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What is thinking about thinking? To put it another way, it’s knowing about knowing. It’s the skill used when reading a new text for example – a good reader is able to figure out if a paragraph of text makes sense to him, and if he should go back and re-read it again. Or find another solution to achieve better understanding, like looking up new words in a dictionary, asking for help, etc.
Arguably, this is the most important of all the Habits of Mind skills. If you are unable to think about your thinking, or know about your knowing, then you are unable to figure out where you need to apply yourself to think more or know more. The science backs it up – a Stanford study found that thinking about thinking can improve the grades of the students that participated in the study.
Developing this habit of mind also supports all the other habits we’ve already introduced. You cannot know when to persist and how to persist if you aren’t able to process what you already know and what you have already done. Same goes for developing the skills of empathy and flexible thinking.
The skill of metacognition (another way of saying thinking about thinking) only develops around the ages of four to five, or later. This is a great example of how metacognition can help at this age. Here’s how to get your child started on his own thinking journey:
Model the right behaviour
Even if your kid isn’t quite ready for a formal discussion about thinking, you can certainly “think aloud” to show him how it’s done. Your child will see and hear what you’re doing, so that thinking about thinking will come more naturally to him as he becomes able to do so.
One great way is to think aloud as you potter around the house. If you’re cooking, show him how you are figuring out what to do as you go along. Notice what you know (“I know cookies are ready to eat when they turn brown”), then notice your strategy (“I think the muffins will be done when they turn brown as well”), and finally, notice if the strategy works (“the muffins were brown on the outside, but they are bigger than cookies, so they weren’t really done on the inside. Next time, we can leave them in for a little longer”).
Teach the skills one at a time
No child learns to think about thinking all at once. The trick is to break down the process. Traditionally, this follows the following steps:
As a parent, your job is to assist your child in finding new strategies to think about thinking, or to notice how he or she is thinking. From modelling the behaviour, to then asking your child to help you “notice” what you’re thinking and doing, then helping your child to notice how he thinks on his own and supporting that process.
Phrases you can use to support developing metacognition include asking “what makes you say that” or say “I wonder why that happened …”. You can show your child how and why you think a certain way by saying “I used to think … but now I think ….”
Another great way to facilitate this development as always, is through reading about it. My favourite book about problem solving is The Great Paper Caper by Oliver Jeffers, in which forest animals come together to solve a mystery through blueprints, clues, strategies, maps and more. Hopefully, it’ll serve as a fun, easy-to-understand introduction to this concept and spur your child to think more deeply about thinking!
This is part five of a 16-part series on Habits of Mind. Follow the series here.