What Is Higher Order Thinking?

    In days gone by, rote learning was where it was at.

    Latin? Learn your grammar off by heart.

    Mathematics? Learn your times tables until the answer to 12 times 9 is nothing more than a reflex-like that reflex-thing when the doctor hits your knee with a tiny hammer.

    Now, there’s no doubt about it, rote learning has its place. If you want to commit important dates to memory, then rote learning is one truly effective method.

    But, what if you want to do more than commit facts and figures to memory? What if the question isn’t when did the First World War start, but, instead, why did the First World War start?

    Questions like these require us to think in a different way than those questions that can be answered by simply regurgitating information we have committed to memory.

    When questions demand of us that we engage creatively, respond innovatively, or to evaluate, then we need to engage in higher-order thinking.

    When we talk about higher-order thinking we are referring to thinking skills that go beyond the mere memorization of facts and figures. This type of thinking makes more demands on our cognitive processing capabilities than other types of thinking.

    Why Are Higher Order Thinking Skills Important for Our Students?

    Higher-order thinking skills are much more difficult to teach than the lower order skills, but they are all the more important for that.

    Aside from the fact that questions that make demands of students’ higher-order thinking skills are weighted more heavily in exams, there are several reasons why students need to learn and practice them in the classroom.

    Higher order thinking:

    • Enables a greater appreciation of art and literature, enriching our enjoyment and experience of life
    • Promotes essential skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving
    • Are highly in demand by employers and projected to be increasingly in demand in the future
    • Involves transferable skills that can be essential in a wide variety of contexts.


    How Do I Teach Higher Order Thinking In My Classroom?

    As we’ve mentioned already, higher order thinking makes greater cognitive processing demands and this type of thinking can be, unsurprisingly, more difficult to both learn and teach.

    In the strategies below, you’ll find a mix of concepts and activities that can be combined and adapted to help encourage higher order thinking in your classroom.

    The Relevance of Bloom’s Taxonomy

    One of the keys here lies in asking questions that require students to engage in higher order thinking in order to answer them.

    The types of questions that demand higher order thinking of our students can helpfully be illustrated with reference to Bloom’s taxonomy.

    In this well-known classification system and hierarchical organization of thinking types, the lower order thinking types such as Remember, Understand, and Apply require less cognitive processing than the higher order types such as Analyze, Evaluate, and Create.

    Bloom’s taxonomy classifies learning objectives by complexity and is therefore a helpful means to identify higher order questions.

    According to Bloom’s, there are 6 levels of learning objectives: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.

    The first 3 of these are considered to employ lower level thinking, while the last 3 are classified as higher order thinking.

    If we are composing questions for our students that challenge students at levels 4, 5, and 6 (analyze, evaluate, create), then our students will need to engage in higher order thinking to answer.

    Now, let’s take a look at how we can use each of the 3 higher levels in Bloom’s taxonomy to generate questions that will encourage higher order thinking in our students.

    Higher Order Thinking Questions 

    We’ll take a look at each of the 3 higher order levels in turn.

    First, we’ll briefly define each of the terms. Then, we’ll list some of the keywords that can be used to form instructions for a higher order thinking task. And, finally, we’ll offer some useful question starters, or prompts, to encourage higher order thinking at this level.

    1. Analyze – Exploring connections and relationships by breaking things into parts

    Keywords: Analyze, Categorize, Classify, Compare, Contrast, Discover, Divide, Examine, Group, Inspect, Sequence, Simplify.

    Question Starters:

    • Why did x happen?
    • What is the relationship between x and y?
    • What were the advantages of x?
    • What were the disadvantages of x?
    • What was the turning point?
    • What were the causes of x?
    • What were the effects of x?

    2. Evaluate – Defending or justifying our opinions and beliefs

    Keywords: Assess, Choose, Determine, Evaluate, Justify, Compare, Rate, Recommend, Select, Agree, Appraise, Prioritize, Support, Prove, Disprove.

    Question Starters:

    • Why was it important that…?
    • Do you think x was a good thing?
    • Do you agree/disagree that…?
    • What was the writer’s viewpoint on x?
    • What is your opinion on x?
    • What is the best solution to the problem of x?

