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?

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.

SAFMEDS Cards and Metacognition

During the last year of my education, I have spent some time, and had some discussions around the topic of metacognition. For the last few years, my supervisor, Jesse Martin, has been overseeing research to measure to what extent metacognition can be taught to an individual.

To answer the question of what metacognition actually is, I will explain. Cognition means thinking, while ‘meta’ means it concerns itself. metacognition may be defined as awareness of your knowledge and thought processes. One who has a high metacognitive awareness should be able to work more effectively due to a more accurate perspective of their own levels of knowledge and also their own abilities to deal with certain challenges [1].

The work which has been done at Bangor is centred on a confidence based quiz. Participants first answer the question, and then they answer whether they were sure or guessing. In doing so, participants appear to be learning to discriminate over their own knowledge. After taking these quizzes for a number of weeks, participant metacognitive index (a number based on A’ calculations) was seen to rise.

I would like to talk about one of the applications of this theory, both in terms of research and how I used it to support my own exam preparation. One of the students at Bangor linked metacognition with a school of thought known as precision teaching

I actually accrued quite a lot of cards!

I actually accrued quite a lot of cards!

. This is an approach to education, largely rooted in behaviourism. It is the idea of using quick fire techniques to improve fluency of recall within the rote learned components of education. The particular application which I shall now discuss concerns SAFMEDS cards. SAFMEDS (Say All Fast [for a] Minute Every Day Shuffled) cards involve taking brief snippets of content, and quickly cycling through them, and testing oneself for being able to correctly recall an answer on the reverse of the card.

One key aspect concerning the use of SAFMEDs is that the user needs to discriminate quickly what they know and what they don’t know, so they can have as many opportunities inside of one minute as possible to recall correct answers. It was the hypothesis of this study, that using SAFMEDs would also build metacognitive awareness [2]. Indeed this hypothesis was supported, with the previously mentioned A’ scores significantly rising for SAFMEDS users, compared with the group. It has been argued, therefore, that the use of SAFMEDS cards are an effective means of fostering self-monitoring and instilling metacognitive activity.

I used SAFMEDS myself this year to help me prepare for my final exams. Like clockwork, they worked exactly as expected. I found myself quickly able to memorise key terms, and it was motivating to be able to chart my progress. They also helped me keep the breadth of topics I needed to learn within my awareness, so that I could manage my time and select the right areas to study more deeply.

It is a shame that I can’t end this by sharing what it did to my own metacognitive awareness. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a baseline or a post-intervention test. However we have been working on something which we will be unveiling soon, with which you can train and measure your own metacognitive awareness.

[1] – See Cognaware: Supporting Evidence

[2] – Francis, K. (2013). [Effect of Monitoring on Metacognitive Performance Using SAFMEDS Intervention]. Unpublished Raw Data.

This is Real Learning!

Over the last few weeks I’ve observed a few examples of teaching which I was really impressed by. I wanted to share them to amplify their examples.

Me at Work. Photo Credit: Class 3 of St. Mary's, Horsforth.

Me at Work. Photo Credit: Class 3 of St. Mary’s, Horsforth.

The first one I saw while at work a few weeks back. Since finishing my undergraduate degree in June, I have been working behind the delicatessen counter of a local supermarket. A local man (a web developer by trade) came through the store with a group of young primary school students, all armed with cameras. He told me they were doing a project about the different people who work or shop on ‘Town Street’. They asked me if they could take a picture of me doing my job.

It turned out that they were making a website. Having been inspired by the work of Vivian Maier, (a Chicago street photographer whose portfolio was not discovered until after her death) they wanted to create a street portfolio of Horsforth.

This is a great learning opportunity. It is a chance for students to gain an appreciation for history, and walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before them. It is also an opportunity to have a go at disseminating digital photography via the web – the modern application of what we draw from the history books. It benefits from intrinsic motivation and empowers students to create, not duplicate.

Source: North Leeds Life

Source: North Leeds Life

The second one I read about today in a local magazine. Year 8 students (aged 12-13 years) were asked to bring their phones to school, which they used to measure the mobile phone reception around the school site. They used computers then to map out their findings and consider reasons that may have accounted for the differences they found.

This is a great way to apply classroom teaching to the real world. It answers the question students so often ask: ‘why are we learning this’? Instead of learning a lot of stuff (the what), or how something works, these students become empowered to find out why things are as they are. They have autonomy and purpose, and a sense of real world problem solving.

I am impressed with both of these examples, because they both create meaningful stimulating activities which motivate the students. One way brings history alive, and it presents students with a lot more than just a pile of information. The other empowers the students in a problem solving role, and links mathematical/scientific concepts to the real world. This is the type of learning that will remain planted in their memories. It is the type of learning that will motivate them to study, and take charge of their lives. This, is real learning.

The PKM Masters Degree

I discovered this morning that Harold Jarche had written about how at Bangor University we had been teaching the Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) framework to students. As a ‘Psychology Information Technology Skills’ (PITS) tutor, I have played an important role in teaching PKM, and wanted to share a bit more about my experiences throughout the year.

We actually faced a few challenges in helping the students warm to PKM. It seemed that many could not see the reason why they had to do PKM, and also that many struggled to catch the vision of how to do it. A lot of students had expected higher education to involve memorising information to pass exams, as they had previously done in school. PKM did not have that same type of measurable outcome and many students would ask me what exactly it was they needed to do to pass the class.

