Higher-order thinking skills are used for advanced cognitive processing of information. It occurs when a person engages in a deep level of processing and manipulating information in the mind.
The term “higher-order” is used because these forms of thinking are difficult to perform. It goes beyond just memorizing dates and facts. They are skills necessary for the generation of new knowledge and solving of complex problems.
Examples of higher-order thinking skills include critical thinking, analytical thinking, problem solving, evaluation, metacognition, and synthesis of knowledge.
Higher Order Thinking Definition (Bloom’s Taxonomy)
Educators often utilize Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956) to organize types of thinking processes into a structure that ranges from simple to advanced, or lower-order to higher-order.
The taxonomy is organized into levels of understanding and thinking, as follows:
- Remembering (Lower-Order): This is the most fundamental level of understanding that involves remembering basic information regarding a subject matter. This means that students will be able to define concepts, list facts, repeat key arguments, memorize details, or repeat information.
- Understanding (Lower-Order): Understanding means being able to explain. This can involve explaining the meaning of a concept or an idea.
- Applying (Middle-Order): Applying refers to the ability to use information in situations other than the situation in which it was learned. This represents a deeper level of understanding.
- Analyzing (Higher-Order): Conducting an analysis independently is the next level of understanding, requiring more cognitive effort. This includes the ability to draw logical conclusions based on given facts or make connections between various constructs.
- Evaluating (Higher-Order): Evaluating means determining correctness. Here, students will be able to identify the merits of an argument or point of view and weigh the relative strengths of each point.
- Creating (Higher-Order): The final level of Bloom’s taxonomy is when students can create something new. It is characterized by inventing, designing, and creating something that did not exist previously.
The premise of Bloom’s taxonomy is that thinking exists on a continuum that reflects degrees of understanding and cognitive abilities. The thinking processes toward the top of bloom’s taxonomy are considered higher-order.
The education system in many countries strive to improve higher order thinking skills such as critical thinking and innovation. Teachers around the world are constantly working to design educational activities with this aim. Their successful efforts are demonstrated in many forms, as illustrated below.
Higher Order Thinking Skills Examples
- Critical thinking – Critical thinking refers to the capacity to engage with information with an independent and analytical mindset. Instead of taking things on face value, a critical thinker uses logic and reason to evaluate the information.
- Creative thinking – According to Bloom’s taxonomy, creative thinking is the highest form of higher-order thinking. If we create something new, we are going beyond receiving and evaluating knowledge. We move up a step to generating new knowledge based on our experiences and intellect.
- Lateral thinking – Lateral thinkers take alternative routes to develop under-utilized or creative solutions to problems. ‘Lateral’ means to approach from the side rather than head-on.
- Divergent thinking – Divergent thinking refers to the process of generating multiple possible ideas from one question. It is common when we engage in brainstorming, and allows people to find creative solutions to problems.
- Convergent thinking – Convergent thinking is about gathering facts to come up with an answer or solution. It’s seen as the opposite of divergent thinking because you’re gathering information together to come up with one single solution rather than searching around and comparing multiple different solutions.
- Counterfactual thinking – Counterfactual thinking involves asking “what if?” questions in order to think of alternatives that may have happened if there were small changes made here and there. It is useful for reflective thinking and self-improvement.
- Synthesizing – When we synthesize information, we are gathering information from multiple sources, identifying trends and themes, and bringing it together into one review or evaluation of the knowledge base.
- Invention – Invention occurs when something entirely new is created for the first time. In order for this to occur, a person usually needs to have thorough understanding of existing knowledge and then have the critical and creative thinking skills to build upon it.
- Metacognition – Metacognition refers to “thinking about thinking”. It’s a thinking skill that involves reflecting on your own thinking processes and how you engaged with a task in order to seek improvements in your own thinking processes.
- Evaluation – Evaluation goes beyond reding for understanding. It moves up to the level of assessing the correctness, quality, or merits of information presented to you.
- Abstract thinking – Abstraction refers to engaging with ideas in theoretical rather than practical ways. The step up from learning about practical issues to applying practical knowledge to abstract, theoretical, and hypothetical contexts is considered higher-order.
