Theories Related to Learning and Higher Order Thinking Skills

31 Jan 2012


No one has yet explained the process of thinking much better than Dewey (1933), who described it as a sequenced chaining of events. According to Dewey, this productive process moves from reflection to inquiry, then to critical thought processes that, in turn, lead to a conclusion that can be substantiated (p. 5) by more than personal beliefs and images. Thought can straighten out entanglements, clear obscurities, resolve confusion, unify disparities, answer questions, define problems, solve problems, reach goals, guide inferences, shape predictions, form judgments, support decisions, and end controversies.
According to Dewey, thinking does not occur spontaneously but must be evoked by problems and questions or by some perplexity, confusion or doubt. The observations or data at hand cannot supply the solution; they can only suggest it (p. 15). Furthermore, it is this demand for the solution (p. 14) that steadies and guides the entire process of reflective thinking; the nature of the problem fixes the end of thought, and the end controls the process of thinking (p. 15). Deweys conceptualization parallels current discussion and research about problem solving and metacognitive strategies and the importance of teaching students to think about their own thinking processes (Kauchak & Eggen, 1998). As students become aware of their thinking processes, they realize how their own personal makeup can play a role in how they make their choices and interpret situations (Jacobs, 1994; Tversky & Kahneman cited in Ohio State University, n.d.; Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982). Factors such as culture, experience, preferences, desires, interests, and passions can radically alter the decision-making process (Kahneman et al., 1982). Nevertheless, with time and more experience in systematic thinking, individuals and groups can develop the principles to guide decision making so that a certain manner of interpretation gets weight, authority as long as the interpretation settled upon is not controverted by subsequent events (p. 126).
The following section provides explanations of the work of key learning theorists, practitioners, and researchers in the field of thinking and learning. Researchers and teachers choose from a variety of frameworks for learning, with each framework approaching learning from simpler to more complex stages. However, the frameworks are artificialthey are only meant to be a means of defining the thinking/learning process; they can in no way capture the intricacies of the thinking process. The boundaries separating the forms of complex thinking are sometimes blurred and somewhat artificial, often reflecting the particular interest of individual investigators (Crowl et al., 1997, p. 170).
According to Piaget, the developmental stages are the key to cognitive development. School-age and adolescent children develop operational thinking and the logical and systematic manipulation of symbols. As adolescents move into adulthood, they develop skills such as logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts, scientific reasoning, and hypothesis testing. These skills are the foundation for problem solving, self-reflection, and critical reasoning (Crowl
et al., 1997; Miles, 1992). Recent research shows that children perform certain tasks earlier than Piaget claimed, vary in how rapidly they develop cognitively, and seem to be in transition longer than in the cognitive development stages (Crowl et al., 1997). However, research also shows that biological development, together with instructional techniques, affects the rate of movement from one stage of learning to the next.
According to Bruner, learning processes involve active inquiry and discovery, inductive reasoning, and intrinsic motivation. Stages of cognitive development are not linear; they may occur simultaneously. Bruner introduced the spiral curriculum in which learners return to previously covered topics within the context of new information learned. Both Piaget and Bruner focus on active learning, active inquiry and discovery, inductive reasoning, intrinsic motivation, and linkage of previously learned concepts and information to new learning. Stages include enactive (hands-on participation), iconic (visual representations), and symbolic (symbols, including math and science symbols) (Crowl et al., 1997).

In each of Blooms three taxonomies (cognitive, affective, and psychomotor), lower levels provide a base for higher levels of learning (Bloom, 1956; Kauchak & Eggen, 1998). Comprehension and application form linkages to higher order skills; here, the learner uses meaningful information such as abstractions, formulas, equations, or algorithms in new
applications in new situations. Higher order skills include analysis, synthesis, and evaluation and require mastery of previous levels, such as applying routine rules to familiar or novel problems (McDavitt, 1993). Higher order thinking involves breaking down complex material into parts, detecting relationships, combining new and familiar information creatively within limits set by the context, and combining and using all previous levels in evaluating or making judgments. There also appears to be some interaction across taxonomies. For example, the highest level of the psychomotor taxonomy involves the use of our bodys psychomotor, affective, and cognitive skills to express feelings or ideas as in the planning and execution of a dance performance or song designed to convey a particular message.
According to Gagn, intellectual skills begin with establishing a hierarchy according to skill complexity. Within this structure, discriminations are prerequisites for concrete and defined concepts, simple rules, complex higher order rules, and then problem solving. Cognitive strategies may be simple or complex (Gagn, 1985; Briggs & Wager, 1981; Gagn, Briggs, & Wager, 1988). Attitudes and motor skills, related varieties of learning, may involve lower as
well as higher order thinkingspanning from a simple application of a tool to a complex systems analysis and evaluation. Bloom (1956) and Gagn and Briggs (1974) allow for greater possibilities of teaching complex skills to younger learners and the possibility that learners can be young at any age, starting at lower levels and connecting to higher levels of thinking. This variation for learning capabilities does not fit as well in Piagets and Bruners frameworks.


