What’s The Difference Between Learning And Thinking?

We often start teacher training days with this question. Many answer that learning is something specific, thinking is diffuse and can allow our minds to roam. Which is more important? Should we teach children how to think?

Metacognition. Maybe you have heard the word before. Maybe you haven’t, but I am sure you thought ‘how is that relevant for children?’ Essentially, it is thinking about one’s thinking. The technical definition is ‘beyond thinking’. Hopefully your brain isn’t in knots by now! 

Beyond Cognition

In the education world, metacognition aims to get young people to see ‘beyond’ cognition’; learning how to think reflectively, critically and creatively is the aim. It is about becoming an independent thinker and using your experiences and current knowledge to address new situations. It is about being able to plan your attack, know how you learn best, use strategies and monitor your progress when faced with a problem. It is about understanding your whole self and using all that information to improve and become a meta-learner. The use of ‘metacognitive strategies’, as documented by the EEF (EEF Guidance Report, 2018), can be worth an additional 7 months’ progress. Exciting stuff!

The findings from the Times Education Commision, set up at the suggestion of Sir Anthony Seldon, was to review the system and consider the future. They came up with a 12-point plan for Education. 

There are many purposes of education both for individuals and society but underlying them all is the need to give young people the intellectual and emotional tools to live productive, fulfilling lives. The word “educate” has its roots in the Latin word for “bringing out” or “leading forth”. As the best teachers know, education is about identifying and drawing out the talent in every child. It means recognising that there are many ways to capitalise on a student’s potential and there should be more than one route to success.

Rachel Sylvester

The current system that is geared towards exams, fixed-point assessment and grades manages to diminish the importance of drawing out the best in each and every child. How much do we allow children to think, make connections and begin to be inspired about what they are expected to learn. Motivation is another key element with the EEF’s guidance and this requires time to ask questions and assess purpose.

So yes, we need to teach children how to think. Metacognition must be explicitly taught. Teaching pupils the key thinking processes and strategies involved in metacognition sets them up for a life of successful learning. Our teaching approach prepares meta-learners: those capable of understanding themselves, being able to reflect on their learning, who know how to make progress, whatever challenge they are set. 

Our central focus at Meta Prep, it’s even in our name, is about giving each pupil a repertoire of cognitive (thinking) tools and strategies. The key to deep learning, according to Harvard University’s Ron Ritchhart (https://www.ronritchhart.com/), “is the development of metacognitive strategies and intelligent learning behaviours needed by students as they face the complexities of our challenging world.” 

Metacognitive Tools

Underpinning our weekly lessons are a few key Metacognitive actions:

Big Goals (Deliberate Practice)

The first step towards better metacognition and thinking is to set a big goal. The big goal could be ‘To pass my 11+ exam.’ However, we need to break this down into little goals that are manageable and achievable: ‘I am going to learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions’ or ‘I am going to categorise different nouns’. Small goals could be set for you, for example a question in an 11+ exam paper, or you can create your own. 

Thinking Frames

So how do I go about solving a problem? At Meta Prep, one of our strategies is the use of visual tools to guide thinking. There are 8 thinking processes: Describing; Defining; Comparing and Contrasting; Categorising; Whole/Part; Sequencing; Cause and Effect; and Making Connections. Using the Thinking Matters Thinking Frames helps pupils store knowledge, organise their ideas clearly and help improve understanding. 

When a problem or task is set in a lesson, the pupil considers which thinking process to use primarily and can employ a thinking frame. For example, when faced with dividing fractions, I might use the sequencing frame or a categorising frame when organising nouns into categories. These frames are just one strategy in a huge bank to help develop and improve levels of thinking. 


Once you have completed a task or started one thinking process to respond to a question, it is important to reflect on your learning. What were the processes you took? What do you know now? What do you understand? What went wrong or was difficult? 

A key component of metacognition is reflection: to probe deeper, ask further questions, consider what we don’t know.  

For the 11+ assessments, knowledge is just the starting point, it is about going deeper and applying what we know to new situations.


Finally, as you have probably heard before, it is all about practice. Keep going back and using the visual tools and adapt to the new problem. Set new goals and try new strategies. With consistent and deliberate practice, metacognition will become second nature to you and will carry you far beyond Year 6. 

Preparation at Meta Prep is geared towards the 11+ exam, but goes beyond straight forward test-taking skills to create reflective, critical and creative learners who are prepared and ready to thrive beyond the school gates.

We offer summer holiday workshops in Creative Writing, Introduction to Reasoning, Maths Skills and Becoming an Expert Learner. Check out our courses here.

Reference: Ritchhart, R. (2015) Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. USA.