Metacognition refers to “thinking about thinking” and was introduced as a concept in by John Flavell, who is typically seen as a founding scholar of the field. Flavell said that metacognition is the knowledge you have of your own cognitive processes (your thinking).Flavell (1979). It is your ability to control your thinking processes through various strategies, such as organizing, monitoring, and adapting. Additionally, it is your ability to reflect upon the tasks or processes you undertake and to select and utilize the appropriate strategies necessary in your intercultural interactions.
Metacognition is considered a critical component of successful learning. It involves self-regulation and self-reflection of strengths, weaknesses, and the types of strategies you create. It is a necessary foundation in culturally intelligent leadership because it underlines how you think through a problem or situation and the strategies you create to address the situation or problem.
Many people become accustomed to having trainers and consultants provide them with knowledge about cultures to the point where they are dependent on the coach, mentor, trainer, or consultant. However, they need to learn to be experts in cultural situations themselves through metacognitive strategies such as adapting, monitoring, self-regulation, and self-reflection. Culturally intelligent leaders can use metacognition to help themselves and to train themselves to think through their thinking.
Metacognition is broken down into three components: metacognitive knowledge, metacognitive experience, and metacognitive strategies. Each of these is discussed in the following sections.
Metacognitive knowledge involves (a) learning processes and your beliefs about how you learn and how you think others learn, (b) the task of learning and how you process information, and (c) the strategies you develop and when you will use them. Let us say you have to learn a new language in 6 months. Here is how you would think about it, using metacognitive knowledge:
- Learning Process: I am good at learning new languages and I think I can do this in the time period I have been given.
- Task of Learning: To complete this task, I will need to think about the following:
- How soon can I get information to start learning the language?
- How long will it take me to learn the language?
- What information is available to me to learn this new language?
- Is this language similar to a language I have learned before?
- Will I be able to learn the language in time?
- How hard will it be for me to learn this language?
- What do I need to do to learn the language?
- The Strategies: I think learning this new language is going to take me 12 months, but I only have 6 months to prepare. I better find other ways to me meet this goal. I think I will find out if there is an accelerated language class that I can take. Maybe I should consider hiring a private tutor, or maybe I will just focus on learning the basics of the language.
Arnold Bennett, a British writer, said that one cannot have knowledge without having emotions.Bennett (1933). In metacognition, there are feelings and emotions present that are related to the goals and tasks of learning. These components of metacognition speaks to metacognitive experience, which is your internal response to learning. Your feelings and emotions serve as a feedback system to help you understand your progress and expectations, and your comprehension and connection of new information to the old, among other things.
When you learn a new language, for example, you may recall memories, information, and earlier experiences in your life to help you solve the task of learning a new language. In doing this, your internal responses (metacognitive experience) could be frustration, disappointment, happiness, or satisfaction. Each of these internal responses can affect the task of learning a new language and determine your willingness to continue. Critical to metacognition is the ability to deliberately foster a positive attitude and positive feelings toward your learning.
Metacognitive strategies are what you design to monitor your progress related to your learning and the tasks at hand. It is a mechanism for controlling your thinking activities and to ensure you are meeting your goals. Metacognitive strategies for learning a new language can include the following:
- monitoring whether you understand the language lessons;
- recognizing when you fail to comprehend information communicated to you in the new language;
- identifying strategies that help you to improve your comprehension;
- adjusting your pace for learning the information (for example, studying for 2 hours, rather than 1 hour, every day);
- maintaining the attitude necessary to ensure you complete the lessons in a timely manner;
- creating a check-in system at the end of each week to make certain you understand what you have learned.
As one business manager of a Fortune 300 company told me,
Understanding cultural strategic thinking is like this: When I work with people of different cultures, this is a framework and approach to help me understand how I think when I work with them. It helps me to recognize the cultural experiences I’ve had, and to identify preconceived notions I might have about their culture, whether it’s race/ethnicity, social culture, age group—you name it. Cultural strategic thinking forces me to create experiences and new learning that helps me to accomplish my objectives as a global manager.G. Menefee (personal communication, May 12, 2010).
Individuals like this leader are good at applying strategies that focus their attention on the goal at hand. They search for, and derive meaning from, cultural interactions and situations, and they adapt themselves to the situation when things do not pan out as they expected. Culturally intelligent leaders also monitor and direct their own learning processes. They have established a high motivation for learning the metacognitive process, either because they know it is a benefit or because others tell them it is beneficial to them.
Knowledge of factual information and basic skills provides a foundation for developing metacognition. Metacognition enables leaders to master information and solve problems more easily. When a leader has mastered the basic skills needed for intercultural interactions, they can actively engage in the interaction because they do not have to pay attention to the other dynamics and demands of the situation. Culturally intelligent leaders are able to practice metacognition, and they are not afraid to use it in their everyday life.
For those who lack basic intercultural skills, it is more difficult for them to engage in the interaction. They are more occupied with finding the “right information,” the “right skills,” and the “right facts” needed to solve the problem. In such situations, these types of leaders spend little time developing their metacognitive skills, and the result is likely an inefficient solution to a problem. Developing a laundry list or checklist of do’s and don’ts will not assist leaders in improving their cultural intelligence.