Episode 39 Exploring Metacognition and Executive Functioning
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Exploring Metacognition and Executive Functioning
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- What Influences Learning? A Content Analysis of Review Literature: https://tinyurl.com/46p5s7x5
- Jordan Peterson: Selective consciousness: https://tinyurl.com/3m5dbwh5
- Christopher Alexander- Morphogenic Design: https://tinyurl.com/3kmkrr86
- Mnemonics: https://tinyurl.com/ys8ysjjd
- Metacognition: https://tinyurl.com/4dbtc8cw
- Working Memory: https://tinyurl.com/working-memory
- Inhibitory Control: https://tinyurl.com/inhibitory-control
- Visualization: https://tinyurl.com/use-visualization
- Inner Voice: https://tinyurl.com/inner-voices
- Cognitive Flexibility: https://tinyurl.com/cognitive-flexibility
- BulletMap Academy: https://bulletmapacademy.com/
- Learning Specialist Courses:https://www.learningspecialistcourses.com/
- Executive functions and Study Skills Course: https://tinyurl.com/n86mf2bx
- Good Sensory Learning: https://goodsensorylearning.com/
- Dyslexia at Work: www.dyslexiawork.com
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- Good Sensory Learning (http://www.goodsensorylearning.com/)
- Learning Specialist Courses (http://www.learningspecialistcourses....)
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- Dyslexia at Work: www.dyslexiawork.com
Erica: Welcome to the personal brain trainer podcast. I'm Dr. Erica Warren.
Darius: And I'm Darius Namdaran and we're your hosts. Join us on an adventure to translate the scientific jargon and brain research into simple metaphors and explanations for everyday life. We explore executive function and learning strategies that help turbocharge the mind.
Erica: Come learn to steer around the invisible barriers so that you can achieve your goals. This podcast is ideal for parents, educators, and learners of all ages.
This podcast is brought to you by Goodsensorylearning.com, where you can find educational and occupational therapy lessons and remedial materials that bring delight to learning. Finally, you can find Dr. Warren's many courses at, uh, Learningspecialistcourses.com. Come check out our newest course on developing executive functions and study strategies.
Darius: This podcast is sponsored by Dyslexiaproductivitycoaching.com. We give you a simple productivity system for your Apple devices that harnesses the creativity that comes with your Dyslexia. Hey, Erica, what are we going to be talking about today?
Erica: I'm excited about this one. Exploring metacognition and executive functioning. Of course, metacognition is a part of executive functioning, but I really felt like it would be fun to do a deep dive into metacognition so that we can learn more about what it is, how to use it, how to strengthen it, and impact on learning.
Darius: Like, we were having a conversation about what we should choose as our next podcast episode to discuss, and we had this little discussion about do people actually think about metacognition and will they search for metacognition in a podcast, et cetera? And you were like, well, of course they will. And I was like, Goodness me, who thinks, oh, I'm going to go and explore about metacognition. So I think it might be useful to put metacognition into layman's language. Or how would you explain it to a young child in school? What is metacognition? I'm, uh, a ten year old child. And you're going to explain what metacognition is? How would you describe it?
Erica: I would describe it as it's thinking about your thinking. And someone might be like, well, how do you do that? Well, let's think about it, right? Oh, I'm thinking about it. Oh, if I'm thinking about my thinking, how do I do that? So I could say, well, I'm thinking about thinking right now, and what does that mean to me? I think now that, uh, I'm saying this, I think it really involves your inner voice. It involves the two tools of working memory. Yes, it involves your inner voice. It involves inner visuals, because when you are conjuring up an inner visual or you're conjuring up your inner voice, and that visual or that inner voice is focusing on what you're thinking about. And I guess technically, it could even be your inner spatialization skills, where you could be evaluating your ideas spatially or your body spatially that is metacognition. So, uh, it's funny because they tend to put metacognition under inhibitory control, but I'm starting to realize that we really use the tools of working memory to make it happen. What are your thoughts on that?
Darius: Well, this podcast is a Metacognition podcast, isn't it? We are always thinking about our thinking. That's the whole point of this podcast, isn't it?
Erica: It is. That's really funny. Um, absolutely.
Darius: And um, so, like, we've got Metacognition, which is thinking about our thinking. It's basically reflecting on our thinking. And reflecting is like looking in a mirror. So we're not just looking in a mirror to look at our appearance and how our hair is working, or our face, or how we're presenting. We're looking in a different kind of mirror to look at how our minds are working, how our thinking is working. And um, when we do that, we get to know ourselves a little bit more. And as we know ourselves, we know how to get things done more. And that's where it ties in with executive function. We start to understand what is working memory. Okay, I'm going to work with the limitations of my working memory and not overtax it. And then what is inhibitory control, what is cognitive flexibility? And you work with what you've got. You get to know the vehicle you're driving or the orchestra you're conducting, et cetera.
