Thinking About Thinking

As children grow and develop, they gradually become aware of their own thought processes. They grow beyond thinking to having thought awareness, or metacognition. Thought awareness is similar to self-awareness, by which individuals become aware of their strengths and weaknesses and attempt to establish their identity. Both thought awareness and self-awareness are essential to adolescent development.

The opposite of metacognition is meta-ignorance, or “ignorance about ignorance.” Take, for example, the Dunning-Kruger effect, by which poor performers are wholly unaware of their own deficiencies. They overestimate their knowledge and experience, often to their detriment. The Dunning-Kruger effect proposes that incompetent people fail to recognize their own incompetence. As a cautionary note regarding the pitfalls of ignorance and incompetence, consider the words of David Dunning regarding poor performers and their deficiencies: “Their deficits leave them with a double burden—not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes but those exact same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes.”1

Mark Murphy, a contributor, points out an irony that I find quite illuminating: “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.”2

Not to make light of the topic’s seriousness, but this sounds like your average primary or middle school student, or any emergent learner, come to think of it. So it would appear that the first step in combating ignorance is to foster thought awareness. However, children can’t regulate their thought processes until they are aware of their thought processes.

Enter metacognition. I view metacognition as the gateway to becoming a fully developed sentient human being. In fact, the capacity for thought awareness is what makes humans unique, although we are learning that we share this ability with a few other animal species, such as primates and dolphins. The ability to think about thoughts is considered one of the main conditions of sapience, more commonly known as wisdom.

Wisdom, loosely defined, is the ability to usefully regulate one’s thoughts and actions by integrating knowledge, intuition, and prior experiences. As you are no doubt aware, being wise is different from being intelligent. One can have a huge depth and breadth of knowledge but lack wisdom, and vice versa.

From a cognitive viewpoint, wisdom (or sapience) is a function of and evidence of executive processing in the brain. The executive-processing part of the brain controls thought regulation and therefore is directly related to wisdom. Exercising wisdom is critical to an individual’s development, not only for general health, happiness, and self-actualization, but also for maximizing brain growth.

Much of primary-, secondary-, and even collegiate-level academics concerns the acquisition of content-specific knowledge. Often, educators focus on delivering content and thereby miss crucial opportunities to develop whole learners. I don’t believe that teachers value intelligence over wisdom, but I do think that methodologies for delivering content are far easier to develop and implement than strategies for integrating knowledge, intuition, and experience. I don’t mean to imply that educators are lazy for focusing on content. I fully acknowledge that instilling a sense of wisdom in students is a monumental task that can’t be accomplished in a single class period or even an entire academic year. It takes, literally, a lifetime.

The process, once you strip away lofty terminology and obfuscating jargon (such as executive processing, growth mindset, self-awareness, self-actualization, wisdom, and metacognition) is quite simple:

  • First, students must become aware that they don’t know.

  • Second, they must figure out what they don’t know.

  • Third, they must figure out how to acquire the knowledge or skills necessary to solve the problem or complete the task at hand.

What we can and must do as educators is to seize every opportunity possible to make students aware of their thoughts, encourage them to grow their strengths and develop their weaknesses, and teach them explicit strategies to monitor, assess, and regulate their thought processes to maximize their potential, not only as learners but as human beings.

Jonathan Pickles has taught language arts at the middle and secondary levels for more than twenty years. He has worked in both public and private schools in California, Connecticut, and New York. He is published by N&N Publishing and UPCO. Jonathan currently resides in Dutchess County’s gorgeous Hudson Valley with his wife, daughters, cats, dogs, and one very lucky goldfish.

This article is an excerpt from Jonathan’s newest book, The Reader’s Trace. You can find more information at:

Works Cited

[1]David Dunning, “The Dunning–Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance,” in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, ed. James Olson and Mark Zanna (Cambridge, MA: Academic Press, 2011), 44.

2 Mark Murphy, “The Dunning-Kruger Effect Shows Why Some People Think They’re Great Even When Their Work Is Terrible,”, January 24, 2017.

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