Discussing Metacognition and Executive Control
by Chase Young

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Discussion based on Metacognition and Executive Control (Garner, 1987)

I was reading through the Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading and found a nice little gem (I cannot stand that phrase, but I included it to infuriate by brother). In my cognition class we discussed executive control and its connection to the reading brain. At the time, I could not even comment. I listened, and tried to learn. I left discouraged. I come to you today still not knowing. However, I have a few insights I would like to share. Some of this is quite pressing. I think I will begin by discussing metacognition, a topic I have worked with before.

Metacognition is knowing about knowing. It is being aware of your cognitive processes. Generally, metacognition is how well we know ourselves and the strategies we use when faced with particular tasks. In the reading field, we mostly connect metacognition with understanding when meaning breaks down. If we encounter a difficult section of reading, we realize it, and react. We are reflexive when reading. We might decide to sit back and think, or reread to clarify meaning. There are a variety of strategies that we might employ to help us through the difficulty. Sometimes it’s as simple as making a mental image, or connecting the new learning with our prior knowledge.

Executive control is our brain’s ability to orchestrate processes. Essentially, it is how the brain directs processes to function collectively. It selects strategies to employ at different steps in the whole process. It turns some on, some off, and integrates them in a functional manner. While we possess many separate strategies and functions, the executive control center in the brain has the ability to connect them for higher level tasks. Automatic tasks require less control, while executive control is essential in orchestrating novel tasks.

Now, let’s make the connection between reading comprehension and executive control, subsequently discussing the relationship to metacognition. As reading is a complex process, we are not surprised that executive control plays an instrumental part. Executive control is responsible for employing necessary strategies to overcome difficulties in reading comprehension. Executive control research focuses on readers that do not orchestrate their strategies effectively while reading. However, metacognitive research focuses on the lack of knowledge about their difficulties. In other words, some readers are unaware they do not understand, therefore executive functions are not utilized.

The final statement of the last paragraph is my opinion. It is only based on my limited understanding of this connection between two complex topics. Let me see if my last claim might have something to it. A proficient reader is aware when comprehension breaks down. Once the reader is aware, they use fix-up strategies to repair comprehension. Upon completion, they move on. A poor reader is sometimes unaware they are not comprehending; therefore, they skip to the last step and move on. Two steps are missing: 1) awareness of comprehension breakdown 2) the fix up strategies. The first step is directly tied to metacognition, the second to executive control. I can see this one of two ways. The first is the clear conception just presented—two steps are lacking. However, what if executive control is always responsible for metacognition? Then, perhaps the only deficiency in the reader is executive control. In this case, only one goal would remain: increase executive control. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to do that. In fact, at this point in time, I am unaware of interventions that increase executive control.

Let’s think about how control could be increased based on existing models that make thinking transparent. Perhaps extensive think alouds would make successful executive control functions evident to learners. Then again, I recall lack of executive control evident at birth, with no successful means for repair. Still, it might be interesting to investigate emulating executive control in learners to compensate for the lacking function. 
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