Learning to Teach Means Learning to Learn: Metacognition in Survival
(Before we even start, I know some dumb motherfucker is going to pipe in here, that he has a PhD in Educational Psychology, and I’ve not adequately described metacognition, or I’ve left out critical elements. Before that happens, I’m going to take the opportunity to point out, this article isn’t written for people with expertise in metacognition, and a legitimate expert in the subject would get that. So, if your only comments are, “John oversimplified it,” go kick your PhD committee in the fucking nuts for granting you the Piled Higher and Deeper degree, because you didn’t earn it.
I’m writing for a layman audience.)
The word cognition is defined as the mental processes of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. In plain English, cognition is how we learn.
Metacognition, with the prefix “meta-” meaning beyond, goes, well….beyond basic cognition. It is most commonly defined as “cognition about cognition,” or “learning about learning.” At practical level, metacognition can be defined as thinking about learning; it’s studying how we learn. It is used, most practically, to determine when and how to use particular strategies or techniques for learning or problem-solving techniques, and the control/selection of which particular technique will be most applicable, in a given situation.
Metacognition refers to a level of thinking that involves active control over the processes of thinking in order to make the learning process more efficient and effective. It can involve planning the way to approach learning a task, monitoring comprehension of the learning, and evaluation of the students’ progress towards completion of the learning process to the standards desired.
To practice metacognition effectively, there are three basic types of thinking that need to be practiced:
1) declarative knowledge is knowledge about oneself (or a student), as a learner, and about what factors can influence one’s performance.
2) procedural knowledge is the heuristics and procedural knowledge of how to perform the task that is being taught. Someone that doesn’t know how to perform a task, obviously cannot teach it correctly. They lack the procedural knowledge of what comprises the skill, to break it down and teach it.
Learning to See Clearly
On the other hand, a high degree of procedural knowledge can allow individuals to perform tasks automatically, without conscious thought. While that should be our goal, the ability to do so often precludes the ability to teach the skill well, due to the very heuristic nature of the practice that comes with expertise.
Having the metacognitive ability to break a process down, into simple, repeatable, teachable components, is necessary to teaching any skill or process. Further, to be most effective in teaching—especially complex skills—the teacher needs the metacognitive knowledge of a variety of strategies that can be accessed at varying levels of efficiency by different individuals. This is what educational psychologists refer to as “learning styles.” Some people are auditory learners, some are visual, and some can only learn something through applying it.
The problem with the educational psychology approach however, is that we’re humans. We’re not that simple to categorize. Each of us can learn—at varying levels of efficiency—across different learning modalities. Nevertheless, having the metacognitive ability to present the same information across different learning modalities—auditory, visual, and tactile (note that this word is NOT “tactical,” but “tactile,” referring to touch, or hands-on experience…).
3) conditional knowledge is an understanding of when and why to use the above two types of knowledge to allocate teaching/learning resources most efficiently.
So, what the fuck does this mean in the context of training, within our context?
Well, it actually means a metric fuck-ton.
In the declarative knowledge realm, we need to know what we do know, and what we do not know. This is often the hardest part for people to develop, since we all suffer from cognitive biases, like Dunning-Kruger. Admitting, “Hey, I don’t know shit about XYZ,” can be tough. Recognizing it in the first place can actually be significantly tougher.
The ability to recognize D-K and other cognitive biases that impact your level of declarative knowledge requires an understanding of the procedural knowledge of the subject. It also requires—at least at some level—an understanding of the history of that subject, in order to discover what has already been tried and failed.
“But…but…but….history is past! Aristotle is dead! Fuck a bunch of dead people!”
There’s a famous cliché, “those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.” The entire paragraph, taken from philosopher George Santayana’s The Life of Reason, Volume One: Reason in Common Sense, actually reads thus:
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute, there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Ignoring the obvious cultural bias that Mr. Santayana demonstrated by overlooking the oral tradition amongst “savages,” there’s a whole lot of wisdom in that paragraph. It’s important to look at the shortcomings of the current methods of doing anything. Tossing the baby out with the bathwater however, is sort of retarded though…unless, I suppose, you hate children. In that case though, you should just eat a fucking Glock.
