John Jensen: Practicing Higher Order Thinking

by John Jensen, PhD

I have a bone to pick with mainstream education—several in fact. This one concerns teaching students higher order thinking.

Let’s start back in the more basic. For years I’ve been pointing out a simple solution to heal much that ails education.  Teachers could jumpstart learning just by allotting more practice-time for students to explain their learning to each other. It has puzzled me why such an obvious tool is applied so little, but here is my guess.

A possible objection arises from a limited view of practice. Maybe you associate practice with rote repetition, or you may presume that we already do the basics adequately. Concerned over the widespread deficits in higher order thinking, you might even believe that we underrate children by drilling them on the basics. Shouldn’t we aim higher?  You may conclude that the glitch lies in how we transition to higher order.

If my guess is even close, your view misreads what is required for higher order thinking.

It begins with thinking. Hold off on the higher order for a bit. We first distinguish thinking from stimulus-response reactions to one’s environment. Practically minute by minute during the school day, students are stimulated toward a desired response and must struggle against this fundamental limitation of school design in order to think.

In thinking, we sustain a perspective deliberately. We can pose a thought, but if we turn aside from it, it persists sufficiently that we can return to it.  We can circle it, challenge it, modify it, and combine it with other thoughts, but doing so depends on our fundamental  ability to hold a given thought in mind.  How fruitful this becomes depends on the quality of the related thoughts we can network around the first one, on how much we know firmly that we can serve up mentally. Working with that array, we may develop novel ways to advance toward our purpose. That’s thinking.

As I define it, we cannot think competently about what we don’t know at least roughly. Data first gathers around a theme. We access information about the world and ideas, and the aggregation of thoughts that reliably stick together then comprise a mental field. Higher order thinking begins first with thought, and then with enough of it to form a mental field. Once in possession of the field, we can redirect it. Applying the field in our life, we intuitively draw on higher order skills that serve our need. Functions we use frequently become familiar and even habitual. We gather details in multiple ways and render them into flexible mental equipment we can assign to new tasks.

After we once possess the basic tools for thought, a second requirement for advanced thinking is time actually spent at it, inwardly moving these pieces about.  We are told that Albert Einstein’s work day was mainly sitting in a chair and thinking.  His tool kit of already-known mental resources was so well developed that he could draw on them at will without distraction.  In this second requirement we find a huge discrepancy with schools. Students typically do not develop a competent mental field (they got their grades by cramming and other surface-satisfying means), and even if they do, they have no time to think about it.  Pursuing mental competence for students, we at least should make it possible for them to learn the basics permanently and then have time to use them..

The relationship between such conceptual freedom on the one hand and first learning the basics on the other was illustrated in the life of the great early 20th century mathematician Ramanujan.  When he was still quite young growing up in India, teachers recognized his extraordinary aptitude and gave him advanced math texts.  With no one to help him, and denied many opportunities for advancement often because he failed other subjects (he insisted on thinking about math), he nonetheless taught himself, developed practically the whole corpus of mathematics known in his time, and made many original contributions.  Still young when he was discovered by the mathematical community, he died in 1920 at age 32, probably due to malnutrition.

Those who knew him mourned at what he might have accomplished had he been able to learn quickly what was already known and could have applied his prodigious ability to the leading edge of unknowns.  The lesson he presents is that higher order thinking begins with grasping what others have discovered already: ”We reach beyond the giants by standing on their shoulders.”

Failing to deliver the basics solidly, we delay moving students to their own leading edge of reflective thought.  We want them to have the essential givens quickly in order to turn them loose to discover more. Suspecting a Ramanujan among them, we want to bring him or her along expeditiously this time.

Good teaching draws on a constant interplay between practice of what is known, and application to what is not.  Say a teacher wishes to increase students’ ability to analyze a situation.  He might pick an event from the day’s news, ask “How would you analyze this?”, and wing it with whatever they say. But he also may deliver tools.

“I’m going to read a brief incident to you,” he might say, “and I want you to analyze it in terms of four factors: perspective, ownership, motivation, and time.  How do these apply to the incident? “  He might discuss each of the four, relate it to their personal experience, answer questions about it, narrate the incident, and turn them loose to apply the factors.

Out of such a lesson, what do we imagine the teacher wants students to retain for life? He would probably regard the incident he narrates as easily replaced.  But twenty years later he would see them all able to call up the four factors and apply them to fresh situations with mature insight. He would have them practice the factors till permanent. Similarly with other higher order functions. First supply the information that will become the mental field to be treated. Then supply the perspectives you want students to learn, and then allow enough time for them to apply the second to the first.

Simple things learned thoroughly become a lifetime resource. If years before we want to make students competent with challenges later in life, we know how to do it: Identify what they are to learn that might be useful later, learn it, and practice it to permanence. That’s all. Each thing they learn deeply becomes a tool they can call on, but what they learn only to familiarization is time largely wasted—momentary interest that soon dissipates.

To enable students to gain flexible and expanding knowledge, have them practice the essential givens — higher order included — till they are learned perfectly and permanently. Spend the remaining time available applying them to practical conditions, and the higher order thoughts will render their appropriate service.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request:

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at