Are You Meta-curious?

By Lily Taylor, Community Advocate

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.

Flipping Failure

Flipping Failure

Bev Vaillancourt, M.Ed. 

Zulama incorporates some aspects of flipped learning. In flipped learning, course content is delivered in an online format such as text, videos, or podcasts for students to access on their own. Flipped learning frees classroom time for students and teachers to engage in meaningful discussions surrounding course content. It also allows teachers the time to facilitate student engagement in real world, project based learning activities.

FISFlipped learning quizzes and tests can serve as learning tools that initiate classroom or small group discussions and/or learning quests. In flipped assessment, formative and summative assessments become tools for students to work collaboratively (or independently) on curriculum benchmarks. Assessment becomes a vehicle for inquiry.

Flipped learning can be a powerful and effective teaching strategy that gives students ownership of their learning and frees teachers to do what they do best—share their subject knowledge, foster curiosity, and deepen critical thinking.

If learning can be flipped, is it also possible to flip failure?

In games, failure leads to iteration. If I make a poor move in a chess game, I consider what I did wrong, revise my strategy, and try not to make the same mistake again. I apply what I’ve learned the next time I play chess. Can content learning in a classroom function similar to a game? Can failure in the classroom become meaningful feedback that strengthens learning?

When viewed negatively, failure can paralyze the creative process. When viewed in a positive light, failure can inspire iteration, collective brainstorming, and solutions. Young children often approach failure as the opportunity to gain more practice. Students are encouraged to try, try, and try again. As students get older, failure to learn usually takes on new meanings of incapability, poor desire, and a lack of self-worth. How long does it take for an individual who continually experiences negative failure to finally give up trying to succeed?

IMG_0178I worked for several years with high-risk high school students. They were failures in the eyes of the school, their parents, and themselves. Most were chronic truants. They had perfected failure to the point that success, and the expectations that came with success, were avoided at all costs. They used failure as a source of control over schools, their parents, and the community. Without intervention, failure becomes the norm.

What would classrooms look like if students were asked a simple question, “What can you do to improve this grade?” The grading process could initiate the building of personal portfolios. Students could flip failure from a negative to a positive, allowing for iteration and success.

Something magical happens when students are given ownership of their learning and ownership of their problems. Think about placing failure within a positive context for your students for both learning new content and as a personal growth statement of self-reliance and accountability.