I attended UVTI (before we became UVEI) from 2006 to 2007 as a teacher intern, taught math in Seattle for five years, then returned to the Upper Valley and began working at UVEI in 2014. Quite a bit has changed here in ten years, but one constant has been our commitment to competency-based education.  In my capacity as Registrar, I prepare transcripts -- the documents that describe to employers, licensing bureaus, etc. what our graduates have achieved.  Because our graduates are assessed as to whether they are competent as a beginning teacher, one of my challenges is to find a way to write those descriptions so that they can be understood by a wider audience, including those only familiar with a traditional grading system. I must admit that there are days when I catch myself thinking “if only we gave grades…”

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I spend a lot of time talking with teachers about what they care about and want to improve on. I also spend a lot of time in classrooms--both with interns and veteran teachers--seeing what’s important in their practice and what they’re working on. And in the last few years I’ve noticed that across grade levels, geography, school contexts, and stage of career, teachers are converging on the importance of helping students develop their agency as learners, and they are attempting to use instructional strategies that promote this. (In this case, agency refers to the knowledge and authority students have to take action in their learning.)

These teachers see both the importance and need for students to take ownership of their learning, to be self-determined and self-directed, and to learn how to learn. In essence, they want students to act metacognitively throughout their learning. Metacognition, broadly defined, is “thinking about our thinking.” Being metacognitive means asking the right questions when we’re solving a problem, reflecting on what we know and don’t know, monitoring our learning throughout a process (such as how we’re comprehending text), setting realistic goals, planning a design process, and evaluating our performance and learning. It also involves knowing the appropriate times and places to use different strategies to learn effectively (a component of agency).

It’s quite easy to talk about metacognition, and it’s equally difficult to help students become metacognitive! That’s because students’ metacognitive capacities develop over time, and, more importantly, they need to be catalyzed and nurtured by educational environments. In other words, we can’t assume that students’ metacognitive skills will just appear when the bell rings, the educational waves washing over them. On the contrary, as students age, their brains are increasingly receptive to more cognitively challenging tasks and more metacognitive thinking. However, if they’re not challenged, they won’t develop. Although the process of learning language is different, the concept is the same--use it or never develop it.

This means that classroom tasks and environments need to sufficiently promote students’ metacognitive development. Here we often see a mismatch. A classroom poster might hang that encourages students to self-assess their learning, to explain their thinking, and to plan before problem solving, but unless students are engaged in solving actual problems, pressed to explain their thinking through thoughtful and guided questioning, and have practice with tools that help them self-assess, it’s unlikely that their metacognition will develop in intended ways.

Teachers are increasingly aware of the need for this match. Just this fall, I observed first graders self-assessing their understanding of the daily mathematical learning targets at the end of a lesson. They were challenged to think about how well they could use a counting frame for single digit addition. Almost all students put their Popsicle stick into the “I can teach it to others” jar, so perhaps there is an overestimation of their understanding (which is common in young children), but the full potential of this practice can’t be realized in one lesson. Over time, practice--and feedback--with self-assessment creates for these young learners a habit of reflection, of turning their mind’s eye on itself, of generating knowledge about their knowledge. Hey, that’s metacognition!

But effective metacognition is more than habits--it’s an awareness of these habits. Otherwise, without awareness, we have little agency in use of this knowledge. Teachers tell us to self-assess, and we self-assess. Teachers tell us to use a graphic organizer to plan our essay, and we follow directions. Do we know why? Do we know how we might transfer these skills to other settings? Perhaps we’re being metacognitive about our learning in that task, but an awareness of the metacognitive skills we’re applying helps us be metacognitive about our potential as lifelong learners. A true hallmark of agency.

For more information on the research on and practice of metacognition, please read Chapter 2: Key Findings in How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice by Donovan et al. (1999)

Commentary by Christopher Ward, PhD

Chris is UVEI’s Graduate Studies Coordinator and member of the Program Faculty.  Along with colleagues at the University of Washington and Vanderbilt University, he received the Best Article of the Year award for the article, Situated Motivation, published in the journal, Educational Psychologist.  For more, see http://tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00461520.2015.1075399

Read more about Chris.



“Smart is not something you just are; smart is something you can get.”

Dr. Jeff Howard

I’d been teaching for about five years when I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Jeff Howard from Harvard’s Efficacy Institute. He introduced me to a number of new concepts: The Innate Ability Paradigm, Growth Mindset, Mobilized Effort, Coaching, Tenacious Engagement, and Focused Feedback. These were all fairly new ideas in education at the time, but now they are common concepts for most educators. After the time I spent with Dr. Howard, something changed in my belief system and my work as a teacher.

I defined growth mindset for my students as the understanding that hard work, strategic and targeted effort, and tenacious engagement can improve outcomes.  As a teacher, I found it easy to create a culture of growth mindset in my classroom. It began at the classroom door with a sign that stated: “Are you ready to be tenaciously engaged?”  Students set goals individually and as a group; they declared their goals publically so that classmates could help them discover strategies for success; and we measured and celebrated the successes or created new strategies to meet the goals yet to be achieved. I had little difficulty applying the understanding that all students could develop the skills and dispositions to become better at whatever they were trying to achieve no matter where they began, whether it was writing a persuasive essay for a new recess schedule, memorizing math facts or researching who really discovered America.

Fast forward a few decades and the teacher is now the student. I’d always been a fairly good student, especially in graduate school where I finally found my passion in teaching. But as I continued my education, the learning became more and more challenging for me. Over the  past year, I have been taking courses full time with a focus on research. This is an area I had limited experience in. Research writing is a genre unto itself. My first submission received a score of “Developing.” My first thought was that I had received what would be equivalent to a D.  I was not used to this. I moped, I blamed and I even shed a few tears. Certainly not a growth mindset or one focused on strategic continuous improvement.

Despite the tears, I remembered what I taught my students so many years ago: In this class we work hard to get smart. So what was different in my case? The growth mindset I had for my students and cultivated in them was not as easy for me to cultivate in myself. Why is it different for the teacher than the student? I spent a week reflecting on my reaction and realized that the gift I so easily gave to my students was one I was struggling to give to myself.

I took all that I knew and developed a plan for success by creating strategies to meet my goal, mobilizing my effort, focusing on feedback, seeking out and willingly accepting coaching, and believing that hard work would get me to where I needed to be.

Well, I haven’t met my research writing target yet, but I am improving with each attempt. I am truly living what I expected from my students: I am working hard to get smart at research writing. I’m not there yet, but I have no doubt that I will be in the near future.

Commentary by Nan Parsons

Nan Parsons, MEd, CAGS, and doctoral candidate, is UVEI’s Associate Director for School Leadership and a member of our faculty.