A Case Study of a Student's Reflective Thoughts: A Vision for Practice

M. Gertrude Hennessey

"Learning is considering my own ideas and how they fit together. I like to consider my own thinking because I can understand more about why I think the way I do. I can also learn about the science communities' ideas the same way. For example, I can compare my classmates' ideas to mine and by doing this it helps me to build a bigger and stronger or more complex description of what we are talking about. My classmates and I also can do the same thing when we are considering a scientist's ideas. It's really the same you know--thinking about someone else's ideas and trying to see it from their perspective.

To learn, I think you need a good understand of your ideas about the topic before you can do anything else. For example, when I stopped to think about my ideas of how gravity works, they make perfect sense to me. I remember the big debate we got into in third grade over how gravity worked: Did it push? Did it pull? Now the debate is much more complex and centers on comparing and contrasting our ideas to Isaac Newton's ideas; and trying to figure out what he meant by parts of his theory; like the influence between two objects, no matter how far apart never decreases to zero. Now, that I find intelligible but certainly not plausible!

I think learning in science is about wondering about the world, how it works, and then asking yourself questions that you find challenging. I think a good analogy for learning is a puzzle. You can have all 1000 pieces but if you don't take the time to fit them together you will never see the picture. Most school learning is like collecting the pieces of the puzzle and keeping them in a box. Teachers reward you for collecting enough pieces, the more pieces you collect the better rewards you get!

I think learning in our science class is much different. Back to my analogy of the puzzle. In science class we spend a lot of time trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together. Sometimes it takes all of us working together to fit one piece of the puzzle into its right place in the picture. The analogy isn't perfect because there is only one way to fit the pieces into the puzzle. But in science there is more than just one way to fit science ideas together.

To me, learning is the work you do as you fit ideas together. Using you experiences, talking with others in class, building and testing models that represent your ideas all help you to think about how ideas fit together; and that, I think makes for good learning." (Kathryn, Project META 1994)

How would you best describe this student's thoughts about her learning experiences in science? How would you describe her approach to learning science? Based on the comments provided by the student in the vignette, what "vision of practice" would you construct about the pedagogy practices operating within the student's science class? Before proceeding, take a moment to record your reflections to these probes.

Making Cognition and Metacognition Explicit

High among the many purposes of education is the conjecture that higher levels of cognitive activity are important to learning and intellectual development. There seems to be two components to this goal, one to do with cognition (viz., problem-solving, heuristic, planning) and the other to do with metacognition (viz., knowing that one knows). The two parts are closely related, because during intellectual development one sees the acquisition of not only traditional subject matter and related skills but also a more general knowledge that seems to be useful across a broader, subject-independent domain. To varying degrees, one can consider the result of these higher level cognitive activities as intellectual functioning and knowledge development. Thus, cognition is about organizing one's own intellectual resources efficiently and metacognition is about what one knows about his or her own thinking or thinking processes (Flavell, 1976). One of the most exciting educational implications is the leverage that one may expect by enhancing intentional learning (Hennessey, 2003) at the cognitive and metacognitive levels.

During the past three decades, researchers in philosophy of science, cognitive psychology, and science education have begun to elucidate some fundamental understanding of the dynamic role of the learner in developing conceptual knowledge and engaging in higher-level cognitive activity. Until recently, these communities worked almost entirely exclusive of each other. With the current resurgence of epistemological interests in both the science education and cognitive psychology communities (Perry, 1970/1999; Carey et at., 1989;Cary and Smith, 1993; Smith et al.,2000; Hammer and Elby, 2002; Randolph, 2005; Sandoval, 2005) questions concerned, albeit in different ways, with the nature of science, students' personal epistemologies, and science teaching have emerged. This epistemological turn is evidenced in the significant increase in academic activity and research which, in turn, has had important implications for approaches to science teaching and learning at all levels of education.

Despite the relatively rich research history in both cognition and metacognition, no consensus has emerged as to the nature of higher-level knowledge. My intent within this brief essay is twofold. First, to describe a class of higher-level knowledge associated with the process of metacognition. The class is higher-level in that it is knowledge about science knowledge rather than science content per se. Second, to argue for a transparent link between metacognition and intentional learning as the underpinnings that supports conceptual understanding in science.


