Where does EEF stand on knowledge-based teaching?

The value of metacogition has been recognised by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and followers can sign up to receive a ten part briefing on the subject by Alex Quigley. This is from the introduction to the first instalment.

Since we launched our Teaching and Learning Toolkit, the strand on metacognition and self-regulation has consistently ranked as one of the most popular, read by almost 60,000 of you in the past year alone. Little wonder: the approach ranks as ‘high impact for very low cost based on extensive evidence’. This is why, in 2018, we published a new EEF guidance report, ‘Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning‘, offering 7 practical, evidence-based recommendations to support teachers to develop metacognitive skills in their pupils.

Metacognition may seem an abstruse issue, but it is at the heart of the difference between ‘knowledge-based’ and ‘constructivist’ approaches to teaching and learning discussed in my last article. While my website normally gets 30-50 views per day, since this article was published on 17 Feb, it  alone had nearly 700 views in the first three days, with a similar number of referrals from Twitter, where a fierce debate has raged.

However the EEF’s version appears to be metacognition as appropriated by the ‘knowledge-based’ learning movement. It is metacognition reduced to ‘a learning skill’, not metacognition as a vital element of the constructivist process by which learners create and develop their own framework of understanding. Here are some examples from the EEF’s metacognition briefing instalments so far published.

From 1st instalment – metacognition confused with remembering memory aids

By cognitive strategies, we mean skills like memorisation techniques, or subject-specific strategies like making different marks with a brush or different methods to solve equations in maths. This is the bread and butter of good teaching; cognitive strategies are fundamental to acquiring knowledge and completing learning tasks. By metacognitive strategies, we mean the strategies we use to monitor or control our cognition, such as checking that our memorisation technique was accurate. Motivational strategies will include convincing oneself to undertake a tricky revision task now – affecting our current well-being – as a way of improving our future well-being in the test tomorrow.

There is nothing wrong with acquiring memorising techniques (eg Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, ROYGBIV, for remembering the colours of the spectrum, Red,Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet), but this helps not one iota in understanding the wave nature of light and refraction, which requires the learner to build a personal schema that can accommodate photons and the quantum theory alongside ‘wave’ properties like refraction and diffraction. While always necessary, remembering is a low order aspect of constructivist metacognition, as explained in this article from which the following is an extract.

Exposing pupils to cognitive conflict/dissonance  is central to constructivist teaching for cognitive development. It provides an approach to learning through the deliberate creation of cognitive dissonance in the minds of students followed by supporting them in resolving this dissonance through open peer to peer debate in the face of the evidence they as students have directly experienced from lessons designed by their teachers for that purpose. Metacognition means being aware of your own thinking process. It is a personal mental habit essential for the resolution of cognitive dissonance.  It recognises that language provides the tools for thought and that learners benefit by silently but consciously ‘talking to themselves’ as well as talking to peers and the teacher. As learners experience the resulting cognitive development they develop a metacognitive ability that can be characterised in the education context as a higher general cognitive ability (the student becomes cleverer). Metacognition is a lot more than the memorising of ‘memory aid’ skills.

Cognitive dissonance and metacognition are intrinsically linked in constructivist teaching. Metacognition is the process of consciously debating with oneself to try to identify and resolve the perceived contradictions in factual knowledge that are preventing understanding. Being able to verbalise these contradictions and share them with peers who may be themselves mentally struggling with the same issues, results in the upgrading of personal schemas through social interaction (Vygotsky). Think Greek philosophers debating with each other and what the Lunar Society of enlightenment thinkers were doing at their monthly meetings in Birmingham. The EEF’s version of metacognition, rooted in the knowledge-based ideology, is a pale shadow of the constructivist version. It appears to be distorted to accommodate the favoured ‘knowledge-based’  reforms being imposed on our schools by the DfE and OfSTED. I now go on to list some extracts from the later EEF instalments, from which the connections to the knowledge-based approach is fairly obvious.

