Preparing Citizens: Examining the Role of Metacognition in Promoting Life-long Learning
James D. Myers, Department of Geology & Geophysics, University of Wyoming
As members of a modern industrialized and democratic society, Americans are continually faced with a large number and variety of societal issues that have significant technological and scientific components. Although many of these issues address topics relate to Earth science, e.g. resource extraction, use and disposal, water issues, hazards, countless others involve other sciences, e.g. genetically engineered crops, biofuels, or encompass a number of sciences, i.e. climate change, nuclear power. Yet, numerous studies suggest the general public's understanding of science remains woefully inadequate (NCEE, 1983; NRC, 1996; Siebert & McIntosh, 2001; Steen, 2001) thereby leaving them ill-prepared to address the science-social issues they routinely encounter. In hopes of increasing scientific understanding in the general public, many universities and colleges require all students to take a minimum number of introductory science courses. To increase student engagement, many of these courses are developed around pressing social issues, e.g. climate change, energy, etc. While such courses may prepare students for today's problems, they are unlikely to prime them for next year's or those of the next decade. For example, ten years ago how many general science courses would have anticipated the importance of global climate change, global sustainability or biofuel science? Rather than trying to teach students the scientific concepts and principles of the next major social issue with scientific overtones, our introductory science courses should educate them in the scientific process ("habits of mind"), assist them in improving the skills (literacies) necessary to master scientific content (Myers & Massey, 2008) and prepare them to be life-long learners. Armed with these mental facilities, a citizen will able to educate him or herself about any issue he/she will face in the future.
To prepare my students to be tomorrow's informed and effective citizens, I have radically altered the nature of the courses I teach and the undergraduate student audiences these courses are aimed at. For the past six or seven years, I have developed and taught courses that place Earth science in social context and target both the geology major as well as the non-major. These courses stress the links between society and science as well as the literacies students need to master scientific content. Students are provided explicit help with the fundamental (quantitative and qualitative skills) and technical (mapping reading, spatial visualization and temporal conceptualization) literacies necessary to master the scientific content that underpins many of society's pressing issues (Myers and Massey, 2008). At the same time, the courses stress a set of skills (citizenship literacies) rarely addressed in STEM courses (Massey and Myers, 2006). These skills permit the transfer of scientific understanding to science-society issues in an effective manner while stressing the importance of viewing the issue from a variety of perspectives (economic, social, cultural, political, etc.). These courses have been effective in showing students, both majors and non-majors, the relation between science and society. Despite the success of these courses, it is not clear that they are helping students become life-long learners. Since preparing students as life-long learners is critical in producing a more scientifically informed and engaged citizenry, the courses are probably not as effective as we would like.
Two recent NRC reports (NRC, 2000; 2005) have pointed out the importance of metacognitive skills in producing efficient life-long learners. Unfortunately, the classes we have developed to prepare citizens for active engagement do not explicitly address metacognition. At the beginning of the semester, I do tell students that I reserve the right to ask them three questions at any time during lab. The questions are: What are you doing? Why are you doing it? and Is it helping you accomplish your goal(s)? These are three questions I would like my students to ask themselves throughout a project. By asking them these questions periodically, I hope to demonstrate the mental process they should be using to self-monitoring their own learning. Unfortunately, I do not know how effective this technique is. During the workshop, I hope to learn more about the theoretical basis of metacognition, be introduced to its literature, learn a variety of techniques for teaching it and discover means to assess how effective my instruction has been.
Massey, G., and J.D. Myers, 2006, Geologic science for global citizenship: under the radar, but on the Web, Diversity Digest, vol. 9, pp. 6-7.
Myers, J.D., and G. Massey, 2008, Understanding Earth resources: What's sociology got to do with it?: in Hartman, H. (ed.), Integrating the Sciences and Society: Challenges, Practices, and Potentials, Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, vol. 16, pp. 73-98.
National Research Council, 1996, National Science Education Standards: National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 262 pp.
National Research Council, 2000, How People Learn – Brian, Mind, Experience, and School: National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 374 pp.
National Research Council, 2005, How Students Learn – Science in the Classroom: National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 264 pp.
National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983, A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC.
Siebert, E.D., and W.J. McIntosh, 2001, College Pathways to the Science Education Standards: NSTA Press, Arlington, VA, 192 pp.
Steen, L.A., 2001, Mathematics and Democracy – The case for quantitative literacy: National Council of Education and the Disciplines, 121 pp.