We see this a lot amongst those in the preparedness movement who are too ignorant to recognize their own incompetence. “I don’t need to learn small-unit tactics, because I’m all about 4GW!” “I don’t need to learn how to shoot CQB, because I’m a ‘sniper!’” “I don’t need to do PT, because I’ve got a 1911A1!” “I don’t need to learn to work as part of a rifle squad, because I’m a ‘colonel’ in the militia!”
Declarative learning fact #1 for future tribal chiefs/warlords/leaders/”colonels”/etc….if you don’t know how to perform the tasks you will expect of your subordinates, your subordinates will tell you to go eat a bag of dicks, as soon as they realize it.
Declarative learning fact #2 for future tribal chiefs/warlords/leaders/”colonels”/etc…you’re not going to be able to “hide” your ignorance from your subordinates. Period. Even if you manage to hide out “in the rear with the gear,” your ignorance will shine through when you start developing plans that are outside the realm of reality, based on the training, experience, and equipment of your subordinates. It will shine through when your logistics efforts don’t take reality into account. “Oh, I’m just going to have them do a four-day forced march, covering 300 miles, on one MRE a day.” (Yes, it can be done. Even accounting for four hours of sleep per 24 hour period, at a 15-minutes per mile pace…which CAN be sustained…that still theoretically allows for 369 miles to be covered. It’s not going to be done by most people, and it’s certainly not going to be done by most people in the preparedness movement. Even those that CAN do it, are going to completely fucking wasted by the end of it, and probably useless for at least a week.)
You’ve GOT to know what you need to know and you’ve got to know, now, what you don’t know out of that body of knowledge. You’re not going to “fake it ’til you make it.” At a bare minimum, it’s reasonable to expect ANYONE in the preparedness community to have a practical grasp of the four fundamental pillars of individual tactical proficiency:
1) combat weaponscraft (marksmanship and gun-handling) with the most common rifles and pistols.
2) physical conditioning, at least to a level that they can excel on SOME form of physical conditioning assessment as a metric. I like the Operator Ugly Assessment from Rob Shaul, and the Upper Body Round Robin, reportedly being used by some elements within USASOC, and the Ranger Regiment’s RAW v4.0 assessments, but if you want to stick with the obsolete three-even APFT, at least it’s a metric.
3) Trauma Medicine at the TC3 Care-Under-Fire and Tactical Field Care Phases. If you’re training for bad shit to happen, it’s common sense that bad shit can happen. If you don’t know how to help yourself or someone else when it does, you’re as useful as missing two good people. A good TC3 instructor is going to completely shred the cognitive biases that result from Red Cross First-Aid training, because of the differences in paradigms. I’ve had nurses and paramedics with three decades of experience in trauma medicine take a TC3 class and respond with “How the fuck did we never think of this!? This method makes SO much more sense, from a trauma perspective!”
4) Small-Unit and Individual Tactical skills. If you don’t know how to perform as part of a small-unit light infantry element, there are some serious limitations on your ability to do fuck-all. You’re not going to be able to do shit against even two trained bad guys. You’re certainly not going to understand the planning and logistical requirements of a small-unit infantry element in the field, and you sure as shit aren’t going to be leading a bunch of meat-eaters that have been training to a proficient level. If they don’t shoot you themselves, or even just kick the dog piss out of you, they’re damned sure going to laugh you out of a job.
