PIDP ~ Reflections on Meta-cognition & Questioning

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.”
~ Walt Whitman

Well, this has resulted a really eclectic blog…those of you here looking for some Permaculture topics may need to click around to find what you are looking for…for a few weeks (maybe a bit more) my “Permaculture” blog will be also splashed here and there with posts about my PIDP journey…as my goal is to eventually teach full PDCs (Permaculture Design Certificates), the PIDP (Provincial Instructor Diploma Program) is an important ingredient for that to happen…after all, teaching and learning have always been my deepest passions…

The reason these posts are here and not in a blog by themselves is because I see this journey as parallel to what I do with Permaculture: supporting awareness and resilience in diverse communities.

This week I would like to post about two strategies for teaching/learning we explored through the book we are reading, the forum and personal research and reflection:


Questioning is a teaching strategy where questions are used to encourage learning. Questioning is an ancient technique, used for more than 2,000 years since Socrates “invented” it.

According to Karron Lewis (no year) “the ability to ask and answer questions is central to learning”, however, for many decades, teachers have been using questioning to assess whether learners have “learned” what they were taught in lessons, and to check if they had been paying attention…rarely questioning was used to guide learning and foster further exploration (education, for most part, still teaches “answers” and only questions during exams…)

Lewis emphasizes how questioning can be used as a learning tool: a way to organize our thinking and achieve objectives. She also provides a series of tips to ensure questions are effective.

Lewis pairs questions levels to Bloom’s taxonomy from the cognitive domain, where questions can be organized from the lowest levels (i.e. questions about knowledge and comprehension) to the highest levels (analysis, synthesis and evaluation) including mid levels such as application.

If we apply this to teaching Permaculture, examples of the above levels of questions may be:

Knowledge: “What are the three Permaculture ethics?” or “Name one of Holmgren’s Permaculture principles”

Comprehension: “What is Permaculture, in your own words?” or “could you explain the principle ‘use the edges and value the marginal’?”

Application: a question at this level may be: “how can you apply ‘People-care’ to your everyday work?” or “could you provide an example (beyond the duck/slug one) of the principle ‘the problem is the solution’?”

Analysis: here the questions may be compound or a series of questions: “given this land, list of present elements and resources, what are the areas of priority and what factors would you consider?”

Synthesis: “given this situation and this person/community needs and assets, what design features may you suggest to them?”

Evaluation: “In what aspects these proposals reflect the ethics, principles and strategies of Permaculture?” “How does this model, design or approach reflect Permaculture thinking?”

Lewis also suggests making a video or recording of our presentations and classes to assess the level and types of questions we are currently asking, jotting down the questions and analyzing each to see how can we improve them (see Lewis link for a table with examples)

At the forums, we also explored “bad” questions such as “does anybody has any questions?” (what is the actual purpose of this question?) or when we ask questions and answer them ourselves…or don’t wait enough time to allow students to collect their thoughts…

Through a parallel PIDP course I am taking (PIDP 3260) we also read about a case where the teacher realized that his questions were not having the reception he had anticipated…and realized that many students may be scared to intervene and lose face in front of their peers: the best way to avoid this is to set the tone and create trust from the beginning, sharing how questions can help us learn, modeling our own questioning and thinking so students can follow and clarifying that no question is stupid or simple or inappropriate….

Once you have learned how to ask relevant and appropriate questions, you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.” ~ Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (Teaching as a subversive activity)

What kind of questions can we ask so we raise awareness beyond the “head”? how can we get to the heart so change actually happens? What kind of questions would guide a person or a community to action, so knowledge truly becomes power?


Meta-cognition is the ability to think about how our thinking and learning happens and utilize this awareness and ability to improve or change our learning.

Teachers can create this awareness and encourage meta-cognition through the use of questions and modelling their own thinking and learning process in front of the students.

Some of the techniques to do this are:

  • Ask students what they already know about the topic and how that knowledge or experience can guide them with the new learning
  • Allow and encourage students to identify confusions
  • Promote reflection and retrospective post assessments through journals, discussions and questions: “how did your thinking change before and after today’s class on systems?” “what did you know and believe about renewable resources before this class and how (if any) have any of those change?”

According to Marsha Lovett (2008) we have to:

  • Check our assumptions
  • Know our weaknesses and
  • Know when to adapt

Julie Halter states that meta-cognition encompasses three stages: awareness, planning and monitoring and reflection.

Meta-cognition is, as we can see, not only knowing ourselves better (how do we think, what are our triggers, how do we learn) but also learning specific strategies and skills so our thinking and learning can be improved…it is called “thinking skills” and also “critical thinking”.

When I think about meta-cognition and its parallels with Permaculture-thinking I see how the concept of “mindfulness” is embedded in it: being fully present in the now, embracing both assets and needs, weaknesses and strengths…it also includes the different steps of the Permaculture design process:

  • observing & interacting
  • visioning/planning
  • designing
  • implementing
  • reassessing and back to step “one”

Learning is a lifelong process that ends only when we die…however for many, learning stops after graduating from university or even earlier…even for most, learning stops after the exam or the assign has been handed…

Children start in the world asking: “why is the sky blue?” “why is there an ‘I’ and a ‘you’?” “do trees have moms?” and so on…children also like to reflect out loud about their process of thinking and most are born with innate mechanisms that guide them multiple approaches to learn new things: they naturally repeat or ask things to be repeated and modelled to them so they can copy…

We segregate children and send them to square buildings with others their ages where their questions are ignored and their loud thoughts silenced in the name of respect and…”learning”: we teach them that there are right answers and only authority has them; we teach them that it is more important to cite “authors” using APA or MLA than to produce original and thoughtful essays; we teach them that 2+2 is always four and that human ingenuity and technology have no limits even when they can see that we are all connected and interdependent, than in systems 2+2 may be 5 or 6 or 10 and that there are real limits and dependency we have to respect; we teach them that people make themselves with effort and motivation, so if they fail to “succeed” according to society standards they think they are dumb and inappropriate…we teach them with no questions and we silence their thoughts…

We owe them and their future the freedom to search and explore for solutions and answers…to the problems we have created.


Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land
~ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass


Halter, Julie: Metacognition

Lovett, Marsha: Teaching Metacognition:

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