How Metacognition Might Have Saved Tesco’s Bacon

tesco_2584551bThis week, the UK supermarket Tesco has landed itself in trouble over providing incorrect figures of its profits to the city (the stock markets). Now questions are being asked about whether Tesco bosses were being deliberately misleading, or instead incompetent. From a psychological perspective, I believe the answer lies in a factor named ‘metacognition’.

Some of you who follow me on Facebook or other social media channels will know that I have been making a bit of noise recently relating to this topic. I’ve been publishing my latest metacognitive awareness score, which has been calculated through a smartphone app, which I have been working on during the last few months. With this blog post, I intend to answer the questions of what it is about and why you should want to download it.

So, what is metacognition? Metacognition means knowing about what you know. We are defining it as an awareness of ones own knowledge and mental processes. A higher metacognitive awareness will make you think better. It will help you to be more effective in how you handle your knowledge and your learning.

The app we have produced is based upon several years worth of research conducted at Bangor University. Through empirical studies, it was shown that this metacognitive awareness could be increased through confidence based testing. Confidence based testing is a secondary component attached to a question, wherein the participant not only gives an answer, but also an indication of their surety of that answer. As a result of these studies, we have developed the Cognaware app to replicate the study methodology for individual smart phone users.

How sure are you?

How sure are you?

This general knowledge quiz will reward confidence in correct answers, as well the users ability to correctly identify when they are guessing. On the flip side, it will punish users who are confident in an incorrect answer, while giving only a token point for users getting a correct answer thought to be a guess. The responses are then analysed, using signal detection theory, to give you your metacognitive index, or in other words, your ability to discriminate between what you know and what you don’t.

At this point, you may understand everything I just said, or you may find it all awfully complicated. Instead of worrying about the ins and outs of it, let me tell you why metacognitive awareness is important.

Have you ever listened to somebody harp on about something, when they don’t actually know what they’re talking about? Politicians and other people trying to save face do it all the time. Either these people have no integrity, or they have a poor metacognitive awareness, although in reality it is probably an interaction of them both.

Consider the way we handle knowledge, whether it be in business or higher education. Working with accurate facts and knowledge is the difference between a cutting edge success and a tragic failure. When it comes to hard line reality, sometimes saying ‘I think’, just won’t do. In the aftermath of the Iraq war, the evidence (i.e. the absence of weapons of mass destruction) revealed that the grounds for the invasion of Iraq were based on a hunch. When I listen to political debates, I am becoming increasingly aware of the absence of sources being used to back up politicians arguments. We have seen some tragic and foolish decisions made off heuristic knowledge.

Bringing it back to Tesco, I believe that if more people within the senior ranks of the organisation had a higher metacognitive awareness, somebody would have blown the whistle before it came to this. Either through an increased conviction in recognizing discrepancies, or through being more willing to face the reality that the city would notice a £250 million deficit, that ability to discriminate between hopeful ‘I think’s’ and reality might have saved four senior executives their jobs.

Now this isn’t a miracle pill. It’s not a get rich quick scheme. It’s an evidence based app which will train you in a wise thought pattern. But now you are aware of metacognition, and the role it plays, and so I ask you: is this a skill you want to work on? If it is, a daily quiz on Cognaware is a fun way to do that. Remember, it’s not what you know, it’s what you know about what you know.

Cognaware is available on the Apple and Google Play stores. For more information, including learning about the peer reviewed literature that supports metacognition, please see


Re-inventing the Computer

I’ve spent a long time now, looking at different ways that psychology might be applied to improve education. I’ve learned about networked learning; how knowledge is stored more intelligently across groups. I’ve researched motivation; the ways in which student empowerment and student directed learning creates a more whole educational experience in the individual. I’ve read about the flow state of mind, being captured by the moment in a most pure state of intrinsic motivation. I’ve found out about the dangers of carelessly deployed technology, which only teaches students to accrue points, or merely provides a virtual alternative to what worked perfectly well with paper.

Indeed, I would say that not many of the present classroom applications of technology are really hitting the nail on the head. There is, however, one computer game, which seems to apply these ideas exceedingly well: Minecraft.

