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Using Gaze Aversion to Improve Metacognition

By Kathleen Sciarappa, CEI Educational Consultant.

When a difficult question is posed, do you look left or right while thinking about your response? Do you look up or down as you consider your answer? When you avert your gaze does the listener realize you are thinking and give you more time for a response?

To explore the connection between thinking and your eye movement, pose questions to yourself or a partner and observe the motion of the eyes. Once you have established the direction of your own gaze when reviewing thoughts, consider whether or not you employ variations in eye direction while thinking.

Robert Dilts, a neuro-linguistic researcher, postulates what you are thinking about drives eye position (up, down, lateral) and direction (left, right). He points to seven positions the eyes assume depending on the nature of the information being constructed or recalled.  For example, ask a partner to mentally reconstruct a kinesthetic memory such as the last time he was extremely wet while fully clothed, or to recall how she feels when totally exhausted. Then, compare the eye movement with a question requiring visual memory such as who were the first five people he saw this morning or can she recall the pattern of her bedspread.

In theory, the eye movements will vary. In reality, realizing that eye movement, or gaze aversion, supports thinking, is a feature of metacognition. In fact, a learner can consciously use gaze aversion to promote critical thinking.

Gaze aversion, a tendency to look away from anyone who is nearby, is a technique used by adult learners when engaged in a complex task.  Gaze aversion is taught to very young children as a tool to foster metacognition in an instructional video featured on the Teaching Channel.

Thinking bubbles are posted near work stations and children are instructed to avert their gazes when taking the time to think about an answer. Scottish researcher Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon has discovered that children who avert their gazes are in a transitional phase of learning and are making progress. In contrast, children who do not avert their gazes do not make progress in their learning and, in fact, may be regressing. Parents and teachers are encouraged to watch for gaze aversion as a cue that deeper understandings are being formulated. If children do not look away on their own, they can be coached to do so.

In the Teaching Channel video above, five-year-old children are asked to not look at the teacher, but rather to look to one side when solving math problems. Each child determines the preferred side of his or her thinking and is then encouraged to move both eyes to that side when additional time to think is needed. This technique serves as a cue to both the teacher and child that thinking is occurring, in addition to providing a proven way to boost concentration.

Some children use gaze aversion naturally and others need to be taught to avert their eyes when challenging thinking time is needed. Thought bubbles are used as props to help students remember to use gaze aversion. Although the video portrays young children using gaze aversion, the technique is applicable to learners of all ages. If you want to boost concentration, provide an opportunity for deeper reflection, and construct better answers, avert your eyes and start thinking!

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