Erica: Yeah, and I think the mirror is our consciousness. So for example, I think we tend to walk through life subconsciously. We've kind of programmed ourselves and we can just kind of go through the motions and I forget what the research says, but it's something like around 85% of the time we're subconscious.
Darius: Well, that would make sense. And um, I've been thinking a lot about school and um, the function of school. And this ties in with Metacognition in many ways because in the past, a lot of the jobs we were going to end up with in life were where we had to follow someone else's plan. In the factory or the workshop or whatever. There was a plan set out for us. There was a time to start in the day, a time to end. There was a process to follow. And there wasn't a huge amount of executive function skills required. There were maybe technical skills required. So you didn't need to make a plan, you didn't need to create a plan, you followed the plan. So if you thought about the proportion of people in society who had to follow a plan and those who had to create the plan, you're probably looking about 90% of people had to follow a plan. Even managers had to follow a plan. But then 10% created the plan. Whereas in our society now, a lot more people are required to create a plan. Let's say 40% of people, they're self employed, they're coordinating a business, they're managing a whole department, they're in charge of the vision, the purpose, et cetera. They've got to create a plan, they've got to execute it. And so that requires executive functioning, it requires executive function. Skills. And so to get good at those executive function skills in this podcast, we're really discussing metacognition, which is let's look at the way we think and the way we do stuff in our mind so that we can get that stuff done. So the point of everything that I've just said is that so many more people nowadays require a level of metacognition, a, uh, higher level of executive function skills because it's demanded of them by our society.
Erica: I think you're right, and I think, unfortunately, the way we teach in education is a spin off of the Industrial Revolution, which is what you were touching on. And because of that, I think we still look at our students, maybe subconsciously as these passive receivers of information and there is a push in education to get students to be more active, to be active learners. And I was thinking about this actually, while I was laying in bed this morning, that active learning is metacognition. Right? So it's funny, we actually have been using this term and I think we just have called it different things. I think active learning is metacognition. There might be some other components to active learning, but within the individual it is a form of metacognition, I think. Well.
Darius: It'S definitely the metacognition required in a school setting. There's other forms of metacognition required in the rest of life.
Erica: Right? Because we are learning in a schooling environment, whereas we might use metacognition in a non learning environment just to sort out maybe daily situations or solving problems within life, which is not necessarily education.
Darius: Yes, like so many young people are very entrepreneurial in their mindset. And there's another metacognitive set of skills or aspect of metacognition involved in business, in entrepreneurship as well. I mean, active learning is a key part of it. But what would you say are the metacognitive skills you need for business?
Erica: I guess we can just step right back into executive functioning and flipping that term and just saying being a functioning executive and that metacognition is the consciousness of being that functioning executive. A conscious functioning executive.
Darius: How does that I love it. A, ah, conscious functioning executive. So an executive who isn't just doing the same old routine of the way they manage or run their company, but the executive who steps back and reflects on the way they are. An executive of their business or life. And likewise, if it's in school, a person who steps back and reflects on the way they learn in school or what they're learning, where their learning is going, or learning how to learn all these metacognitive elements. Got you. All right, well, talk to us a little bit about the sort of research side of things. Give us some science to really chew on here.
Erica: Yeah, I dove into that and found an article that I found completely fascinating and also noticed that it was reflected upon across the research. And this was an article called what influences learning? A content analysis of review literature. And here the researchers looked at 228 practices and revealed that the most important component to positive learning outcomes was student metacognition. It blew me away, and it took me back to some other research that I read about working memory and them touting that it was a better indicator of academic success than IQ. Well, I've realized this for a while, but it just gives us even more backing to this claim, which is executive functioning is absolutely vital to learning, and we aren't directly teaching it in the vast majority m of schools out there, and we really need to be doing that. So kids need to know what working memory is. They need to know inhibitory control. They need to know cognitive flexibility. They need to know what metacognition is. And even if we don't call it metacognition, calling it active learning, but I think it's important for teachers to realize and to know that those are somewhat synonymous. But why not why not give the kids the vocabulary? Because if they don't have the vocabulary, how can they use metacognition? You can't think about your thinking if you don't have the vocabulary.