The precise definition of metacognition is a subject of some debate. Despite the terms widespread use, researchers' views of metacognition are varied and influenced by the disciplinary area they study (Hacker et al.,1998). The stance adopted here is that metacognition is an internal construct: "an inner awareness or process, not an overt behaviour" (White, 1988). This inner awareness can be about what one knows (content knowledge), one's learning process (knowledge construction), or one's current cognitive state (awareness of mental constructs). I reserve the term for conscious and deliberate thoughts that have ideas as their object (Hennessey, 2003). Abilities such as execution of strategies, employment of heuristics, regulation of behaviors, coupled with motivational aspects of learning have the potential to lead to success on a given task. These competencies, as desirable as they may be, do not guarantee an awareness of one's own inner thoughts or an ability to contemplate the rational arguments used to support one's knowledge claims. Rather they are the observable features of successful performance (Hennessey, 2003). This does not mean that learning strategies or self-regulating tasks cannot occur within the metacognitive realm. To do so, is a more complex task involving knowledge or awareness by the learner that these are appropriate strategies to apply in order to execute the tasks successfully. This awareness entails, not just selection of the correct strategies to employ, but a reflection on other potential or competing strategies to know why they are effective or ineffective; or if selected, what errors or positive effects may result (Hennessey 1999). The distinction is analogous to that proposed by Kuhn et al, (1989): the ability to think about the significance of a specific strategy as opposed to merely unreflected execution of a set of strategies.

Discussion: A Focus on Metacognitive Processes

Returning to the vignette, when synthesized into a conceptual whole, and combined with the conviction that metacognition is inherent in the process of conceptual understanding and intentional learning the following picture emerges from Kathryn's essay. First, the metacognitive process rests on sensing states of mind and having a language to describe states of mind (Hennessey, 2003). Kathryn's language contains rich common sense vocabulary for the phenomena of thought. At times, in order for her to describe her state of mind she utilizes metaphors drawn from the physical world. For example, the student spoke about building descriptions, or fitting science ideas together into a conceptual whole. At other times she gave anthropomorphic attributes to descriptions of her ideas (e.g., bigger and stronger). Even these terms hardly do justice to the mental events Kathryn wishes to describe.

Second, the vignette provides ample evidence that Kathryn has no difficulty engaging in metacognitive processes. The metacognitive process she reveals, by externally representing her thoughts on what she believe to be good science learning, takes place at both the representational and evaluative level. Understanding this grading or priority structure, I believe, may be the key to understanding the relationship between metacognition and intentional learning and an underpinning that supports conceptual understanding of science content (Hennessey, 2003; Yuruk, et al., in press).

Metacognition processes at the representational level (an inner awareness of Kathryn's unobservable constructs about science learning made public through written discourse) may include an intentional component or it may not. The ability to merely represent one's internal constructs may take place at either the algorithmic level or the intentional level. The issue here is one of automaticity. Kathryn's processes at the evaluative level, her ability to: (a) consider the basis of her beliefs in a specific conceptions (nature of scientific learning); (b) temporarily bracket, or set aside, her conceptions in order to assess competing conceptions; (c) consider the relationship among her conceptions and any evidence that may or may not support those conceptions; (e) consider explicitly the status (intelligible and plausible) of her own and other conceptions; and (f) evaluate the consistency and generalizability inherent in her conceptions are more likely to take place at the intentional level. The sophisticated nature of these processes makes it less likely that they are not automatic. Both aspects of metacognition are important learning for conceptual understanding, however. The first relates to the moment-to-moment control of cognition that promotes students; ability to monitor and fine tune their thinking as they work towards goal directed tasks. The second relates to critiquing cognition.

This essay opened with the voice of a student in order to give the reader a small window into a constructivist-based class. If the reader listens carefully to Kathryn's voice the reader will notice that the metacognitive capability of this 11-year old elementary school student is far more sophisticated than many researchers have assumed. The issues touched upon in this brief essay, focus on the fundamental question: Can in instruction of metacognitive processes facilitate intentional learning and conceptual understanding of science content? Does it have an effect? I believe it does have an affect. The educational environment created for Kathryn (and her peers) successfully allowed a cohort of 11–12 year old students to engage in various types of metacognitive processes: both at the representational and evaluative levels throughout the course of their science classes.

In closing, I would like to pose the following question: As practitioners in our respective fields of endeavor, what "vision of practice" can we develop for ourselves that will support our students' ability to develop more sophisticated metacognitive processes? The opening vignette clearly demonstrates that, in addition to developing sophisticated metacognitive abilities, this student's school science had dramatically affect the development of her epistemological stance about the nature of science learning – an important issues to be considered, which is beyond the scope of this essay!


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