Higher Order Thinking

Higher-order thinking

Are students using higher order thinking operations within a critical framework?


Higher-order thinking requires students to manipulate information and ideas in ways that transform their meaning and implications. This transformation occurs when students combine facts and ideas in order to synthesise, generalise, explain, hypothesise or arrive at some conclusion or interpretation. Manipulating information and ideas through these processes allows students to solve problems and discover new (for them) meanings and understandings. When students engage in the construction of knowledge, an element of uncertainty is introduced into the instructional process and makes instructional outcomes not always predictable; i.e., the teacher is not certain what will be produced by students. In helping students become producers of knowledge, the teacher’s main instructional task is to create activities or environments that allow them opportunities to engage in higher-order thinking.

Lower-order thinking occurs when students are asked to receive or recite factual information or to employ rules and algorithms through repetitive routines. Students are given pre-specified knowledge ranging from simple facts and information to more complex concepts. Such knowledge is conveyed to students through a reading, work sheet, lecture or other direct instructional medium. The instructional process is to simply transmit knowledge or to practise procedural routines. Students are in a similar role when they are reciting previously acquired knowledge; i.e., responding to test-type questions that require recall of pre-specified knowledge. More complex activities still may involve reproducing knowledge when students only need to follow pre-specified steps and routines or employ algorithms in a rote fashion.

Continuum of practice

  1. Students are engaged only in lower-order thinking; i.e., they either receive, or recite, or participate in routine practice and in no activities during the lesson do students go beyond simple reproduction.
  2. Students are primarily engaged in routine lower-order thinking a good share of the lesson. There is at least one significant question or activity in which some students perform some higher-order thinking.
  3. Almost all students, almost all of the time, are engaged in higher-order thinking.



The topic of a year 2 Maths lesson was classification and grouping generally and, more specifically, set theory. The teacher brought in a range of diverse objects. Students, in groups, had to categorise them according to criteria which the students themselves determined in their groups.

At the end of that part of the lesson, the groups rotated around the classroom and in groups suggested the basis of classification. The teacher then gave hula hoops to each group and asked them to place them in an overlapping set fashion. Instructions were given as to what was desired, with the request that objects in the overlapping or intersecting set had to have characteristics in common with each of the hoops. The groups did this and again rotated and discussed the basis of the classification.

The basis of the classification was determined by the students and could be determined for a variety of reasons for example, they were all yellow, or all dirty, all cubes etc. Students simply had to articulate reasons and justify their classifications. The lesson concluded with the teacher making comments regarding the use of symbolic representations in Maths.


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