    3. Create – Generating new ideas and alternatives

    Keywords: Change, Construct, Design, Develop, Imagine, Improve, Invent, Formulate, Plan, Produce, Predict, Propose, Modify, Solve.

    Question Starters:

    • How would you improve x?
    • What changes would you make to x?
    • How do you think x would feel?
    • What outcome do you predict?
    • Can you think of another suitable title for x?
    • How would you end this?

    The Socratic Method

    The origins of this classic teaching technique stretch right back to the wily old ancient Greek himself. Socrates’ strategy for higher order thinking and critical inquiry involved a process of thoughtful questioning and discussion. This practice effectively engages the student’s analytical and critical faculties.

    The Socratic questioning process demands that, rather than the teacher feeding the student information directly, they should employ a series of questions that develops the student’s understanding and their awareness of the limits of their own knowledge.

    The questions asked should be open-ended in nature. This is because their purpose is to facilitate collaborative dialogues and discussions intended to enhance learning through reasoning and analysis. This is not meant to be a competition of ideas, but an exploration focused on arriving at the most rational understanding of the ideas and content as possible.

    Two particularly useful strategies that encourage the Socratic method in the classroom are Socratic Circles and Socratic Seminars.

    Let’s take a look at each of these in turn:


    Socratic Circles

    A highly effective means of promoting collaborative learning, Socractic circles encourage students to explore and analyze different perspectives and interpretations on a given topic.

    Here’s how this strategy works in practice:

    1. First, group students in two concentric circles. There should be an inner circle and an outer circle.

    2. Then, instruct the students of the inner circle to read, analyze, and discuss the assigned reading material. A time frame should be set for this task e.g. 10 minutes.

    3. As the inner circle engages in their discussion of the material, the outer circle is tasked to stay silent and observe the inner circle’s dialogues.

    4. When the allotted time is up, the outer circle is given 10 minutes (or other suitable amount of time) to evaluate the inner circle’s discussions, giving feedback and comments as the inner circle listens.

    5. When the feedback session has been completed, the inner and outer circles now switch positions and the exercise is repeated with the groups’ roles reversed.


    Socratic Seminars

    In a Socratic seminar, the teacher facilitates a group discussion focused around a specific learning goal.

    Questions should be designed to help students evaluate their own opinions on the subject and should be aimed at stimulating a deeper understanding of the material.

    To ensure fair participation, teachers should establish clear guidelines for the group interaction. This will help keep discussions on track and avoid straying off task or the degeneration of the discussion into personal attacks, or other irrational exchanges.

    To help ensure the optimal interactions, teachers should try to demonstrate good models of thinking and interaction at all times.

    The Socratic seminar will provide students with opportunities to critically analyze and explore their underlying assumptions and beliefs and then go beyond them.


    Conceptual Thinking

    Encouraging students to think conceptually is to encourage them to make links between different aspects of their learning.

    Rather than seeing and learning various ‘facts’ in isolation, thinking in terms of concepts gets students to organize their thinking by the clustering of ideas around a singular, central idea.

    For example, we can categorize boxing, gymnastics, soccer, tennis, cycling, and basketball simply as sports.

    We can also further enhance our understanding of these sports by recognizing that while boxing, tennis, cycling, and gymnastics are individual sports, soccer and basketball are team sports.

    By organizing our thinking in such a manner, we create a mental representation of things that belong together and things that don’t. We see commonalities and differences where none were immediately apparent.

    Encourage conceptual thinking in the classroom by asking students to identify similarities and differences between things. You can usefully record their suggestions using line diagrams to display various connections between things. This encourages a more nuanced approach to categorization and can be applied across wide areas of knowledge.



    When we want students to infer something from limited evidence, we’ll routinely ask them to ‘read between the lines.’

    Giving our students opportunities to practice inference in the classroom is important as we are not always fortunate enough to have all the evidence to hand before we make a judgment.

    Setting our students tasks that ask them to infer something encourages them to engage in close reading of the content, and to engage and evaluate that content at a deeper level than a cursory read would allow.


    Creative Thinking

    Creativity relates to originality and flexibility of thinking. It is a difficult skill to master and it’s no surprise that it is represented as the highest level of thinking in Bloom’s taxonomy, where it is sometimes termed ‘synthesis’.

