Teaching Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Here's Why It Matters Matters So Much

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Updated | 5 min read

Have you been hearing a lot about teaching and learning higher-order thinking skills lately? It may not be a new topic in educational circles, but higher-order thinking remains a hot topic of discussion, and there’s a real need to address ways to build higher-order thinking into your already crammed school year.

Imagine students leaving school without any number sense or reading comprehension skills. Imagine the outcry. Now, suppose for a moment students leave school without the life skills that they need to succeed in the 21st century. The sad reality is that many students do leave school without the ability to think for themselves and without the experience of thinking critically and creatively.

In order for our students to be equipped and prepared to live in the 21st Century, there is a very real need to teach our students to:

  • think about the problems that we face in life
  • explore possibilities
  • come up with creative solutions to problems
  • consider and appreciate other points of view
  • critically evaluate what we read and hear
  • make reasonable judgments

So how do you teach higher-order thinking? And for that matter, how do you define higher-order thinking? The Teach Starter teacher team did a deep dive into the educational research to save you time and get you primed on all the things you need to know to help your students!

What Is Higher-Order Thinking?

Maybe you’ve got this definition rattling around in your head, but it seemed right to start at the beginning here. When we talk about higher-order thinking, we are talking about the ability to think abstractly and make connections between concepts.

In that sense, higher-order thinking includes critical thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, as well as the ability to problem-solve and make decisions. Just as the name would imply, it is considered a more advanced level of cognitive processing than lower-order thinking, which mainly involves the recall of facts and information.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Higher-Order Thinking

So where did higher-order thinking come from?

The classical Greek philosopher, Socrates, is often thought of as the founder of critical thinking skills. In a nutshell, Socrates introduced the idea of teaching by not providing answers but instead, teaching by asking questions: questions that explore, investigate, probe, stimulate, and engage.

Far more recently, Bloom’s taxonomy was created by Benjamin Bloom in 1956. In one sentence, Bloom’s taxonomy is a set of six cognitive skills (in a specific order) that teachers, students, and anyone can use to promote higher-order thinking. Bloom’s framework was revised in 2001 by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl to produce the framework used by educators today. The six levels of the revised Bloom’s taxonomy are:

  • remembering — recalling known facts
  • understanding — explaining ideas or concepts
  • applying — use information in new situations
  • analyzing — drawing connections among ideas
  • evaluating — justifying a point of view or decision
  • creating — producing something new or original

Explore Bloom’s Taxonomy Teaching Tools for your classroom!

Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Kids

Children develop higher-order thinking skills at different rates, but generally, it is a gradual process that begins in early childhood and continues through adolescence and into adulthood.

According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, kids begin to develop higher-order thinking skills during the concrete operational stage, which typically occurs in upper elementary school, sometime between the ages of 7 and 11. During this stage, kids are able to think logically and understand cause-and-effect relationships.

As with all areas of the curriculum, there is a learning continuum for critical and creative thinking. Typically by the end of fourth grade, students will be able to:

  • pose questions to expand their knowledge about the world
  • identify main ideas and select and clarify information from a range of sources
  • collect, compare and categorize facts and opinions found in a widening range of sources.

In early adolescence, children begin to develop formal operational thinking, which is characterized by the ability to think abstractly and make logical deductions. This stage is typically reached as they’re heading out of elementary school and into high school — sometime around ages 11 to 15.

Typically by the end of sixth grade, students should be able to:

  • pose questions to clarify and interpret information and probe for causes and consequences
  • identify and clarify relevant information and prioritize ideas
  • analyze, condense, and combine relevant information from multiple sources

Focusing on helping your students build these skills has real benefits. Research has shown that teaching higher-order thinking skills can improve student achievement and prepare them for success in the 21st century.

One study by famed psychologist Richard Herrnstein (best known for his book The Bell Curve) and colleagues looked at 400 seventh graders and found that the students who were given critical thinking lessons made substantial and statistically significant improvements in language comprehension, inventive thinking, and IQ as compared to a control group. Other studies have found that students who receive instruction in higher-order thinking skills have better problem-solving abilities and are more likely to transfer their learning to novel situations.

How to Teach Higher-Order Thinking Skills

Teaching higher-order thinking skills in elementary school truly comes down to providing students with opportunities to question, connect concepts, and make inferences — much of the work you’re likely doing in your classroom right now. That said, here are some strategies you might want to employ in your classroom:

Use Graphic Organizers

Using graphic organizers, your students can actively engage with the material and make connections between different concepts, which can improve their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The visual tools can be vital for kids as they learn to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information, which are all important aspects of higher-order thinking.

Download concept maps, Venn Diagrams, and more graphic organizers for your students!

a women's rights leader graphic organizer sits on a classroom desk

Use Socratic Questioning

Asking a series of open-ended and probing questions to encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, and deep learning will help students to challenge assumptions, clarify concepts, and promote reasoning — all keys to improving their higher-order thinking skills.

Socratic questions can help your students to generate and test hypotheses — an important aspect of scientific thinking — as well as encouraging kids to synthesize information.

Teach QARs

Using Question-Answer-Relationships or QARs helps students learn to make connections between the information they find in a text and their prior knowledge, boosting their higher-order thinking skills.

Use Cooperative Learning

When small groups of students work together to complete a task or achieve a goal, they have opportunities to engage in active, collaborative, and constructive learning. They’re more likely to ask questions, share ideas, and engage in critical thinking, which can lead to a deeper understanding of the material. On top of that, the social interactions that take place in a cooperative learning setting can help to build student motivation, engagement, and self-esteem, which can also contribute to the development of higher-order thinking skills.

Use Problem-Based Learning

Present your students with real-world problems that require them to apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills to find a solution. Students will also benefit from learning to use step-by-step methods for solving problems as it presents them with a methodology for tackling problems in alternative ways.

Encourage Elaboration

When students provide answers in class or while completing tasks, encourage them to move beyond the basic answer and elaborate on the why with facts and ideas to support their answer.

Explore more higher-order thinking skills resources for teachers!


Banner image via Shutterstock/bernatets photo


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  • Patricia Johnson-Vierra

    Thank you for this much needed teacher resource. I feel so much better equipped and prepared for this coming school year!

    • Alison Smith

      Hi Patricia. thanks for your positive feedback. I hope that you and your class have lots of higher-order thinking fun. You are amazing!!! Have a great day! Ali

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