Mastering the learning process

Dec 08, 2015 by Drew McConnell, Manager of Digital Learning, FIRST

I sat down next to Kevin, an intelligent high school junior, in the Introduction to Programming class that I teach. As he stared at the lines of code on his computer screen, I asked him how his video game project was coming along.

"Well I know what I need to do, but I don't know how. You haven't told me how to do it yet," Kevin said.

Immediately I knew Kevin had not yet mastered the most important skill I aim to foster in all of my students: metacognition. In layman's terms, metacognition means to think about one's thinking. It is to analyze where we are in our learning process, how we got here, and how we can get to where we want to be. You see, my job as a programming teacher is not to impart knowledge upon students about variables, loops, or functions. My job is to help students learn how to learn. To drive their own learning. To acquire the tools they need to learn anything.

"I don't tell anyone how to do anything in this class," I responded to Kevin.

At this point another student in the class chimed into the conversation: "No, you don't! You always just ask us questions."

And just like that a teachable moment presented itself. My students clearly failed to understand that learning comes through asking questions. School has taught them that learning comes from a teacher -- from someone other than themselves. School has taught them that they are helpless in the learning process. Their job is to sit and listen. To absorb. To be taught rather than to learn.

In order to take advantage of this teachable moment, we stopped programming for a few minutes and talked about learning. This lesson was more important than any programming topic they will encounter all year. We talked about the ever-changing nature of technology and how what they learn today will be obsolete by the time they graduate college. We talked about the learning process and how people learn through discovery and exploration. We talked broadly about life and how they can learn anything if they ask the right questions and know where to find answers. We talked about metacognition.

Now I am under no delusions that my students have now mastered the art of metacognition. As with anything, learning is a process. Therefore learning to learn is also a process. It will take time and effort for my students to adopt a centralized locus of control when it comes to their learning, but it is imperative that they do.

When you ask people how they learn, many will respond with the phrase, "I learn by doing." I agree, humans learn by doing. But there is more to the story. The key to mastering learning is not "doing" itself, but analyzing what we do and how we do it. This is the secret of metacognition. My students can write code all day long, but if they never think about how to implement new strategies, what to do when they get stuck, or how they can improve upon the code they've written they will never become great programmers. Learning is in the process, not the product. If we can master the process of learning, we can learn to create any product.

This is not just a strategy I use to be a better teacher. This is an attempt to empower my students. These students - the next generation - need the freedom to think, explore, question, and solve the world's biggest problems. We live in the most advanced time in history, yet we continue to encounter the same ancient issues of poverty, violence, and widespread injustice. As Albert Einstein said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." In essence, if we are going to solve society's biggest problems, we have to think about our own thinking. We need to not only analyze where we are, but how we got here, and how we can change going forward. The world needs people who practice metacognition.

Drew McConnell is manager of digital learning for FIRST. Read Drew's bio

If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.

Back to Blog

Add new comment