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Metacognition: Being and becoming a learner

  • Metacognition: Being and becoming a learner

Matthew Silvester explores the development of metacognition and how it is supported in young children by the International Early Years Curriculum…

Within early childhood, metacognition unfolds powerfully as a child’s brain transforms through their interactions with expanding numbers of objects, people and places.

Young children can demonstrate early metacognition (without explicit awareness) from as early as three months, and simple metacognitive vocabulary (related to mental states) begins to be used around their second birthday.

Between the ages of three and seven, there are rapid changes in metacognition as children become more able to be aware of, describe, and employ their thinking in increasingly complex ways.

Through metacognition, a child is learning to learn. Research from the Education Endowment Foundation finds that developing and applying metacognitive strategies has the potential for a large positive impact on learning. However, they note that this is most effective when embedded within a school’s curriculum.

Strategies to support metacognition

Within the International Early Years Curriculum (IEYC), we have chosen to recognise the importance of metacognition across our curriculum: within our schools metacognition is prominent in the intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum (borrowing Ofsted’s curriculum analysis model). Through partnership with our community of schools, different strategies to scaffold children’s metacognitive development and learning have been developed.

Time, space, and places need to be planned and provided to encourage and nurture children’s regulation, reflection and metacognitive thinking. With these spaces, teachers can employ strategies to help children to be more aware of their thinking.

Visual records of learning, such as portfolios, displays and creations that children make, can illustrate to children the process of their learning. These visual records support children to revisit and reflect on their accumulated educational experiences, and provide a rich context for home-school collaboration with a focus on learning.

Display is a prominent and productive way to present and consider collective learning journeys, enabling children, teachers and families to look back on their learning. With these visual prompts, sustained shared thinking about learning experiences and pathways of learning can be facilitated.

Our schools report that thematic learning structured by a common ‘Process to Facilitate Learning’ empowers the use of visual records of children’s learning and thinking. Themes provide schools with an overarching narrative for learning and the Process to Facilitate Learning provides a repeated and familiar structure.

In New Zealand, documentation and visual records have been shown to effectively support children as they revisit and reflect on the experiences and interactions within their learning (Carr, 2011).

Carr highlights “the value of conversations about learning and the ways in which these can be facilitated” (p. 12), and identifies specific contexts and conversation strategies that teachers can use to scaffold young children in revisiting and reflecting on their own learning in a meaningful way.

Carr distinguishes between revisiting and reflecting to ensure a developmentally appropriate approach, highlighting that revisiting is a common strategy used by families (p. 3), providing connections between home and school approaches.

Repeat, revisit, reflect

Within most settings, some children may not yet have the metacognitive vocabulary or awareness to engage in revisiting and reflecting on their learning effectively. However, children can also be supported to repeat experiences as a way of supporting metacognitive development.

In our schools, we have developed a structure to promote metacognition that is threaded through the IEYC: Repeating, Revisiting and Reflecting. The intention is for this hierarchy to nurture, scaffold and inspire professional dialogue and decision making on children’s metacognitive development.

Repeating learning experiences enables children to anticipate and adapt their actions from their prior experience.

Revisiting learning experiences involves children recalling significant aspects or details of the event or experience.

Reflecting on learning experiences involves children making judgements on their prior experiences, with a gradual emphasis on improving learning.

Through an increased awareness of their own thinking and learning, children are developing their understanding of themselves as thinkers and learners, and therefore their ability to be metacognitive. Despite the importance of children making connections within and across their learning experiences, many educators will recognise that reflection is sometimes disregarded due to time demands and constraints.

Getting to know individual children and their learning better is the privilege of working in the early years. With it comes a responsibility to use that knowledge in the child’s best interests.

A focus on metacognitive learning can support every child to develop a deep, broad, and enriching understanding of themselves as a learner, which must be an essential goal of early learning.


Matthew Silvester is head of the IEYC at the International Curriculum Association.