John Jensen: Three Steps to Higher-Order Thinking

By John Jensen, Ph.D.

U.S. education has long been concerned about “higher order” skills missing from students’ learning.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

I suggest here that we obtain such skills for students if we 1) teach them how to stimulate and challenge each other, 2) arrange time and structure for them to do so, and 3) provide them solid competence with a body of knowledge to engage with.

The need has drawn recurring attention.  Recently, in “Studies: Educators Lagging in Teaching Higher-Order Skills” (Edweek Online, February 10, 2012), Anthony Rebora explores current findings from the Gates Foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching study and others. Observers deployed to classrooms to watch what teachers do, how they deliver higher-order skills, using five instruments to score them on forty-eight dimensions. The study concluded that practices such as analysis, problem-solving, investigation, participation in developing reasoning and meaning, questioning, discussing, engaging students, and relevance are short-changed.

Scrutiny, in other words, was on teachers in front of a class, guiding it by activities deemed “higher order.” Reviewing the MET page by page, however, I found little reference to what students do, as though to say that we find the key behaviors isolated among teachers’ actions. If teachers just engage students properly, the latter’s higher mental processes presumably vault into action, and students eventually engage in such thinking. The central actor is the teacher. Students are accounted for mainly as they register “achievement gains” from test scores.

This teacher-centric focus has problems.

For one, it’s functionally impossible for a teacher to elicit a response from every child about every issue. Instead, the students most vocal and quick of mind do most of the thinking, leaving a significant number of the class (often even a majority) unchallenged. Watching it happen to another does not automatically challenge oneself.  Since teacher time is limited, we almost guarantee results at the student level falling into a curve. At worst it will resemble a hockey-stick lying on its back, with the students who occupy its handle continuing their sojourn there.

We remedy this factor by considering what it takes for students to elicit higher order thinking in each other. If the teacher doesn’t have time to jar such thinking out of every student, why not enlist more help?  Why not divide the workload? We change the question from “How do you teach higher order skills?” to “How can students elicit higher order thinking from each other?” If we can figure out how, many more of them can aid the effort, and they are  motivated to do so because their interaction meets social needs.

The basic behaviors are not mysterious. Students can quickly improve their ability to question each other, conduct a discussion, explore relevance, and engage each other’s participation.  Refined skills in group dynamics have been around for at least a half century. They can be taught directly, and once beginning to use them, students can readily develop them further. We can put them in students’ toolbox and allocate class time for all to use them simultaneously.

Once grasping what comprises a challenging question, students can draw out each others’ ideas endlessly. If group discussion is the activity, again simple guidelines all can learn quickly can channel it in groups of two, three, or four. They can practice and acquire skills of eliciting, questioning, discussing, and reasoning to process any subject the teacher introduces, and do the same with including everyone, developing relevance, and so on. The key shift is obtaining the straightest route to what students do rather than an indirect focus on what teachers do.

It’s important to note, however, that even such skills in themselves do not comprise higher-order thinking. If anyone knows a successful scientist or businessman who credits his/her success to higher order thinking learned in high school, I would appreciate learning their identity. A question is a form of speech and no more higher order than learning school hallway rules. “No running in the hallway” and “Carry a hallway pass with you” are empty abstractions until applied by these students to thisschool and this hallway. A guideline is irrelevant until one fills it with content. Guidelines for discussing, including everyone, uncovering relevance, and reasoning have zero usefulness until they are about something. They are like rules in a Drivers Manual that disappear from our thinking until we are behind the wheel applying them in the moment.

If I ask a student, “Please reason for me,” he looks at me blankly and answers, “Reason how about what?” Operation today is confined to content today. If I present a list of assertions and ask students to sort them by whether they are a principle theme or a subordinate idea, the task works only if the assertions hold such a relationship. If I ask for a sequence of reasoning, students are halted if the content before them contains no such sequence. Knowledge mastered as a field exposes grappling points of comparable dimension where new angles of thought can build on what is known. Consider parallels:

  • In games a basketball coach exhibits the best coaching techniques available but his team loses—because his players have poor skills.
  • A conductor leads an orchestra flawlessly, but it produces a dreadful sound because the musicians don’t know the notes.
  • A movie director employs every skill in directing a new film, but it turns out horribly because the actors don’t know their parts.

