Every Tuesday, my 3rd grader has a spelling test for twenty new vocabulary words. Driving him to school, I usually check in – “do you need any review for your test today?” There’s time on the drive to have him spell them out, if necessary.
The relevant question is, can I trust his answer? In NurtureShock, we wrote:
“Kids who are doing well in school know it; when they write down their answer, they know whether or not their answer is correct. They have a subtle sense, a recognition of whether they’ve gotten in right. Children who are struggling are genuinely unsure; they might get the right answer, but lack such awareness.”
While that’s broadly true, let’s get into this in a little more detail. This field is considered the science of metacognition. It’s important because on a day to day basis, kids can be vastly more efficient in their studying if they focus on what they need to learn, and don’t waste time repeatedly practicing things they already know. The better they are at this self-directed studying – and the more we can trust them to trust themselves – the better off they’ll be, all around. This can foster their independence, their self-confidence, and improve their motivation because they feel in control, not dominated. We want kids to be self-directed learners; one day, when they’re off at college, there won’t be a parent around to check their homework.
To vastly oversimplify the homework debate, just for a moment, the evidence suggests high schoolers school performance goes up, a lot, when they have to do homework. Middle school children, though, only get minor benefits from homework, and elementary school kids get no benefit. One theory as to the reason for these findings is that younger kids can’t correctly choose for themselves what to study. They simple perform homework in a rote way, rather than a targeted way.
It turns out that kids are better at basic facts, like vocabulary. The metacognition for vocabulary in 3rd grade has a correlation of .90 – kids almost always know if they’re spelling words correctly on a spelling test. (They might misspell much more when they’re just writing and paying attention to the content not the spelling). By 5th grade, even as the vocabulary words get harder, metacognition accuracy is still very high.
Here’s the catch: students at this age are not good at applying their metacognition, i.e. they don’t use their awareness to direct themselves to the right study facts to memorize. They’ll study everything equally, or many kids will in fact study mostly words and facts they already know (it makes them feel good). In 5th grade, this ability is still only getting started. They still need teachers and parents to help them focus on what to study.
And kids are not nearly as good as having accurate metacognitions about their reading comprehension as they are for facts. They’re not really aware when they’ve understood a passage in a text. Their brains might have read every word, but comprehension is more than merely decoding text – it’s understanding the point. Even by 7th grade, most kids are not really aware if they’ve gotten the point. They’ve become so accustomed to not getting the point that they can no longer tell. Concept maps can help – this is where students draw a diagram of the main points and how they relate – and concept maps are better than merely reading the passage a second time – but neither makes a drastic contribution to metacognition.
All of which is to say, most kids still need your help – less so with facts, more so with comprehension.
The science of metacognition is still nascent, but it shows a lot of promise. I’m particularly interested in it because the era of pumping up kids’ self esteem might finally have crested. We recognize now that constantly telling kids they’re great or they’re so smart can interfere with their metacognition accuracy, which in turn makes them less capable of applying their metacognition in self-directed study.