Helping students develop higher-order thinking skills

Could your 7th-graders predict the future of the whale population on earth after reading two stories about endangered species? Could your 11th-graders represent both sides of the debate on fracking, or evaluate the quality of a piece of writing?

Those are considered higher-order thinking skills, or critical thinking skills. And according to evidence from test results and a mounting chorus of educators, they are in short supply among U.S. K-12 students and even college graduates.

For example, just-released New York City scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed 8th-graders could locate information in a text and perform computations but were far less adept at the higher-order skills of applying and evaluating knowledge.

Applying, evaluating, inferring, interpreting, building, estimating. These are thinking skills that indicate students’ ability to do college-level work. But now even college students do not have them.

They “may have developed subject-specific skills,” a new book on higher education finds. But in terms of analytical competency, they are “academically adrift … failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master,” write Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

Developing these skills requires students to debate, write and master structured argument, the very activities that middle and high school teachers say they must abandon to respond to the demands of minimum-standards, test-driven curriculums. But such demands are smothering education.

Thinking as a rose

Back in 1956, Benjamin Bloom, a Chicago educational psychologist, created a “taxonomy” of cognitive skills that many veteran teachers will recognize from their own early days of preparation. It was updated a decade ago by a former student of Bloom’s, together with cognitive psychologists and specialists in curriculum, instruction and assessment. They updated the wording, added dimensions to the thinking processes that Bloom described, and broadened it into a tool for curriculum writing and test design as well as teaching.

Bloom’s Taxonomy, beautifully represented in its original form as a sort of rose-petal graphic, shows thinking evolving through several stages of complexity, each a scaffold for the next. To elucidate the taxonomy, I’ve borrowed explanations and examples from the exceptional website of Glenn Hammond, an education professor at the University of Manitoba, updating it with the newer terminology and structure.

Bloom's TaxonomyGraphic by John M. Kennedy, Creative CommonsThis graphic usues Bloom's original terminology for the six levels of thinking. Click here for a larger version >> Bloom’s taxonomy begins with remembering (“knowledge” in the original), the foundation from which all higher thinking grows. (“Define stream bank, flood plain and substrate. Draw and label a diagram of a typical stream.”)

It leads to understanding, in which students make the knowledge their own. (“Describe in your own words what happens when a stream’s velocity slows.”)

Information becomes useful when it can be generalized by applying it. (“Tell a homeowner what problems he might encounter by building on a floodplain.”)

Creative thinking and problem solving start at Bloom’s fourth level, analyzing, defined as the ability to take information apart and understand the relationship of parts to the whole. (“Contrast building in the coastal zone with building in a river floodplain.”)

A further step forward in complex thinking is evaluating, the ability to make judgments when there is no one right answer. (“Decide whether you are in favor of building on a floodplain; defend your position in a debate.”)

At the pinnacle is creating, the thinker’s ability to invent something new using his knowledge. (“Design an environmentally responsible subdivision to be built near the Mississippi River Delta.”)

The soul of an education

Many teachers would recognize these stages of learning and readily grasp their importance. “The real difficulty is how to teach it, how to give students rich, authentic opportunities to develop those higher-order skills,” said Jonathan Molofsky, who taught a graduate-level course on critical thinking for several years and recently retired from the UFT Teacher Center.

In fact, he said, “We don’t so much teach higher-order thinking as provide many opportunities for students to engage in it.” That includes providing models, examples and assignments where students must analyze, assess evidence and support opinions. It also flows from having students detect common fallacies in arguments — “ad hominem arguments, begging the question, post hoc ergo propter hoc, bandwagon, too-broad generalizations, etc.,” Molofsky said.

Take the issue of hydrofracturing with chemicals to release natural gas deposits in underground shale, better known as “fracking.” “Fracking would create jobs and bring down the cost of natural gas, which is cleaner than other forms of energy,” Molofsky reasons. “However water is more vital to our state than cheap energy. Contamination of the water table with fracking cannot be undone. Balancing the need for jobs and energy with the possible permanent loss of clean water suggests we should hold off until geologists reach agreement on the safety of fracking.”

Giving students the opportunities to work at that level of thought is “the soul of an education,” in the words of Mike Schmoker, the author of two widely cited books on raising students’ cognitive abilities.

Yet too often our schools do not leave room for teachers to have this kind of dialogue with students. They don’t value the creative and sometimes challenging minds that will develop from higher-order thinking. Maybe they believe students don’t need it, or they won’t miss it. We will surely regret that kind of thinking.

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