lesson, as the discussions and decision making that took place today really needed a whole lesson to do them justice.

The questions on the New Skill sheet are as follows:

My New Skill to Learn is:
When I have learnt my new skill the good things will be: For Me….For Others
These people will help me to learn my new skill
What I can do to help myself:
I am sure I can learn my new skill because:
I will show how well I am learning my New Skill (WHEN, WHERE and HOW)

Once again, amazing discussions took place; testing out ideas with each other and adapting their plans as they went along. I made one notable observation: when the students were discussing which people they could ask to help them with their new skill, they could all come up with a person or persons, but not one student named any school teacher as the person who could help them. When I brought this to their attention, they said that teachers were very busy and wouldn’t have time to help them learn their new skills. This was even said by those students who had chosen school-based skills such as spelling and maths. This was something the Learning Support Teacher agreed to take back to the staff group.

Lesson 4: First Steps

From Lesson 4 onwards, my role was to come in and monitor how the plans were going. Each lesson took place at the same time each week, as this was the Learning Support time for this group. So, a week after the plans had been completed, how were they doing? There was not one student who had not made some progress with their plan. A number had already secured a personal coach, either in the form of a brother, cousin, Dad’s friend or had asked their parents to find them a paid teacher, in the case of musical and sports skills. One had borrowed a bicycle and another had managed to persuade her mother to buy her a guitar!

We used this session to celebrate the first steps and to offer encouragement to those who were struggling with the initial stages. No-one had given up.

Lesson 5: Handover

This was my final involvement and handover of the project to the Head of Learning Support, who had been gradually taking a greater share of the lesson leadership. By this time, a number of the students had already achieved their skills and were ready to pass these onto others or start planning another New Skill plan. When reflecting on the value of their new skills, the only student who was disappointed with his new skill was the one who had learned Pythagoras’ Theorem. He said that nobody ever asked him to use it, so it was not as good as he thought it would be to have this skill. He decided there and then to select a New Skill that he would have more opportunities to demonstrate in future.


The research findings around Metacognition are not contentious, and yet how little time is spent educating youngsters about their own thinking and learning. My own son took an interest in this topic as a sixth former and saw it as common sense that the more effective and efficient a learner you become, the more time you have left for fun!

I would like to see Metacognition (How we learn) and its sister, Choice Theory (why we behave the way we do) included on any school induction curriculum. Every school needs to set out to give children faith in themselves as learners and the capacity and opportunity to reflect on whether their efforts are effective, or need adapting.

Now read: Government Plans to Nudge our Behaviour

Let the Students do the Work

Choice Theory: The Quality World

Choice Theory: 5 Basic Needs

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>