Wakening up my learning


Day 1: I’m taking a pause. Not a break, but it’s the best way I can express that I need to think a bit.  Yes, I often voice over my behavior because silence, when you have company, tends to feel awkward.

I believe there’s a connection, a natural linkage between the awkwardness and the reason for my pause.  It’s a relationship that fuses self-awareness, self-consciousness and what Carol Dweck refers to as our growth mindset.  I’m guessing that connection is metacognition.

Metacognition, the idea that people think about their thinking is how we come to realize that objects are not people. I’m not remembering my courses in human development well enough to express the full cycle, but I do remember the impact I felt learning about metacognition’s existence.

First, it’s an academic term few people naturally encounter. I didn’t until I was past 40, and took the plunge to finally pursue doctoral studies in Education.  Second, this morning I awoke to the realization that metacognition likely enabled critical pivots in my life. I suspect my metacognitive abilities increased with my experience and later allowed me to redirect my thoughts, change my behavior and steer my abilities in a new direction.

So yes, knowing about metacognition after doing it was a big deal for me.  Before I encountered the term, I had thought that learning to think changed my understanding of feeling lucky and applying myself. Funny even as I write this I realize how so many of my life transitions I never fully credited to my effort and attitude.  For example,  I  didn’t feel the agency I had created for myself, instead of thinking about my choices and luck made lots of change in my life possible.

In my case, I often have difficulty explaining what made it possible for me to make a career in analytics when in graduate school I was among the least likely students to pursue advanced coursework in data analytics and statistical decision theory. How did it happen? What changed me from the young woman who was grateful to get a C in freshman calculus and the passing C in statistics junior year, a course I took to avoid further studies in graduate school? In fact, I used that logic to avoid repeating the basic stats in the public policy core, only to discover that “here at the University of Chicago” I needed to take a higher-level stats course outside the department to meet the requirement.

Oops! The only available option was to take the course in the business school. I was terrified, knowing that my fellow students had qualified with top GMAT scores. Not surprisingly when the midterm came, I failed. The expectations of my professor surprised me and this idea later became my stock explanation for my transformation. “Failure was not an option, ” I was told by the former general in the Israeli army who had earned her Ph.D. in math from Harvard.  For years, I told the story that it was her encouragement and belief in me that made it possible for me to apply myself.

Another attempt at unraveling this puzzle followed my fascination with the math phobia literature about Girls that emerged in the Mid-80s. I spent considerable time thinking that was my story, while simultaneously thinking it didn’t fit my situation or experience.

So why this morning did I re-visit this experience and sense that metacognition may have had a much larger role and effect? realized that it was also the power of metacognition at work. Up until I entered graduate school, I had rarely applied myself.  It was reasonably easy for me to get good grades, but I was rarely motivated to work harder than the basic level of mastery. In short, I didn’t know that I didn’t know how to think. I most certainly didn’t know how to look at myself and my behavior choices in the situation.

It’s one thing to know that you are struggling,  tinkering, reasoning, puzzling and another to feel that you have connected different pieces to form another idea. It’s the latter experience I assign to thinking. This meaning-making, or understanding we gain apart from what others show or share feels different, not because it’s hard but because how or why it happens is difficult to explain. I can’t show you how I think, I can only share what I know.

Learning abstract ideas I never considered my forte or so I believed.  to this day, I count by tapping out my fingers or us mnemonics to help me spell–“I before E except after C.” I often try to ground an idea, relate it to a tangible activity or experience to avoid confusion.  I lean heavily on metaphor, analogy when I explain something and even try to block out the ideas.

Metacognition rocked my world because suddenly I realized that I could think and examine what I think and have an option to do or think differently.  Finding the common ground of experience, or shared story isn’t enough to develop great thinkers, but it does give people a safe perch to test other ideas or not.

Today is a teaching day for me, and coincidentally I asked the mix of professionals after a basic exercise what made the activity difficult.  Not knowing, not knowing enough about the topic they explained makes asking questions difficult.  If we don’t question or challenge the limits of what we know, we can’t learn.  Likewise, if we don’t stop and pause to think and find where the edges of what we know reside, we won’t realize when we wander past what we know into foreign territory.

Yesterday I wanted to understand how I level up, and today I’m feeling I’ve been taking steps in the right direction. It’s hard to measure learning as we go, but reflecting is a good start.  Happy to say after a good day of class, my students seem to agree that it’s not enough to think about our thinking, but we gain when we also see the context or outer framing of our knowledge is fluid.


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