    Not only is creativity one of the most difficult skills to master, it’s one of the most difficult things to teach too.

    But, there are some things you can do to encourage your students to think creatively in the classroom. Primary among these things is creating a classroom culture that celebrates originality and an environment that encourages experimentation.

    At its essence, creativity is a form of divergent thinking that is impossible without some willingness to stray from the more well-worn and inviting paths of thought. It is necessary then to ensure that this type of thinking is rewarded in your classroom.

    How Can I Encourage a Classroom Culture of Higher Order Thinking?

    Now you have a good understanding of various higher order thinking methodologies and strategies, you may be wondering how do you actually encourage higher order thinking in the classroom on a daily basis.

    The best way to make higher order thinking a habit in the classroom is to display it yourself at every opportunity.

    There are a number of ways you can do this. For example,

    ●     Do your thinking out loud – Many of us, as teachers, employ various types of higher order thinking instinctively in the classroom without even realising it. We take for granted the importance of analyzing and evaluating information to the point we’ve automatized the processes involved.

    For many of our students, however, thinking deeply about new information is a skill they are still developing. By doing our thinking out loud, when faced with a problem or some new information to process, we model our methods of deep thinking for our students. This provides them with a roadmap for independently employing their own critical thinking faculties in future.

    ●     Expand on the curriculum – Despite many positive developments in the world of education, lots of our curriculum-based learning remains knowledge-based. While lots of this knowledge is undoubtedly useful, it can often lead to a reliance on closed questioning, where specific answers are the explicit aim of any questioning. To give scope to higher order thinking by your students, be sure to incorporate open-ended questions into your lessons. Work to create opportunities throughout your lessons for students to discuss their own ideas and why they think the way that they do.

    ●     Make higher order thinking a habit – As you demonstrate higher order thinking in your own thought process to the students, and create opportunities for the students themselves to engage in higher order thinking, you will be working towards making this approach a habit among your students. This will take time and need constant reinforcement and encouragement. Classroom displays and question prompt cards are two effective ways to keep higher order thinking to the fore in your classroom.

    How Do I Assess the Development of Higher Order Thinking In My Students?

    As with most classroom assessments, you’ll assess your students against the learning objectives you have set for them. In the case of higher order thinking, composing student learning objectives using language such as that outlined above in reference to Bloom’s taxonomy can make assessment all the easier, if applied from the outset.

    It’s also helpful here to distinguish between the two main types of assessment: formative assessment and summative assessment.

    Formative assessment (or ongoing assessment) is largely used to inform planning. Assessing higher order thinking on an ongoing basis can be effectively achieved through oral questioning in class using the keywords and question prompts discussed earlier in this article. This can also be done as written tasks. The students’ responses to this type of questioning can provide useful data to help you understand where to go next with your planning and your teaching.

    Summative assessment (or end of topic, term, year etc assessment) can be a little trickier when it comes to assessing higher order thinking skills development. Unlike more knowledge-based areas of teaching and learning, you aren’t trying to get a snapshot of facts retained here. While something like a multiple-choice exam may work well for assessing that type of learning, project-based assessment may be more suited to assessing higher order thinking in the classroom.

    For example, you might ask your students to demonstrate their learning, or take what they’ve learned and create a new product. Essentially, you are looking to create an assessment opportunity that allows you to evaluate the students’ abilities to synthesize and create utilizing their new understanding.

    In Summary

    Higher order thinking involves students moving beyond simply recalling facts and repeating back exactly what they have learned.

    It focuses more on how we think, rather on what we think. It requires the student to ‘do’ something with what they’ve learned, rather than simply retain it and repeat it when necessary, such as we might do in an exam. This ‘do’ can helpfully be encapsulated in the form of verbs such as create, evaluate, design, analyze etc.

    Higher order thinking is a skill. And, just like any other skill, it can be taught and improved upon through practice.

    To ensure our students get the opportunity to acquire and hone their higher order thinking skills, we must create opportunities in the classroom.

    We must encourage a spirit of inquiry in our classrooms, as well as establish a classroom culture that encourages that spirit of inquiry in such a way that it becomes a habit. The exercises and strategies above will go some way to getting that process started.

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