A richer narrative : Metacognition and the Personal Project

Recently I’ve been thinking about the value of the Personal Project and how the process recalls an important feature of Reggio-inspired learning. In the Reggio philosophy, the learner is on a journey toward identity and place in the world, and learning is research toward finding and shaping that identity through a recursive inquiry process. And the trail of thought brings to mind Jerome Bruner’s statement “The self is not a thing, but a point of view that unifies the flow of experience into a coherent narrative—a narrative striving to connect with other narratives and become richer.”

In thinking about the Personal Project and its impact on the student, the image that comes to mind is the interlaced relationships that nurture the Project to life. The relationship between the goal and the student’s identity, giving the Project what’s “Personal.” The relationships within the design process of ATL skills to personal efficacy, craftsmanship, flexible thinking, and growing awareness of self and impact on others and the environment. And, the relationship between the mentor and the student as interdependent thinkers, evolving as the student’s narrative as a learner and inquirer weaves with the mentor’s narrative as a coach.

As mentors for the Personal Project, we don’t necessarily focus on the topic or content of the project. The conversations around content are most probably linked to conversations about the research process and research skills or strategies. Apart from conversations with our student on how the global context frames the inquiry, we touch on conceptual understanding in somewhat smaller ways than we might focus on process itself. In fact, the concepts are not the subject matter for the conversations; rather, we use the concepts to engage in the thinking. For example, once in a conversation about a project turning waste from a manufacturing product into a useful fuel, a student and his mentor did not talk about chemical change as a concept; instead, they spoke about what the actual chemical change meant in terms of the solution in the student’s hypothesis. By the time students undertake the Personal Project, they are conversant with concepts.

I suggest that the privilege of mentoring a Personal Project holds the potential for making the learning from five or more years visible in the process. The complexity in the process of undertaking a Personal Project is rich with opportunities for a student to make visible his or her self-directedness. In the process of completing the Personal Project, our students have chances to show self-managing, self-monitoring and self-modifying capacities. In other words, being a self-directed learner (Costa and Garmston, 2016).

As a capstone for the aim of self-directedness in the process of intentionally helping students develop approaches to learning skills, the Personal Project helps us focus and inquire into the question, In what ways might we mediate thinking in a student, to allow for expression of the approaches to learning skills as the student embarks on the recursive and unpredictable process of conceptualising, planning, taking action and reflecting?

Learning is a disturbance in the system of self

As a coach for the student’s thinking, the mentor may act as a guide through an ecotone, which may be an issue, challenge, conflict or other situation that causes a disturbance in thinking.

By disturbance, we mean that the design process itself is pretty ambiguous. Like in the scientific method, the student poses an intelligent guess or hypothesis of what the outcome of a process might be, given a set of designed conditions. As the process ensues, the student applies research and action toward that hypothesis. Sometimes, things might not fall into what was previously known or understood. What results might require the student to revise their understanding of the world, of themselves, of ideas they once thought they knew and understood. The student’s thinking is disturbed because it must necessarily add new learning to the narrative.

Costa and Garmston (2016) write,

“Human learning is a matter of strengthening internal knowledge structures. Planning for and reflecting on experience activates these knowledge structures. With mediation, existing knowledge structures can be made more complex through more connections. The structures can also be altered to accommodate new understandings, or they can be made obsolete because some new experience has caused the creation of a new knowledge structure. This sifting and winnowing of prior knowledge structures constitutes learning” (p. 63).

Cognitive Coaching by Costa and Garmston, et al. (2016)

Given that the student must make decisions throughout the process as they test new knowledge against old, test approaches to learning skills which may or may not be optimal, and constantly change approaches and thinking, the process of completing the project might also evolve new understandings about self, impacting identity and meaning. The process of learning, unlearning and relearning can be quite perplexing (Costa and Garmston, 2016).

The coach bridges the ecotone

The realms of thinking in a Personal Project process might approach complexity in new ways, and the mentor or coach is an important resource for the student as his or her thinking is disturbed and identity shifts. It is an optimal process for the coach to be of service.

Coaches mediate thinking by using capabilities such as listening, paraphrasing, and posing questions to move the thinking of the person (Costa and Garmston, 2016) through the ecotone: from what may be the current state of perplexity to the desired state of clarity.

Coaching bridges the area of tension between two states of being. Through coaching, the coach acts as a go-between, a bridge or conveyance from one state in the coachee’s mind to another, desired state. In effect, as a coach we lend our thinking in service of another through complete attentiveness.

A Personal Project for the Personal Project

Two colleagues collaborated on a model of coaching personal projects through the process of completion. The aim was to support the thinking of students as they planned and reflected on actions, and as their coaches, to “influence the intensity, flow, directionality, importance, excitement and impact of information coming to the person being coached” (Costa and Garmston, 2016, p. 64).

We wanted to adapt the Cognitive CoachingSM conversations to the personal project’s mentoring process and find out How might students indicate metacognition in their verbal responses during coaching conversations?

To start, we operationalised metacognition and self-direction in our context.

