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Higher Order Thinking


Higher Order Thinking

As students grow older, they are asked by their teachers to do more and more with the information they have stored in their brains. These types of requests require accessing higher order thinking (HOT).

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Most of us don’t think about thinking — we just do it. But educators, parents, and legislators have been thinking more about thinking, and thinking about how we want teachers to teach our students to think.

As students move from elementary to middle to high school, they are asked by their teachers to do more and more with the information they have stored in their brains. They may ask students to write a new ending for a book they’ve been reading, or they may ask why a certain character in the story behaved in a particular way. If they are studying sound in science, students might be asked to design and construct a new kind of musical instrument. In language arts, they may be asked to compare and contrast Julius Caesar and Adolph Hitler, or to talk about the lessons Nazism holds for world events today. These types of requests require higher order thinking.

Higher order thinking may seem easy for some students, but difficult for others. But here’s the good news: (1) higher order thinking, like most skills, can be learned; and (2) with practice, a person’s higher order thinking skill level can increase.

What is higher order thinking?

Higher order thinking is thinking on a level that is higher than memorizing facts or telling something back to someone exactly the way it was told to you. When a person memorizes and gives back the information without having to think about it, we call that rote memory. That’s because it’s much like a robot; it does what it’s programmed to do, but it doesn’t think for itself.

Higher order thinking, or “HOT” for short, takes thinking to higher levels than restating the facts. HOT requires that we do something with the facts. We must understand them, infer from them, connect them to other facts and concepts, categorize them, manipulate them, put them together in new or novel ways, and apply them as we seek new solutions to new problems. Following are some ways to access higher order thinking.


To understand a group of facts, it is important to understand the conceptual “family” to which this group of facts belongs. A concept is an idea around which a group of ideas revolves — a mental representation of a group of facts or ideas that somehow belong together. Concepts helps us to organize our thinking.

Football, basketball, tennis, swimming, boxing, soccer, or archery all fit the concept of sports. In addition, a person might also group these sports into two more specific concept categories: team sports, such as football, basketball, and soccer; and individual sports, such as tennis, swimming, boxing, and archery.

Concept formation

Concepts can represent objects, activities, or living things. They may also represent properties such as color, texture, and size (for example, blue, smooth, and tiny); things that are abstract (for example, faith, hope, and charity); and relations (for example, brighter than and faster than). Concepts come in a variety of forms, including concrete, abstract, verbal, nonverbal, and process.

  • Concrete or Abstract
    Concrete concepts are those that we can see, touch, hear, taste, or smell. Dogs, chairs, telephones and hamburgers are examples of concrete concepts. Abstract concepts can be used and thought about, but we cannot use our senses to recognize them as we can with concrete concepts. In order to understand abstract concepts, we either have to experience them or compare them to something else we already know. Imagination, friendship, freedom, and jealousy are examples of abstract concepts. Concrete concepts are generally easier to understand than abstract ones because a person can actually see or touch concrete concepts. However, as students move from elementary to middle to high school, they need to be able to grasp more and more abstract concepts. Not only are abstract concepts harder for students to learn, but they are also harder for teachers to teach.
  • Verbal or Nonverbal
    Verbal concepts are those that use language to explain them. Verbal concepts are described by using words, such as love, habitat, and peace. A concept may be both abstract and verbal, such as democracy, or both concrete and verbal, such as tool. Nonverbal concepts are those that lend themselves to being easily understood by being pictured or visualized, such as circle, cup, and evaporation.

    Many times both verbal and non-verbal concepts can be used to explain something. While many people prefer one over the other, it is good to think about a concept both by picturing it and by describing it with words. Constructing both visual and verbal representations yields a more thorough understanding of the concept.
  • Process
    Process concepts are those that explain how things happen or work. They often include a number of steps that a person must understand in order to master the concept as a whole. Photosynthesis is an example of a process concept in science. The photosynthesis process has certain steps that must take place in a certain order. Math and science courses use process concepts frequently.

