Metacognitive approach to the gaokao is needed in schools

By Ryan Thorpe Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/12 18:18:39

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

Each time that there is a discussion about the gaokao (the national college entrance exams), there's a strong element of fear.

The pictures of preparation for the gaokao generally feature rows of students studying at tiny desks, surrounded by stacks of paper. They look more like wigs perched on a pile of books than students.

The stories that come out of the gaokao are equally frightening. I hear stories of how students study from morning until night. They break only for eye exercises or to walk around a little.

Students are expected to focus on their tests at the expense of other parts of their lives, an idea shown in the story of a girl from Xi'an whose father's death was kept from her for months to allow her to keep focused.

The exam understandably is important. It determines the future for many students, but with all of the efforts directed toward the gaokao, I feel like many of the efforts are not helping students enough in their future studies.

As a university lecturer, I spend time each semester talking about the value of metacognitive studies, which sounds complicated, but it is essentially the idea of thinking about how you think. To put it another way, it is becoming aware of how you function as a learner, and this idea could help these students.

I first became familiar with metacognitive approaches to education in an article that argued that certain changes to education were almost impossible. Reducing class size, new classrooms and hiring teaching assistants are all expensive ways to barely increase the quality of what happens inside a classroom.

The article was very clear about one positive point, though: metacognitive strategies work, and they are helping students do better in the classroom. Students and teachers who engage in metacognitive techniques are learning faster and more effectively.

So what counts as metacognition? For teachers, this can consist of any activity or practice that connects the dots for students. When a teacher makes a clear goal for the day or when a teacher talks about goals for the semester, metacognition is happening.

In short, it's learning about the process instead of a specific product. As one science teacher noted in the article, "I don't teach physics; I teach my students how to learn physics."

For students, the process also focuses on the process of learning. When students think back and reflect on their own efforts and determine what they learned during a previous unit or identify something that they could have learned better, then they are engaging in the practical process of metacognition.

Part of what makes metacognition so important in middle school, high school and early university is that the process is just as important as the product of what is being learned in many cases. When I teach introduction-level writing, I want them to learn how to write solid sentences, but the quest to being a great writer is a long one.

Far more important than a student's individual papers is a student's ability to look at themselves as they go through assignments, honestly assess their own work and determine where they need to improve. Then, after that reflection is done, find the resources to improve. That's a process that will help them for the rest of their lives.

When I think of the gaokao, I think of a product-focused process where students are directed to become an expert on a product, but the need for that expertise will quickly fade, while the need to understand their learning process is a skill that will be needed for the rest of their lives.

Students need to learn to become their own mirrors and try to objectively see themselves. Only when this happens will students stop viewing knowledge as some scary beast that must be tamed and instead learn that knowledge is something personal that we all learn on an individual basis.

With a little reflection, their own self-constructed idea of knowledge can even be found in something as scary as the gaokao.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.


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