Darius: Yeah. Let me use, uh, a metaphor here that we started in the last episode last few episodes about the executive function being, like, captain a ship. Okay? And tell me what you think about this stress test, this metaphor so far. The metaphor is built up into you are captaining a ship across a dynamic sea of life, two different destinations. You have a crew of three people working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility, and you are the captain of that ship. The working memory is on the lookout. The cognitive flexibility is on the helm holding your course, and cognitive flexibility is keeping track of the map and the circumstances and adapting to the circumstances that are prevailing. And they're all working together. Now, we talked about the vessel itself as our mind last week. Okay? And metacognition could come into this because I've noticed, as the captain of my own ship or the helm of my own ship when I'm sailing, it's a small dinghy. One of the things that you always have to be doing is looking at key areas of your boat to make sure everything is okay. You have to kind of reflect on the boat. You can't just take the boat for granted because the tiller might be a screw, might be coming loose, something might be being a bit frayed, something might be cracking a little bit. And if that's happening, you need to pay attention to it to avoid any issues or challenges. That's part of your role as a captain, not just deciding the course or looking after the crew or whatever. There's an element of being aware of the boat. You have the crew, you have the condition. Are they well fed? Are they hungry? Have we been focused in on something through a storm have we all, uh, properly eaten or drunk? And that's part of my responsibility as a captain. Do you see what I mean? And in a way, is that not metacognition.
Erica: I see that as attention surplus. So it's funny because we actually, in our culture, reward focused attention. But that wouldn't necessarily work very well if you are the captain of a vessel. In fact, you really don't want focused attention. You want attention surplus. Which gets me to I bet that some of the best captains have attention deficit disorder, which isn't really an attention deficit disorder, it's an attention surplus. It's that they're focusing on too much. But there are certain aspects of life where that is really important and in fact, I think is an extraordinary ability. And I often talk to and I've told this story before that my students that have ADHD, I often call them chief. And they'll ask me why. And I'll say, because in an American Indian culture it was, uh, very important not to have focused attention. You wanted to have attention of everything. You wanted to be really cognizant of everything that was going on in the environment. And in that kind of atmosphere, they would be achieved. And so interesting, I think, uh, again, that perhaps is a successful piece of metacognition, which is being able to really absorb the surroundings and filter that through using the tools of working memory, where you can be like, oh, your inner voice can be like, oh, I'm looking over there, and, oh, what about this piece over here? And this piece over here? And am I paying attention to this? And perhaps even using the tools of your working memory. And then, of course, your consciousness, which is a piece of working memory because it is the episodic buffer mhm being present in the episodic buffer. But it's like chewing the cud.
Darius: Well, I suppose, yeah, let me just develop that thought further then. So I suppose what I'm really saying is that the more we talk, you and I, in this podcast and I hope listeners are experiencing this, uh, that the more people are understanding the landscape of their mind, the capability. Of their mind, the capability of the vehicle that their mind is, or the orchestra that their mind is, or however you want to sort of describe this mind that we have. And everyone has a mind and it operates with very similar principles but within different combinations and becomes unique. So we've got the similarities and the variation like bread we've talked about in the past. You've got all the different elements of baking, but you can have such a variety. Now, as a captain of the boat, I need to understand what type of boat I am sailing. What's the draft of my boat, what's the height of my math, what's the length of my boat, what's the power of the engine, what's the power of the sails, what are the capabilities of my boat. Every boat has similar capabilities, but they've got different to different degrees, and so it influences the choices I make.
Darius: Is that metacognition understanding the nature of your boat?
Erica: I think that is great. Metacognition. Well, that's metacognition of your own cognition.
Erica: You know what I mean? But I think that anytime I'm going to go back to i, uh, kind of like that metaphor of M chewing the cud, maybe we should call it chewing the cognitive cud.
Erica: Because I think metacognition is right. Being aware of your surroundings and constantly looking at them with fresh eyes and not going back into patterns, which is something that our cognition really has been trained in most of our education. But also I think it's a, uh, survival mechanism. Yes. So it's really stepping into the beauty of the moment and taking your prior knowledge, being aware of your prior knowledge, but constantly reevaluating and say, is this the best choice? Am I looking at all the pieces around me? Am I opening my consciousness to all the pieces? Am I aware of all those pieces? And it's so interesting because, uh, it's really going against a lot of what we've been teaching, which is that focused attention. I think that focused attention is very important if we just want to regurgitate back what we've been given, but if we want to be creative learners and grow and take the knowledge that we have and get to a new place that requires metacognition.
Darius: I was thinking this morning about the difference between like we were talking earlier, some people follow a plan, and some people create a plan. Okay. And the factory workers have to follow the plan, and the business owner has to create the plan. And I use the word create the plan very intentionally because I think planning itself is a creative process. It's a combination of this wide angled thinking, wide angled picturing, and this focus on a goal between the two creating a plan. And so there is a creative process to this metacognitive function. I agree.
Erica: Yeah, I think so. And I think we need both within our society, we need those that are constantly creating and seeking better ways of doing things, and then we do need those that can execute the plan. But it's interesting because if I were to have my own company, I would want to give the creative license to those people that were in the monotony of just stepping through that same plan every day. I would want to say to them from time to time, do you have any ideas on how we can make this better? And unfortunately, we rarely do that. But I think good companies do. I think Google, I hear about how they work with their employees, and I think that they do give them more metacognitive license across their employees. Not just their managers, but even their employees. And I see that in their training. What I've witnessed or observed about their training purposes and just really creating an environment where there is a ladder that's easy to climb.