- Identifying logical fallacies – In philosophy classes, students are asked to look at arguments and critique their use of logic. When students identify fallacies and heuristics, they are demonstrating higher-order skills like critique, judgment, and logic.
- Data manipulation
- Metaphorical thinking
- Problem solving
- Out of the box thinking
- Media literacy
- Concept mapping
- Applying to new contexts
- Compare and Contrast
- Distinguishing difference and similarity
- Identifying correlation
- Deconstructing texts
- Find Patterns
- Integrating knowledge
- Structuring knowledge
- Questioning established facts
- Discriminating between concepts
- Connecting the dots
- Inquiring (see: inquiry based learning)
- Finding Strengths
- Finding Weaknesses
- Creating Hierarchies
- Making value judgements
- Developing a thesis statement
- Constructing something new
- Socratic questioning
- Pushing boundaries
- Proposing something new
How to Develop Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Education
Educators expend a great deal of time trying to build up their students’ higher-order thinking skills. Generally, this starts with curriculum design.
During curriculum design, educators often consult bloom’s taxonomy verbs to create lessons and assessment tasks that directly assess higher-order thinking.
With learning outcomes that have higher-order thinking verbs embedded in them, lesson plans and the actual activities in class are more likely to target higher-order thinking skills.
In the classroom, teachers should focus on strategies used to instil higher-order thinking. These are often constructivist learning strategies, such as:
- Open-ended questioning: Instead of just asking yes/no questions, teachers try to ask higher-order thinking questions that require full-sentence responses. This can lead students to think through and articulate responses based upon critique and analysis rather than simple memorization.
- Active learning: When students are simply told information and asked to memorize, they are engaged in what we call passive learning. By contrast, when students actually complete tasks themselves, they are engaging in active learning.
- Problem-based learning: Problem-based learning involves students working together to solve problems. This means that lessons aren’t just a matter of following instructions, but actually require students to engage in higher-order thinking to figure out how to solve the challenges posed.
- High expectations: This involves the teacher insisting students try their hardest in all situations. Often, low expectations allow students to ‘coast along’ with simple memorization and understanding, and doesn’t ask them to extend their knowledge.
- Scaffolding and modeled instruction: Often, students don’t fully understand how to engage in higher-order thinking. To address this, teachers demonstrate how to think at a high level, then put in place scaffolds like question cards and instruction sheets that direct students toward higher levels of thinking. (See also: gradual release of responsibility model).
- Cognitive tools: When students have mastered the basics, we can use cognitive tools like calculators and computer sheets so the basic tasks are completed by computers. As a result, students can spend more time focusing on higher-order thinking rather than wasting time on lower-order tasks like doing their times tables.
Case Studies of Higher Order Thinking Skills
One form of higher-order thinking involves creating something new based on the synthesis and application of existing knowledge.
Industrial design is just such an endeavor. The goal of the designer is to gather various facts and principles, and forge them into a new product that addresses numerous needs and situational parameters.
The industrial designer must carefully examine the form and function of a product as it relates to the user. They are often involved in an analysis of the human-product interface.
Synthesizing that knowledge will help them generate solutions to make the product function more smoothly and efficiently.
Fourth order design takes the analysis one step further and involves considering a broader array of issues surrounding the product.
Forming a hypothesis requires higher-order thinking because it asks students to look at a problem and existent patterns, then abstract them into the future.
For example: A first-grade teacher presents several balls that differ in size, weight, colors, and material.
The teacher takes each ball and asks the students to predict what will happen if dropped. The teacher changes the height of the drop and the type of surface being dropped upon.
The students explain their rationale and express their views about the rationale of others. The teacher also asks questions, such as why one ball bounces higher.
This activity encourages deep thinking processes that invoke the characteristics of critical analysis and inference.
Of course, the goal is not to assess the rightness or wrongness of any explanations, but rather to get the students to think about the possibilities and the rationale underlying those possibilities.