Concept connection

When a student is exposed to a new concept, it is important to connect the new concept to concepts he already knows. He can do by classifying, categorizing, recognizing patterns, or chaining. The idea behind each of these connecting processes is to find all the “relatives” of that concept and make a “family tree” for the concept.

A first grader may be learning all about Thanksgiving. A larger concept that Thanksgiving belongs to could be holidays, and a larger concept that holidays belong to is celebrations. Other holidays may include Christmas, Hanukkah, and the Fourth of July. These are all celebrations. Some celebrations, such as weddings, birthdays and funerals, however, are not holidays. The larger concept of celebrations, then, includes celebrations that are holidays and celebrations that are not holidays.

A student needs to practice concept connection. When he is exposed to new information, he should look through his memory for things that seem related to the new information. If a student is discussing what is going on in Kosovo, for example, he might ask himself what the Civil War, the Holocaust, and Bosnia have in common with Gaza.


Bernice McCarthy, a well-known educator, summed it up like this: “Learning is the making of meaning. Meaning is making connections. Connections are the concepts.” McCarthy is saying that in order to learn something, we must understand its meaning. We make meaning by connecting new ideas to ones we already have. The links or chains with which we connect new ideas or information to ones we already know are their common concepts.

Schema is a pattern or arrangement of knowledge that a person already has stored in his brain that helps him understand new information. A student may have a definite image in his mind of what a reptile looks like from information he has learned about reptiles from pictures that he has been shown, by what he has read and by what he has been told. When he encounters a creature that he has never seen before, and the creature has all of the qualities that he has stored in his brain about reptiles, then he can infer or draw the conclusion that it probably is a reptile.

Some schemas are also linked to rules and predictable patterns that we have learned. Students can develop schemata for the tests a certain teacher gives, because she always gives the same type of test. This helps a student to know how to study for the test because he knows the kinds of questions the teacher is going to ask. A schema does not always follow a pattern or a rule, however, due to exceptions or irregularities. For example, students may think that they have mastered a spelling or grammar rule only to have the teacher give an exception to the rule. On the whole, however, using a schema or pattern is a way to make helpful predictions.

Metaphors, similes, and analogies

Metaphors, similes and analogies are ways to explain the abstract or unfamiliar by showing how the abstract/unfamiliar phenomena shares characteristics with or compares to a familiar object, idea or concept. Metaphors, similes and analogies may also result in the creation of an image in the mind’s eye. The ability to create similes, metaphors and analogies is a greater skill than understanding those created by others. A correctly formed metaphor, simile or analogy indicates that the person understands the subject matter so well that he can make another representation of it. This represents concept connection at higher levels. The capacity to reason using metaphors, similes and analogies is related to the ability to draw inferences from what is read or discussed.


Not all thinking is done in words. Sometimes a person may form visual images or pictures in her mind that are equally as meaningful as, or more meaningful than, words. When many of us are asked to give directions to a person, we are able to see a map or visual in our minds that helps us to give these directions. When you read a really good novel, do you visualize what the setting and the characters look like? Are you running your own movie camera? When you are asked the difference between a square and a trapezoid, do you see in your mind what each of these figures looks like? If you can do these things, then you have the ability to use visual imagery. Visualization is especially helpful to students in subjects such as literature, geography, biology, and math.


To infer is to draw a conclusion — to conclude or surmise from presenting evidence. An inference is the conclusion drawn from a set of facts or circumstances. If a person infers that something has happened, he does not see, hear, feel, smell, or taste the actual event. But from what he knows, it makes sense to think that it has happened. Sometimes inferring is described as “reading between the lines.” Authors often give clues that are not directly spelled out. When a reader uses the clues to gain a deeper understanding of what he is reading, he is inferring. Assessments of the ability to make inferences about written text are used to measure reading skill or listening skill.