In the procedural knowledge realm, we need to know two things: a) what methods we’re going to use to achieve any given task, and b) the step-by-step…wait for it…procedures…to achieve those methods at a competent level. Whether we’re discussing shooting, PT, medicine, or SUT, you’ve got to know the step-by-step processes that are involved. If you don’t know the doctrinal methods, then you have “no direction” for “possible improvement” on the existing methods. You will remain in a state of “perpetual infancy.” It’s easy to say, “well, those method won’t work for me, because I’m not an eighteen year old infantry private!” It’s also intellectual laziness, because if you don’t know those methods, you don’t have a god-damned clue whether they’ll work for you or not (chances are, they’ll work better than whatever fucked up abortion you concocted on your own from watching Airsoft videos on YouTube).
Of course, absent training that breaks the skills down in a step-by-step fashion, you’re going to have to do so yourself. The ability to do so is a metacognitive process that cannot be achieved without practice and experience in both the technique itself, and the methods used to break down skills procedurally. Those methods will vary, based on the nature of the task. It requires different education to break down, say the biomechanics of a pistol draw and first shot break, than it does to break down the foundational principles of a break contact drill. Both require you to know a) the procedures involved, and b) the individual components of those procedures, but breaking down the biomechanics of the pistol draw requires an understanding of human physiology and anatomy, as well as the basic ways the brain works. Breaking down the break contact drill on the other hand, may also require those, but it certainly requires an understanding of how an armed contact between multiple personnel elements occurs. It may require understanding how a chance encounter occurs, how a hasty ambush occurs, and how a deliberate ambush occurs, among others. And, for the record…no, simply reading FM 7-8 and SH 21-76 do not constitute the requisite procedural knowledge. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you a load of bullshit. If you’re buying that, my neighbor that raises cows said he’d sell you a pick-up truck load for $50.
Finally, conditional knowledge requires you to understand when—and why—to use the preceding knowledge to most efficiently learn or teach the necessary skills. It also requires understanding the CONTEXT of when/where the knowledge will be used. A break contact drill is a break contact drill, and the foundational principles behind it remain the same, regardless of environmental context. Teaching it at a practical level however, means having the conditional knowledge to recognize the differences in application of those principles, to an urban versus a rural environment, and to mounted versus dismounted troops. Guess what, a break contact drill for troops mounted in armored vehicles is NOT executed the same as a break contact drill for troops mounted in soft-skinned vehicles. Someone teaching them the same way either a) lacks the conditional knowledge (most notably experience), or b) is feeding you a line of shit.
Conditional knowledge also requires you to understand the different learning modalities, and take them into account during the teaching and learning process. In the military training context, this is most simply accounted for doctrinally. This involves using a multi-pronged approach to teaching a skill. We demonstrate the skill, then we explain the skill—ideally with a step-by-step explanation of the procedures. We then allow the students to practice the skill “by-the-numbers,” before we have them perform a skill completely. By doing so, we’ve accounted for visual learning focus, auditory learning focus, and tactile learning focus, as well as those people (like myself) who learn most efficiently with a blend of the different learning modalities (for example, I can pick up pretty much any physical skill simply by watching it executed properly a few times—the more complex, the more times I need to watch it, obviously—and then experiencing it through trial. Listening to someone explain it doesn’t do fuck-all for me, really. I’m a visual learner, with a strong tactile bias. Another example of this, from my perspective, is the ability to read—a vision-centric learning mode—a well-written description of a skill, and then trial-and-error it to a passing degree of proficiency. This of course, requires having someone look at my results later and point out any errors that occurred in my translation, as a result of cognitive bias)
Beyond the three types of knowledge required for metacognition, there are also—conveniently—three aspects to regulating cognitive learning. Those are planning, monitoring, and evaluating. You have to have the requisite declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge to plan training. That means, you need to know enough about the subject to plan training that will pass on the appropriate, critical information, in the most efficient method possible. You also however, need to understand enough about the teaching and learning process to pass on the information usefully.
One of my mentors once pointed out to me, that the mark of a great teacher wasn’t the ability to perform a skill flawlessly. On the contrary, the ability to break it down to the core components, and the willingness to open yourself up to learning how to teach, was far more important. Further, he pointed out, doing so would actually take you past the skill level of the guy who seemed to master it effortlessly.
