This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.

Metacognition in Childhood

Flavell calls the child's awareness of the distinction between appearance and reality an example of metacognition, a concept we have already encountered in Chapter 6 (Memory) and Chapter 7 (Cognition). Metacognition is awareness of our own mental processes, and it comes in many varieties. It is very important to the intellectual abilities of humans. As we become more aware of how our minds work, we become better able to use our intellectual abilities appropriately and compensate for our deficiencies.

What is metacognition? How did Flavell demonstrate deficiencies in metacognition with one simple question?

Young children can be remarkably ignorant of basic mental processes. In one study, Flavell and two other researchers simply asked 5-year-olds whether they ever forgot anything. Thirty percent said they did not!

Even when they are taught to use information processing strategies, children do not always use their new skills without prompting from adults. A classic example comes from research on memory in children. Adults who try to remember something will often rehearse the information, saying it over and over in their heads. This helps maintain the information in working memory, so it can be retained, for example, while dialing a phone.

What did Kingsley and Hagen discover when they taught children how to rehearse word lists?

Rehearsal is simple for adults, but it does not come naturally to little children. Kingsley and Hagen (1969) taught nursery school children to rehearse words in a list. It improved their retention. But after successfully using the technique, the children seldom rehearsed on their own.independently. They had to be reminded to do it, unless they were about 7 years old or older. The older children remembered to do it on their own.

Similar results were reported by Paris, Newman, and McVey (1982). They taught children to sort objects into different categories before trying to memorize them. This greatly improved the children's memories. But when the children were tested again on a very similar task, they failed to use the strategy on their own. This illustrates a basic difficulty with teaching metacognitive skills. An approach that "teaches children how to think about thinking" typically produces good results in research settings, but some children will use these skills only when prompted by adults.

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