Inferring is sometimes confused with implying. An author or speaker implies while the reader or listener infers. When we say that written text or a speaker implies something, we mean that something is conveyed or suggested without being stated outright. For example, when the governor said he would not rule out a tax increase, he implied that he might find it necessary to advocate raising some taxes. Inference, on the other hand, is a thought process performed by a reader or listener to draw conclusions. When the governor said he would not rule out a tax increase, the listener or reader may infer that the governor had been given new information since he had until now been in favor of tax reductions.

Problem solving

Not a day goes by that a person doesn’t have to solve problems. From the moment a person gets up in the morning and decides what to eat for breakfast, what to wear to work or to school, or how to explain to the teacher why he didn’t get his homework done or to his boss why his monthly report isn’t finished, he is solving problems. Problems can affect many aspects of our lives, including social, personal, health, and, of course, school.

Being able to problem solve in school is extremely important. What to write for an essay, how to solve a problem in math, choosing the correct materials for a science experiment, or even deciding who to sit next to at lunch can all be significant problems that a student must solve. How a student goes about solving his problems is important in terms of how successful the results will be. Problems need to be worked through systematically and logically in order to come to a satisfactory conclusion.

When problem solving, it is important to remember the steps needed to be taken. First, the problem needs to be defined and given definite limitations by drawing a mental box around it.

Being creative, considering several strategies, and trying out multiple strategies as a means toward reaching the solution is part of being a good problem solver. It is important in problem solving to remember that mistakes are learning opportunities because a person learns what doesn’t work. In scientific research, the goal is as often to prove a theory wrong as it is to prove a theory right. Thomas Edison was asked once how he kept from getting discouraged when he had made so many mistakes before he perfected his idea of the light bulb. He had tried over 2,000 ways before one worked. Edison responded that he had not made 2,000 mistakes, but rather that he had over 2,000 learning experiences that moved him closer to the answer.

Idea generation

How often have students heard the teacher say, “Let’s hear your ideas about this,” or “I need to have some more ideas about how this will work?” Coming up with original ideas is very important in higher order thinking. But what are ideas and where do they come from?


Some ideas come from insight — a spontaneous cohesion of several thoughts. An insight is like a light bulb turning on in a person’s head. Insights are great thoughts that help a person to see or understand something, quite often something that he has not been able to figure out before. For example, a student may be having trouble getting all of his homework done every night. Usually this student leaves his math homework until last because he doesn’t like math and math is hard for him. Suddenly, he considers that if he does his hardest subject first, the rest of the homework won’t seem so bad, and he might actually finish it all. This student just had an insightful idea about how to solve his homework problem.

Original Ideas

Some ideas are called original ideas. These are thoughts that a person has made up himself and has not copied from someone else. Many teachers look for students who can come up with ideas that no other students have had. To have original ideas, a person has to use his creative imagination.


One way to generate original ideas or to create a new method of doing things is by brainstorming. Brainstorming can be done individually or in groups, although we usually do this best in groups. It has been said that the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas. In order to have a lot of ideas, we need to brainstorm. When brainstorming, the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible, regardless of the feasibility of the idea.

If students brainstorm in a group, they can build on each other’s ideas. One student’s suggestion may give another student a terrific idea that he would not have thought of without the other student’s idea. Group members can “hitchhike” on each other’s ideas, and modify each other’s ideas in order to make new ideas. Becoming good at brainstorming has a practical application to adult life as well as being useful in school. Many new products, such as the iron that turns itself off, were developed by adults through brainstorming.

Critical thinking

Another way to form ideas is to use critical thinking. This involves a person using his own knowledge or point of view to decide what is right or wrong about someone else’s ideas. This is sometimes called “having a mind of your own.” It means that a person doesn’t have to believe or accept everything that someone else says or writes. For example, a friend decides that Babe Ruth is the best baseball player who ever lived. But another friend may feel that Mark McGuire deserves that title, and he may have lots of facts to support his position.

In addition to evaluating other people’s ideas, critical thinking can also be used to evaluate things. A person does this when he is deciding which new telephone or book to buy. Of course, critical thinking can sometimes be carried too far. Nobody likes the person who argues about everything and only feels his point of view is right. If used reasonably, however, critical thinking can help a student be successful in school and elsewhere.


