Beautiful Thinking and Thinking Moves: A Metacognition Approach to Teaching and Learning

Dulcinea Norton-Morris

"There are many ways to use metacognition approaches, and all of them fit well with Development Matters, Birth to Five Matters, and particularly the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning that children and practitioners are doing every day. The approach I take is called the Thinking Moves approach."

Dulcinea Norton-Morris

Birth to Five – Brainy Beginnings

Brain development between birth and age five is immense. There is no other period in life where our brains develop so much or so rapidly as they do in those first few years. Even a PhD student does not make as many intellectual leaps and bounds during their studies as a young child does as they just learn to be a human.

From the second we are born we begin to learn. Our brain begins to create physical, and metaphorical, connections and doesn’t stop. By the time a child reaches age three, their  brains, thoughts, knowledge and curiosity, are a whole world away from where they were just 36 months earlier. Can any of you truly say that in the last 36 months you have learnt as much or as rapidly as those children did from birth to three? I certainly can’t.

The years between birth and age five are a monumental, stage of our lives. That is why I never underestimate what a child is capable of in those first five years and why metacognition is not the exclusive property of academics, but an amazing tool for making the most of those amazing first five years. But what is ‘metacognition’?

Metacognition – It’s Easier Than You Think

When people use the word ‘metacognition’ it can seem like a tricky concept to understand. It is a very scientific sort of a word and is now becoming quite ‘trendy’. As a bit of a rebel I have always tried to stay away from anything that is currently trending. Metacognition though, well it is the gift that keeps on giving. Metacognition simply means, to think about thinking.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) found metacognition to be a low cost and high impact approach to supporting progress. They also linked it to self-regulation, an area which is ever present in early years frameworks. In their findings about metacognition the EEF stated;

“Metacognition and self-regulation approaches have consistently high levels of impact, with pupils making an average of seven months’ additional progress.”

There are many ways to use metacognition approaches, and all of them fit well with Development Matters, Birth to Five Matters, and particularly the Characteristics of Effective Teaching and Learning that children and practitioners are doing every day. The approach I take is called the Thinking Moves approach.

Thinking Moves A-Z – An Instinctive Approach to Metacognition

Thinking Moves A-Z was ten years in the making and was created by Roger Sutcliffe, one of the founders, and past president, of the Philosophy for Children organisation, SAPERE. It is a list of metacognition skills with one skill for each letter of the alphabet. Every single thought you have ever had will fit into one of these 26 Thinking Moves.

To give you an idea of what the moves look like I will go through the first 2 moves;

  • AHEAD: Thinking ahead means thinking of anything in the future.

Five and four year olds think ahead to Christmas, their birthday, their holiday. Three year olds think ahead to home time or what they will do this weekend. Two year olds think ahead to what to do with the toys they are presented with as they explore. One year olds see you getting a specific item out (a pram, spoon and dish, nappy bag) and think ahead to what that means. A baby just a few weeks old thinks ahead to being hungry and cries in order to get milk.

  • BACK: Thinking back means remembering. Thinking of things that happened in the immediate or distant past. It is through thinking back and thinking ahead that we build our knowledge of the world and build our ability to predict what might happen based on learnt experiences.

Five and four year olds think back to what they have learnt about forming letter and use this to write. Three year olds think back to what happened last time they smacked someone and so know what might happen if they do it again. Two year olds who have now got object permanence think back to where they put an item that they want to find again. One year olds think back to begin to learn activities that they do and don’t enjoy. Babies think back as they start to remember faces and voices of the people they know.

See how instinctive it is? Just in the first two metacognition skills of the alphabet, we see how even babies start to build metacognition skills. If practitioners work with a metacognition pedagogy, then as children get older they will begin to explore their own thinking. What a truly wonderful gift that would be for any child or adult – to realise and use the power of their own thoughts to be in active control of their own potential.

Guided Reflection

In the following video we will see Esme playing in a gardening tray. In the first two minutes of this video clip you will see examples of thinking;


  • Look for Esme deciding where she wants to go and walked there
  • Look for Esme knowing she wants to empty the pot so she tipping it up


  • Esme knew from past experience that she needed extra support to stand so quickly grabs and leans onto the tray.
  • Esme knows from past experience that if she vocalised then this would elicit a response from her practitioner. Look out for these examples
  • When Esme’s practitioner covers the empty space Esme creates in the soil, Esme remembers that there was previously a space in the soil that she had made and recreates it
  • Throughout the video Esme remembered she was playing in the soil and kept going back to it. She also remembered she was in the middle of a conversation about the lights and went back to that.

Your turn:

  • did you spot any more examples of these two moves in the rest of the video?

Thinking Moves Consolidation

From what you have learnt about the Thinking Moves AHEAD and BACK you have probably realised that children use these metacognition skills all the time. Watch the following video clip, which shows many examples of thinking AHEAD and BACK, then reflect and respond.


After watching the short video think about what you saw;

  • What examples did you see of Niaz thinking AHEAD?
  • What examples did you see of Niaz thinking BACK?
  • As you watched the video how did you think AHEAD and BACK?


What would you do to;

  • Promote and support the skill of thinking AHEAD?
  • Use sustained shared thinking and questioning with genuine interest to encourage Niaz to think BACK?
  • Explain the Thinking Moves of AHEAD and BACK to fellow practitioners?

What next;

  • The next three Thinking Moves are CONNECT, DIVIDE and EXPLAIN. Think about what these moves might mean in the context of the video clip of Niaz.

Look through the early years framework being used in your setting and pick out the statements which rely on thinking AHEAD or BACK.

Exploring Thinking Moves Further

You can find out more about Thinking Moves A-Z at DialogueWorks, including the Thinking Moves book. For Early Years specific guidance you could buy the book Beautiful Thinking by Dulcinea Norton-Morris. To begin using Thinking Moves right now, explore the HomeTalk resources on the DialogueWorks website.

Article written by Dulcinea Norton-Morris


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