Metacognition: the next learning transformation

5 min readJan 11, 2021

by Sandaru Adikari — Researcher at Tilli

What is Metacognition?

“The term metacognition was introduced by Flavell in 1976 to refer to ‘the individual’s own awareness and consideration of his or her cognitive processes and strategies”

Metacognition, simply put, is thinking about one’s own thinking process. More precisely, it refers to the processes used to plan, monitor, and assess one’s understanding and performance. Metacognition is being aware of our own thinking process. In recent years many researchers and educators like Flavell, Metcalfe, and Shimamura have given serious attention towards understanding and measuring metacognition. Metacognition includes a critical awareness of a) one’s thinking and learning and b) oneself as a thinker and learner.

In order to facilitate a metacognitive learning environment, there are certain factors that need to be fulfilled. Let’s first take a quick deep dive into what metacognition actually consists of and then take a look at why metacognition can be an absolute game-changer for learning.

Key Characteristics

Any metacognitive process includes the following features :

photo by Cambridge.
  • Planning
  • Monitoring
  • Evaluating
  • Reflecting

In a traditional classroom setting, children learn through what is communicated to them by their teachers; content, lectures, and curricula. Metacognition flips this linear approach to learning and teaching and focuses on giving learners the agency to critically reflect on their own learning process and to constantly ask ‘why’. Within a metacognitive learning environment, the educator becomes a connector and facilitator who takes a systematic approach to plan and scaffold the child’s learning journey. Learners are not told what to think or how to think instead they are giving the building blocks to help them craft their own learning and thinking processes.

In the end, the child is given the space to reflect and self evaluate their learning: What have I learned? What went well and what did not? How does my new learning compare to what I already know?

Based on the learner’s performance and experiences in these four stages of planning, monitoring, evaluating, and reflecting, we can think of four broad learner archetypes; Tactical, Aware, Strategic, and Reflective learners. This helps us, as facilitators, to adopt different strategies that are personalized towards different learner archetypes.

Now since we’ve gone over a brief overview of what metacognition is and what constitutes a metacognitive learning cycle, here’s why metacognition has the power to re-imagine learning.

1. Metacognition empowers self-learners

Metacognitive practices like reflection and self-evaluation allow the students to question themselves and their own thinking -Is this how I want to learn? Is this what I want to learn? What else is missing?

Reflection and critical thinking help learners understand how unique our thought processes are. This in turn helps them make sense of nuances beyond the binaries of what is traditionally considered a correct versus wrong answer.

2. Metacognition is affordable!

Unlike most ‘innovations’ in education, setting up a metacognitive learning environment isn’t going to cost your hundred of dollars. With a bit of creativity and crowdsourcing — it could cost you almost nothing! For starters, it requires a mindset that is open to experimenting and prototyping. Secondly, it needs a critical look at your current learning material, curricula, and outcomes to see where more self-reflection and real-world application can be brought in. Thirdly it requires time, intentional design, and patience. The key is to get learners comfortable with this new approach and confident in sharing their own self-reflections and realizations.

3. Metacognition can be applied to any subject and for learners of any age

Since metacognition is an approach to structuring our learning and thinking; metacognitive learning is inclusive and applicable to any learner, anywhere. It is speculated by researchers that metacognition starts to develop in a child from the age of 3 (Loren, 2015). Starting early is key! After the age of 15, most young adults have already built fairly strong mental models of learning and thinking and it’s harder to get them realigned.

Metacognitive learning is also applicable to any field or subject from language skills in kindergarten to 5th-grade math. With each subject, you understand the content and learning outcomes and constantly ask yourself — ‘Why’ is the learner being exposed to this? ‘How’ will they use this knowledge in 10 years? ‘What’ are the basic concepts the learner needs to know to be able to start curating their own learning on this topic?

4. Metacognition makes learning fun!

When the learner is allowed to reflect, question, and create their own learning journey they are inadvertently given the power to escape the traditional teacher-student structure. Now the learners are given the needed tools and mindset to co-create a learning experience that works for them!

Metacognition allows for more real-world applications of learning, where learners get the opportunity to see how their learning fits in the complex world beyond their classrooms and homes. This allows learners and educators to break away from monotonous classroom environments through play and project-based learning. Learning becomes a natural, everyday habit that is done for the joy it brings rather than as a means towards an end.

5. Metacognition improves creativity

As Sir Ken Robinson reminded us “Schools Kill Creativity” and metacognition could be what helps us reverse the cycle. Tom and David Kelley in their book ‘Creative Confidence’ speak of four fears that hold us back from unleashing our truest creative self — fear of the messy unknown, fear of being judged, fear of the first step, and fear of losing control.

Collaborative learning experiences that give kids control over their own learning helps them get comfortable with prototyping not only their ideas, but also their thoughts. Allowing them to embrace failure and ambiguity not as mistakes but as opportunities for joyful learning. Metacognitions’ focus on self-reflection empowers learners to practice introspection and a growth mindset as early as possible.

Where does Tilli fit in?

At Tilli we believe that well-designed, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) experiences have the power to make measurable strides in a child’s metacognitive growth. We infuse cutting-edge research with great design to create game-based SEL experiences on tough (yet critical) topics like bodies, boundaries, feelings, and consent. Find out more here.


Hi! I am Tilli. I write about social-emotional learning, empathy, and metacognition (with a little touch of design and games)