It was long held as true that humans are the only animals capable of thought.

Only recently has that idea been debunked; studies into non-human animal behaviour indicate that animals evince episodic memory and the have the capacity to navigate terrain using landmarks.

Some animals have even displayed non-verbal mathematical ability!

Nevertheless, there is a wide gulf between the cognitive ability of humans and other mammals.

Whereas your beloved pet may have a type of focused intelligence – say, figuring out a way to get to a treat, a toy or your attention, they cannot apply that knowledge to solve another ‘problem’.

By contrast, human thought processes permit adapting previous experiences to a new set of variables to think of a ‘best solution’, thus accruing knowledge.

How do we do that? Were we taught to think or does it come naturally? Is all thought the same? Are there different degrees of thought – from deep to mindless?

And what in the world are higher-order thinking skills?

Are they the inevitable product of life experience? Are they something everyone should have? How do we train our students to think like that?

Superprof now unveils all you need to know about higher-order thinking: why it is vital and how you too can help students gain those skills.

Flowcharts can help you teach your student how to think critically
You could introduce your students to fflowcharts, an effective way to organise information Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

What is the Difference Between Higher Order Thinking and Critical Thinking?

For a long time, the discipline called cognitive science held the fundamental belief that, as one accrued knowledge, the power to think and reason also developed.

This philosophy gave rise to the ‘empty vessel’ postulate: that a child’s mind is devoid of knowledge and primed for academic achievement – which would, of course, be brought about by all-knowing teachers dispensing information.

Those ideas have since been shown to be inaccurate because humans develop the ability to think and build a storehouse of knowledge before they enter any school system.

One’s thoughts and overall mental development are influenced by several areas:

  • the cognitive domain, which deals with the development of mental skills and the absorption of knowledge
  • the affective domain is ruled by emotions; it is how we process information seen through the filter of feelings
  • the psychomotor domain: developing and using motor skills for learning.

A good example of that last domain on an intellectual level would be stacking blocks or sorting rings by size.

By contrast, effective learning can easily be described as knowing you can go to mum and dad for a cuddle if you suddenly feel insecure, tired or overwhelmed. Yes, even that type of knowledge weighs on other learning experiences.

These two domains are the primary focus of our public education system’s first two years of schooling.

In those classes, Early Years Foundation and Reception, students learn mostly through play, although some academic learning is involved.

Doesn’t that beg the question, then, why curricula change completely once students enter Key Stage 1?

At that point, the playing is over. Students are expected to sit, to listen to their teacher, to work and to learn. They are, in effect, treated as empty vessels which can only be filled by a school teacher.

For teachers, this idea is particularly vexing. Their professional development has taught them that pouring facts into their students’ heads does not equal student achievement.

Where and how are students supposed to cultivate critical thinking skills, if not in school and guided by knowledgeable persons?

Discover more about higher-order thinking and developing critical thinking abilities.

Brainstorm and talk through problems
Brainstorming and asking 'why' are effective higher-order thinking tools! Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

More Effective Problem-Solving Through Higher Order Thinking

Higher-order thinking consists of critical thinking and problem-solving.

In a sense, it sounds like this segment could be a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario. After all, to be a higher-order thinker, you must apply critical thinking and the skills required to solve problems in a given situation.

However, you don’t always have to think critically to solve a problem and problems need not be inherent for critical thinking to occur.

Rendering an opinion on a film would be an example of such. 

Nevertheless, thinking critically in the course of problem-solving allows one to consider the widest range of variables and often yields the best possible outcome to any situation.

To crystallise that concept, let’s look at exactly what problem-solving skills are:

  • Communication involves everything from body language to active listening, as well as the words being spoken and the tone they are spoken in
  • Research: this can be done by calling on one’s own experiences pertaining to a similar situation and soliciting input from stakeholders – in our case, other students
  • Analysis could imply brainstorming within a group; they might appeal to data and statistics or compare and contrast similar situations
  • Team building suggests a consensus built on similar values and ideas
  • Creativity: formulating a set of solutions to the given problem rather than a single answer.

