Now Trending: Higher-Order Thinking Skills

Higher-order thinking is trending

When this generation thinks of the term “trending,” images of Kanye West, Donald Trump, or the Super Bowl may appear. Trending is defined as a topic of several social media posts in a short period of time.  Depending on the time of year, different events or concepts receive lots of attention. Many people may not think about synchronized swimming, but during the Olympics the topic could easily start trending.

In the world of education, trending has been around much longer than social media. Common Core, Professional Learning Communities, Phonics, and Positive Discipline are all topics that were hot and highly discussed. Some topics are very short-lived, while others have stood the test of time. Each time a new idea pops up in education, many teachers become skeptical because there is no time for trending in the classroom.

Higher-order thinking in Bloom’s

Among the current conceptions receiving much attention is the use of higher-order thinking skills in the classroom. References to this idea can be found in recent scholarly articles, on teacher evaluation rubrics, and in some state legislation. However, while higher-order thinking may be trending, it certainly is not a new educational reform.

Higher-order thinking skills developed its roots in Bloom’s Taxonomy, which classifies learning objectives into specific levels based on complexity and mastery of skills. Often depicted as a pyramid, Bloom’s Taxonomy constructs its domains as a stacking of skills where you grow from the most basic to the most advanced.

From bottom to top, the skills are:

Remember: the most basic level of learning, which primarily consists of memorization and recall of facts
Understand: students explain concepts through discussion, identification or classification
Apply: students may take presented information and put it into a new context through interpretation, demonstration or as a means to solve problems
Analyze: the opportunity to take ideas and develop connections through compare/contrast, experimentation or examination
Evaluate: students use argument, research or appraisal to justify a stance or decision
Create: the most advanced level of learning, where new or original work is developed through formulation, investigation or construction

Ideally, a teacher can take a learning objective and build upon it by moving questioning and activities further up the pyramid until you reach the top. Students move from simply memorizing information to developing their own original work based on the original educational standard.


Should higher-order thinking skills be addressed with primary or elementary-aged children? There are a lot of basic skills yet to be addressed for many children. Initial exposure to new curriculum can be beneficial to students, but integrating questioning techniques early on that move a child from stating simple responses to offering explanations that require justification or examination can open up many more opportunities for academic growth. Climbing up the Bloom’s pyramid simply requires planning beyond rote learning:

  • A student could point to the number 86 on a numerical chart (understand)
  • Using concrete manipulatives to depict 5 X 4 (apply)
  • Order specific animals by life span (analyze)
  • Justify the reasoning behind keeping recess at school (evaluate)
  • Construct a Rube Goldberg machine (create)

Middle school

The middle school, or junior high, years are a time where students are expected to move from developmental knowledge to applicative knowledge. At this age, it is more common for teachers to embed application and analysis skills into their lesson planning. This approach can sometimes lead to a lack of scaffolding for students. The expectation of independent learning for students can leave a student floundering.

Donald Kauchak and Paul Eggen, educational researchers and authors, suggest teachers should provide just enough support so learners make progress on their own. Offering too much or too little assistance will interfere with the development of higher-order thinking skills. Higher-order thinking activities might include:

  • Classify objects as solid, liquid, or gas (understand)
  • Use only a compass to find a predetermined location (apply)
  • Separate elements as metallic or non-metallic (analyze)
  • Appraise the performance of presidential candidates at a recent debate (evaluate)
  • Assemble a model of a carbon atom (create)

High school

Higher-order thinking is not simply an educational venture. In order to develop into a successful citizen in the 21st century, students must be able to think critically and solve problems. At the high school level, the future is at the forefront of each student’s mind. Spending as much time as possible at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy will take learning to a whole new realm of relevancy. The key concepts of each subject should integrate a large amount of analysis, evaluation, and creativity. This can be a greater challenge for the teacher, but can be accomplished:

  • Create a survey and break down the information through spreadsheets (analyze)
  • Provide a thorough review of the effectiveness of various household cleaners (evaluate)
  • Construct a model of a city water system (create)

Education reforms will continue to trend in the future as they have in the past. As with any professional development workshop a teacher may attend, there is always something positive you can take away and use in your learning environment. Initiatives such as the integration of higher-order thinking skills as a standard in the classroom can move students away from simply regurgitating facts and take them to a level of thinking where they can become active developers of their own minds.

Dr. Jason Perez is the executive director of Teacher and Leader Effectiveness for the Oklahoma State Department of Education with 14 years of educational and administrative experience at the elementary level. He also serves as a faculty member at Concordia University – Portland, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at St. Thomas University.

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