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The Importance of Metalearning

· Education,learning

Learning is an integral part of human existence; key to our most basic survival as well as success in work and our personal lives. We spend the first eighteen years of our lives focussed on the process of learning for our career paths and yet we still seem to lack full appreciation for the art of learning itself.

What is Learning?

According to the dictionary Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.

I have worked in education for many years now, with young people aged from 4 years to 25 years of age. The first thing I would like to say is that we place far too much emphasis on knowledge instead of skills in the formal education system. Much of what is tested by exams is the ability to recall knowledge according to the context of a question rather than application, evaluation or critical thinking. But that is a matter of education policy…

studying, knowledge, test taking, revision

The current climate of education

What I would like to examine in more detail is the process by which we learn: "Through study, experience or being taught."

The role of the teacher is to support and scaffold students through the learning process  until they have confidently acquired the knowledge and skills needed. This involves providing opportunities to explore subjects, practice different methods of doing things, adjust according to feedback, learn with peers and apply the learning to meaningful contexts.

However, the current educational climate seems to be interfering with this process. The pressure to successfully sit exams in relatively short time frames (for both the teachers and students) seems to be resulting in the cutting of corners.

Common issues:

  • Lack of chance to freely explore a subject or process because the students just need to know ‘the answer’.
  • Prescriptive methods according to school or government policies, especially in mathematics.
  • Contradictions about peer learning where collaboration is encouraged in some contexts but branded as ‘cheating’ in others, mixing student’s views of working with others.
  • Lack of time spent applying the learning to real world contexts or evaluating learning because the next topic needs to be addressed.
  • Lack of real understanding as teaching to a test results in fact regurgitation or learned answers
learning, failure, tests, progress

Now, let me make it very clear that these things depend very much on the ethos of individual schools, teachers, students, local and national government. Not every child in every classroom will experience this cutting corners effect, and those who do will experience them to different degrees. It is just my experience of working with young people that leads me to believe that students are becoming more reliant on teachers to ‘tell us what we need to know to pass the exam’ rather than seeing the teacher as someone who creates curiosity and the chance to explore.

Going back to basics

I always find the change in educational methods interesting with age. If you look at the way teenagers learn versus the way babies learn, they are worlds apart.

Babies will spend ages just moving their body parts to see what happens, putting things in their mouth to see what it tastes like, knocking things over, exploring and generally interacting with the world. In some ways they are the original scientists – they act on the environment, observe the outcome, use this to gain understanding of the world and modify their behaviour accordingly.

e.g. they put dirt in their mouth, sense that the taste is unpleasant and are more reluctant to eat that dirt again. However, they may generalise to other dark, muddly like substances to show application of learning. Or they may eat dirt from other areas of the garden, or in different colours – perhaps testing if all dirt is similar.

learning, play, exploration, scientific approach

This process of learning through experience is what makes up the entire early years setting. Children have access to sand pits, play dough, paint, water trays, dressing up, games, number equipment and role play so that they can explore subjects themselves in a social environment. Children learn that some things float, that taking toys off another results in negative outcomes, that cars go faster down tall ramps. Without being actively taught, we can use our natural curiosity and judgements to gain a better understanding of the world.

Why is it then, that as we get older we shift to an almost instructional model of learning? When exploration and experience serve us so well in our younger years why are these put to one side for efficiency’s sake?


Metalearning is "being aware of and taking control of one's own learning" (Biggs, 1985). What this usually means is learning about the process of learning.

When I work with students and ask them how they learn best, very few have a comprehensive answer. Some have come across sensory theories of learning in some form or other. They may have taken a quiz about whether they are a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner and then be starting to use that to help them in terms of revision.

But it is only through coaching and discussion that we start to uncover their learning habits and what works to help them understand their learning rather than just retain it for a short period.

And this is where our current education system is falling down. Wouldn’t it make more sense to actively teach students about how learning works from the start of their educational lives?

I have run many sessions about the process of learning and introduced this four stage model:

  • Unconscious Incompetence - A student is unaware that they cannot do something
  • Conscious Incompetence - Student recognises that they cannot yet do something
  • Conscious Competence - Through guided practice students are able to do it
  • Unconscious Competence - Eventually it becomes polished or internalised
learning ladder, four stages of learning, four stages of competence

Although this is basic and takes no more than 15 minutes to cover, students can be very surprised on how much it helps them to come to terms with their own difficulties when studying. Understanding that failure is inevitable and natural can develop resilience. Knowing how to get to the next stage can boost motivation, Yet, very few students are aware of this learning model during their years of education.

And this is just one example of metalearning. If students understood how memory works could they study more efficiently? If students were taught how to teach others would it deepen their understanding of the material? If they were taught about growth mindsets early on would it allow them to face greater challenges in their learning?

There is a whole host of research about learning that is simply not utilised in education, probably because it would compete for vital curriculum time. But it begs the question, would allocating time to metalearning improve students ability and speed of learning compared to traditional education? I cannot claim to have researched enough to be able to answer this question. However, it is my personal belief that the more teachers and educators give students the tools to learn effectively, the more they will be capable of learning in the long run.

Image Credits:

Uni of Liverpool, LT5, November 2013

CollegeDegrees360, Learning, July 2012

Sandor Weisz, A boy and his mudhole, May 2010

Sheri Edwards, Learning vs testing, May 2013

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