Surviving High Seas

Helping students succeed by becoming aware of their own thought processes

Harsh skies at noon mirror the deep, stormy sea. Winds scream at tumultuously rolling peaks and valleys. Tossing ship and tumbled crew groan in unison. The captain shouts through the chaos, “Look lively, mates. You’ve readied our ship and now I need your strength and experience to survive.”

Louisa May Alcott knew about survival when she penned, “I’m not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” And I am sure she advocated for a sturdy, well-centered mast and rigging with strong, well-made ropes and lines. Transferring this thought to the education world, how do we, as educators, impact student resilience? How can we help them be ready?

Ahoy, My Critical Crew
As a teacher, it is my role to help the captain (our students) learn how to sail through the storms. That role includes the opportunity to

  • Promote metacognition through modeling, teaching, and regular practice
  • Guide thinking and propose new thought patterns
  • Provide scaffolding
  • Demonstrate how metacognition uncovers erroneous thinking that causes confusion
  • Support students as they mature and learn from metacognition

Take Care of the Mast and Rigging
Teachers continuously seek to build a strong framework for student success. The rigging materials include: making connections, instilling vocabulary, practice, and an awareness of pitfalls. This is the scaffolding that supports a framework for success.

This rigging highlights and then builds on connections. Those connections include thinking about past experiences, looking around to think about other students’ experiences, thinking ahead to tomorrow and the adult experience, and thinking anew with exposure to new ideas.

Teaching the vocabulary of metacognition is critical because it gives students words to describe their learning process. That ability to label thoughts and experiences gives them power to see what is working and what isn’t working. This labeling makes the learning or lack of learning concrete and real. Words allow students to map a plan of action, especially when facing a storm.

In Activating and Engaging Habits of Mind, Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick clearly explain the benefits of practicing metacognition. “As teachers invite students to describe what’s going on inside their heads when thinking takes place, children become more aware of their own thought processes. As they listen to other students describe their metacognitive processes, they develop flexibility of thought and come to appreciate that there are several ways to solve the same problem,” (p. 29).

And tuning in to student metacognition allows staff to support students along the way, rather than waiting until remediation is needed. It gives teachers an awareness of pitfalls, handing them tools to anticipate areas of confusion and to uncover misconceptions.

Are the Lines Ready?
Every teacher has a specialized collection of ropes that students can use to manage the riggings on their ship.

  • Capitalize on common characteristics of your class. Writing and conversation are both essential conduits for fostering metacognition. In language arts, students can write about it. In physical education, students can dribble a basketball with their non-dominant hand and then talk about what is involved in the process of improving the skills of the non-dominant hand.
  • Foster reading strategies. Metacognition is at the heart of strategic reading. Incorporate the “8 strategies that strong readers use” into day-to-day instruction and discussion.
  • Find or create checklists to help students monitor their learning of your content area. These help students internalize and personalize the process.
  • Encourage students to reflect regularly using a variety of modes: journal, exit slip, project analysis, pre-reading, summative assessment.
  • Model metacognition with Think Alouds where you share personal planning strategies. Admit personal areas of lack of knowledge and describe ways to fill that need. Demonstrate thought processes, monitoring, and evaluating.
  • Plan powerful questions. For help, access some of the multiple resources available. There is helpful and practical guidance in Activating and Engaging Habits of Mind by Costa and Kallick beginning on page 41.
  • Use mindful language along with “talk aloud problem solving.” Say things like, Describe the steps you took. What can you do to get started? What goes on in your head when you compare? Describe your plan of action. What do you do when you memorize? What criteria are you using to make your choice? How do you know you’re correct?
  • Regularly structure activities that give students opportunities to reflect on their growth—specific skills and strategies they now use often and with greater ease. Acknowledging success is encouraging and produces more success.

Watch the Wind Vane Together
Successfully surviving storms is all about resilience—knowing what to do at what point in time. It is being able to consider current conditions, consequences, alternative choices, and subsequent consequences. It is knowing when to tack, when to head straight into the winds, and when to turn tail and run.

Fortunately, metacognition is interdisciplinary. We do not live in isolation and we don’t have to go it alone. Promoting metacognition helps us exercise the give and take between fellow sailors on the sea of life. It also reflects the mantra of middle level education: “Relationships, Relationships, Relationships.”

Use Your Tools in Port or at Sea
Costa and Kallick in their Habits of Mind work describe metacognition as thinking about thinking. It is the process that allows me to reflect on and evaluate my thinking. I use metacognition to ask if my thinking is effective and efficient. If not, what am I going to do about it? What is my plan? And, since metacognition is an awareness of my thought processes, it then prompts me to compare another person’s point of view and examine its validity.

Metacognition can help achieve higher-order thinking since it goes beyond higher-order thinking and is about the process. Higher-order thinking provides quality ingredients while metacognition supplies the instructions.

Resilience is bouncing back from failure, turning failure into success, viewing failure as necessary to growth and progress. It is about problem solving and having the patience to work toward answers. It includes a healthy dose of curiosity as well as a willingness to tolerate uncertainty for a period of time. Surviving the storms of life is about resilience and resilience is a mindset—a choice based on the awareness gained through metacognition.

And survival is not possible without a crew; those people who have committed themselves to giving aid on the voyage. The crew includes parents and teachers who have helped the captain learn and grow. Since metacognition provides a foundation for resilience, teachers who seek to ensure high levels of learning and success for all students will use a wide variety of strategies to support students as they think about their thinking—building on that foundation.

One . . . Two . . . Three . . . Heave Ho!


Costa, A., & Kallick, B. (2000). Activating and engaging habits of mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.