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Visible Thinking; Helping Teachers Towards Metacognition

In order to be a successful teacher, quite often, teachers are sold the latest fad or trend. With almost 20 years leadership in schools George Gilchrist discusses ‘Visible Thinking’ and how our journey should be toward metacognition.

It seems that for ever and a day education has been rife with fads, trends and the latest ‘big thing’ that we are promised will deliver all that we seek in our search for the Holy Grail of teaching and learning. One thing I have learned in nearly twenty years of school leadership is that there are no ‘silver bullets’ of ‘panaceas’ out there, and when you are being told there are, someone is trying to sell you something. What there can only ever be is a determination for a continuous journey of growth and development, which is informed and supported by a body of reputable evidence.

Step forward Visible Learning and John Hattie. Since 2009, when Hattie first published the results of his meta-analysis of thousands of pieces of individual research, where he apportioned effect sizes to different interventions, his work has turned into the latest ‘big thing’ in education. Visible Learning has become industrial in its proportions and its influence across schools and education systems. There is no doubt that Hattie’s work has been important in raising the profile of research in educational practice, and in getting teachers schools and system leaders to consider what actually might make a difference in improving learning and teaching in classrooms. However, it is not without its faults, or its critics, mainly around its statistical validity and the assertions made about different interventions based on few, or small, pieces of research.

The current focus and fascination around Visible Learning reflects the desire for so many in education to find a ‘quick fix’ or ‘universal truth’ that can solve all our problems. It is my contention that chasing such solutions is akin to trying to find the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. As Dylan Wiliam has observed, ‘everything works somewhere but nothing works everywhere.’

Whilst not dismissing Hattie’s work out of hand, I do think there is a risk that we become so fixated on trends that we might ignore some steps and measures that could have massive impacts for our learners, and which research would suggest have the greatest chance of producing positive impacts across most schools and systems, provided we give them enough time and attention. One of these is metacognition, or Visible Thinking if we are tapping into the current zeitgeist.

There is no doubt that the development of metacognitive strategies in learners of all ages can be hugely beneficial to their development as self-regulating, life-long learners, and this has been supported by researchers across systems. The teaching and development of metacognitive strategies are included in Hattie’s top ten of evidence-informed approaches. (2007) The Education Endowment Foundation has said this year that ‘evidence suggests that the teaching of metacognitive strategies can be worth the equivalent of an additional 7+ months improvement in learners.’ (2018) Ron Ritchhart and colleagues at Stanford state that, ‘to the extent that students can develop an awareness of thinking processes, they become more independent learners capable of directing and managing their own cognitive actions.’ (2011)

The impact of developing metacognitive thinking has been identified by various researchers, in a series of different contexts, and it is my contention that we should focus more on properly developing such Visible Thinking strategies, rather than chasing after a myriad of often disparate strategies, using a ‘tick-box’ approach that seems to be encouraged by many who are influenced by Visible Learning, but who don’t understand it, or its limitations, deeply enough.

The first step to the development of such metacognitive understandings in learners has to be for teachers to develop these in themselves.

How many teachers, and school leaders, think about the strategies they employ to deepen their understandings, accrue new knowledge or improve their practice? Perhaps too many are still doing what they have always done, or what the school has always done, or the system, because that is comfortable or expected, rather than thinking deeply about what it is they are doing, being informed by evidence and challenging such norms of behaviour. I think school leaders have a professional responsibility to create the conditions under which teachers can explore, individually and collaboratively, their own thinking and behaviours, ahead of looking to develop the same dispositions in their learners. They will need time and space to have the conversations, and explore the issues, then to identify steps they might take.

Creating such conditions, or learning cultures, needs a ‘vehicle’ to support such professional growth, so that schools do not try to address this as just another ‘add-on’ to everything else they are doing. My own preferred model is through practitioner enquiry, but any others that systematically promote enquiry, reflection and shifting of thinking and practice, can be very useful here. Collaborative enquiry, action research and lesson study are approaches which spring to mind that can be very useful in developing metacognition in teachers. If teachers are not, or cannot, think metacognitively, then there is little chance of them being able to develop those abilities in their learners. What can easily happen is that teachers are given a resource or ‘tips’ to develop metacognition, re-enforcing the view of teaching as a technical activity, whilst at the same time reducing the possible impacts and benefits for learners. We should avoid such approaches, which are mutations of what research tells us can have big positive impacts for learners.

In a future post, I would like to consider the steps teachers can actually take to develop metacognitive awareness in all their learners.

Visible Learning J Hattie (2009)
Visible Learning for Teachers J Hattie (2012)
Metacognition and self-regulated learning Education Endowment Foundation (2018)
Making Thinking Visible K Morrison, M Church and R Ritchhart (2011)

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The author

George Gilchrist has over twenty-five years’ experience in the Scottish education, both as a teacher and a school leader. He stepped down from his last headship, of two primary schools in the Scottish Borders, in April 2017. Since then he has spent his time continue to write and comment on education and leadership issues. He is a fellow of the Scottish College of Educational Leadership and speaks regularly at education conferences and events. He writes for professional magazines and websites, including TESS, CollectiveED, BERA and now Nexus Education. He has his own education blog at and Tweets as @GilchristGeorge. His latest book ‘Practitioner Enquiry: professional development with Impact for Teachers, Schools and Systems’ David Fulton Books, was published in January 2018.

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