Reading: Think About Thinking



You're probably pretty familiar with popular science books. Malcolm Gladwell writes a type of popular science books. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Sacks by Rebecca Skloot is a popular science book. Susan Cain, Daniel Coyle, Steven Johnson, Atul Gawande they've all written important popular science books in recent years.

Generally speaking, popular science books follow a certain pattern. Almost all of them try to push a surprising theme or idea. In Gladwell’s Blink, for instance, he argues that split-second decisions are better than deliberate ones. In the first Immortal Life of Henrietta Sacks book, Skloot discusses the origins of a cell line that's used in just about every science lab in the country. In Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect, he outlines a new way to think about societal reform, arguing for a bottom-up approach to change.

Like any form of narrative, popular science books have shortcomings. The books will sometimes overstate their case. In their eagerness to present counterintuitive findings, the authors will gloss over key details. Talent can’t really be boiled down to a single type of brain issue, as Daniel Coyle suggest in The Talent Code. Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that expertise comes with 10,000 hours of practice doesn’t fully stand up to close scrutiny.

Why does this matter? Because knowing what you’re reading is key to understanding what you’re reading. Context is often a crucial part of understanding. In other words, learning is often a matter of knowing about what you're learning about.  Take a look at this text, for instance:

“There’s a right way and a wrong way. Neither is clearly described.

If you do it the wrong way, there could be a major error.

If you do it the right way, though, you might also still get it wrong.”

You can read and reread those four sentences all that you want. But it’s nearly impossible to understand the words without knowing the context. The sentences simply don’t make logical sense if there’s no broader framing.

Think about all of the possibilities: Is the text part of a technical manual on how to defuse a bomb? A materials science paper on crystal formation? A 20th century spy novel with an unreliable narrator? A metaphysical poem on the nature of doing? Even though the text could have come from any of these, in the end it’s the context that gives the words any sort of deep meaning.

Like a microscope, context gives a more granular understanding. It provides a richer read of a topic. In the case of popular science books, for instance, people often forget that the narratives often gloss over important caveats, or the readers will fail to observe that the author is making an argument, promoting an idea, giving more weight to certain slices of evidence over others.

"Like a microscope, context gives a more granular understanding."

This idea has important implications for focusing our learning, which brings us to the concept of metacognition. Psychologists define metacognition as thinking about thinking. In broad terms, it’s about understanding how you understand something. It’s about taking mental perspective, about gaining a sense of cognitive awareness.

In some ways, metacognition comes easily. When you decide to close the instruction manual and begin piecing together that IKEA table, you’ve engaged in a form of metacognition. When you frantically review your lecture notes before a big speech? A bit of nervous metacognition. That nagging, tip-of-the-tongue feeling that you get when you can’t remember the name of a kid you went to high school with? Metacognition.

There are two important parts to metacognition. First, there’s the planning aspect: How will I know what I know? What are my goals? Do I need more background knowledge or skills? Second, there’s the monitoring aspect: Why am I doing what I am doing? Could I learn this idea in a different way? Am I making progress?

"...beginners often need this sort of metacognitive thinking just as much as the experts."

Metacognition comes easily to many experts. When specialists work through an issue, they’ll often think a lot about how the problem is framed. They’ll typically have a sense of whether or not their answer seems reasonable. The key, it turns out, is not to leave this sort of thinking about thinking to the experts. The research suggests, in fact, that beginners often need this sort of metacognitive thinking just as much as the experts.

In other words, the more that we ask metacognitive questions, the better we can master new skills. When it comes to learning, one of the biggest issues is that people don’t engage in metacognition nearly enough. We don’t do enough to understand the things that we don’t know. At the same time, people feel too confident in what they do know. The issue, then, is not that something goes in one ear and out the other. The issue is that individuals don’t dwell on the dwelling. They don’t push themselves to understand.

In this regard, metacognition often comes down to a set of questions that we ask ourselves: How will I know what I know? What do I find confusing? Do I have a way to measure my understanding? These sorts of queries are powerful, because metacognition is often more important than raw smarts when it comes to learning. According to researcher Marcel Veenman, students who have a rich ability to manage their thinking can outscore students who have sky-high levels of IQ. “We've found that metacognition often accounts for about 40 percent of learning outcomes,” Veenman told me, while “IQ only accounts for 25 percent.”

The act of writing is a good example of metacognition. When we think about composing sentences and paragraphs, we’re often asking ourselves crucial metacognitive questions:

  • Who will be reading this?
  • Will they understand me?
  • What things do I need to explain?

This is why writing is often such an effective way to organize one’s thoughts. It forces us to evaluate our arguments, to think about our ideas.

Some like psychologist Doug Hacker describe writing as a form of “applied metacognition.” It happens to me all the time. Before I start writing, for instance, I’ll have some sort of idea—a flicker of a connection, a sparkle of reasoning—and the notion or argument will seem irrefutable. Maybe, for instance, I’ll want to email my wife to ask if she could watch the kids on Saturday night because an old college buddy is in town.

But then I’ll start writing the email, and my logic simply falls apart. I realize that my argument is actually pretty weak since I saw my buddy last month. My intended audience will never buy it—and the email gets trashed. To use Hacker’s words, I applied a type of metacognition and found my logic to be lacking.

We can all do this ourselves. Imagine, for a moment, that you want to become a better travel photographer. Then ask yourself metacognitive questions while you're starting to learn to shoot images:  How would an expert think about taking this picture? What sort of assumptions am I making about light and composition?

For another example, imagine you want to improve your understanding of the notion of a leap year. Then ask yourself: Why is there a leap year? How would someone create a leap year? Why is it even called a leap year?

For their part, researchers recommend that people ask these sorts of questions well before they start learning something. By probing ourselves before we gain a bit of expertise, we’re priming our metacognitive pump—and making our learning more durable. Psychologist Lindsey Richland and some colleagues once conducted an experiment that gives a way of understanding how this sort of metacognitive priming works.

First, answer the following questions, which come from Richland’s study:

  • Do you know anything about cerebral achromatopsia?
  • What is the name for colorblindness that’s generated by damage to the brain?
  • Why does the reason for colorblindness matter?

Then read this text:

“Total colorblindness caused by brain damage, so-called cerebral achromatopsia, though described more than three centuries ago, remains a rare and important condition. It has intrigued neurologists because, like all neural dissolutions and destructions, it can reveal to us the mechanisms of neural construction, specifically, here, how the brain ‘sees’ (or makes) color.”          

Now you may have bombed each of the three queries on achromatopsia. I certainly did. But the queries made me think about what I knew, while subtly priming my learning center at the same time. According to Richland's study, people who tried to answer these questions before they read the text learned a lot more. By answering some pre-learning questions, the subjects engaged in a bit of metacognition—and gained a deeper understanding of the text.

For a different example, consider this bit of metacognition—have you noticed the pop quizzes interspersed through this online class? I included a few of them in every reading, a way to prompt a type of engaged thinking about thinking. My hope is that you attempt to answer each of the questions and think—do I know this about learning? Why do I know this about learning?

In the end, metacognition will lead to a deeper form of understanding. 

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