Metacognition includes both knowledge about cognition (which is often stated as ‘thinking about thinking’) and “deliberate, conscious regulation and control of cognitive ability” (Ertmer 7 Newby, 1996; Flavell, 1979; McCormick, 2003 in Handbook of Metacognition in Education Kindle location 3324).

Metacognition mediated through coaching in the personal project. For a closeup see this link.

We considered the elemental traits of thinking that we considered to be metacognition in our context and used conversations as ways to surface the narrative around developing identities of learners and the stories of their ATL skills. What we found in the process of coaching our students was that the coaching process helped to nudge metacognition. Compared to previous years when students did not engage in coaching, the difference was in the emergence of the narrative about identity as learner; knowledge of cognition, and expressions of awareness of the student’s affective state. The coaching conversations helped the student to tell the story not just of how they completed their projects, but how they were thinking about their own capacities as learners.

One student realised what metacognitive researchers call declarative knowledge, or knowledge of self as learner, including strengths and weaknesses and awareness of the self’s emotional landscape at a given moment (Hacker, 1998; Pressley & Harris, 2006 in Handbook of Metacognition in Education, 2009).

When asked, “When you reflect on your practice sessions in the kitchen, what might be some things that you are thinking that will give you better outcomes?”

“My products did not look very good so their appearance might have affected people’s first impressions and perspectives on my skill. The cookies were not round and they did not look good. Also, the toppings on the cakes were not done in a neat fashion. I solved the problems I faced by paying more attention when I bake. When I put the cookie mix on the tray, I have to be more attentive and make sure it is round-shaped. For the cakes, I have to do things more slowly and properly so it comes out nice and neat.”

Another student when asked about using a particular approach to organising shared, “I feel that this was the best way to create my product because it forced me to do everything in an organised manner, which is usually challenging for me. I found that using a structured plan and carrying it out step by step was very helpful and made the entire process go efficiently.”

Another indicator of metacognition from the coaching conversations revolved around the student’s knowledge of ATL skills that were useful for a task and their own awareness of how their affect was connected to the task.

Asked what personal learning she took away from the process, a student said, “It was a challenge for me to write short and impactful vignettes. It was frustrating because I thought short passages would be easy and that I would know what to say about the images I’d created. Then I discovered that having images in front of me helped me think about the vignettes I wanted to write, and that the picture helped me imagine more than when I was staring at the window or something else. The other thing I learned is that by I was worrying about the writing not being good from the beginning. So I forced myself to write without worrying about grammar or structure, and I could let ideas flow. Later, I just wrote without worrying.”

Asked the same question, another student shared a new flexibility in her thinking.

“In the beginning, I set up a very specific timeline for my project. However, while I was working on the product, I realised I was behind. This was mainly due to the fact that people weren’t always available. At first, I was a little bit stressed about being behind, but then I realised that the dates that I set were merely goals and the fact that I wasn’t making them didn’t mean that my project was behind, it just meant that I needed to readjust the dates that I had set. I solved my problems by pushing them all back ten days and this made everything a lot less stressful. The due dates that I set for myself still allowed me ample time to finish my project before the due date in January while not setting my progress back too far. “

In later conversations, students began to use what metacognitive researchers call procedural knowledge, which is the knowledge of which skills work and the timing for choosing these as approaches to learning.

“My reason for deciding on interviews was I felt that using primary sources would be very helpful in my research. I also wanted to build a collection of contacts that I could refer to for questions and information or if I needed any help. So I had two purposes for why I chose to ask for interviews.”

“Knowing that I don’t always follow a plan unless I make a plan, write it down, it was a good decision to focus on cooking as the way I would investigate this [global context]. You know, when you cook you can’t just stop halfway like when you’re doing other things. Once you start, you will have to finish. If I want to learn to follow through, I had to cook.”

The experience of coaching the students through the Personal Project helped us draw out metacognitive thinking. We also found that there was resonance in the thinking of the students after a coaching conversation. After coaching, students wrote more in their journals, and they wrote more descriptive narratives not just on what they did but the thought behind their decisions and how they arrived at them. We saw differences in the ways students spoke about themselves as learners in the story of their journeys through the Personal Project.

Featured photo 
Long shot of zig zag staircase through window in white wall, The Museum of Modern Art Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

Costa, A. L., Garmston, R. J., Hayes, C., & Ellison, J. (2016). Cognitive coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hacker, D. J., Dunlosky, J., & Graesser, A. C. (2009). Handbook of metacognition in education. New York: Routledge.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

2 thoughts

  1. Dear Aloha,
    A very good read, with great reflection on metacognitive deliberations. Insightful for a Personal Project mentor to initiate meaningful mentation among student. I liked the ‘disturbance of knowledge’ part.

    1. Hello Arif,

      Thanks for the comment. Being a mentor for a rich learning journey like the Personal Project can provoke a service as action stance on the part of the teacher. As we mentor Projects, we have great opportunities to model thinking, social emotional skills, time management (making it to appointments with our mentee, finding time in our very busy schedule, etc.)…not just sound research skills. Enriching for the student and the teacher both!

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