To Marzano, the dimensions of thinking (Table 1) feed into dimensions of learning, both of which build upon contributions from other scholars and researchers (Marzano et al., 1988). For example, Gagn refers to the generalizations that describe relationships between or among concepts as rules (Gagn, 1974; Gagn, Briggs, & Wager, 1988), while Marzano calls them principles (Marzano et al., 1988, p. 37).

Much of the structure and information in dimensions of thinking and dimensions of learning relates not just to the work of Dewey (1933) but also to Glaser (1941). Glaser drew upon concepts articulated by Dewey and reported research from the 1930s and 1940s. Their work, together with contemporary research, shows the stability of several major concepts for higher order thinking. Glaser reported that the type of thinking required for problem solving
originates in a perceived difficulty, state of doubt, or perplexity. It begins with making acquaintance with the particular facts that create a need for definition and generalization, in order to see the correct difficulty to be overcome (p. 23), not with definitions, rules, general principles, classifications, and the like (Dewey, p. 186). Furthermore, the way a problem is apprehended or defined limits the kind of answers that will occur to the thinker. To get out of the rut requires a reformulation of the issue (Glaser, p. 25). This perspective suggests that higher order thinking involves more than a simple hierarchy or continuum. The importance of dispositions like attitudes and habits of mind also come into play in steering the thinking process in the right direction or taking it off course through aberrations of analysis, selection, association, inference, generalization, and language comprehension (pp. 2629), such as
ambiguity or misunderstanding of directions, word elements or language, or simple lack of information, material, or statements beyond the educational level of the individual;
habits of thinking, false analogies, and logical errors; previously conceived orientations, rigid mind sets, and the tendency to block the correct response; perhaps egocentric perceptions of relationships, particularly by young children; or to read ones own beliefs or prejudices into interpretations; and
failing to see what has to be solved; to isolate and define values of a problem; to consider all data, fallacies of inspection, observation, generalization, and confusion; and the influence of feelings and temporary physiological conditions.

Vygotsky (cited in Crowl et al., 1997) seems to have consolidated major concepts of cognitive development.
Cognitive development progresses as children learn; biological maturity accounts for elementary processes such as reflexive responses.
When learning a specific skill, students also perceive the underlying principles.
Social interaction and social culture play major roles in learning and cognitive development; children internalize knowledge most efficiently when others, such as teachers, parents, or peers, guide and assist them; significant people in an individuals life contribute to the development of higher mental functions; peoples cognitive processes function differently when working on their own versus working in groups.

Everyone has a zone of proximal development, and asking certain questions or giving suggestions will move the individual toward potentially higher levels; such support helps students in solving problems until they can solve them independently and may include hints, questions, behavior modeling, rewards, feedback, information giving, self-talk, or peer tutoring (pp. 6971).


Haladyna (1997) expressed the complexity of thinking and learning dimensions by classifying four levels of mental processes (understanding, problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity) that can be applied to four types of content (facts, concepts, principles, and procedures). Applying a set of skills across dimensions of content fits well with the actual complex, recursive, and systemic processes of higher order thinking.

According to Gardner (1983), multiple intelligences form a major part of an individuals dispositions and abilities. These intelligences are independent of each other and account for the spectrum of abilities used in different fields of work, such as teaching, surgery, athletics, dancing, art, or psychotherapy.
Gardners theory, which regards intelligence as having seven dimensions (Table 2), has been receiving recent attention related to teaching (Kauchak & Eggen, 1998). Schools are shifting curricula and teaching methods to accommodate the diverse abilities and talents of students (Crowl et al., 1997). Teachers may have a greater impact by creating lessons that use the various types of intelligence in classroom activities (p. 187).

