Deirdre Moore | October 2013

Teaching Students to Know How they Know: Metacognition through the Arts

Metacognition is key to empowering life-long learning but according to Annie Murphy Paul, author of “The Brilliant Blog”, researchers are finding students often don’t know how they learn.  As an educator charged with teaching so much content it is easy to neglect to teach students effective learning strategies that will help ensure when they want to learn something on their own, they will know how.  The arts are an incredible tool to demonstrate cognitive strategies that help students explore new content and demonstrate whether they actually understand what they are trying to learn.

Paul’s article “How Much Do You Know About How to Learn?” lists a number of statements designed by researchers to help students determine whether they are employing effective learning strategies.  By examining a few of these, we can see how the arts can be used as an aid to support metacognition.

  • I draw pictures or diagrams to help me understand this subject.  This strategy clearly links to visual art.  Vocabulary, processes, stories can all be represented through visual art.  If a student is more kinesthetic these can also be represented through movement.  Metaphors and similes can help “draw” understanding with words and be combined to write poetry, songs, and chants.
  • I discuss what I am doing in this subject with others.  When students have an opportunity to co-create art, they discuss what they know with others and have multiple opportunities to check understanding.  As they discuss how to represent the content with one another, they clarify understanding.
  • I practice things over and over until I know them well in this subject.  If visual art is being created, many artists create a model or sketch first before attempting a final product; this allows for practice of content.  If music, dance or drama is being used to represent understanding, then the creation and rehearsal of the art is practice for the content being represented.
  • I think about my thinking, to check if I understand the ideas in this subject.  When art is used to represent learning students must examine their thinking in order to manifest it through the art form.
  • When I don’t understand something in this subject I go back over it again.  If you are representing your learning in art and you come up against something you do not know or of which you are unsure, you have to go back to the subject to clarify understanding before you can create the art piece.

Examining each of these effective learning strategies makes it easy to see how students can utilize the arts to help them be more confident independent learners.  If students understand represent as “re-present”, they can see that representing something through an art form is an opportunity to re-present new learning to check their own understanding.  If educators allow students to reflect on the process of art-making, they can help students see how they used art to help themselves learn.

If students are given the opportunity to select the art activity/learning strategy, they may develop a better sense of what strategies work best for various types of learning tasks.  Once these connections are made, students can intentionally use art independently to explore, secure, and demonstrate learning.  Using the arts to support and illuminate metacognition for students empowers them to pursue a lifetime of deep and meaningful learning.

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.