Meta, Meta, Meta: Higher Perspectives in Early Learning

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. According to the urban dictionary, the definition of meta is about “the thing” itself. It is seeing the “thing” from a higher perspective instead of from within the “thing”, like being self-aware. I have written before about seeking multiple perspectives in early learning as inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach. When children have the opportunity to view the world from many different perspectives including those from up high, the benefits are multiple. Children who start to develop a sense of self-awareness are able to reflect on themselves from the perspective of somebody else. According to Dr. Shanker, self-regulation, how children maintain focus, a sense of calmness, deal with stressors and then recover, entails the brain/body understanding and awareness that enables self-control, metacognition and social-emotional learning. Let’s begin being meta with metacognition. Years ago, while observing an early childhood educator, in her classroom, as part of my thesis research, I heard her say something that stopped me in my tracks. As a child played at the water table connecting tubes and funnels, she asked him, “what is your thinking?”. Thinking about thinking. That is metacognition. We need to do it more. That is why hearing these four simple words were so memorable. I hadn’t heard them before! How do we help children and teachers to go meta in the early years?

Metacognition is more than thinking about thinking. Metacognition is a regulatory system that helps a person understand and control his or her own cognitive performance. In the early years the more meta the better! When a child develops metacognitive skills, it is defined as meta-learning. Meta-teaching helps mediate the metacognitive skills of children and help to stimulate children’s metacognitive thinking (Fisher, 1998). Jean Piaget called thinking about thinking ‘reflective abstraction’. He suggested that this develops in children through their growing awareness of different viewpoints and during experiences of self-conflict, when their understanding is challenged (Fisher, 1998). Meta-teaching strategies include creating a culture where children are aware of themselves as thinkers and learners. In the 1998 article by Robert Fisher, Thinking About Thinking: Developing Metacognition in Children a list of words compiled by teachers working in a nursery school, used to raise awareness of metacognition is shared. I have created a word cloud of these words as featured below. When these words are used with children, we are supporting metacognition, theirs and ours, as we simultaneously think about our practice and it’s intentionality.

Each of the words featured in the cloud can be used by teachers to invite metacognition. They can be posed as questions or proposals such as the following:

  • What were you wondering about just then?
  • What do think will happen next? Why do you think so?
  • What did you notice about the pine cone?
  • Would you like to try to sketch your idea?
  • Let’s discuss your plan for block play.
  • I heard you explaining your ideas to Jordan, can you please tell me too?
  • You tried so many different ways to get that to connect! That is called persevering!
  • Can you teach Katie how you mastered such a tall block tower?

By consciously choosing words that support metacognition, teachers can create a culture of meta, becoming meta-teachers. In every area of the classroom, meta matters. In addition to meta-teaching about metacognition, being aware of meta-communication will help teachers to support children in their dramatic play experiences and so much more. Meta-communication is communication that indicates how verbal information should be interpreted. When a child suggests to another child that “you be the baby, and I will be the mommy. When I come home from work, you start crying for a bottle” they are engaged in meta-communication. This adds to the complexity of children’s pretend play. Both metacognition and meta-communication are elements of meta-play where children step outside of play in order to think or communicate about it. So many “metas” to think about! To end this ode to the meta, let’s look at a meta that is full of fun and humour; metafiction! Simply put, metafiction is a book about books or stories within stories. One of my favourite metafiction books to read to children is “This Book Just Ate My Dog” by Richard Byrne. When Bella’s dog disappears into the gutter of the book, she calls for help. When her helpers disappear too, Bella has to do more than tug at the leash. The book cleverly uses the physicality of the book and involves the reader in helping Bella’s dog and the helpers escape the gutter! A gutter by the way, is the inside margins closest to the spine of a book.

Metafiction is a book that reflects on what a book is or could be; it self-consciously plays with the form of the book. Metafictional books encourage children to reflect upon what they’re reading or listening to, allowing them to step outside of some of the conceptual boxes that enclose them. They invite readers to question rather than accept received realities. There is plenty of humour in metafiction picture books. Sharing these with children will give them an opportunity to feel like they are in on the joke. They get it! It helps build their confidence as readers and writers. I am looking forward to presenting a workshop entitled Meta, Meta, Meta: Books that Support Children’s Play and Agency at the 2020 Reading for the Love of It conference so I can share the many works of metafiction that I have found. These are books about books and fall into the following categories of metafiction literary devices.

I had great fun reading some works of metafiction to my three-year-old grandson recently. When I read “The Monster at the End of this Book” by Jon Stone, it directly addressed the reader. Griffen was fascinated and we laughed a lot! This literary device supports the child’s sense of agency. We have a sense of ‘agency’ when we feel in control of things that happen around us. When a book directly addresses the reader, they are part of the story. When the book requires the reader to make decisions that influence the story such as shaking the book, turning the page or enticing the reader to say something, children feel like they are influencing the story. Griffen wasn’t sure whether he wanted me to turn the pages of the book about the monster or not! It gave us an opportunity to talk about monsters and how they are not real. Still, not knowing what would be revealed at the end was funny and scary for him. I can’t wait to read the book to Griffen again. I wonder how he will respond. I think he will be less ambivalent about the pages turning.

My pile of metafiction books seems to be growing everyday as I continue to learn about metafiction in preparation for my workshop. I welcome recommendations from readers of this blog to add to my pile. I look forward to sharing these books with children and encourage others to get the meta out! Metafiction will help children recognize story elements including plot, setting, characters, author, illustrator, etc. because it challenges children to put the pieces of the puzzle together. As children listen to or read a metafiction book, they search for the clues that help them to understand the story. These are clues that might be in the form of different fonts or illustrative styles, multiple voices, or the identity of the author/illustrator/self as characters. When children recognize these clues, they become more aware of those same types of clues in other books. Metafiction books are playful books that give children an opportunity to be part of the story, supporting their competence, capacity, sense of agency and creativity. More meta please!

2 thoughts on “Meta, Meta, Meta: Higher Perspectives in Early Learning

  1. I still remember, “Go Away, Big Green Monster!” It was a powerful book for my daughters and students when they were in preschool.

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