‘Meta-Cognition’ and ‘Sense Making’: Virtual Learning Design [Pt 5]

This is the fifth in a short series of pieces exploring how curiosity and creativity sit at the heart of a shift to Virtual Learning. Developed from a webinar i ran in early May, the narrative is built around a series of ten tips and techniques. In the earlier pieces we considered how Virtual Learning may be ‘event’ or ‘experience’ based, and how ‘experiences’ can provide the space, support, and time, for effective ‘sense making’ and application. We also looked at common ways for Virtual Learning to work (by unlocking curiosity), or fail (by driving conformity). In this piece i will expand on two central underlying ideas in those ‘curious’ learning experiences: ‘meta-cognition’, and ‘sense making’.

The notion of meta-cognition can be described quite simply in terms of ‘thinking about thinking’, or a language i prefer is ‘the thing of the thing’. Essentially the way i understand it is that, during a reflective activity, we consider our own interaction and response to a situation or thing.

We can view direct cognition as considering the ‘thing’ itself. What is it, what is happening, what can i see, measure, or intuit from it. This is the interaction of the everyday. In a meta-cognitive frame we would stop, and look at ourself examining the thing: sometimes it’s helpful to think of this in three dimensions. During cognition, we stand in front of something and look at it, and during meta-cognition we rise above that situation and examine ourselves below, looking at the thing. Others may express this with more eloquence, but at a pragmatic level, that is how i visualise it, and utilise it.

As part of a learning journey, we want to create or structure the opportunity to do this: to observe the thing, and to consider our own thoughts, feelings, and knowledge of it. In other words, to deconstruct our initial reaction and gain some insight into how we came to this view.

It may seem a little abstract, but again you can bring it down to practical activity by talking about questions (and a little later in this series we will consider exactly that: a question based approach to activity design that utilises meta-cognition).

If you are not tired of metaphors yet, let me try another: by using questions, we can crack open the nut, and examine what is inside it. Our initial questions may ask us to describe ‘the thing’, and then subsequent ones to examine our response, feelings, and knowledge of it: for example, i may see and describe an effective leader (cognition: the thing in front of me), but with the right questions i could examine why i think that they are effective, the specific mechanisms of their effect, what i could emulate, or how i feel and respond to what they do (meta-cognitive, examining ‘the thing of the thing’).

If all this feels very easy and obvious, then you are already winning: like most good learning design, it’s neither complex nor magic, but is surprisingly often lost in the industrial process of Organisational learning design.

The second central principle for the design of Virtual Learning (or indeed for any type of learning), is that of ‘sense making’: specifically, the cognitive and social mechanisms by which we integrate what we learn, into what we already know, and how we carry that learning into application, and loops of feedback and review.

This illustration shows a subset of this, with a focus on the pathways for ‘Individual’, and ‘Collective’ sense making, through a lens that considers how each differs.

Individual ‘sense making’ is the process i have referred to earlier in this series, of disturbance, reconciliation, and a reframing or re-scripting of the internal narrative of knowledge.

Collective sense making refers more to collaboration and co-creation (and again, later in this series we will consider how ‘co-creation’ operates): what i am attempting to illustrate here is that Individual and Collective Sense Making are not simply two contexts of the same thing, but are rather two different things, which arrive at a common end point.

Individual sense making is about disturbance, reconciliation and internal coherence (e.g. taking us back to a place where we ‘know’ something – either what we knew before, unchanged, or a new knowledge), whilst collective sense making is about consensus and a trading of perspectives. In other words, Individual sense making is always coherent, because we both do it, and moderate it, ourselves, whilst collective sense making is external, communally moderated, and may not leave us with a coherent perspective at a personal level. Or in other words, i may disagree or differ from the collective view.

Indeed, in some perspectives of how learning actually works, there is no ‘may’ about it: each of us construct an entirely unique conceptual model fo how the world around us works, and we share simply subjective and skewed understandings between us through narrative language. In other words, i cannot make you ‘see’ beauty as i do, so instead must either describe it, or let you view it and hope that you feel the same way.

At a rather more pragmatic level, the practical tip is this: that we must ensure we cater for both models of sense making in our Instructional Design: the individual and the collective, and we must ensure that the Community is in place to support the latter.

Throughout this week i will share a short, practical series, exploring the context of Virtual Learning, intending to highlight some of the underlying design approaches, and providing some practical tips and techniques.

In the next piece we will explore the 3 Levels of Storytelling.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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4 Responses to ‘Meta-Cognition’ and ‘Sense Making’: Virtual Learning Design [Pt 5]

  1. Pingback: The Three Levels of Storytelling: Virtual Learning Design [Pt 6] | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  2. Pingback: Social and Collaborative Learning in Action | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  3. Pingback: The Learning Organisation | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  4. Pingback: The Role of the Storyteller | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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