Every human being thinks, save for those in a persistent vegetative state and newborns – that said with due awareness of the ethical controversy of labelling humans ‘vegetative’.

As the human psyche – the mind develops and intellect grows, we become capable of thinking beyond our direct environment, needs and wants.

We start to conceptualise, a fancy word for ‘imagine’, and then move on to problem-solving rather quickly. Those two types of rationalisation form the basis of higher-order thinking.

Till recently, it was thought that higher-order thinking skills developed in step with the acquisition of knowledge, meaning that only highly-educated people might be higher-order thinkers.

However, recent studies reveal that children as young as four exhibit higher-order thinking skills.

What are critical thinking skills and higher-order thinking skills? Why are they such a big deal these days? How do they differ from other thinking such as inductive and deductive reasoning?

And how can tutors help their charges develop thinking skills in general?

Critical Thinking Skills

Socrates said think, don't believe
The great scholar Socrates advocated for independent analysis of facts over belief Source: Pixabay Credit: Solut_rai

I think, therefore I am – René Descartes

This is the better-known assertion of that French mathematician and philosopher but it does not actually reflect the complete idea he was trying to convey.

Antoine Thomas, a literary critic, refined Descartes’ premise: ‘I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.’

Later critics skewed the idea by stating that such an egocentric expression puts the very idea of one’s existence in doubt. According to them, at best, Descartes could be said to have postulated that ‘thinking is occurring’.

This entire discourse and its premise are excellent examples of critical thinking, which entails analysing facts to form a judgment.

The ‘flaw’ of critical thinking, if one could think of it as a flaw, is that it is self-based: one employs one’s experience, knowledge and beliefs to arrive at a conclusion.

Interestingly enough, Socrates postulated that blind belief of those in authority should be discouraged. After all, he reasoned, those in power may themselves be overwhelmed by their thoughts and position; they may even be rendered irrational.

Therefore, it should be up to individuals to probe any issue and give each one deep thought before accepting any idea as deserving of belief or credibility.

Essentially, Socrates advocated for self-reliance, something Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th-century philosopher staked his entire fortune and reputation on.

Meanwhile, far from philosophical thought, the concept of critical thinking took a divergent turn, away from rational thinking that involves critique, towards an intellectually disciplined process.

That meant that, far from being egocentric, critical thinking called for nearly dispassionate reasoning by examining facts through the lens of logic and arriving at a conclusion.

The trouble with that premise is that humans are, for the most part, incapable of separating their experiences from their process of analysis.

Therefore, the concept of critical thinking still represents, at least in part, individual biases.

Discover the limitations current educational standards place on cultivating thinking skills...

What is Higher Order Thinking?

Critical thinking, along with problem-solving, is a higher-order thinking skill because it goes beyond exposure to information and rote memorisation.

Higher order thinking skills, often abbreviated as HOTS, is an educational reform initiative based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, among others.

Analysing, evaluating and synthesising – the process of consolidating knowledge requires a different pedagogy than the current process of presenting information and concepts, the memorisation of which is periodically tested.

There is a certain resistance to implementing learning activities targeted to the knowledge consolidation process described above. We'll talk about that in our next section.

For a long time, researchers and educators believed that the development of thought processes was incremental, based on the acquisition of knowledge.

Ongoing cognitive studies like the ones mentioned in this article's introduction have proven that, far from thinking skills being based on intellect, they are a natural process of cognitive development that happens much earlier than anyone had ever suspected.

Not only is higher order thinking evidenced in small humans who have never been in an academic setting, but their higher-order thinking skills outdo most anyone who has stayed the entire course of academic development.

How do you put a giraffe in a refrigerator?

This deceptively simple question befuddles many adults but youngsters know that you simply open the door to the fridge, put the giraffe in and close the door.

No consideration is given as to the size of the animal versus the size of the appliance; for young minds, the answer is a simple matter of opening the door, inserting and closing the door.

As the quiz progresses, through your answers you’re clued to various aspects of your thinking ability, such as being able to think through the consequences of your decisions and your ability to contextualise.

How is it that preschool children can think their way through seemingly complex problems with a minimum of effort while adults, armed with years of formal education cannot seem to make sense of simple concepts?

Discover also what defines higher-order thinking...

