I have been a teacher for 29 years, a Headteacher for 14 years and, at the age of 53, this much I know about metacognition and self-regulation.

As Jim Royle would say, “Magic dust, my ****!” If you read all the edu-chat around lately, it feels like metacognition & self-regulation are the universal panaceæ to cure all teaching & learning ills. Flavour of the month for the teacher-magpie…sprinkle a pinch of metacognition over your lesson plan and all will be well…just behind Feedback, they are number 2 on the Education Endowment Foundation Teaching & Learning Toolkit…lob in a dose of self-regulation and, hey presto, students’ outcomes this summer will be tickety-boo! But, as anyone who has taught knows, it is not quite as simple as that…

What on earth is a self-regulated learner? I am planning my next book and it is about fishing rather than education. It has been nourishing to think about something else other than education in my down-time. But, that said, one of my fishing anecdotes exemplifies precisely what is meant by a self-regulated learner. I was fly fishing for trout. Anchored in the middle of the reservoir, there were fish rising all around the boat. I could barely thread the line through the rod-rings for excitement. I began with a black gnat fly. I swiftly moved on to a mayfly, then a daddy-longlegs. Nothing. The fish ignored my several offerings as they continued to tail walk in front of me, waving with their fins. If one had jumped into the boat of its own accord, I wouldn’t have been surprised. An hour later, having worked really hard, I was fishless. It was pointless carrying on in the same vein. I took stock of what was happening. My technique was fine. I was casting well, so that the fly presented naturally on the water. I was using gunk to keep the fly afloat. I had cast in every direction around the boat. I had experimented with a range of different flies. What else could I could I do? It was at that moment, reflecting upon what I was doing and what I knew about fish, that I peered over the side of the boat. So small they were almost imperceptible, I could see dozens of miniscule flies, tiny, green aphids. I had nothing so small in my fly box, but I did have a green fly to which I took my scissors and cut away from the hook all but the merest flick of green feather. My shorn imitation greenfly had sat on the surface of the water for no more than a second before a hefty rainbow trout snuffled it away. I caught three trout in three casts, six fish in ten. Then the sun broke through the early morning mist and the trout vanished into deeper water.
As a fisherman, I am an experienced self-regulated learner. Self-regulated learning involves: cognition (the skills and knowledge needed to complete the learning task) – I have fished for nearly fifty years and have a huge hoard of skills and knowledge to draw upon; metacognition (the ability to control cognitive skills) – on that greenfly day I constantly monitored what was going on and after an hour of trying different techniques, reviewed what I was doing and applied my skills and knowledge to find a solution to my lack of success in tempting a fish; and motivation to apply these skills and abilities – returning home without a fish to a derisory reception from my sons wasn’t an option…
Metacognition & self-regulation aren’t at number 2 in the charts for nothing. The EEF guidance report on metacognition and self-regulation is due out at the end of this month and provides a definitive guide to understanding and implementing metacognitive practices in the classroom. It has been written by Alex Quigley, Daniel Muijs and Eleanor Stringer, some of the best edu-brains in the business. If you want to be trained on how to implement the EEF’s findings on metacognition and self-regulation, you can sign up here. Not only will you improve your teaching and your students’ learning, you might just get better at whatever it is you do when I am off fishing…

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  1. Children self-regulate if they can control their own physiology and are not overwhelmed by their sensory system. That requires good motor skills control, good sound and vision processing. We have no checks to ensure that children develop motor sensory integration. We have no PE curriculum to promote and check children’s physical development. We have no understanding at all of how motor skills impact on sound and vision processing as highlighted by the BBC2 programme “Living with the Brainy Bunch” – no-one involved in the documentary noticed the children’s poor postural control and lack of bi-lateral integration i.e. even one of the top students struggled to work efficiently with left and right sides of their body; so they could not possibly have developed good binocular vision. No-one is going to get anywhere with any education research until they understand the critical role of good physiology.

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