Darius: I was very influenced by a, ah, comment Jordan Peterson made about creativity. And he said that if you're a creative person, it's really helpful to limit your creativity to one area of your life rather than spreading it across all areas. And that ties in with this idea of the way our brains are wired, is so much of our functioning as a human being, as a body and as a mind is put down into the unconscious processes and systems. And then another area is freed up to become more conscious. We can't be conscious of everything that's going on, our heart rate, make sure everything in our bodies go. And likewise in our life, we rely on certain systems and processes and automated systems in our life to stay sane, to stay healthy, to get stuff done. And so even in a person's we talked about within a, uh, factory setting or a business setting, let's just say a factory, there's an element who creates the plan and there's an element that executes the plan. But even in our own self, there's an element that creates the plan, there's an element that executes the plan. And there's parts where we say we've got to make this automatic, it's so important. And even we've talked about key things in executive functioning where you identify processes that are non negotiable, that if you do it in the wrong process, it causes a really bad consequence. Like you don't do things in the right order, there's a bad consequence, but then there's other processes you can just improvise on. It doesn't matter if you do it out sequence or whatever. So writing a phone number down in the right order is very important. Doing it in the wrong order, even though you've got all the numbers right, causes real trouble. So that's a process that's worthwhile getting automated at, doing it in the right order. And likewise in our lives, there are certain areas where it's good to leave them automatic and other areas to be very conscious and intentional about.
Erica: Yeah, I think learning to automaticity is something that we've talked about how important that is in education. I don't remember which episode it was, but we spoke about that quite early on in the podcast. But there is something very important to that because what it does is it allows you to do foundational learning. For example, math. You can't or, uh, a lot of learners struggle with math if they don't have their multiplication tables down. That learned to a sense of automaticity. It's very difficult to write a research paper if you're not automatic with grammar, sentence structure, uh, you're handwriting. So there are certain cognitive skills that we have to have to a degree of automaticity or our working memory gets overtaxed. So there is something to both.
Darius: So you're so busy thinking that you don't have thinking space to think about your thinking.
Erica: Uh, yeah.
Darius: And I think that's the beauty of it, isn't it? Sometimes it's really important to have certain things automated so it frees up the capacity because I've noticed this in students and in adults is that often you're so involved in a process. So manual with that process, you got to think through that process again, think through that, think through the next step, think through the next step that you can't actually release your thinking space into the area of creativity and so on because you're so absorbed with the process. And that's the gift of automatistity, that's the gift of the unconscious. That's the gift of a body that has all these systems and processes automatically working in the background. So there's this beautiful balance between metacognition and um, unconsciousness. We need both.
Erica: And I think the piece that joins the two is selective consciousness. M, we can select what we're going to be conscious about and that's, I think, what we need to teach people to be better learners is selective consciousness. All right, what are you going to be conscious about? Well, that is metacognition, isn't it? But what it does is it allows us to choose what are the best things that I need to put in to automaticity and what are the things that I need to consciously be aware of so that I have a sense of creativity so I can grow? Because I think metacognition is probably very highly correlated with growth. Yes, that would be my hypothesis, shall we say?
Darius: Should we get stuck into some practical kind of nitty gritty of how you would select like you've just talked about, let's select an area that we're going to be very intentional about. How would you go about doing that? Uh, what sort of principles do you think we need to be aware of to get practical about reflecting on our thinking?
Erica: So right. And in fact, how can we teach it?
Darius: Yes, okay, let's go down that route. Yes.
Erica: How can we teach metacognition? Because that feels so slippery and elusive, because it's not something that we can visualize, it's not concrete, it's abstract. And of course, abstract learning is something that develops a little later on. So although I think that even elementary students can go there because they do understand imagination and I think imagination can help them because if they have an imagination, they have an awareness of their imagination, which is not reality. So there is a certain capacity to metacognition that I think kids have at a very young age, but typically we don't really get into that high. It's kind of a higher order thinking, the idea of metacognition. So typically middle school, but I think you can start to introduce it to younger kids in elementary school. What do you think?
Darius: Yeah, okay, so let's go down the route of how would you teach it, but let's expand the scope a little bit. How would you teach it to yourself? So I often think of in my inner voice, there's a grown up me, the adult me, and then there's the child me very often, and they're both speaking to each other. The child me is like, oh, I just want to do this. And the, uh, grown up me is like, come on, Darius, you're old enough to know we need to do X, Y, and Z. And you're like, oh, okay, fine. And I allow both parts of me to kind of exist and to sort of play with each other. And the grown up me is sometimes the teacher me. It's like, right, I'm going to teach myself to do such and such. And the playful childlike me is like, no, I don't want to do that. I want to play, and so on. You're like, well, okay, let's creatively make this something that we learn how to do this, and we do this, and, uh, we'll make it fun and playful. Okay, then let's do that. We're all in. I am not schizophrenic, but that is kind of how I like to make my inner voice dialogue practically useful. So we've got the teacher within ourselves, and we've got the teacher who's maybe teaching a class. So hit me with it. What are we going to do to teach it? Teach this metacognition.