Creativity can be measured by its fluency, flexibility, originality, and elaboration. The most creative minds are those for whom creative thought is fluid. The most creative thinkers are also flexible within their creating — they are willing and able to manipulate their thinking to improve upon that which they are creating. Creative thinkers are able to elaborate on their creation, largely because it is their creation and not one that has been borrowed. When creative thinkers are at the peak of their creative process, they may enter a state of concentration so focused that they are totally absorbed in the activity at hand. They may be in effortless control and at the peak of their abilities. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this fluid and elaborative state of mind as “flow.” Finally, creative thinkers are original; they do not “copy” the thinking of others but rather build their thinking from the ground up.

Creativity is usually thought of as divergent thinking — the ability to spin off one’s thinking in many directions. But creative thinking is also convergent, for when someone has created something, his thinking may converge only on ideas and information that pertain to that particular invention.

Successful intelligence

Robert Sternberg, a well-known professor of psychology and education at Yale University, says that successful people use three kinds of intelligence: analytical, creative, and practical. A successful person, according to Sternberg, uses all three.

Analytical intelligence uses critical thinking. The analytical student most often gets high grades and high test scores in traditional school. The analytical student likes school and is liked by her teachers. A person with analytical intelligence is good at analyzing material. Analytical thinking includes judging, evaluating, comparing, contrasting, critiquing, explaining why, and examining.

When students are given three choices for a project in science, they analyze each in their own way and then make their choices. In literature class, students critique a poem. In math class, they solve word problems. In history class, students compare and contrast the causes of World War I and World War II. And after school at football practice, the football coach and the team analyze their upcoming opponents each week.

Analytical thinking is also used to evaluate things. A person does this when he uses critical thinking to decide which computer or skateboard to buy. He also does this when he decides which movie to go to or which TV program to watch.

Creative thinkers are original thinkers who see things differently. Creative thinkers often feel confined by school because they are asked to do things in an uncreative way. They may often get average grades in a traditional school, ask questions that may seem odd or unusual, and are sometimes viewed by their teachers as a “pain” because they want to do things their way.

Creative thinking involves creating, discovering, imagining, supposing, designing, “what if-ing,” inventing and producing. Forming creative ideas means coming up with an unusual, novel, or surprising solution to a problem. People who have creative ideas are able to apply problem-solving skills in a new situation. They see relationships others just don’t see until they are pointed out. Inventors such as Thomas Edison took the information they had and regrouped it until something new happened. Creative thinking has novelty, flexibility and originality.

Have you ever seen an advertisement for something new on TV and thought to yourself, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” The person who thought of the product being advertised is now making millions because he connected ideas that had never been connected. He also solved a problem common to many people, and now many people are buying his product.

The invention of Velcro is a good example. The inventor of Velcro got his idea from a cock-a-bur that stuck on his pants when he walked in the woods. When he looked closely at the cock-a-bur on his pants, he saw that one “side” had lots of points (the cock-a-bur) and the other “side” was made of lots of round loops (the pants material). He also noticed how firmly the cock-a-bur was stuck to his pants. He decided that pointed and looped surfaces could be a good way to join two items. Thus, Velcro was born.

Being creative isn’t just about inventing. It’s also about solving unexpected problems that come up every day. For example, the Apollo 13 mission had a problem with the air filter in the lunar module. The filter in the lunar module needed to be replaced with the one from the command module, but the two filters had differently shaped fittings that could not be interchanged. The ground crew brainstormed and figured out a way to make the new filter fit into the old hole by using plastic baggies, duct tape, and a sock, and creatively solved the problem with the materials at hand.

Solutions to the world’s problems will never be found in textbooks. They reside in the minds of creative, inventive people. So it is important for all students to exercise their creative “muscles.”

People with good practical intelligence are said to have good common sense. They may not make the best grades in traditional school, but they know how to use knowledge, how to adapt it to different situations, and often how to get along with others. Practical thinkers can take knowledge and apply it to real life situations. Practical thinking involves practicing, demonstrating, using, applying and implementing information.

