Metacognition in the Bronze Age

Building an awareness of personal strengths and challenges can be tough for students. Most students, and adults too, resist analyzing their efforts, especially if they know they have a weakness in a given area. When students know that they perform poorly in math, from their perspective, they want to spend as little time as possible talking about math. What’s more, it’s easy to fall into rigid patterns. If a student has been successful using one strategy, he or she may not want to explore other approaches. Helping students develop an understanding of their personal strengths and weakeness is essential to fostering a growth mindset.

In SMARTS, we like to use a model to introduce students to the idea of exploring strengths and challenges. Before students analyze themselves, they take a shot at identifying the strengths and challenges faced by a celebrity. In the past, we’ve analyzed real-life celebrities, like Tom Brady or Taylor Swift, as well as fictional personalities, like Indiana Jones, Cookie Monster, Spider Man, or Mary Poppins. By starting out with a celebrity, students come to see that anyone, including themselves, is made up of both strengths and weaknesses. This insight helps them feel more comfortable exploring their own personal areas of strength and challenge.

But don’t stop there! Identifying strengths and challenges is a useful lens that can easily be adapted as an instructional tool. I have seen history and English teachers use this approach to explore important personalities in a book or from an important moment of history.

I had one math student who was very rigid and whose parents were worried about the inordinate amount of time he spent studying. Each week, we would analyze the strengths and weaknesses of a famous mathematician. We noticed a pattern — many mathematicians were workaholics, and many had health problems as a result (Euler went blind for example). Our analysis showed us that even something that you might regard as a strength, such as being able to work hard, can be a weakness when taken to an extreme.

Another student had to write a paper on Agamemnon from the Iliad. He felt overwhelmed by the task, so we created a list of Agamemnon’s strengths and weaknesses and looked for interesting patterns. We decided that many of his strengths (being a good leader, understanding military strategy, and being brave) as well as his weaknesses (not listening to others, bossing people around, and not understanding the sacrifices others make) came from the same source, his pride.

By analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of characters that your students encounter in their classes, you will be helping them to develop an understanding that everyone, from famous mathematicians to epic Bronze Age generals, has things they are good at and things that are hard. This knowledge will help your students be more willing to develop their own self-understanding and to use this knowledge to tackle academic and life challenges.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director