In schools, an inescapable dependence exists between the skills used and the content they apply to. Imagine the different effect of a teacher’s actions in two contexts:

analysis—with no data mastered or much data already mastered

problem-solving—no knowledge mastered or much already mastered

investigation—knowing nothing previously or much previously

reasoning—with much information or little

questioning—about much data or little

discussion–about much knowledge or little

relevance—to a wide spectrum of meaning or a constricted one

We can liken higher order thinking to a circle of children tossing a ball to each other—this one to that, that one to another.  The circle may be small with just one ball, but stimulation rises steadily as more children join the circle, and three or four balls move across the circle at the same time.

As ideas connecting from one point of the mind to another, we can regard higher order thinking as the mind tying together ever wider resources within its own stores. Whatever the outer classroom activity, it benefits a student to the degree that it occurs inside his/her own thinking.  It’s thinking we want of a higher order, not just the actions of a teacher.  Our activity must cause a different process in the student’s mind. If there is much in the mind already, more elaboration of it is possible.  If there is little, then little is possible. We refine and develop only what is there. In exploring, we go beyond where we are now. In reasoning, we begin from the forms of thought in our mind now. If we question or discuss, our jump-off is our present understanding.

I suspect that many teachers reverse this model. They would like to teach new material by involving students by means of higher order skills. They take time to question, elicit discussion, engage participation, and so on.  They note that this effort can be a creative time and stimulate student interest and cooperation.

If we probe into the mental processes of each student in the room, on the other hand, we may get a different take on what has occurred. Two-thirds of the students may experience mainly responding to the teacher. To the extent of their cooperativeness, they react to the teacher’s initiative.  They will board the teacher’s train if drawn aboard. A smaller number need to be corralled more assertively, and a few actually think proactively as the teacher hopes. They have the personal confidence not to worry about being right or wrong, but are attracted to the challenge the teacher poses.

For the quick of mind, in other words, while higher order thinking may engage them in the subject, the same direction may easily bypass the immediate needs of the bulk of the class.  If the teacher’s intent is to include everyone, then the activity needs to be arranged so that the challenge reaches all personally. In practical terms, this is less likely if teachers expect to interact with students one at a time.

A third point involves why people would want to use higher order thinking once they learn how.  Assuming you yourself employ these capabilities, where in your life do they emerge?

Aside from resolving practical problems at home or work, I would submit that most such thinking passes through a single channel, the desire to make sense to another person. We probably elicit the most higher-order thinking for students (plus interest, comprehension, and buy-in) if we simply arrange for them to challenge each others’ thinking.  I suspect that a high student score in sense-making would outperform all the other teacher-technique measures the MET might supply.  And this measure in turn would be fed most by high scores on “Enabled students to feel passionately interested in subject.”  When you feel passionate about a subject, you look instinctively about its direction, meaning, relevance, and significance. You enjoy processing it with others and exploring its angles.

We can probably safely generalize about U.S. education that students don’t learn how to challenge each other’s thinking, and few teachers even pose the question of how to generate passionate interest. Teachers can learn such skills, however, and their potential application varies with the amount of knowledge students have.

What needs to be in place is that students already know the material competently, at least competently.  Without this, the whole “higher order” discussion runs aground.  The idea of what constitutes student competence with learning has been so fractured into what is testable that it has departed from common sense.  You yourself know you can think in a higher order way about what you know if you can take a walk, bring up an issue solely by the power of your own mind, view it from multiple angles, and as a result of that activity advance your own thought into something you hadn’t realized before. And you make such thinking socially (include educationally) relevant when you can explain it to someone else in response to their question, and do so as well six months from now as today.

To obtain that outcome, we need to observe sequence, what comes ahead of what, and be wary of promises to jump steps. It fights the tide to ask teachers to teach (or students to learn) higher order skills in the absence of sheer competence with the subject matter the skills must apply to. Basketball players must practice the fundamentals, musicians their music, and actors their lines. If we don’t pour the foundation of the building, we should not promise students the penthouse.

The first book of John Jensen’s three-book Practice Makes Permanent series was issued February 22 by Rowman and Littlefield, titled Teaching so Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Permanent. Readers interested in previewing the second book due out in mid-summer, titled Changing Attitudes and Behavior: Practice Makes Permanent, can contact him at

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