In How People Learn, by the National Research Council, two of the three key findings of the research are the importance of recognizing and working with pre-existing knowledge of learners as well as recognizing and fostering the role of metacognition in learning (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). In my opinion, effective teaching not only addresses both factors but sets them in relationship to one another.
An excellent example of this is developed in an essay by David W. Concepcion in an essay titled Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and Metacognition (2004). In this essay, he recognizes that students new both to philosophy and reading philosophical texts don’t typically possess the background knowledge to read them well (351). He points out that it should not surprise instructors when students don’t come away from the readings with a deep understanding of them (353). He sets out, then, to provide a guide for students on reading philosophy (358).
Concepcion’s reasoning for doing this is based on considerable experience as a philosopher and teacher of philosophy to undergraduates. He has recognized that for the most part students don’t come in with the pre-existing knowledge necessary to study a dense philosophical text in a meaningful way. He also recognizes that he is in the business of teaching people to become philosophers and to do that requires, in a sense, initiating them into the often untaught or assumed methods of the discipline. Philosophy is a discipline which is highly focused on the close reading of dialogical texts according to a method that emphasizes metacognition (365).
Self-consciousness is a distinctive feature of human persons. Being aware of one’s experience as reflective of a living subject referred to as I or Me extends further to awareness of thoughts and thinking, and the capacity to reflect critically upon them. Learning theorists refer to this as metacognition (NRC). In Reading Philosophy, Concepcion points out that, “(i)f we want students to learn as much as possible, then we should help them improve their metacognitive skills”(356). Examples of metacognitive skills would be for a student to examine their capacity to reflect meaningfully and in a coherent way upon what is being studied. Tools like self-assessment can aid in this, so can self-reflection opportunities.
Although there is an important conceptual utility in distinguishing the part of learning and teaching whereby the teacher both assesses, builds, and orients toward pre-existing knowledge from metacognition, these both can be seen as in relationship to one another. For instance, Concepcion points out the importance of teaching philosophy students both how to read philosophy texts and how to read philosophically, and he also demonstrates the importance of self-assessment and reflection. But this very self-assessment and reflection could be more effective if questions such as, “am I reading in a way that is consistent with what I have learned about this discipline?”, or, “am I yet able to explain or summarize what I have read in a coherent way?”, or, “am I able to see the meaning of this text, and, do I agree with it?” This metacognitive process is actually part of the discipline that was introduced through the original recognition that pre-existing knowledge wasn’t necessarily sufficient to read these texts in a meaningful way, or in a way that is philosophical. Therefore, importantly, we can see how these important findings of the research reported in How We Learn can actually relate to one another in the process of learning and teaching.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2004). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded ed.). Washington, DC: National Acad. Press.
Concepcion, D. W. (2004). Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and Metacognition. Teaching Philosophy, 27(4), 351-368. doi:10.5840/teachphil200427443