How would you put a giraffe into a refrigerator?
Small children do not give consideration to the size of a giraffe when asked how to put it in a fridge Source: Pixabay Credit: Amigos3D

Thinking Skills and Formal Education

Advocates of traditional education disdain HOTS in favour of continuing instructional strategies to impart basic skills.

In this context, the phrase ‘basic skills’ represents a concept that is in direct opposition to HOTS, in that:

  • academic subjects are segregated: sciences are learned separately from maths; language mechanics are taught independent of literature and art, with reading skills being taught as yet another subject.
  • Basic skills learning is a teacher-centred methodology
  • The teaching and learning of basic skills is for the sake of academic accrual rather than any real-life application
    • by contrast, project-based learning applies subject knowledge to real-life situations
  • Assessments are summative, often in the form of multiple choice questions
  • Facts are learned in a particular sequence.

Let’s take a standard maths curriculum, to illustrate that last point.

Students learn the order of numbers, and then the sense of numbers, and then the properties of numbers and basic arithmetic. In higher key stages they will study algebra and geometry... but all of these concepts are taught independent of one another even though they are all branches of the same subject.

Basic Skills methodology suggests that a student’s capacity to absorb, understand and retain knowledge is predicated on the gradual unveiling of increasingly complex ideas of concepts.

HOTS advocates for a spiral curriculum: introducing concepts early in a student’s academic career and revisiting them throughout their time of formal learning, albeit with incrementally greater degrees of complexity.

Again, we draw on maths to illustrate this point.

Early Years Foundation Stage pupils are taught about numbers. They are also often assigned work that calls for them to detect patterns – ‘what’s missing’ worksheets, for example.

Why not combine those two activities?

Elementary algebraic concepts do not require mastery of arithmetic to understand them; the study of set theory is perfectly suitable for EYSF students.

Key Stage 1 students would then go on to explore magmas, tap on quasigroups and semigroups...

Even though those students might not actually meet an equation until much later in their school years, the foundation for understanding and working with algebra will have already been laid.

How about using higher-order thinking in problem-solving?

Perhaps the clearest example of the concept of ‘basic skills’ is how it is applied in our country.

Literacy and numeracy programmes for adults lacking in those skills is known as ‘adult basic skills’ education.

Those learners are not expected to build on the knowledge they gain; the reading and maths skills they are taught are for the sole purpose of functioning better in society.

Isn’t it scary that basic education is what is taught in classrooms across the country?

Learn how tutors can be instrumental in helping their students gain higher-order thinking skills...

A spiraling curriculum involves teaching basic concepts at an early age
Many HOTS proponents advocate for a spiraling curriculum Source: Pixabay Credit: Geralt

Where do Tutors Fit In?

Private tutors have the luxury of developing their curricula in accordance with each of their students’ needs. They also have substantial leeway in how they teach their subject matter.

Whereas a school teacher may be constrained from encouraging debate or independent thinking by time and the number of students s/he teaches in each class, those very functions are where a tutor’s role has the most impact.

Let’s say that your tutoring skills have been sought out to provide homework help in chemistry.

Standard curricular activities involve learning the names of the elements studying their molecular structure and memorising the periodic table.

The homework assignment: what’s the difference between a molecular formula and an empirical formula?

Your student has prior knowledge of empirical formulae but is missing the connection between them and the ‘true’ formulae. How would you guide him/her to the correct answer?

Note: You can get jobs for ex teachers here.

You might, perhaps, clue him/her into the structural formula – the arrangement of the atoms, and then present the lowest whole number ratio of atoms (empirical formula) versus the number of atoms in each of the elements that comprise the molecule (molecular formula) and encourage him/her to draw conclusions.

That is how tutors encourage higher order thinking: by reinforcing known concepts, blending them with new concepts and guiding students to conclusions.

By supporting students in navigating their academic challenges rather than feeding them answers, tutors cultivate a level of student engagement that would be difficult for teachers to match.

Not because teachers aren’t dedicated; just because the focus in the classroom at this point is on academics rather than on students developing their cognitive skills and thinking skills.

The open-ended questions you pose your students forces them to conceptualise. Your focus on concept formation the process of connecting ideas, along with your ongoing formative assessment of your pupils so that you can better determine how to entice your student towards maximum investment in his/her assignments...

As a tutor, you are the essential link between general education and students’ learning outcomes.

Just be careful! It is necessary to know when and how hard to push students towards thinking skills...

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