Does your thinking often spin you around in circles?

Our guide to problem solving, cognitive strategies and using the brain to our advantage.

Building your cognitive tools and strategies 

What’s the best way of improving our learning ability? A metacognitive toolkit! Every person should have one to aid their learning, increase progress and cultivate their interests. A metacognitive toolkit contains thinking strategies and visual processes that we can deploy when confronted by a problem. It even helps when something piques our interests and we go rushing off into the unknown!

By understanding how the brain works, we can use it to our advantage. Everyone will have different strategies that work better for them so the tools need to be tried, tested and quickly recalled. In preparation for any exams, particularly the 11+, a metacognitive toolkit is a calming influence. It allows a child to focus under pressure and not fall apart. 

Our wonderful brain can change 

The most fascinating part of our whole body is the brain. It is like the untapped depths of the oceans. What the grey, squishy sponge in our skull can achieve still blows our minds. Throughout our lives, we encounter joy, sadness, struggle, love, dislike, and experiences both good and bad. Freud talks about the impact they have on our super-ego, contributing to our thinking and influencing our thoughts and behaviour patterns. 

The gut reaction to extreme stimulus is the emotive brain. It is activated by feelings of hunger or fear. It is the powerful instinct to fight, flee or freeze. These gut instincts are shaped by our experiences. If this is true, can other instincts be shaped in the future? Yes they can! This is called neuroplasticity: the concept that our brain is not fixed and can be changed. Through conscious effort and an understanding of our motivations, triggers and thinking processes, we can adapt our thinking and behaviour patterns towards success.

Mulling over our thoughts 

The types of memory: Sensory, Long-term & Working Memory

Our brain is broken down into three types of memory: 

  1. Sensory memory (SM)
  2. Working memory (WM) 
  3. Long-term memory (LTM)

SM holds information drawn from our 5 senses for up to 5 seconds; baking bread, vivid red etc. Our LTM holds all the information for survival; how to breath or ducking under a low branch. Additionally, it holds all the memories of people, places and experiences throughout our life. Many scientists argue that LTM is infinite.

The working memory (WM) is the part of the brain that in any new start-up would be called ‘Research and Development.’ It is the place we develop new ideas and identify new and varied connections. It collates information from all our memory webs and brings order and reason to our thinking. 

By teaching pupils about thinking modes, Professor Barbara Oakley highlights how we can use this information to our advantage:

  • The Focused Mode, which lasts around 15 minutes in Year 6 pupils, is when we sit down without distractions and concentrate on a specific topic or task. 
  • In between these focused periods is Diffuse Mode when our brain is not focused on anything in particular but free to roam about the corners and crevices of the mind. Our body might be wandering around or staring into space but our mind and WM is bringing together our thoughts and memories to create new ideas. 

It is important to take breaks, but not for too long!

Thinking about thinking 

Armed with the knowledge that the brain changes and how it works, pupils are ready to engage. At Meta Prep, we make learning visible through constant self-evaluation and reflection. This increases problem-solving skills as pupils can quickly identify the core thinking processes, whilst the routines and levels create a gateway for deep and profound thinking.

Anderson’s taxonomy, adapted from Bloom’s taxonomy, makes the different thinking levels clear for pupils to understand each step in the process. Consequently, if you can see more steps to climb, a curious child is going to keep climbing. 

Compass Points: Project Zero thinking routine
Harvard Thinking Routines – an example of visible thinking

Visible Thinking Routines

Project Zero, run by Harvard Graduate School of Education, have developed resources, supported by extensive research, to increase student engagement. As a result, their focus is on the thinking processes involved in learning. Visible Thinking Routines present strategies that support the development of a positive, engaged learning culture in the classroom, with techniques for pupils to speak, write, and draw their learning. It is inclusive in its nature and can be accessed by children of all ages.

Similarly, metacognitive visual tools allow pupils to identify core thinking processes when presented with a problem or challenge. These could be the types of problems that mirror those encountered in daily life. It is a simple tool to help display ideas or thinking, sequence problems and plan an attack for resolution. These directly line up with the steps and processes involved in thinking and problem solving. 

With a focus on thinking and a complete cognitive toolkit, children will be equipped with the tools needed for 11+ exam success and beyond. 

At Meta Prep, cognitive skills and tools are the next step in our 11+ Big Picture towards becoming a meta learner. We explicitly teach these and believe it is an essential part of our bigger picture of the child as a whole learner.