Erica: So I do have six ideas that we can go through. Uh, the first one is just getting comfortable with self reflection. And so if you didn't know what that was, if you were a small child and didn't know what it was, I mean, you can use that metaphor of a mirror where you can look at yourself physically, but you can also look at yourself cognitively. How do I think about things? How do I execute things? And I think that if it was an external person, like a teacher teaching it, what they can do is they can think out loud. That's the beauty of the inner voice is we can turn it into an outer voice. And in fact, I even do that for myself because I find that I can control my inner voice, which is metacognition, right? When I make it my outer voice, somehow when I turn my inner voice into my outer voice, then I can observe it. But when it's stuck on the inside, that part of me has a little bit more power and a little bit more control. And I don't always want some parts of me to have control because it could be a very negative part, or it could be a hurt part or a scared part or a fearful part. And that's not always helpful. But, uh, teaching self reflection by thinking out loud and saying, oh, you know what? We all think to ourselves. But right now I'm going to think out loud, and let's have some fun thinking out loud a little bit. And so that could be a fun game. That could be a really wonderful game that you could play with students.
Darius: Yes. And once you go through an exercise like that with a group or with yourself, but especially with a group, what often happens is the children will go in everyday life or in the class, they'll then say, oh, by the way, such and such is doing such and such. And the metacognition comes out spontaneously. They spot the same sort of habit happening. Like you as a teacher might say, it's really important when you're learning something to sort of talk out loud and explain it to yourself. And then later on in the class, there's a kid going, I'm going to fix this Boonson burner by doing such and such. And you're just talking themselves through it and they go, oh, you're talking yourself through it, like the teacher said. And they're exercising metacognition at that point as well. Do you know what I mean?
Erica: I do. And I think I'm glad that you said that because that really made some connections for me, which is that there are different ways of processing and some people are reflective, logical processors where they can think to themselves, whereas others are more verbal processors and they're not even aware of what they're thinking until they've said it. But as that is a form of metacognition, you're just taking that inner voice and making it an outer voice so that you can hear it, which helps you to process better. And then of course, there are those that process best through writing. So either typing or handwriting out your ideas, you hear of like free writing. Free writing is metacognition, right?
Erica: So I think giving students the opportunity to pick their form of metacognition and giving them choices so if you're giving an assignment that is asking them to use metacognitive skills, you can give them choices. Would you like to think about this with a friend and perhaps record it? Or would you like to write about it and then share your thoughts about your thoughts through writing? Or you can even meet with me and process out loud as a teacher.
Darius: Yeah, gosh, this is making me think about a lot of things. So, for example, journaling is an aspect of written metacognition that's really helpful to just journal. And one of the things that I've been journaling for 30 years and that might sound very impressive until I actually explain to you the type of journaling I do, which is not quite so impressive. Basically, I made a decision 30 years ago that I would journal, but I would not put the pressure on myself to journal every day. I would only journal when I felt like it. And what that meant was it freed up the pressure of, oh, I've missed a week, so I'm not properly journaling. Hogwash when you feel the need to just reflect on something and um, even writing a letter to yourself. Or a letter to God, or a letter to some better part of you, or whatever you're doing, writing something out, writing out your thoughts, et cetera, journaling. It's so helpful in terms of self reflection, this metacognition. And that leads me to thinking this. There's been a huge move within education, especially higher education, to create reflective essays. What's your take on that, Erica? Because a lot of people, like, I see that with my daughter and other students, it's not like a persuasive essay or a standard essay. It's like a reflective paper. I want you to reflect on how you've learned over the last term, or I want you to reflect on such and such. What's your thoughts on that?
Erica: Yeah, I've definitely seen in the last ten years more of a push in that area of reflecting, and also even reflecting on how you did on a prior test and then correcting your test. Uh, I wish we would do more of that. That's so great, because what you really can do is you can learn from your mistakes. And I get very frustrated when kids don't do well in a test. And that's it. There's no reflection, there's no learning. That's where the learning really takes place, is when you fix the mistakes. So I think we need more of that. I think that that's really, really important.
