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Metacognition and Asian American Activism: An Interview with Lisa Son

Lisa Son is a professor of cognitive psychology at Barnard College in New York City. Her research centers on metacognition, optimal learning, and memory. Born and raised in the United States, Son has maintained active ties to her ancestral South Korea as an educator and individual. She earned multiple Fulbright scholarships to pursue research projects in Korea, including her recently-published book written in Korean, 메타인지 학습법 (Metacognition: The Thinking Parent Makes the Thinking Child), which focuses on the science of metacognition—how we think about what we think. In response to the rise in anti-Asian attacks during the pandemic, Son delivered a speech at a #StopAsianHate rally in Millburn, New Jersey, wrote an op-ed titled “Stop Treating Asians as a Monolith,” and spoke in various interviews and lectures on the psychology of activism, racial stereotypes, and the challenges that Asian Americans face.

Alice Jo: What are your thoughts on virtual learning during the pandemic? 

Lisa Son: For me, health comes before education. Handling stress, mental health—those were my priorities, and then learning. Obviously, when we’re distanced, it’s much more difficult for students to reach out and get their questions answered. But on the other hand, I’m seeing a different kind of active learning online. What I’ve noticed while teaching on Zoom is that it doesn’t matter how extroverted or introverted, nervous or shy you are. In most of my offline teaching, the quieter students have been Asian or those of a certain minority. But when I’m online—I don’t know if it’s because we can see each other’s faces or you can use the chat function—it feels like everyone is participating more equally. The really active ones are listening more. The shyer ones are getting the courage to speak up. So I’ve actually loved teaching in the virtual mode.

I read up on the literature showing that when you demand or require students to turn their video on, it’s really bad. So I told my students directly, “You can keep your video off for whatever reason.” It could be due to technical difficulties, Wi-Fi issues, a messy house. You don’t want to disadvantage a certain group of people by telling them they have to have the video on. A lot of teachers wanted the video on and I understand that, but overall, I would trust the student first and know that they want to learn. There were times when some students emailed me and said, “I felt so comfortable in your class. Thank you so much.” Getting those kinds of messages really made me happy.

AJ: How has the pandemic shifted your approach to studying metacognition and how you think about its role in our lives?

LS: Metacognition is really about individual monitoring and control of your own learning or knowledge. It’s thinking about your own thinking. And [during the pandemic] there was a kind of slowing down of the classroom. It was not about getting through all the material. It was more about making sure that we’re all there and part of the conversation. To do that, you have to slow down and listen to everyone’s opinions and points of view. So in that sense, I think there was an automatic increase in metacognition. 

Not only that—all students had to adjust individually. Adjustment is a metacognitive process. Metacognition means that you’re assessing the situation, evaluating where you’re at, and then adjusting to find the balance that works for you in getting whatever goal you have. There was more of this kind of, “What do I need to adjust to make sure my individual self is learning optimally?” That kind of evaluation of how you feel about your current state versus how you want to feel—that’s metacognition. You want to decrease that gap to find a comfort level. With this online mode, it might’ve taken more courage to type something in the chat or to hit the button to raise your hand. That kind of courage is also metacognition. 

When I go back [to in-person teaching], I’ll have to readjust again. But I won’t be going back a hundred percent to pre-pandemic teaching. It’ll be more like trying to find a new optimal. Change is always metacognitive. It’s about readjusting and making sure you’re bringing the students along with you, not just expecting students to do exactly what you want immediately—that’s totally anti-metacognition. It’s really about adjusting slowly and together.

AJ: In your op-ed piece, you discuss the importance of practicing metacognition as a society. What role does metacognition play in your teaching? 

LS: Oh, I think it’s so helpful. A lot of people know me as a teacher, professor, or researcher. But my most fulfilling role in the past two decades has been mentorship. The role modeling and mentoring for young students—especially young females, being at Barnard. Also, [I love mentoring] young Asian females, being Asian myself. I’ve seen that the most impactful kind of support that I’ve been able to give younger students is the idea of being true to my identity and saying that out loud. I’ve been very open to my students about mistakes that I’ve made or ambitions that I’ve had that were just unrealistic. Or even when someone says something to me in a certain way, how to not take it personally and continue the conversation to say my opinion. That’s very difficult for young women in the workforce. They’re working with maybe more men than women. It was so difficult for me to say “This is what I think” or “I disagree” or “Did you really just say that to me?” There’s just so much [to learn] about how you find that courage each moment to be part of the conversation. Everyone talks about leaning in, taking a seat at the table, speaking your mind, but how do you get there? I think the way to get there is to have role models speak about it consciously and explicitly. Your thoughts inside, that’s metacognition. But to really make a difference, we need to show our vulnerability and outwardly express our metacognitions truthfully. 

I’m writing a second book in Korean about “imposter phenomenon,” which is this feeling of “I need to always show my perfect, final self” instead of drafts of yourself. Metacognition is the drafting of the self. And we do it all our lives. I’ve done it every single day. I draft myself, but I don’t forget those drafts. That’s what I think true metacognition is: it’s not to think that me now is always who I’ve been. It’s to make sure that I’ll go through my drafts and be able to say, especially to others, “Look, there were these other drafts that weren’t perfect, but they were still helpful in allowing me to get over these mistakes or errors.” I think it’s been most important [for me] to learn how to be a mentor, because that’s the most important thing in life: To give back to as many young people as possible. 