All of these facets of problem-solving draw on the three domains listed in Blooms Taxonomy as essential for effective learning: the cognitive, affective and psychomotor realms through which we absorb specific types of knowledge.

Learn more about problem-solving skills and the difficulty this concept poses in today’s classrooms...

The Limitations of Core Standards on Higher Order Thinking Skills

Common core: those subjects deemed vital in general education; they are taught to every student.

Regardless of what they are called in one country or the other, every academic program has core subjects: math, literacy skills – reading, writing, vocabulary and spelling, and sciences.

How well those subjects are taught is measured by student performance on summative assessments; the exams taken at the end of every Key Stage.

Already we can determine a twofold problem:

1. Such exams really only prove students’ adeptness for memorizing

2. The effort of impressing all of the information necessary to earn high marks on such exams leaves little time to work with new information in class.

In stating this, we’re not criticising teachers or their massive efforts to make a difference in their kids’ lives.

We’re just pointing out that every educator comes equipped with classroom strategies and is quite adept at lesson planning; why not just let them ensure that the knowledge they impart is understood through classroom activities such as group work and active learning?

Say, by allowing time to ask a few higher level thinking questions or assigning project-based learning activities?

Exams at the end of every learning unit, term, school year and Key Stage really don’t prove very much.

Far better would be leaving room in the curriculum for the teacher to conduct a formative assessment on each student – a practice that would genuinely indicate levels of comprehension.

Join the discussion: is ‘common core’ getting in the way of critical thinking and problem-solving?

You need higher-order thinking skills to achieve all of these!
All three of these suggestions require higher-order thinking skills! Image by bluebudgie from Pixabay

How Tutors Can Encourage Higher Order Thinking Skills

There is no doubt that teachers are overtaxed: under pressure to ‘make’ students perform well on exams, tasked to complete never-ending reports, marking papers...

Actual teaching seems to be the last on a long list of teachers’ duties.

An alarming number of teachers simply leave the profession.

Others turn to private tutoring so that they can have a bit of satisfaction in exercising their pedagogy – their vision of how teaching should actually be.

In such a setting, in your students’ homes or in your own, you have the peace and the time to probe your charges’ understanding of their subject matter.

How would you do that?

By asking the types of questions designed to make them think. By digging deeper – why? why? - to discover actual viewpoints... not just the answers your students think you want to hear.

By employing teaching strategies designed around creative thinking: you devise an activity in which your tutee must draw on his/her personal experience to complete.

For instance, if you know that a particular student has suffered at the hands of bullies, you might provide this essay prompt: How students can protect themselves against bullying in school.

Discover other ways that tutors can help students develop thinking skills outside the classroom...

Helping Students Develop Higher Order Thinking Skills: How Much is too Much?

Let’s say you did, in fact, give your student that ‘Bully’ topic.

You believed that thinking critically about bullies and how one could defend oneself from them would be empowering – possibly even a liberating exercise for that poor student who has been terribly picked on.

You notice the body language first. Shoulders slumped, eyes downcast and, if the hair is of sufficient length, most likely it is shielding the face. Perhaps you hear a sudden, nervous thrumming: a leg, twitching out a staccato beat.

You don’t need to wait for the tears to know that you’ve far overshot the ‘safe’ line.

Admittedly, this is a dramatic example of how much ‘pushing’ is too much.

As well-intentioned as any higher-thinking exercise may be, we have to recognise when a student is ready for that level of engagement - be it more complex maths problems or an issue that requires insight and draws on personal experience.

When such opportunities do arise, make the most of them!

Ask those open-ended questions! Engage in a debate! You may even invite your students’ caregivers to offer their opinions; the more information is available, the better your pupils will develop the ability to reason.

Does this topic resonate? You will enjoy our full article knowing the limits higher-order thinking.

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