Darius: Well, uh, one of the things with the reflective essays, just finishing off on that, is that it's actually very hard for a lot of people to do these easy reflective essays because often you think, all right, two normal essays, and then we're going to do the easy one, which is a reflective essay. And from the teacher's point of view, or, uh, the educator's point of view, the professor's point of view, it's like, well, the reflective essay is quite easy. You don't need to cite sources, you don't need to go and read different chapters and so on. Uh, it can all be your own words. How easy is that? But then, actually, I've observed some people just stop and go, oh my goodness, what is expected of me? It's like, I don't know how to do this. And it's a bit of an element of we're expecting some self reflection on these young college students without actually teaching them how to do it in school. So it feels thrust upon them. Many of them have learnt the system, the five paragraph essay, introduction, three points and a conclusion, and boom, you're done. But then when it comes to or using peel or teal, point evidence, explanation and link or topic explain, et cetera, but then a self reflective essay, that comes out of the blue.
Erica: Yeah, I think it's hard for a lot of students. And what you do that I've observed you doing with your students, which is very self reflective, is mind mapping.
Darius: That's true. Yes, it is, isn't it? Yes, uh, mind mapping is very much on the metacognitive level. Where you're trying to get that 360 view, that big picture all in one, and understand the structure of something, the pattern of something, the flow of something. Absolutely.
Erica: Do you know why mind mapping works so well for you and so many other people is because it employs all three pieces of working memory, inner voice, visualization, and spatialization.
Darius: I, uh, like how you've done the visual spatial and you split that up into the third element. Yes.
Erica: Yeah. So I think that that's a really great reflection on how self reflection can help with metacognition, you can do it through journaling, through reflective essays, through speaking aloud or verbalizing, and through your mind mapping. So let's move on to the next one. Another way of teaching metacognition is to really conduct and to reinforce active learning. So it's very similar. Like self reflection is part of active learning. But there are other ways to make learning active that aren't necessarily self reflection, they're just acting on the learning.
Darius: I think it's useful to share with listeners that active learning is not just, uh, some interesting words put together, that it's a key phrase and concept within education that has a huge body of literature and work and understanding behind it. I was very taken by active learning. The four questions in active learning, have you come across those? Some people have structured active learning into four main questions what went well? What was your challenge? What was your goal? And what's the next achievable step? And asking those four questions are a form of active learning. You come across that?
Erica: I have not come across it in those exact terms, but I have, uh, come across that idea, but flipped in a slightly different way. So I think of it the way I would have presented it, which is more of asking questions, making connections to prior knowledge, and then explaining the information to others. So, yes, it's very similar, but a slightly different way of chewing the cuds, so to speak.
Darius: I see. I learned active learning through permaculture, which is designing sustainable systems, organic sustainable systems, like in a house or in a small holding or in a farm, using ecological systems. And they used active learning a lot. So you would reflect on a, uh, system like you would reflect on your mind, but you would reflect on a system like your garden. You would say, what's going well? What's a challenge, what's the goal? And what's the next achievable step? And then you would repeat that again a week later. I just built some planters, say, okay, so what's going well? We've got some sprouts going on. What's the challenge? Oh, the birds are a real challenge right now. They're coming in and pecking. What's the goal? Well, the goal isn't actually to feed the birds. It's actually to produce a harvest for our salads in a few months time. So what's the next achievable step? Well, maybe I could put a net over it. And so you put a net over it, and you email@example.com and you go, what's going well? A week later, what's going well? Well, it's great. The birds aren't on it anywhere. What's a challenge. It's a real pain lifting the net up and down all the time to get access to weeding it and so forth. What's our goal? Well, our goal is to have a harvest, but to be able to pick the harvest. So, next achievable step is, why don't we put in some bamboo canes to hold the net up, and then we can just lift the bamboo cane with the net and get into it. So there's this iterative process of learning its executive function, because you're getting stuff done and adapting, but there's this iterative process of actively learning from the environment.
Erica: Round about you, which is metacognition. Yeah, I love that. That's really beautiful. I think the next step is monitoring your progress and also being comfortable seeking feedback, because I know for me, that I lose that outside perspective sometimes, and I really, really need others to point things out for me. For example, I just finished a presentation for a company on, uh, neurodiversity, and I shared it with a friend and said, I just want your honest feedback about what you think about this. And he pointed out some things where after he said, I was like, oh, my gosh, you're so right, and that's so helpful. I hadn't seen it from that perspective. From my perspective, it seemed obvious. But from his, because he was outside of the field, it was just so enlightening to hear him say that. I was like, uh oh, wow. It just gives you sometimes you just need that outside perspective to give you clarity. Because, for example, if you are an expert in a field and you are presenting to nonexperts, you can't really reach that perspective easily without the help of others.
