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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Science issue: Metacognition in Science Education

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    20 Feb

    Science fact

    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

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    Having worked as a primary school teacher, I have witnessed first-hand the excitement exhibited by five, six and seven year-olds when you tell them that we are ‘doing science’ today. Now working in university outreach, I am very much aware of the drive to encourage women to study STEM subjects. An internet search for ‘Women in STEM’ will bring up a multitude of initiatives – both in the UK and worldwide – which are aimed at encouraging women to study STEM subjects at university. This leads me to think about the disparity between the palpable enthusiasm of primary-aged children - regardless of gender – towards Science and the number of women studying STEM subjects in Higher Education.  

    I stopped studying Science twenty years ago, after my GCSEs, having been convinced – by myself and others – that I was an ‘Arts and Humanities person’. Many others that I knew were labelled in the same way and chose their A Levels accordingly. The dichotomy between Science and the Arts and Humanities seems thankfully now to be far less pronounced. I have met a large number of sixth form students who are doing a mixture of Science and Arts and Humanities subjects at A Level. However, there is still clearly a notable shortage of women choosing to study STEM subjects at university level.

    A huge amount of research has been done into the reasons behind this and as somebody with an academic background in Philosophy and Religious Studies, I am highly aware of my lack of expertise in this area. I am reminded, however, of a research project which I carried out during my teacher training on ‘metacognition’, which can be understood in its broadest sense as ‘thinking about thinking’, but more specifically in an educational context as one’s perception of, or thoughts about, one’s own learning. Looking back to my own experience at secondary school, I was fascinated by certain elements of Science, particularly the ‘big questions’ of Physics, which I perceived as bearing obvious similarities to the kinds of questions raised in Philosophy and Religious Studies. Yet my perception was, for whatever reasons, that I was not equipped to pursue Science further, because my skills lay in the Arts and Humanities.

    Are primary school children simply too young to have this kind of metacognitive capacity? My experience tells me that they are not, and that, on the contrary, young children are acutely aware of their own cognitive processes and are able to comment astutely on their perceptions of their own learning. Yet it is rare, in my experience, to find a primary-aged child who questions their capability or suitability to study Science.

    Hazel Collinson
    Murray Edwards College