From 2nd instalment – teaching simultaneous equations

In this example, John starts with some knowledge of the task (word problems in maths are often solved by expressing them as equations) and of strategies (how to turn sentences into an equation). His knowledge of the task then develops as it emerges from being a word problem into a simultaneous equation. He would then continue through this cycle if he has learned/memorised  the strategies for solving simultaneous equations. He could then evaluate his overall success by substituting his answers into the word problem and checking they are correct. If this was wrong, he could attempt other strategies and once more update his metacognitive knowledge. [But metacognition is about making sense of knowledge, not ‘updating’ it].

This is how in 1960, I was taught simultaneous equations. We had a text book with lots of examples that could readily be solved this way. We memorised the method set out above and did lots of examples neatly set out in our exercise books. The hard bit is constructing the word equation, when it is not obvious. This is where a bit of proper metacognition combined with peer-peer debate would help. This never happened in my maths classes in 1960, and I suspect never happens now in the Academy schools where talking in class is strictly forbidden for fear of draconian punishments. See the example in the second part of this article.

From 3rd Instalment – resource-based learning

Amy’s geography teacher has asked the class to prepare a short presentation about rainforest ecosystems. To plan this, Amy reflects on how she learned best on the last topic—using the school textbooks—and decides to read the relevant chapter before drafting her presentation points. However, when reading it she decides that the chapter does not really improve her understanding. She starts to panic as she was relying on this. Then Amy remembers a geography website her teacher mentioned. She adapts her strategy and searches the website. This provides a more useful overview and she uses the information to summarise some interesting facts. [Amy’s problem is not in locating the knowledge, but understanding it.]

 Translation: Amy looks up the topic in her textbook hoping to find something she can copy to make a presentation that would keep her teacher happy. However, she finds she can neither understand what she reads (cognitive dissonance), nor can she find a section to copy that she is sure will please her teacher. This is the opportunity for some proper metacognition. This needs her to think about what it is in the textbook that she doesn’t understand. She should then discuss her cognitive discomfort within a group of her peers. If they are all struggling then they should ask the teacher for help, who should respond by prompting them with further questions for them to think about. This could only happen with a teacher in a school that supports and encourages constructivist approaches.

She reflects on the experience and decides that next time she will gather a range of resources before starting to research a topic, rather than relying on one source.

 Translation: Next time her teacher asks for a ‘presentation’ she needs to look through a range of sources before choosing something to copy that she thinks will please her teacher. This is a very impoverished version of metacognition compared to the richness of a constructivist approach.

From 4th Instalment – remembering and practising, but where is the metacognition?

  1. Activating prior knowledge. The teacher discusses with pupils the different causes that led to World War One while making notes on the whiteboard.
  2. Explicit strategy instruction. The teacher then explains how the fishbone diagram will help organise their ideas, with the emphasis on the cognitive strategy of using a ‘cause and effect model’ in history that will help them to organise and plan a better written response.
  3. Modelling of learned strategy. The teacher uses the initial notes on the causes of the war to model one part of the fishbone diagram.
  4. Memorisation of learned strategy. The teacher tests if pupils have understood and memorised the key aspects of the fishbone strategy, and its main purpose, through questions and discussion.
  5. Guided practice. The teacher models one further fishbone cause with the whole group, with pupils verbally contributing their ideas.
  6. Independent practice. Pupils complete their own fishbone diagram analysis.
  7. Structured reflection. The teacher encourages pupils to reflect on how appropriate the model was, how successfully they applied it, and how they might use it in the future.

Translation: The teacher manipulates a question and answer session writing the ‘correct’ answers onto the whiteboard until all the desired ones (of the teacher) are in place, leaving out the ones not in the lesson plan. This illustrates some of the greatest weaknesses of  the classic instruction/knowledge-based approach.

This approach allows the teacher to develop solid knowledge and understanding, which then forms the basis of increasingly independent practice as the teacher changes their guidance and gradually withdraws the scaffolding.

 Translation: The teacher trains the class to use the fishbone format to successfully obtain the list of causes of World War I that are in the lesson plan, in a form that they can then memorise to produce as an answer to a standard history exam question.

