Dear Dr. Linda,

At our last teacher’s conference, our daughter’s teacher told my husband and me that she includes metacognition in her lessons. To be honest, neither one of us had ever heard of that word, so we said nothing. We didn’t want her to know that we didn’t know what she was talking about.

As soon as we got in the car we pulled out our phones and looked up metacognition. We now know the definition, but don’t fully understand what she means when she says she includes it in her lessons. I think a column on this would not only clarify this for us, but would also help other parents who find themselves trapped at a teacher conference where the teacher throws in that term.

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Terry and Tom

Dear Terry and Tom,

It means that her teacher is teaching her students how to think about what they’re reading and discussing in class in order to expand their thinking to a higher level. Meta means “beyond” and cognition means “acquiring knowledge.” So, a student who has been taught using metacognition can think beyond the basic knowledge and skills they are usually tested on because most lessons today don’t go beyond recall and understanding.

Here’s a quick lesson on the goal of education and why incorporating metacognition is beneficial:

We send children to school to learn skills and knowledge so as adults they can function in the world. It begins by memorizing facts and terms for the purpose of recall later. Children begin with the alphabet, math facts, the 50 states and move on to memorize more and more. As adults, they’ll use the basic information they learn in everyday life.

But education doesn’t stop there. Once children develop recall, they move on to understanding. For example, reading words expands to comprehending what the words mean. Learning numbers and math facts prepares them to understand math problems. As adults, they’ll use this skill when they read directions or manage their household budgets.

Next, as the brain develops, children move on to applying what they’ve learned in new situations, e.g., predicting, based on past learning, what will happen next in a story or a history lesson. As adults, we use this when planning a vacation—we know what activities we enjoyed and what we didn’t when on past vacations and use that information to determine where to go next.

After application comes analysis, where children learn to compare and contrast different bits of information. As adults, we use this skill regularly to distinguish between options and make decisions at home and at work.

Once the skills of analysis are achieved, children learn how to evaluate logical conclusions or to defend their theses. As adults, we use the skill to perform research and make educated decisions based on information we acquire. Every time we buy a house or car or decide who to vote for, we use the skill of evaluation.

The highest level of cognition—thinking—is creativity, bringing something new into form. As children, it may be writing a story or designing a science fair project. As adults, we use this skill every time we put foods together in a dish that we haven’t combined before or devise a new process to increase efficiency at work.

In summary, metacognition is the process by which we learn to think in different and increasingly more complex ways, developing new neurons and networks in the brain. As with any skill, each step builds on another. We can’t analyze information until we can recall and understand basic facts, and we can’t develop something new until we are skilled at analyzing and evaluating.

Believe me, if your daughter’s teacher incorporates metacognition into her lessons, your daughter is receiving a quality education.

Dr. Linda

If you have a question to ask Dr. Linda, about your child or a school related situation, she can be reached at