However, a few did grasp it well. One student informed me that she kept a fashion blog, through which she had established a network with several clothing labels, who would send her free products to review. Other students ventured to find my twitter account, or to join Pinterest and Scoopit. Students who had used Pinterest previously were also quicker to grasp of PKM, perhaps because the way Pinterest users collect and curate content is similar to PKM’s seek, sense and share framework.

Perhaps PKM is the difference between higher education and that of the typical high school. That it was challenging to foster may be akin to the old adage that ‘you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’. Indeed it is personal, because you do it for yourself. Nobody else is there to grade or assess you. If people don’t want to do it, that’s fine! However they may loose out as the knowledge economies adapt to future needs.

For research and knowledge based economies to work, they need to be more than just transferring information. It is the intrinsic passion and ingenuity that transforms information in to actions or solutions to problems. It comes from within, and that is why (beyond teaching the PKM framework) it can’t be forced. Some will do it and change the world, others won’t.

PKM as a Masters Degree

This takes me on to my second point: PKM as a masters degree. This last year, I took a class called ‘Science of Education’. It was an open ended, ‘autonomy supportive’ blogging module. We would go away, and do some research, and disseminate what we found through writing a weekly blog. Additionally, we would write five weekly comments on fellow classmates blogs, to academically critique their work. We would seek the information, sense what is being portrayed, and share our own ideas in relation to the content. With social media as the platform, each class member came away with their own blog: a portfolio of ideas and discussions, as well as links to original sources.

Bangor University have just agreed to expand the module into a masters degree, run as a MOOC (massive open online course). Students will be able to specialise their knowledge of the ‘scholarship of learning’ through blogging and participate in an online critical discussion. Participation is free and open, as will be the learning and knowledge management skills which are drawn from it. However, those who pay a course fee to the university may have their portfolio assessed and accredited. Students may then graduate from Bangor University with a post graduate certificate, diploma or a masters degree (the level of qualification depends on the number of modules completed).

I consider PKM to be a really exciting development in the way we handle learning and knowledge. It brings meaning and depth to the information we work with, and makes it both accessible and memorable. You might even say it turns information into knowledge. It doesn’t happen automatically, but with practise and involvement, I believe it can make a person very effective in their work. I am excited to see this program commence at Bangor University, as it is a brilliant development for both MOOC’s and knowledge based economy’s. This is a great step forwards for higher education practise and the scholarship of learning.

Respecting the Phenomenology

Photo Credit: Jason Eppink (CC BY 2.0)

Photo Credit: Jason Eppink (CC BY 2.0)

I have been thinking this week about a component of humanistic (person centred) psychotherapy known as ‘client phenomenology’. I would not consider myself any more challenged with the travails of this world than the next person, however I have been considering the different counselling approaches that I learned about during my degree in relation to improved wellbeing.
Phenomenology stems from the word ‘phenomenon’, which means to be manifest of itself. Phenomenology thus becomes the study of subjective experience, or experiences which manifest themselves, of themselves. When I studied it in class, I saw it as little more than an offshoot from the need to show unconditional positive regard. However, now that I consider it more intricately, I now perceive it to be quite a profound attribute relating to human wellbeing.

Let us be philosophical for a moment. Is there such thing as a right answer? Strictly speaking, nothing can be proven. The scientific method has verified certain relationships such that there is little need to dispute them, but even so, it is strictly a process of knocking out the alternate explanations. Then there are religious and ideological directions too. These are far more subjective. The choices of how one lives can come from a variety of situational cues and philosophies, as well as the scientific evidence. There is not a right answer concerning how to live.

People learn to supress certain feelings and thoughts. A child may supress the urge to cry, so as to attain respect from our peers. An adult may supress thoughts of an employer may taking advantage, in order to be viewed favourably for a job. This suppression inevitably leads to crisis, and draws us away from what Goldstein (1936) described as self-actualisation (Rogers, 1951).

Self-actualisation is the point in your being that you are at one with your ‘organismic self’ (Rogers, 1951). It really means being as close to your true self as you can get. Your organismic self is the origin of your phenomenology – the root of the things that manifest just because they do. Rogers described this this experience of self-actualisation as ‘the good life’ (Rogers, 1961).

I would say that the real meaning of respecting the phenomenology of oneself and others is not to punish that being for the challenges or questions they have. Whether they be mental or physical, they have occurred as a phenomenon, with a reason for which we know not why. There are those who believe that individual experiences and convictions ought to be swept aside to make way for the social norms society has come to accept. In fact, I would say that it is this belief that contributes to wilful blindness and the evil talked about by Zimbardo (think: Stanford Prison Experiment).

Whether on a large, social or political scale, or on a small and personal scale, it strikes me that not respecting the phenomenology (or conscience?) of any individual will ultimately lead to subdued happiness and wellbeing. This makes me wonder how much happier schools or businesses could be if we stopped subscribing to traditional schools of thought and began to re-empower the individual?

I know that it often makes me feel better to address, rather than repress. I regard it compelling that a major school of thought in psychology and psychotherapy also advocates this principle. It seems to me that this principle is perhaps more global than just being a neat trick to support the worried well. If personal self-exploration leads to improved wellbeing, should this not be allowed also within peoples’ occupations? Of course, pragmatically speaking, there is a big force opposing that, namely the hierarchical structures of today’s world. But the humanistic evidence implies to me that people were never intended to be ordered such.


Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory.
London, UK: Constable.

Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. London,
UK: Constable.

Goldstein, K. (1934). The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from
Pathological Data in Man. New York, US: Zone Books.