Finally, the teacher supplies groups of students with various balls and allows free time to explore directly.
3. Socratic Questioning
Socrates developed a method of questioning that utilize several high-order thinking skills. Teachers today apply the method by asking students a series of well-designed questions that force them to explore complex issues and question underlying assumptions.
This requires students to retrieve knowledge, synthesize their understanding, and eventually produce an enlightened opinion.
That process will activate numerous higher-order thinking skills.
For instance, when examining their existing understanding of the issue, students often discover gaps in their knowledge base.
Socratic questioning also forces students to examine their understanding, which is often based on assumptions and not facts.
That critical analysis will help students identify a necessary path to enhance their knowledge; fill those gaps in understanding and ensure their opinion is based on facts.
When the student enters and exits the Socratic process, they will have engaged a series of higher-order thinking skills. Those skills are far more advanced than those required of conventional instructional approaches that involve memorization of facts.
If executed properly, Socratic questioning can lead an individual down a path of analyzing and synthesizing knowledge that ultimately leads to a transformation of their initial perspective.
4. Concept Mapping
A concept map is a visual way to show how various concepts are related. The map contains circles, called nodes, with the name of each concept placed within. The nodes are either connected or not depending on the relationship. The strength and direction of the relationship is depicted through the thickness of the line and an arrow placed at one end.
Asking students to create a concept map either before or after the presentation of a subject encourages them to analyze their understanding and examine the dynamics of a complex issue.
The instructor can then engage in a question-and-answer session or place students in small groups for discussion.
Each group member shares their rationale on how the concepts are interconnected. This requires students to engage in critical thinking and analysis of their rationale and the rationale of others.
The top ten free online concept map makers found here.
5. Counterfactual Thinking
Counterfactual thinking involves considering what might have happened if something in the past transpired differently. Some examples include imagining the outcome if a person had answered questions during a job interview more adeptly. Or, what could have happened if some aspects of an important project had been different.
By reimagining the past, a person must utilize several higher-order thinking skills.
First, they must analyze what went wrong the first time. This involves taking information known today and applying it to the circumstance prior. What were the key factors that affected the outcome?
Then, it is necessary to make several predictions on the implications of applying that additional knowledge. How will those changes alter the trajectory of the event? What other factors could possibly be encountered as the new scenario emerges?
Critical analysis, synthesis of new information, inferences regarding possible ramifications, are all examples of higher-order thinking.
Each one requires the individual to engage in advanced cognitive processing.
Critiques of the Higher-Order Thinking Model
There are two central critiques of the concept of higher-order thinking and its applications in education:
- It is not linear: Sometimes, lower-order thinking is extremely difficult and requires great skill; while other higher-order tasks can be objectively much easier. For example, the ability to simply follow a piece of logic in a graduate-level physics class (supposedly lower-order) requires much greater cognitive skill than the ability to create something in a grade 7 math class (creativity being higher-order). Thus, simply engaging in higher-order thinking doesn’t tell us everything we should know about someone’s cognitive and intellectual capacity.
- Focus on thinking rather than outcomes: John Biggs argues that use of Bloom’s taxonomy is insufficient for curriculum design because it focusses on often un-assessable internal cognitive processes rather than outcomes of those processes. As a result, Biggs proposed the SOLO taxonomy, which talks about outcomes that can be used in curriculum design rather than processes.
Higher-order thinking is when an individual engages in deep processing of information. This can include a critical analysis of an event, artistic endeavor, or even the design a commercial product.
Other forms of higher order thinking skills take place when existing circumstances are reimagined or considered in the context of future conditions that require prediction and inference.
At its highest state, higher order thinking skills can be manifest in the creation of something new that reflects a synthesis of factors and concepts not previously forged.
Educators today try to facilitate the development of higher-order thinking skills in their students. This can materialize at many grade levels across the education system.
The primary school teacher can present exploratory activities that give students an opportunity to predict what could happen when different objects are dropped from different heights.
Or, the university professor can task students with making inferences about how global events could affect manufacturing, or environmental factors alter the water cycle.
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