Are You Meta-curious?

Metacognition, Growth Mindset, Meta-curious

Discovering Metacognition

Elementary school teacher Karin Morrison was teaching the numbers 1 through 10 to the children in her class. This counting exercise was a suitable challenge for some of her students. Other students, were immediately disengaged. One boy, who wanted to be an astronaut, was counting in “light years” rather than counting to 10. Creative, but Karin was unsure about how to focus him on counting to 10.

Her student was thinking about numbers in a way that was meaningful to him rather than addressing the assignment. She decided to try to understand why he was thinking about math in the way that he was. “How can I help him think more about his own thinking?” she asked herself.

“Thinking about one’s own thinking” is also known as “metacognition.” Like many other educators, Karin stumbled upon the concept of metacognition without learning about it formally.
She began to design activities around metacognition. When her students reflected on how they were thinking and why, they engaged with and refined their personal learning process. Later in her career, Karin co-authored a book on the subject —
Making Thinking Visible— with Project Zero’s Ron Ritchhart.

On a Zulama hangout, Nikki Navta and Karin Morrison dove into how to develop metacognitive skills
in the classroom. Their practical strategies for educators who want to “engage students in thinking about their own thinking” are below.

Metacognitive Tools

The Iterative Process

The iterative process consists of a cycle of prototyping, testing, and refining. Students can reflect on which strategies worked, which did not, and why. This cycle emphasizes systems thinking and focuses on how a solution is reached, rather than the solution itself. Zulama students use the iterative process to build and continually improve their game design projects.

Collaborative Project-Based Learning

Consistent collaboration helps students view problems from the perspective of their teammates, embrace new ideas, and learn strategies from one another.

Embracing Failure

When failure is embraced as essential to the learning process, students learn to view failure experiences not as barriers to learning but as ongoing opportunities to understand how they think and learn. They see failure as the beginning of their learning, not an endpoint.

Student-Centric Classrooms

In student-centric classrooms, teachers act as facilitators and mentors who encourage student inquiry and discovery. This classroom paradigm encourages students to develop their own strategies for learning and thinking.

Metacognition Meets Growth Mindset

In implementing these tools, it is helpful to be aware of the intersection between metacognition and the growth mindset. A growth mindset is an understanding that, with effort, one can always grow and improve. Metacognition is the ability to reflect on one’s own learning process and strategies.

When a growth-minded teacher gives encouraging feedback, they remind students that hard work and grit lead to growth and improvement. For that feedback to be helpful, students need to understand what kind of “hard work,” or learning strategies, are most effective for them. To discover personal learning strategies, students must be able to reflect on the strategies that have (and haven’t) worked for them in the past. They must be able to think about their own thinking.


The first step to effectively developing a growth mindset and metacognitive skills is to be “meta-curious” — a term that Nikki coined during the hangout. Being meta-curious could mean that you are curious about metacognition, or it could mean that you are curious about your own curiosity. If you fit into either category, try out some of the tools listed above, keep reading about metacognition, subscribe to the Education Innovation podcast on iTunes, and get in touch with us on Twitter @ZulamaLearn.

Watch our “Understanding Metacognition” Hangout here or listen on iTunes.

Redefining Failure

by Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed

As long as our failure is interesting, we will keep trying — and remain hopeful that we will succeed eventually. Jane McGonigal

Perhaps you share my impatience with a car that does not start. I’ll attempt to start a lifeless car about five times before I give up and look for an alternative travel plan. I find failure of the car to start totally frustrating and quickly lose interest in the problem (and affinity for my car). My failure is complete. For my son, however, a car’s failure to start is game on. With his interested peaked, he dives under the hood to find its cause. Time has no meaning and each successive failure adds a new clue and a new element of interest to the problem. He’s not content until he has succeeded in starting the car, no matter how long it takes. He’s at it, happy as a lark dealing with one failure after another. He views the problem as a challenge – a game to be won.


In her book, “Realty is Broken” (Penguin Group, 2011), Jane McGonigal talks about why failure makes us happy in games, while failure in real life typically expresses itself as disappointment, diminished interest, and a lack of motivation. McGonigal notes that in games, feedback from failure becomes a rewarding experience. Failure is uplifted from its negative connotations to become something far more positive. With positive failure our sense of control is reclaimed and our lives move back to being goal oriented.

Can this redefinition of failure find a place in today’s schools? Can persistence in one high interest failure experience carry over to greater tenacity in another, far less interesting failure experience? If so, how does positive failure become infused in school systems where grading and standards are established benchmarks of success?

Failure in the traditional sense reduces an individual’s willingness to take risk. Risk is very much present in the traditional classroom. Asking or answering a question can evoke a variety of social consequences from admiration to rejection. Assignments carry the risk of a poor grade. Tests can become barriers to success. So should success be assured no matter what the effort? Or should failure be placed in perspective as part of the journey to success?

In essence, can classrooms carry the elements of a game where all tasks are perceived as fair, accomplishable, and with enough strategy, time, and learning, become winnable?

14144449475_ed1814934b_bThey can, and they must. Schools can become frameworks of success for all students. Courses in games and game design can change a student’s attitude toward “school” and build confidence in his or her ability to take on challenges. Games offer problem-solving experiences within positive social contexts that allow for risk taking. Games offer optimism in the face of defeat. Games offer a classroom model for student success.

Is it important for everyone to play on the same level to learn new skills? Or, is the ultimate goal of education to enhance necessary skills required for individuals to take on new challenges, discover their talents, and intuitively recognize that learning is a lifelong process?

The opportunities for change are within reach. All it takes is crafting each learning activity as a problem to solve that taps into the interests of individual students in some way, and at some level. Just walking away from a car that doesn’t start is not good learning. At some point, every student should want to dive under the hood. That, in every measure, is success.