#WorkingOutLoud on Learning Science: Social Metacognition

This post is part of #WorkingOutLoud on the Learning Science Handbook, with my co-authors Sae Schatz and Geoff Stead. We are regularly (aiming for weekly) sharing fragments of our work as we populate the landscape. We recently shared a post on Metacognition, and this follow up one develops ideas around Social Metacognition and Learning Culture. This is still early stage work and the writing shared here is our notes and ideas, not final and polished text.

As with so many aspects of the post-industrial Organisation, there’s an act of balance between the things that an Organisation can directly manage versus those we can simply influence, for instance, by creating space and support. Learning fits this mould: it’s not something we (as Organisations, teachers, or mentors) directly own; it’s something we facilitate and guide.

Within the context of Organisational L&D, there are only a limited number of inputs we can control. At a direct and dramatic level, we can hire and fire people in the L&D team (as a proxy for adapting the collective capability and culture), or less dramatically, we can upskill and train members of this team. we can buy or build new technologies; we can adopt (or adapt) new learning methodologies, and we can invest in ways to individualise or contextualise learning to learners.

These things may all deliver results, and they’ll certainly effect change, but let’s pause and look at the situation anew. We may notice that most of the tools in the Organisational L&D toolkit seem to fall into one of two categories: Either individual learning activities or infrastructure investments such as an LMS or other technologies. What’s often missing from the conversation is the context – that is, the Organisational learning culture.

‘Learning culture’ may seem like a nebulous or theoretical concept, but it’s actually powerfully pragmatic. And fortunately for many organisations, the learning culture is something they can influence without too major a financial investment – although it does require investments in individuals and social contexts as well as a tolerance for some of the ambiguity. 

Social Metacognition as a Foundation for Organisational Learning 

We recently posted about metacognition, offering a fairly academic discussion about individuals’ thinking-about-thinking skills. Metacognition has an unduly large influence on whether and how effectively we learn. But this week we’re looking through an applied lens, and perhaps ‘metacognition’ feels a bit too abstract. 

Organisational learning is typically not abstract, but rather applied. It’s focussed on delivering understood capability or specific outcomes. How do metacognitive abilities manifest in real-world organisations, and how do we use this information to improve performance?

This is where we return to the concept of an Organisational learning culture. Part of learning is an inherently individualistic act, and metacognition comes into play in those cases. But part of learning – and organisational performance – is a social activity, and one which is highly sensitive to cultural influences. What if these social influences reinforced metacognitive actions, which are so notably impactful? 

Can we take a view of metacognition that is held more communally? Social metacognition as a distributed feature of the Learning Organisation. Social metacognition as learning culture.

Social metacognition extends the concept of metacognition into group interactions, such as monitoring and remediating one another’s knowledge, emotions, and actions. Examples include helping to recognise and correct errors within a team, motivating each other when needed, distributing monitoring demands across the team, building shared knowledge, and explicitly engaging in metacognitive activities (like reflection) as a team.

In this view, metacognition is a reflective practice, and hence there is value in the insights, prompts, tempo, challenge, support, and dynamic variability of a learning community. So it’s not a stretch to consider group social contexts of metacognition as being valid.

Or to put it another way, learning culture may be real. And may really make a difference. But not simply in a ‘feel good’ way, rather leading to enhanced team performance. We may be able to analyse some of the specific features of an effective learning culture, and consider how they are formed and supported.

What features of communities foster or facilitate Social Metacognition more effectively, and is this (like individual metacognitive practice) something that we can develop or encourage?

For individual metacognition we explored three aspects: ‘self awareness’, ‘self regulation’, ‘reflective judgement’. These could be envisioned in social contexts as well, for instance:

  • Learning Identity:  a group social phenomena of learning, manifest through social norms, rituals, vocabulary, and places to learn. A space where learning is a de facto part of any challenge. A culture with learning in the flow: ultimately a culture where learning ceases to be discrete from performance.
  • Culture of Calibration: a social norm of challenge and iterative understanding, a culture that can hold conflict. Rituals of recognition and reward. Methodology or ability to process failure and create shared artefacts of such.
  • Curiosity as Practice: a culture that is constantly curious and primes curiosity as an individual feature of practice. This will filter through to capability frameworks and assessment criteria that recognise curiosity as a valid outcome, as opposed to certainty, and can cater for ambiguity.

These may be common to an understanding of team dynamics, but are probably meta-team features of culture, in that cultural features may be exhibited and influential without direct social connection. In other words, we may act like the crowd even when it’s a crowd of strangers.

Underlying these aspects of Social Metacognition may be a range of social currencies such as ‘trust’, ‘belief’, ‘values’, ‘belonging’, and skills around social storytelling. Some of these are intra-team currencies, and hence the overall picture of learning culture may be viewed as having both team and broader aspects.

We can probably view Social Metacognition as the cultural (social) context of metacognition, and hence an amplifying or constraining feature, but certainly one that can be nurtured.

If this all sounds a bit too nebulous, then recall our opening discussion: Organisational L&D systems don’t directly control learning or the subsequent performance outcomes that learning supports. L&D teams influence outcomes indirectly, even if their actions (such as day-long seminars) or tangible investments (such as new technologies) give the illusion of more immediate control. 

Organisational learning culture may be more difficult to define or touch, but it can have effects that rival other L&D investments. The challenge is to identify the most appropriate levers for learning culture and establish ways to glean feedback on the impacts of your efforts.  

Strategies to do so may include:

  • Focus on collaboration, and specifically complex collaboration, where creative strategies for diagnosis are required.
  • Building a language of trust: making the implicit explicit by articulating exactly what we mean in different contexts, for example to quantify the prices of failure and who will bear it, and make clear questions around consequence, ownership, safety etc
  • Recalibrating recognition and reward structures to include quality of collaboration and to recognise personal commitments into metacognitive practice

There are likely to be specific leadership behaviours too, at both the team level, and broader leadership level, which can support this learning cultural development.

Where is this happening today?

Knowledge working businesses are acutely aware of the value of ongoing learning. Employees are paid well, and expected to be continually enhancing their knowledge as part of the job. Looking at high performing teams in these contexts can bring useful insights into social metacognition in practice. 

Most fast moving, innovating teams in the software world use some form of ‘agile’ and ‘empowered product management’ methodologies, which are philosophical approaches to team work rooted in many of the same social metacognitive principles.

  • Ambiguity / Curiosity: A core principle of agile Product Management is to maintain curiosity and to iterate towards your destination by testing multiple hypotheses.
  • Reflection / collaboration: Agile teams do regular Retrospectives to reflect on, and improve team organisation and effectiveness.
  • Calibration: Each team builds internal measures to estimate complexity (story points), that are used as an ongoing effort to get better at estimating the time it will take to complete an unknown task. 

These organisational approaches have proved so successful that most software developers who have worked in an agile team refuse to go back to a more traditional, waterfall approach.

It clearly works.

Yet this shared, social approach to collective learning seems to live mostly within engineering teams and has very little overlap with the L&D focus areas in those same organisations.

Perhaps this is an opportunity for some great cross fertilisation?

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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