Darius: Yes. It reminded me of an experience I had my wife this week, where she built a website for her new consulting practice. And it's not what she normally does, and she did it, and she said, let's just go and publish this. Help me publish it and give me some feedback. Darius and I looked at the website. My wife is very, very proficient. She's really good at English. She's really good at everything she does, more or less. But then when I looked at the website, I was like, there's a few things that kind of need changed here. But she was in a rush to just get the website done and let's get into the practice of doing the actual coaching. And it was actually quite tricky giving that feedback. And it is actually, uh, really tricky to give people feedback on some things, especially when they want to just get on and get it done. We got through it. But what I realized in that experience is it reminded me of the story of my head teacher told me about the difference between heaven and hell. Okay? And bear with me. You know what it's like when you look at someone else's work. Things just are so obvious to you. You're not in the cloud of it and so on. It's like editing someone else's work versus your own work. You spot things so easily. Isn't that interesting? And I remember, uh, it's easier to do it for other people than to do it for yourself. This self reflection side of things. And to get the feedback. It's easier to get the feedback from someone else than it is to get the feedback from yourself. And I remember my head teacher saying, darius, what do you think the difference between heaven and hell is? And I was like, oh, my goodness. I don't know what you're talking about. And he said, well, let me tell you a story. He says, Heaven and hell are like people sitting around a banqueting table, full, beautiful food. But then they've got these huge, long spoons that are about four foot long. And the people in hell are those that are trying to feed themselves with the spoon. And the people in heaven are the people who are picking up the food and feeding each other, and the other person feeds you. And that's a bit like feedback. Like, when you have a relationship with someone, it's really easy for them to pick up that food and feed it to you. And you've got, uh, it and you're like, that's so fantastic. How did you manage to just pick that up so easily? Well, it's because it's like, we've all got these four foot long spoons, and we need to feed one another with what is easy for us to pick up and feed, but it's very hard to feed yourself that kind of feedback.
Erica: So I think helping kids be comfortable with feedback, and I think we're almost trained to be very uncomfortable with feedback because the typical feedback we get are just scores. So if the feedback is that you got a D or an F, it feels very demeaning. But I think that, to me, what this really sheds light on is how important to give verbal feedback that's very specific. And I really wish we'd stop grading people, because you don't learn from a grade, but you do learn from feedback. Okay, so let's go on to the next one. Setting goals. So I think setting goals is such a wonderful way of, uh, managing metacognition, and it manages time. It can manage your space. It can help you get through the things that you need to do. So I think it's really all about keeping a focus, the focus of your attention and your efforts and creating that roadmap for both learning and growth.
Darius: It's tying back to what you were saying, where you're choosing what area you're going to focus in on a goal is saying, Right, I am going to prioritize that we are going to work on this area to the exclusion of other areas. By definition, you are saying, we are going to focus our energies on this goal during this period of time, which will involve saying yes to the goal and probably no to three, four, or 100 other things in order to achieve that goal. Yeah, which is a form of inhibitory control and metacognition working together. Now, setting a goal is just such a useful thing to do and tying it back to my permaculture days. There's an interesting process called morphogenic design. Now, this might seem a bit random, it's very dyslexic of me, but it does have a connection. This concept of Morphogenic design is by Christopher Alexander, an architect, and this is his way of going about building and developing systems. Buildings, gardens, towns, cities, is Morphogenic design. Now, what he's observed is often when people try and get stuff done, they end up saying, right, let's just start with a blank slate and start all over again, and let's do this here, and we'll create some grand design. And often that sort of grand design thinking, where you start doing everything all at once, actually can end in catastrophe. And it ties in with the agile approach that we talked in previous podcasts. The difference between waterfall design and agile design, waterfall being we do the big picture, the two year plan, et cetera, and agile design is, let's look at our minimum viable product. Morphogenic design is very similar to agile design in that you look at a system, a garden, for example, and you say, right, let's not just start lots of projects at once. Let's look at one thing and say, that's not quite working quite well. Can we morph it? Can we develop that particular aspect of it and bring it from wholeness to wholeness? And this is a beautiful concept of moving from wholeness to wholeness. That is deeply moving for me and deeply helpful for looking at ourselves when it comes to self improvement, because sometimes we can look at ourselves and think, we've got to change everything. And so you change nothing. But if you say to yourself, or, uh, let's say the garden, for example, this garden is a whole garden, there is something complete about it, it has some fences. It's not exactly what I want, but let's look at what's whole about it, okay? And you realize, oh, there was good thinking involved in deciding why they would have hedges here, why they would have a gate there, why they would have the shed there, and so on. And you start looking at it from the perspective of not what's wrong, but what is complete and whole about it. All right? And then you recognize, ah, uh, time has moved on, a new person has moved in, there's new needs here. And so this is what's working. But this is a bit of a challenge. What's the next achievable step in this area, and then you focus on that area and you morph it. So let's say you work on that particular border in your garden and instead of just leaving it half done and then starting another project that gets half done and then another project that gets half done and your whole garden or life feels half done, you make this contract with yourself and you say I am going to move from wholeness to wholeness. So I'm going to go into that border, I'm going to change it, and I'm going to finish it and restore it back to wholeness. So the whole garden gets restored back to wholeness. And it's a beautiful process of developing anything in your life, I think this morphogenic design, and just giving you yourself that goal and tying it back to the goal. So you've focused in on a particular goal. You're going to do that goal, and you're going to bring that goal to completion, and it's going to be finished, and then your life is going to be restored into a better wholeness.