It’s a truism that “the best way to learn something is to teach it.” That is a direct result of the metacognitive processes required to break down the procedural knowledge of the skill, and the ability to understand how to plan learning.
In order to determine if you’re actually teaching—or learning—anything, you need a method of monitoring the teaching and learning process. This can range from practical exams to written or oral exams of the knowledge. “Do you understand what I’ve just told you? Can you repeat it, in your own terms, back to me?” “Can you demonstrate that you understand the fundamentals of marksmanship, by like, actually hitting that target at 500 meters?”
Finally, we need a method of evaluating our teaching/learning. This is why we have motherfucking standards. The teacher that doesn’t offer you a standard of performance—whether that’s a hard standard, like “you need to be able to do XXX,” or a soft standard like “did you improve XXX from last time to this time?” is not a teacher at all. He’s a charlatan; a snake oil salesman.
An important sub-component of metacognition is metastrategic knowledge, or MSK. MSK is general knowledge about higher order thinking strategies, and involves understanding the things that impact our ability to recognize validity in cognition. Some aspects of MSK that have a widespread impact on preparedness include:
1) false knowledge. MSK requires us to understand that a belief about any subject is only one of many possible beliefs about that subject. It further requires us to understand that not all of those beliefs will be correct, and as such, yours might be the incorrect one.
2) Appearance/Reality distinctions. Our cognitive biases strongly influence what we perceive. We’ve all heard the idea that no two witnesses will see the same occurrence the same way. This is a real-world example of appearance/reality distinctions. What you perceive as true or correct is predicated on experience and education. While a combat veteran will have obvious cognitive biases about what works and what doesn’t in a gunfight, this doesn’t preclude the non-veteran from suffering the same problems. The difference is that the veteran’s biases will at least be based on the experience of reality, while the non-veteran’s biases are filtered through not only his OWN biases, but also the biases of whatever exposed him to beliefs about gunfighting, whether stories he heard, or read, or fantasies he watched on television or in movies.
The issue that arises, from a MSK perspective, about appearance/reality distinctions, is the inability too many people have in separating their perspective of an event from the event itself. This requires a level of intellectual rigor that most of us are never taught. This is another reason why collaborative processes in developing training are so critical.
3) Visual Perspective is closely tied to the appearance/reality distinction. It requires understanding that how we’re seeing things is not the definition of truth, regardless of how it appears. This is only slightly different from the appearance/reality distinction, in that it pertains specifically to what we see, versus what we believe, based on not only what we see, but also how our beliefs interpret what we see.
So, what does all this metacognition bullshit have to do with Mountain Guerrilla, preparedness, and you, specifically? A couple things. On the one hand, it means you need to continue looking objectively at your preparedness and the conclusions behind your decisions in regards to the preparedness decisions you make.
Most of what we “know” in preparedness culture, from food storage “rules” to live by, to what kinds of firearms are “ideal,” to where we should live, are filtered through the teachings of somewhere between a half-dozen and a dozen “experts.” The problem is, those preparedness experts all go back to the same one or two people as authorities. Until we can objectively look at that…and question the validity of those one or two people’s beliefs on the subject—based on a study of history, rather than our own cognitive biases.
History may not be a perfect vessel for determining validity, but it’s hell for more valid than theory made up out of thin air and wishful thinking, which is the only other vessel available to us. I’ll take an objective study of what history illustrates to us over some dude creating a fantasy in his own mind any day of the week, and twice on Sundays.
Finally, the focus on metacogntion should incorporate this, and means focusing on learning/teaching the highest percentage skill sets needed for survival in a collapsing social structure. That means focusing on individual survival skills to a quantifiable level of skill, then focusing on collective tasks at an elementary level, also to a quantifiable level of skill—which will help maintain the individual skills—before moving on to the development of the more ephemeral skill sets that are predicated on a practical knowledge of the elementary tasks and skills.