Although Gardner is commonly credited with theories related to multiple intelligences, others also have developed models of thinking that reflect the multifaceted nature of intelligence. Table 3 shows a variety of models reflecting specific abilities: Gardners multiple intelligences, Guilfords structure of intellect, and Sternbergs triarchic theory. Some of the abilities associated with the different types of intelligence include forms of thinking, reasoning, and problem solving.
Certain components of models or theories of intelligence are similar to factors identified in models and theories of learning. For example, Guilfords products (cited in Crowl et al., 1997, p. 184) resemble the learning outcomes described by Gagn, Briggs, and Wager (1988). Units are like the lower levels of discriminations and verbal information, classes are like the classification of concepts, relations are like the rules formed by relating one concept to another, and systems are like the systems of rules integrated into problem-solving strategies.
Similarly, Guilfords content areas are ways of receiving and perceiving information and instruction, and Guilfords operations parallel the mental processes that teaching strategies attempt to influence. There also are parallels with the notion of learning capabilities, in that Gagn and Briggs refer to stating, classifying, demonstrating, generating, and originating as the functions associated with different learning outcomes (i.e., stating verbal information, classifying
concepts, demonstrating rules, generating problem solving, and originating cognitive strategies). These functional terms guide instructional designers in their specification of learning strategies and test items and have meanings that are similar to Guilfords terms of cognition, memory retention, memory recording, and divergent and convergent production.

It is often difficult to distinguish intelligence from the higher order thinking processes. McPeck (1990), in examining the dimensions of critical thinking as defined by Watson and Glaser, found the characteristics identified to be very similar to what we normally mean by general scholastic ability, or intelligence (p. 23). This observation illustrates the type of interdisciplinary extensions that have been occurring through dialogue and research about how to describe the intimate connection between the kinds of knowledge and their corresponding kinds of skills (p. 28). McPeck concludes that it is just as important to teach the structure of a discipline (p. 49) as to teach thinking skills, and that most problems are in fact multi categorical and not domain-specific (p. 113).

The concept of multiple dimensions of thinking has long-standing stability in teaching and learning when viewed in a larger context. For example, Symonds, in his 1936 book Education and the Psychology of Thinking, stated that Thinking is not the application of independent units, one at a time, but rather a skillfully conducted interplay of habits and skills (as cited in Glaser, 1941, pp. 66?67). This skillful interplay of habits and skills matches the concepts of Dewey (1933) as well as the more contemporary dimensions of learning of McREL (1997). Another dimension, content and context, provides the individual with something to think about, but serves primarily as the vehicle that carries the thinking skills (Fogarty & McTighe, 1993, p. 161).


Bloom, B. S. (Ed). (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: McKay.

Crowl, T. K., Kaminsky, S., & Podell, D. M. (1997). Educational psychology: Windows on teaching. Madison, WI: Brown and Benchmark.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston: D. C. Heath and Company.

Fogarty, R., & McTighe, J. (1993). Education teachers for higher order thinking: The three-story intellect. Theory into Practice, 32(3), 161?169.

Gagn, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning (4th ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Gagn, R., & Briggs, L. (1974). Principles of instructional design. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Gagn, R. M., Briggs, L. J., & Wager, W. W. (1988). Principles of instructional design. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Glaser, E. M. (1941). An experiment in the development of critical thinking. New York: AMS Press.

Haladyna, T. M. (1997). Writing test items to evaluate higher order thinking. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A. (Eds.). (1982). Judgment under uncertainty: heuristics and biases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marzano, R. J., Brandt, R. S., Hughes, C. S., Jones, B. F., Presseisen, C. S., Rankin, S. C., & Suhor, C. (1988). Dimensions of thinking: A framework for curriculum and instruction. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

McDavitt, D. S. (1993). Teaching for understanding: Attaining higher order learning and increased achievement through experiential instruction.

McPeck, J. (1990). Critical thinking and subject specificity: A reply to Ennis. Educational Researcher, 19(4), 1012.

McREL. (1997). Putnam educational standards and curriculum standards for reasoning the thinking [On-line]. Available:

Miles, C. (1992). The fourth R: Checklists for assessing thought in action. Journal of Developmental Education.

Simpson, D. E., & Cohen, E. B. (1985). Problem solving questions for multiple choice tests: A method for analyzing the cognitive demands of items.

Sources: Higher Order Thinking Skills, FJ King, Ph.D. , Ludwika Goodson, M.S. , Faranak Rohani, Ph.D.

TAGS Higher Order Thinking Skills Learning Theory

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