For example, in science class, students may tell all the ways reptiles are useful to people. In math class, students may develop a monthly food budget for a family of four based on actual food costs at the local grocery. In history class, students may explain how a certain law has affected their lives, and how their lives might be different if that law did not exist. In literature class, they may tell what general lesson can be learned from Tom Sawyer’s way of persuading his friends to whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence, and they give examples of how that method is used in today’s advertising. All of these are examples of how to use practical intelligence.

So which type of thinking — analytical, creative and practical — is best or most useful? There is no one, best way to be smart or to think. All three kinds of thinking are useful and interrelated, and all three contribute equally toward successful intelligence. Analytical thinking is good for analyzing and information. Creative thinking allows us to come up with novel solutions and original ideas. Practical thinking helps us adapt to our environments and use common sense in real life. The Velcro inventor first used creative intelligence to transform the relationship of cock-a-burs and his pants into a broader concept. He used practical intelligence to realize the many applications for his creative invention. He also used analytical intelligence to examine each of those potential applications and then decide which applications he would pursue first. Although many of us are stronger in one of the three intelligences than the other two, more success is achieved when we learn to balance and use all three.


Metacognition means thinking about thinking. There are two basic parts to metacognition: thinking about your thinking and knowing about knowing. Everyone needs to understand the way he or she thinks.

A person needs to know his mental strengths and weaknesses. Is he good at solving problems, understanding concepts, and/or following directions? Is he more analytical, creative or practical in your thinking? Does he learn best by listening, seeing, doing, or by using a combination of all three? Which memory techniques work best for him?

The second part of metacognition is monitoring and regulating how he thinks and learns. It is deciding how to best accomplish a task by using strategies and skills effectively. For example, how would he best learn new spelling words? By writing them out several times? By spelling them out loud a number of times? Or by spelling them out loud while he writes them a few times?

Thinking about the way he understands things and monitoring your progress can help a person become a better learner and thinker. For example, a student who knows he is not good at remembering assignments realizes he should use a plan book. A student who knows he is not a fast reader realizes that he must give himself extra time to complete the assignment. Both of these students know their weak spots and are doing something to get around them.

Robert Sternberg defines successful intelligence as mental self-management. Mental self-management can be described as an expanded view of metacognition. According to Sternberg, mental self-management is composed of six steps:

  1. Know your strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Capitalize on your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.
  3. Defy negative expectations.
  4. Believe in yourself. This is called self-efficacy.
  5. Seek out role models — people from whom you can learn.
  6. Seek out an environment where you can make a difference.

Teaching for wisdom

According to Sternberg, wisdom requires one to know what one knows and what one does not know, as well as what can be known and cannot be known. Further, Sternberg asserts that wise people look out not just for themselves, but for all to whom they have a responsibility. He further asserts that teachers should actively teach their students ways of thinking that will lead them to become wise.

Some common challenges

Problems that students may have with understanding concepts include:

  • A shaky grasp of the concept; understanding of a concept is shallow or narrow
  • Relying on rote memory too much
  • Poor concept comprehension monitoring
  • Problems with verbal concepts
  • Problems with nonverbal concepts
  • Problems with process concepts
  • Concept problems that are specific to a certain subject (math, science, literature, etc.)
  • Poor abstract conceptualization
  • Trouble making inferences

Problems that students may have with problem solving include:

  • Problem identification — knowing a problem when you see one, and stating the whole problem
  • Process selection — choosing the best process for solving the problem
  • Representing the information clearly — stating the information in a clear way
  • Strategy formation — forming a good strategy for solving the problem
  • Allocation of resources — spending your resources of time and energy wisely
  • Solution monitoring — checking to see if the solution is coming out right
  • Evaluating solutions — evaluating which solution or solutions are best

Thomas, A., and Thorne, G. (2009). How To Increase Higher Order Thinking. Metarie, LA: Center for Development and Learning. Retrieved Dec. 7, 2009, from

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