Thursday, January 31, 2013

Metacomprehension - When "I don't know" is the answer!

If you are a homeowner, I’m sure you’ve met him. He comes in tools ablazing ready to fix that washing machine, refrigerator, eavestrough, or whatever item has just put you into homeowner hell. He might be drop dead gorgeous or be the guy with the moon-man pants. He might even be a she. He could be your partner, neighbour or friend --Whatever, one thing is for sure: he’s cocksure and he’s got tools. Wow, look at those tools!

It isn’t long before he is at work. He doesn’t seem to ask you a lot of questions. He knows just about everything. Why ask questions? While he’s working, he’s telling you about his wife, his mother, his kids, and all manner of things you’d never thought of or wanted to know. Time is beginning to drag on. There are items strewn all over the place. Dollar signs flash before your eyes as he brings in more parts and more parts and even more parts. Wasn’t this supposed to be a simple job? It’s getting late now and it’s still not fixed. He tells you that the problem is a “what’s-it-widget” and it’s going to need ordering. He’ll have to come back. Now wait a minute! Wasn’t this guy an expert? What about those fancy tools?

What you have just encountered is “The Hack.” He’s the guy who thinks he knows everything but doesn’t stop to ask, “What do I really know?” In metacognitive terms, he’s low on comprehension and low on metacomprehension.

Say what? Meta who? OK let’s start from the beginning. Do you know what you don’t know? Do you think about your own thinking? Have you ever been reading a book or watching a movie and suddenly realized that time has gone by and you don’t know a thing that you have just read or seen? When you make that realization you are using your metacognitive skills. You are thinking about thinking. According to J. H. Flavell metacognition, “refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes or anything related to them.” When we use metacognitive skills, we plan how to approach a task, monitor our progress, ask questions, re-evaluate and continue until hopefully we have reached our destination. We have learned and we have learned about our learning.

So how does metacomprehension fit in? According to Sally N, Staniford, in her 1984 article Metacomprehension, metacomprehension is simply, “the awareness of and conscious control over one's own understanding or lack of it.” Metacomprehension is then a type of metacognition. Many times we see it used to refer to reading comprehension and strategies to improve comprehension but it could include comprehension of many things like comprehending deeper meanings in film or art.

In many respects metacomprehension can be seen as a bottomless toolbox. This toolbox has all the things we need to solve any problem. There are simple things like hammers and nails and duct tape, but there are all types of fancy specific tools too. Before you look into your toolbox, you’ll need to know exactly what type of problem you have. There will be questions! Your toolbox looks exciting, but you’ll need to study its contents and evaluate. Which tool should you use? Is it a simple problem, or a complex one? Will you need a more complex tool? Do you know how to use it? In no time, you’ll be testing out your tools and hopefully learning more and more. Sometimes you might even stop and say to yourself, “I know exactly what is wrong, but I just don’t know how to do it.” Dratz, now what? Wait, what’s that in there? Hey it’s my friend the expert in the toolbox. What can she recommend? But even though this toolbox is bottomless, each person who looks into it may see something different. One person may pick just the right tool and another person might pick something that will work eventually. It appears there is more to this toolbox than meets the eye. Even though the toolbox is bottomless and has all the answers, it will depend upon the level of expertise of its user.

Sally N. Staniford suggests that metacomprehension can be broken out into four categories. In category one we have High Comprehension and High Metacomprehension. This means you know something and are aware that you know. For example you are given a problem to solve and you are correct in knowing that you solved it correctly.

In category two we have Low Comprehension and High Metacomprehension. Here we say to ourselves, “I don’t know and I know I don’t know.” We are aware that we don’t understand.

In category three we have High Comprehension and Low Metacomprehension. In this case we know the answer but do not know we know the answer. If you are a teacher, you will know this student. She always knows the answer but she has to ask you if she is right every time.

In category four we have Low Comprehension and Low Metacomprehension. This is where “The Hack” lives. Here we are sure we know, but in fact we do not and we are unaware that we do not.

Optimally, what we all want is high comprehension and high metacomprehension. As teachers, we want our students to know subjects and to have the metacognitive skills to become aware of their thinking processes. To get there we reflect on our thinking and encourage our students to reflect on their own thinking. How do we do that when sometimes it seems that everyone just wants to rush to the magic answer?

Let’s go back to our favorite “Hack.” Where did he go wrong? He appeared to have the right tools and say the right things before he came in. But he started off badly. He asked no questions! He never really found out what was wrong and when it was going wrong. He dove in without thinking seemingly rushing to the end. While he was at work he talked about everything else but the job he was doing. He had no plan; he was distracted. Instead of finding out the exact problem, he just kept changing things to see what would work. He didn’t ask enough questions about what had just happened and how this thing was related to that thing. He didn’t monitor his progress and make changes to improve his strategies. He never once said, “I don’t know.” He was unaware that he didn’t know. And worst of all he walked away and was paid for it. Ouch! Reinforcement!

If we now think of these same basic concepts and apply them to the work that we assign as teachers, most likely we will develop work that requires students to reflect on their learning by having them focus on the learning process step-by-step. Ask them to summarize, explain a concept another way through analogy of metaphor, (lol) read a story line by line and ask them to guess what comes next (double lol) and question, question and question again. Beware the final answer!

Picasso once said, “Computers are useless; they can only give you answers.” But did he really mean that computers are useless? Or did he mean that what is important is the questions? We look into our bottomless toolbox and we find answers, but aren’t we really more in search of the next questions? There will always be a point where we say, “I don’t know.” The key is to say that in the form of a question. Learning is like that.

As for “The Hack,” Bertrand Russell sums it us best in his Triumph of Stupidity when he says, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Well Bertrand, I do consider myself an intelligent person and I, for one, don’t mind a little doubt now and then as long as it leads to the next question!


Blakey, Elaine & Spence, Sheila. (Nov 1990) Developing metacognition. ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources Syracuse NY. ERIC Identifier: ED327218 Retrieved from on February 1, 2010.

Halter. Julie, Metacognition, encyclopedia of educational technology, San Diego State University. Retrieved from February 1, 2010.

Livingston, Jennifer A. (1997) Metacognition: An overview. Retrieved from February 1, 2010.

Pierce, William (2003) Metacognition: Study strategies, monitoring, and motivation, Prince George Community College. Retrieved from February 1, 2010.

Russell, Bertrand. The triumph of stupidity (1933-05-10) in Mortals and others: Bertrand Russell’s American essays, 1931-1935, 1998, p28.

Standiford, Sally N. (1984) Metacomprehension. Retrieved from ERIC database. February 1, 2010 (ED250670).

No comments:

Post a Comment