But history is an especially rich subject for the constructivist approach, because beyond the historical facts (which even for modern history may well still be in dispute), there is no factual knowledge; only opinions that are open to debate.

I am not a history teacher, but here is an alternative lesson plan that I found on the Internet.

Description:  Students as a group will present a persuasive argument for which of the 4 MAIN (militarism, alliances, imperialism, nationalism) causes was primarily responsible for leading to World War I.

Rationale:  World War I makes a major change in the progression of history into the modern world.  Understanding the causes of this war and how it changed history is necessary for students to understand how history is linked and how current issues are linked to this pivotal point in history.

Secondary Materials:  Maps of alliances, maps of imperial possessions, visual chart linking countries through alliances, accounts of treatment of minority and foreign groups.

Primary Sources:  Political cartoons showing European imperialism, charts indicating military build up including the dreadnaught crisis, treaties allying nations, publications of or on, the Black Hand, newspaper accounts to include reactions in various cities to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, documentation of war plans (Schlieffen and others), propaganda posters used to incite nationalist fervor.

Technology required:  Primary and secondary sources may be acquired via the Internet.  Students may want to present with PowerPoint, video, or other media.

 Description:  Students will be divided into groups.  Student groups will be asked to determine which of the MAIN (militarism, alliances, imperialism, or nationalism) was primarily responsible for leading to World War I.  The student groups will then develop a presentation for the purpose to persuade others that the cause they choose was the most significant in the development of the war.

Students will then be provided copies of documents and research materials to use as evidence to support their argument.  These materials include: maps of alliances, maps of imperial possessions, visual chart linking countries through alliances, accounts of treatment of minority and foreign groups, political cartoons showing European imperialism, charts indicating military build up including the dreadnaught crisis, treaties allying nations, publications of or on the Black Hand, newspaper accounts to include reactions in various cities to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, documentation of war plans (Schlieffen and others), and propaganda posters used to incite nationalist fervor.

Once students have familiarized themselves with the materials, I will begin teaching the first phases of World War I.  An open discussion will follow examining who should have been blamed for starting World War I.

The lesson will conclude with student groups presenting their thesis on what was the most important MAIN cause of World War I.  In addition to presenting their theory in class, each group will be required to turn in a written document summarizing their findings.  The paper and presentation much include three arguments to support their thesis and be supported with evidence supplied and additional group research.  Also, each paper must provide an argument to dispel each of the other three theories and the groups must be prepared to defend their thesis from these sources in their presentation.

Unlike the EEF proposal, this plan provides rich opportunities for proper metacognition, peer-peer debate and co-operation. It would work well, but only with a teacher/school with a constructivist approach to teaching and learning.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was founded in 2011 by lead charity The Sutton Trust, in partnership with Impetus Trust (now part of Impetus–Private Equity Foundation), with a £125 million founding grant from the Department for Education.

The EEF was initiated in November 2010, when the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, announced plans to establish an education endowment foundation intended to help raise standards in challenging schools, inspired by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative in the USA that encouraged the expansion of high-quality charter schools, (on which our Academisation programme is based) turning around the lowest-performing schools, and building and using data systems. EEF was formally launched in July 2011, with Chairman Sir Peter Lampl declaring its aim would be to ‘develop initiatives to raise the attainment of the poorest pupils in the most challenging schools’. It took over from the Sutton Trust the development of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, and Sir Kevan Collins, former Chief Executive of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, was appointed the EEF’s first Chief Executive. In 2012, the EEF was awarded a further £10 million by the Department for Education to identify and evaluate high-potential interventions aimed at improving literacy for 10 and 11 year-olds at the transition from primary to secondary school.


EEF appears to  have appropriated ‘metacognition’ to support the knowledge-based approach. My concerns that EEF could be struggling to reconcile the outcomes of its research with the ideological regime change strategy of the DfE arose some time ago and are expressed in this 2017 article.

I invite teachers to sign up for the rest of the EEF metacognition instalments. I would be interested to find out the extent to which other teachers share my concerns.

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