The study of the brain has been uniquely divided between neurology and psychology for many years. Psychology has traditionally been the field that has attempts to explain subjective elements of the mind and neurology the biological elements. Rather than the physical structures of neurology, psychology has divided the mind into various conceptual structures, such a Freud's conceptualization of the id, ego and superego (Freud & Strachey, 2010). While, investigations into the inner workings of the brain have been historically divided between the neurological and psychological, psychological insights have historically been considered the less valid and scientific of the two approaches (James, 1890). Over the past 200 years objective materialistic explanations of the physical world have become dominant. This has caused elements of subjective experience that resist materialistic explanations, like consciousness, to be avoided or discounted by scientists. However, because of our ability to use conscious metacognition to change and improve behavior, science is beginning to make valuable discoveries into the workings of conscious, as opposed to unconscious, thought.
One of the earliest theoretical attempts to explain consciousness in materialistic terms was made by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, father of the theory of action potentials in 1884. Huxley was among the first to advance the theory that consciousness was epiphenomenal. He proposed that consciousness was a secondary effect that emerged from the interaction of the brain’s trillions of neurons. He felt that physical/biological forces where the true determinants of human behavior and that conscious was a kind of species specific illusion (Greenwood, 2010).
The role of this epiphenomenal view of consciousness on psychology began to culminate in the 1950s and 1960s with the work of radical behaviorists like psychologist B.F. Skinner who sought to remove consciousness from the psychological paradigm altogether (Schneider & Morris, 1987). The mind was metaphorically described as a black box, and the goal was to discover response regularities in behavior by manipulating the stimulus conditions and observing the behavior. Along with moving psychology further away from any investigation of consciousness, the behaviorists developed behavior modification techniques, which became widely popular in education for much of the 19th century, despite only demonstrating limited effectiveness on human behavior (Ertmer & Newby, 2013).
By the 1970’s the value and impact of conscious introspection in both psychology and education began to shift with John Flavell’s (1979) introduction of the concept of metacognition. The basic idea behind metacognitive education was that an individual's subjective understanding about their own learning process could be used to enhance their learning, improve their self monitoring, and related behaviors. The impact of metacognition and cognitive monitoring (Flavell, 1979) on learning and educational interventions is well-documented and many researchers (Weinert, 1987; Mancini,Short, Mulcahy & Andrews, 1991; Pace, 1991; Price, 1991) have investigated the various ways metacognitive processes affects learning .
Conscious, introspective learning skills, like metacognitive knowledge and regulation, have also been found to be teachable (Hallahan, 1983; Schraw, 1998) and are strongly related to academic success (Dweck, 2013). It was found that one of the main differences between high- and low-achieving students was their degree of self-monitoring and conscious evaluation of their own thinking (Andrade, 1999). A meta-analysis of teaching interventions done by John Hattie (2012) found that metacognitive interventions correlated with a strong positive effect on learning. It was also found that interventions that utilized fundamental components of metacognitive regulation, like self grading and evaluation (Andrade, 1999) were among the most effective education interventions (Hattie 2012).
Well it has become clear that metacognitive educational techniques are highly effective, how metacognition functions is somewhat mysterious. Nelson (1996) described it as the mind's ability to create meta-level distinctions from object-level distinctions. This distinction between meta- and object-level conceptualizations was first presented by Alfred Tarski (1956) in his theory of the hierarchy of languages. This idea was later used by Nelson and Narens (1994) as a solution to Comte’s Paradox, and to formulate what became know as the Metacognitive Model of Consciousness.
Comte’s Paradox, briefly stated, is the ability of the brain to be both the object doing the observing and be the object being observed simultaneously. According to the Metacognitive Model of Consciousness “the object level are cognitions concerning external objects,” and the “meta-level would be cognitions concerning the cognition of external objects.” (Nelson 1996, p,3). Lower level cognition can become the subject of a higher level allowing for a transcendent abstract level of understanding about a subject to occur. The interaction between these two levels of cognition leads to the twin metacognitive phenomena: cognitive monitoring and regulation.
Cognitive monitoring is the ability to observe one's own thinking, and regulation is the ability to control, or choose, a behavioral response. At the meta-level of conceptualization the mind develops increasingly abstract, holistic models that guide interactions and drive the formation of goals. These meta-level goals transcend the object- level’s embedded conceptions, meaning as they take into account relationships between information and past experience that are not part of the direct experience. For example, if you were playing soccer, object level cognitions would be those related to your immediate responses to the action of the game. Meta level cognitions would be those that shift consciousness away from what is directly occurring to perceive broader strategies, such as looking down the field to pass, or positioning oneself to receive a pass. These two levels of cognition work together to facilitate the accomplishment of goals. For Nelson (1996) it is the back and forth interaction of meta and object level conceptualizations that result in goal achievement.
Though there are those who ascribe to the theory that all of our behaviors are unconscious (Dennett, 1991), the fact that we can both metacognitively understand and use that understanding to regulate our behavior shows that there is some degree of control and choice unique to conscious thought. There is a need for a theory that can explain the relationship of metacognition to conscious thought. The view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon offers little insight into why consciousness has such an impact on learning and behavior. As a phenomena, metacognition seems to indicate that there are distinct, qualitative and quantitative components to consciousness cognition that can be scientifically studied and used to improve learning and behavior.
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