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The Development of Metacognitive Knowledge in Children and Education

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Here, we take up the subject of the metacognition, a concept that is central to thinking about education from the perspective of neuroscience, and discuss an article by Dr. Wolfgang Schneider entitled "The Development of Metacognitive Knowledge in Children and Adolescents: Major Trends and Implications for Education," which appeared in MBE, Vol.2, No.3, p 114-121.

Metacognition is broadly defined as cognitive activity about cognitive activity or the knowledge that regulates this activity in the act of cognition. This might be a bit difficult for the nonspecialist to understand, but the prefix "meta" indicates that it is cognition about cognition.

Education places importance on clearly grasping the object of study and understanding its meaning and nature. This requires cognition or "ninchi" in Japanese, in which "nin" refers to the distinguishing or discerning operation of the brain and "chi" to the operation of logically understanding and making judgments.

As such, metacognitive knowledge is knowledge of the structure and process of the task to be achieved, knowledge of strategies to achieve the task, and knowledge related to one's abilities and qualities to perform the task. Metacognitive knowledge is thought to be acquired by memory and experience, and is generally considered to be relatively stable.

Given the significant role of memory in education, we can think of metamemory as the foundation of metacognitive activity. Metamemory refers to personal knowledge of memory, the memory of memory, and the phenomenon of perceiving phenomenon related to reactions to such knowledge and memory.

This includes perceiving the results of the self-monitoring of memory, such as understanding verbs for the mental functions of memory such as "remember," "recall" or "forget," the characteristics of a memorized task or a person related to a memory, the means and methods developed in advance to maintain or elicit memory, declarative knowledge that can recall the facts in language, and the condition, content and even limits of one's current memory.

Furthermore, using knowledge to execute a task requires thinking about the process of memory itself and how to implement its means and methods in advance. This calls for procedural memory-like knowledge such as monitoring and control, and the execution process during this use is called metamemory. As metamemory is related to the actual emergence of memory activity itself, the development of metamemory is considered to be a latent mechanism of memory development.

Hopefully, this explanation aids in understanding the concept of metacognition. Metacognition is integral to the cognitive processes of logical and scientific thinking and notions of sociability. Moreover, the infant "theory of mind" is a recent subject of much interest and considerable research is now underway that links its development to the development of metacognition.

"Theory of mind" theorizes the formation of the ability to presume the beliefs, desires, and intentions of others, and based on these presumptions, to anticipate their actions. Considered to develop rapidly between 3 to 4 years of age, and acquired by the age of 5, theory of mind has been related to developmental changes in the prefrontal cortex. Children use theory of mind in predicting the behavior of others, developing empathy and understanding, forging human relations, and in the course of daily family and social life.

The said article is based on a study of 174 children, three years of age, which investigated the relationship between the early formation of theory of mind and subsequent metamemory development with consideration given to the role of language development. Children were tested at four measurement points, separated by a testing interval of approximately half a year.

Not surprisingly, the development of theory of mind and metamemory are clearly shown to be strongly influenced by language. Moreover, language abilities at the ages of 3 and 4 significantly contribute to metamemory ability at the age of 5. It has been demonstrated that the early acquisition of high theory of mind competencies affects the acquisition of metacognitive language (vocabulary), for example, in the use of words such as "guess" and "think."

Metamemory that is expressed in language, or declarative metamemory, is already present in preschool children and is thought to develop in stages during the elementary school years. It is related to the declarative knowledge that recalls facts in language, as mentioned above. Here, declarative metamemory refers to metamemory mediated by language and is opposed to what is called procedural metamemory. Even after entering puberty, metacognition is thought to continue to develop to enable the reading, comprehension, and memorization of complex texts.

Not only do children have self-monitoring skills, but the development of skills to control self-monitoring is also, of course, important in the development of metacognitive knowledge in education. Judgments pertaining to the ease or difficulty of learning, judgments on the learning itself, and judgments on how acquired knowledge is related develop gradually from childhood.

Looking at the correlation between monitoring and control skills, we see that even 6-year olds can judge whether a task is easy or difficult to learn, but unlike 10-year olds, they are unable to allocate study time to the difficult tasks. There is a difference between possessing metacognitive knowledge and actually being able to use it.

It is in this sense that we can understand the significance of metacognition in education. As such, the following methods can be applied in educational settings. Reciprocal instruction makes it possible to have students think about effective reading strategies in advance, which in turn improves the necessary metacognition. When children become 7-8 years of age, they can be taught to consider and assess which learning methods to use and thereby improve learning efficacy.

As part of the daily instruction, effective teachers will provide children with the metacognitive information that will allow children to consider, choose, and adapt an effective learning strategy themselves. The quantity, control and monitoring of metacognitive knowledge at the elementary school level can predict the performance of mathematics, reading and writing even after differences in intellectual abilities have been taken into account.

It is not easy to teach children how to learn at school and much empirical research still remains. We can, however, say that better learning occurs when teachers understand the conceptual basis of effective learning.

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