This retro style indie game has risen to be the best selling PC game of all time. It is an open ended, sandbox style game, in which plays build things through placing and removing blocks. The game has developed over several years, giving users items such as switches, power sources and hoppers, allowing for some quite smart mechanisms to be created. It began with the automation of ‘crafting’ (putting several raw materials together to create a new item), however as peoples ingenuity has developed, so have their creations. Right now, they’ve advanced as far as having built 16-bit computers. In a very real way, the entirety of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution have now repeated themselves – in a cult computer game!

The Analytical Engine, the mechanical computer proposed by Charles Babbage.

The Analytical Engine, the mechanical computer proposed by Charles Babbage.

Now, you need to think about that for a second. Think about what a computer is, and how they have developed. What is now done in a microprocessor, was originally done through a contraption which filled a whole room. Furthermore, before even that, the first computer ever to be invented was entirely mechanical. Now, we have an army of young people replicating these archaic structures using Minecraft.

This community incredibly well networked. Take a look at the number of examples and tutorials that come up with you search ‘minecraft redstone computer‘ on Youtube. When one learns, the wealth is shared. And when the one shares their understanding with the many, that individuals own understanding is strengthened. Ideas bounce serendipitously, and the evolution of these systems has been rapid. The bottom line of it is this: young adults, teenagers and children even, within this community, can master the very fundamentals of modern day computing. I don’t even understand that, and I have been a computer enthusiast since I had my baby teeth.

This is the type of educating that is fun, motivating and above all, highly effective. Each and every learner within the Minecraft community is participating in a race to the top. These skills and this understanding are the very thing that will drive knowledge economies to excellence. To this I would ask what parallels can be drawn, to make an educational model as resonant as the Minecraft community.

It would be very different. It would challenge all convention. It would likely be chaotic. However these things have all been recognised as attributes contributing to a successful knowledge economy.

It would be a brave teacher to set up a Minecraft lab inside their classroom, but hey! Here’s to the crazy ones right?

Meditation and Mediation

I read a book recently that has really fascinated me. It’s entitled ‘Mediated – How the Media Shape your World’, and it’s written by Thomas DeZengotita. It is a powerful demonstration of just how much the media influences our lives. One of the key points DeZengotita makes concerns authenticity. In a climate of ubiquitous mediation, nearly our entire identity is formulated out of snippets of representations which we have gathered through film, politics, reality television and more.

The premise of it all is this: everything around us, whether it be road signs, magazines, film, social media or advertising is all addressed at YOU. While you may be just one of millions, nearly everything you see is addressed at you directly – and me – and all of us. This is ultimately very flattering. The flattery becomes manifest when individuals are trying to decide which identity (or which collage of mediated identities) they intend to present to the world. In times past, such behaviour may have been reserved for royalty, or significant public figures. However now, everybody is trying to write out the story that is their life.

This is all well and good (well, maybe), until it hits crisis point. Until there are so many representations, so many identities, so many statements to be made, that an individual simply cannot handle it all. The tyrannous belief that one MUST be successful in this endeavour can throw many individuals in to a neurotic state. It becomes the source of a lot of anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness Meditation

It should therefore be no small wonder that mindfulness meditation seems to be the opposite of this carry-on in every way.

Mindfulness is a relatively new type of meditation, in which one seeks to become a passive observer of the situation around oneself. Thoughts, emotions and sensations are monitored by the individual so as to reach a state of detached awareness. A recent special edition of the New Scientist reviewed mindfulness and other meditation research, and talked about the way meditation trains people for improved emotional regulation.

Whereas all things mediated are addressed at you, meditation detaches you from that setting, and helps you inhibit the urge to pay homage to each stimulus you encounter. Considering that one of the approaches to cognitive therapy is to help clients stop processing the negative automatic thoughts, this helps piece together the picture of how mindfulness works.

It would be fascinating, with all the knowledge we have today, to go back to a pre-technological era and measure the relationship between psychological wellbeing and a far less ubiquitous media. However with DeZengogita’s ideas on media theory, and the principles of mindfulness based wellbeing converging together, it paints an ever clearer picture on the cognitive aspects of wellbeing.