Erica: I think that's lovely. I really love that. What a lovely metaphor. And just so you know, we also do have another episode that does a deep dive on goal setting and executive functioning, and that is episode 31. So let's go on. There are two more. The next one is the use of mnemonic devices is such a great way to aid our metacognition because mnemonic devices support our working memory, it enables us to access information better. So part of metacognition is being able to access the information that we're trying to process. And where are we processing it? We're processing it in working memory, in that episodic buffer. It's an episode. I, uh, like the way he calls it the episodic buffer. And this is Alan Badly. We've talked about him in the past, a researcher, because it is an episode, and it's just an episode or a stage where we are bringing in current information, past information. And in order to really be able to use our metacognitive skills efficiently and effectively, we want to have mnemonic devices so that we can access the information that we want to throw into this salad of thoughts that we have so that we can get to the best possible Achievable goal. And again, that would be taking reversing executive functioning and becoming that functioning executive.
Darius: So using mnemonics. So it's having techniques that help you pull the information out when you need it. So I'm imagining this stage where this episode episodic memory is happening, and you're pulling in characters onto that stage from your memory. Enter. The mother enters stage left. The son enters stage right. And then a car bursts onto the scene. And then you have that moment where that thinking moment and what we've described in the past is you can bring elements from what's happening in real life from outside of your mind, in new information coming in the car. But then enter stage left. Mum is from your memory, that element or that character coming in. And if you can't bring those elements from your memory in, then the stage is empty and it can't process. And so you're suggesting we use mnemonics to be able to bring people in, bring elements of your memory into that episodic buffer?
Erica: Yeah, I think that the more we use memory devices, the better our memory gets. I mean, there are those people that are very fortunate. They may have a photographic memory. They have these extraordinary memories where they're able to access information very easily. But I think the vast majority of us, the more interesting I'm going to step back, because what a mnemonic device does is it allows us to organize our memory so that it's accessible. So, for example, I would say that naturally, I don't have a great memory, but the more I use mnemonic devices, the more it organizes all that information, almost like a filing cabinet, into an ordered sequence so that I can access it quickly and efficiently when I want to.
Darius: Yes, we should do an episode where we go deep into mnemonic devices and memory techniques and so on to help because it really is very important. And I have some real memory difficulties, especially with short term working memory. And there's so many different strategies out there to help with that, that we should have a deeper dive in this in a future episode.
Erica: Sounds like a great idea. So the last one is a very simple strategy for helping, just pulling us back to helping students or even adults with developing that metacognitive muscle. And that is practice, practice, practice, practice. The more we practice it, the easier it gets. I like to think of it as almost like dreaming. If we start to write our dreams down and we start to try to remember our dreams, we get much, much better at it. And I think it's the same thing with the more conscious, uh, we get about our metacognitive skills and strategies and the more we choose to implement them. So the more we choose to be in a state of metacognition, the better you're going to get at it.
Darius: Absolutely. Uh, do you know what has really struck me in this whole episode, just kind of winding up on all of this, is that in executive functioning, you often focus in on inhibitory control, often within executive function training and so on. Uh, executive function and ADHD are it's a huge part of ADHD, for example, and it's also a big part of Dyslexia, but it's a bigger part of ADHD, and we can get really fixated on inhibitory control. How do we stay focused, how do we keep our focus, keep our focus, don't get distracted, et cetera. But what's really standing out for me is how important working memory is in achieving overall executive function and overall metacognition. It's like a foundational step that we often overlook. We just kind of go, oh, yeah, working memory, whatever. Let's get to the real stuff, which is inhibitory control. But I just see it so much. Our working memories are so overwhelmed by our society, so much information bursting through the door, that we're finding it hard to access our memories. We're finding it hard to deal with the information overwhelm that's coming into our working memories that we need systems to just rapidly empty and clear out that stage. Otherwise, that episodic buffer, that stage just gets piled full of different characters and things and people falling off the stage. And I can't think because everything's just so crammed in there. It's like, right, let's clear this stage so we can start thinking, so we can start thinking about inhibitory control, so we can start thinking about our own thinking, metacognition, et cetera, but actually how important that working memory function is.
Erica: Yeah, because it really helps with both the encoding and the retrieving. It's very important. It's the tool.
Erica: It's the tools behind metacognition.
Darius: Yes. Well, Erica, we, have come to our end, I think, here.
Erica: Thank you for joining our conversation here at the Personal Brain Trainer podcast.
Darius: This is Dr. Erica Warren and Darius Namdaran Check out the show notes for links to resources mentioned in the podcast, and please leave us a review and share us on social media. Until next time. Bye bye.