What is metacognition? Anoara Mughal explains the definition, strategies to use in the classroom, and the benefits of teaching primary pupils metacognitive skills.

Can you please introduce yourself?

My name is Anoara Mughal and I have been a primary school teacher for about 16 years. I’ve covered lots of areas of leadership – middle leadership and senior leadership – and now I do training in schools. Having written a book on metacognition, I help support schools to implement it.

You wrote, ‘Think! Metacognition-Powered Primary Teaching.’ Can you give us an overview of the book and why you decided to write it?

The book contains 14 chapters, starting with the importance of research in education, some of the pitfalls and why we need to have a bit more of a nuanced approach when reading research around education. Then we journey into what metacognition and self-regulated learning are. I’ve broken the chapters down into research and practical strategies that teachers can take away. I understand teachers are very busy and they don’t always have the time to do research, so that was one of the reasons I wrote the book.

The other reason was when the word ‘metacognition’ became infamous shall we say back in 2018, we all thought it was a new type of pedagogy that had come in – but I remember going back to my PGCE days and hearing it. Back in 2018, we all thought it was a new type of pedagogy that had come in – but I remember going back to my PGCE days and hearing it. But then, during practice, it was never brought up again! We all have quite well-developed metacognitive skills but when it comes to teaching, we’re not always explicit. I wanted teachers to see where they are being explicit with it and where this could be further developed. The chapters are organised so they enable you to be quite reflective.

How would you define ‘metacognition’?

It’s important to look at it through different lenses. So, I would look at the word first and break it down. You have the two parts:

  1. Meta is the ‘after’ or the ‘beyond,’ so that would usually signify an alteration or change.
  2. Cognition is the knowledge and understanding of our learning and thinking processes.

Then we look at metacognition divided into two parts. So, you have the metacognitive knowledge and the metacognitive skills.

Metacognitive knowledge has three key elements: declarative knowledge (knowledge of ourselves as learners), procedural knowledge (knowledge of procedures such as retrieval practice etc.) and conditional knowledge (when and why we use the strategies).

When we move on to the metacognitive skills, that can also be divided into three stages: planning (which involves goal setting), monitoring (the self-testing part of it: ‘How am I getting along with this task?’ ‘What else do I need to do?’ Are there any other strategies I can use?’) and evaluating (appraising the outcome and how successful you have been).

I like to think of metacognition as a bridge from self-concept to self-efficacy, looking to the past and then comparing it with future learning. Another way is to think of metacognition being the bridge from knowledge to critical thinking. It’s that critical thinking or problem-solving that also helps memory development.

In the book, I call it the ‘thinking gap.’ It’s almost kind of like the missing puzzle piece to us being effective learners and being successful in that.

Why are you passionate about using metacognition with primary pupils?

One reason is because I have seen metacognitive strategies being used by three and four-year-olds. In my experience, if you walk into a nursery school, for example, you might notice children who are completing an activity and not giving up until they have been successful in it. They seem to be aware of what the goals are. Maybe they’ve been motivated by seeing a person do that before. Somehow, they have that metacognitive knowledge of, ‘Oh, if I practise this, I can become better at this.’ Even if they can’t verbalise it, you can see it in action.

I call people ‘novice learners’ and ‘experienced learners.’ At some point in our lives, we will become novice learners, particularly if it comes to new knowledge or a new skill that we are learning. I think it’s really important to develop metacognitive skills in primary because your novice learners are your learners who also need to learn about self-regulation. Some researchers say self-regulation happens as a result of teaching metacognitive skills but other researchers say it’s the other way around. In my experience, when I’ve taught metacognition explicitly, I have noticed pupils becoming more self-regulated in their learning, so I tend to go with the first idea that self-regulation can be developed through metacognition.

It’s important to think about motivation as well. I find when you teach metacognition explicitly it can be highly motivating to pupils and I’ve used it with a lot of success. I have had pupils come back after leaving Year 6, “Mrs Mughal, thank you so much for teaching me. I’m continuing with what you taught me and I’m doing so well at secondary school,” and it’s so lovely to hear that. It’s important at primary school to develop that love of learning and to see children as learners.

I think we need to be quite careful about the language we use, helping them to see that yes, they can be successful. It doesn’t matter what their age is, what their background is, where they come from, or whether they have successfully passed a test or not, they can still be successful.

It’s about other ways to be successful. If you, for example, come across a child who can’t sit still or concentrate for five minutes, if they’re able to do that by the end of the year, that is successful learning. It’s being clear about what success is and what it looks like.

What are some of your favourite strategies to use in the classroom?

Some of my personal favourites I wrote about for you in R.I.S.E.

Over the last few years, I’ve been developing a toolkit for teachers – something they can print off and try out in their classrooms. One of my favourites from this is the ‘Success Strip’ where I have three key questions: ‘Have I been successful?’ ‘What went well and what didn’t?’ ‘What will I do next time?’ I love that one because you get some funny answers! Children are so honest. I remember having one where a couple of pupils wrote, “I haven’t been successful because I was talking too much.” What’s good about that is they are goal-setting for the next lesson. I didn’t need to tell them off; they knew what they needed to do, and they did it in the next lesson.

My other favourite is the ‘Then and Now Venn’ because, particularly in primary, there’s so much going on that pupils can’t always clearly see that they have been successful or that they have made progress. I’ll dig out their books from September and compare them to their Spring ones, like for like. I ask them to jot down elements from September and compare them to Spring and immediately they’ll be like, “Oh yes I can see (for example) my handwriting has improved,” or “I’m now beginning to use fronted adverbials when before I couldn’t.” Whatever the skill is, they can see it visually and that is highly motivating as well.


Listen to Anoara’s interview to hear about:

  • key misconceptions about metacognition
  • challenges teachers may face when explicitly teaching metacognition
  • top tips for helping pupils understand what metacognition is and how it can be useful.


  • Anoara Mughal

    Anoara is an educational consultant and CPD provider with 15 years+ experience in teaching and leadership. She is the author of 'Think!: Metacognition-Powered Primary Teaching', the regional leader of WomenEd London and part of the HealthyToolkit Steering Group. Anoara is also a writer for @HeadteacherNews.
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