AJ: Can you talk about how your identity as an Asian American factored into your experiences during the pandemic? 

LS: I had to tell my friends in Korea about being American and tell my friends in America about being Korean/Asian. People around me in America said, “Oh, why don’t you send your kids to school? Everything’s okay now.” I said to them, “Because my kids are Asian. I’d rather not send them out yet.” At the same time, my friends in Korea said things like, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you’re in America. There’s no issue in America.” It was totally opposite. And while it was exacerbated this past year, I have felt that all my life. That’s part of being Asian American. 

Some of my Asian American friends just say they are American, but I want to be Asian too. I don’t need to be fully American. Not all Asians agree with me. That speaks to the whole problem with Asian Americans not being the same but being treated the same. So I wrote an op-ed on how Asians are not “a monolith.” All the stereotypes about Asian Americans led to the notion that there’s no such thing as racism against Asians. And that’s a big fight. It’s hard to fight it when all Asians have a different view [of their cultural identity]. Some people wanted to hide their Asianness rather than speaking out for Asians because they feel American. So that was all very confusing. 

As a parent, I’m raising my kids to be American but definitely Asian too. I don’t want them to forget their Koreanness. But if I tell them to speak Korean in America and someone’s like, “Hey! Go back to your country,” that’s very hurtful. Once you hear that, it sticks with you your whole life. There’s a lot of confusion in how to make the decision to represent your identity because everyone’s identity is so different. And that’s another huge part of metacognition. 

AJ: In your speech at the #StopAsianHate rally, you said that “Asians and non-Asians are in the middle of a decades-long misunderstanding of interaction.” What is this misunderstanding? 

LS: This rift is lifelong for Asian Americans. Our first goal is always about fitting in and acting in a way that makes sense to the community of people around you. So if you’re the only Asian in that group, your first reaction is to say to yourself, “Oh, I have to act more like them.” I think for many Asian Americans, that means hiding your Asianness. We have certain customs and values that are different. For example, we’re not supposed to be loud or talkative because it’s a little bit show-off-y. We’ve also learned to not be so expressive. If we feel sad, you don’t just wail out crying—you have to stay composed. So we learned that that’s how we had to be. But in American culture, it’s different. I was called “Poker Face” throughout my childhood because I was just kind of stoic—always neutral. Of course I had feelings and emotions, but I was always focused on making sure that I fit the stereotype that others around me had of Asians. 

For a lot of recent immigrants that came to America, it’s not as though they could do whatever they wanted. First of all, they don’t even know the culture. They’re very awkward and they have to make sure to not stand out. It’s about making sure you play by the rules that you have imagined would be the “success route” in America. So I call it a misunderstanding because non-Asians have thought of us as very obedient and quiet. That’s not true at all. We’ve had to act a certain way, making sure we lay low, because that’s how we were rewarded. At the same time, that’s how we were ignored. I think that’s the misunderstanding. 

If I say to someone, “I’ve faced so much racism since I was little,” people are like, “What are you talking about? You’re successful. You’re happy.” They think I’m being dramatic about it. Of course, I’m actually downplaying it. I didn’t complain at the time because I just had to get by and let it pass. Now, as a teacher and parent, I want to make sure that our kids are putting authenticity over assimilation. I mean, especially in America, we don’t even know what assimilation means anymore. It’s so diverse and everyone is different. 

AJ: In what ways are we making progress on working out this misunderstanding? 

LS: Now, people are finally talking about this Asian American stereotyping and putting everything out in the open. I can say to my Asian friends and my non-Asian friends, “Look, this is a miscommunication, a misunderstanding. We are very outspoken. We can be outspoken. We have very different opinions. We have a lot we want to say and now we’re going to say it. So please understand, it doesn’t mean I’m saying it because I’m Asian. It’s because like any person from any culture, I have an opinion.” 

I think what will break down the stereotypes is more communication, more talking, more of these speeches—even though they still make me very nervous. I don’t want to talk about my Asianness. But for now, in order to say we’re all American, we’re all humans, I have to highlight my Asianness and the things we’ve been experiencing and speak truthfully. 

AJ: In another interview, you mention that Asian Americans are “perpetual visitors.” How can Asian Americans heal from the exhaustion of that experience as well as the violence they have encountered? What kind of concrete changes need to happen to move forward?

LS: It’s so difficult. And it’s so different in terms of how everyone is seeing this and how everyone is reacting. It was Asians living in America who were getting attacked. It’s really traumatizing to see this on TV or in the news because we understand so well that it’s this close to us. It could be us tomorrow, right? Luckily, there have been political changes. There’s that Hate Crimes Bill to protect Asian Americans. There’s been more support in different areas: providing hotlines and translations if someone is attacked. You need the anonymous helplines because many Asians don’t feel comfortable speaking out. 

The feeling Asian Americans have of being perpetual visitors is because we still have recent immigrants in our communities. I remember as I got into college, there was a big push to “Save the Environment.” And I wasn’t aware of these campaigns because they weren’t a priority for my family. For my parents, this was a foreign land. So they wouldn’t think about, for example, where the water comes from or should we plant a tree? I saw other Americans doing these things for the first time when I was in college and it made me think, “Is this my land? Do I want to go and make sure people who live here are concerned for the environment?” The priority for me was surviving as an Asian American. And I wondered how many generations of living in America makes a person say, “This is my land.”

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.