The Connectivist Riots

I’ve spent quite a lot of time recently thinking about things that aren’t real. I’ve realised, that actually, not a lot of things are real. Obviously there IS a lot of things that are real. The computer in front of me, and my car outside are both very real. However there is a vast array of things processed by the human mind, that have no physical form.

From a consumer perspective, consider the ‘Coca-cola’ brand. It has been said that if the entire infrastructure of Coca-cola’s operations were to be lost, it would be okay if the brand were preserved. Where does the Coca-cola brand exist? It is a representation in your mind.

The same can be said about psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioural therapists will help clients recognise that many of their beliefs and fantasies, and how stopping a certain thought can solve the problem.

Many of the thoughts we have concern the qualitative (attributes), quantitative (numbers) and connective factors of the things we interact with. For example, many things are red. You cannot create redness though, can you? You could produce red paint, or show me something red, however red only exists in your mind.

As you can see, the role of these thoughts is as a means to an end. The end is to buy Coca-cola, live more comfortably, or enjoy the knowledge that you own a red car. These ideas and norms only work because of social connections which tell us our ideas are in sync with the wider world, and thus, something more real is taking place.

This is the origin of connectivist theory, a new way to view learning, as a process which takes place across a network of people. It has come to light at this point in time, as we now live in a highly connected age, where we also have a lot of mediated-but-non-existant stuff to sift through. Connections are powerful, as they give us a new perspective on things like accountability and authority. Suddenly, large groups of people are able to communicate, unify, travel or effect change.

The 2011 riots which took place across England.

The 2011 riots which took place across England.

The rise of mediation and connection has improved access to education, living standards, democracy and freedom of speech. It has also made possible less desirable things, such as the London riots, and mass terror. I wish to dwell on this point for a moment, because I thing it really does put things in perspective. The London riots began with a small group of youths, discontented with a court decision relating to a member of their community shot by the police. As violence erupted, it was exacerbated as it was shared across twitter. There was no specific factor that unified all who rioted, other than their access to social media.

I’ve often thought that if the connected world has the power to do what it did in England in 2011, it should have the power to do enormous levels of good too. It is connectivism that has given much positive publicity to Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing. (I mean, you don’t think it came from the establishment do you?) The massive quantity of ALS ice bucket videos is another example of the power of networked activity.

There’s a lot of power here, which can be employed in problem solving or divergent creativity. The power of connectivism is decentralised, and virtually impossible to take away, And I don’t think that is a bad thing, because it empowers individuals. In fact, the only thing that could stop it, would be for the energy to run out.

The Division of Knowledge

I was re-reading the paper by George Siemens entitled: Connectivism: A Learning Theory For The Digital Age. While I was reading, something hit me.

Siemens talks about the way the abundance of information in today’s world is forcing us to do things differently. He explains how the continuity that existed for people in days gone by is all but gone. People living in previous generations may have trained for one career and remained engaged with that their life long. Now, however, we have an ever growing pot of knowledge which would be almost impossible for any one person to handle or evaluate.

A solution, which Siemens calls connectivism, stores knowledge across social networks instead. In connectivism, groups of people benefit from laterally stored knowledge, which is then evaluated almost phenomenologically by the collective intelligence of the group.

Now all this is very smart, but where does it fit in to the real world?

Well. Once upon a time, a couple of hundred years ago, there was a different revolution: the industrial revolution. We discovered that we were sitting on an abundance of fossil fuels. Through organisation and the division of labour, the production capacity of what had been until very recently a manual process, grew exponentially.

In the UK, productivity benefits from the division of labour have been commemorated on the £20 note.

In the UK, productivity benefits from the division of labour have been commemorated on the £20 note.


This is the information revolution. Our fossil fuel is computing power. As we use one another as a surrogate for knowledge (Stephenson, undated), our modern replacement for the division of labour is the division of knowledge. Just as our industrial ancestors created highly productive patterns out of the chaos, businesses and researchers alike can benefit holistically from team work and effective divisions.

When I hear talk of the knowledge economy, I am aware that this is not merely a transition to office jobs. Those who will thrive will be those who can sift through the meaningless noise and identify the applications that will yield a real benefit.