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How Basic Education Limits Students’ Ability for Higher Order Thinking

By Jess, published on 07/06/2019 Blog > Tutoring > Advice for Tutors > The Limitations of Core Standards on Higher Order Thinking Skills

It’s really not hard to see why so many students are able to obtain their school leaving certificate yet have no idea how to think or reason through a problem: all you have to do is ask a school teacher.

Assessment, marking work and reporting students’ progress make administrators out of teachers.

These tasks take up too much of the teachers’ lesson planning time and too much classroom time, with the net effect being more teachers abandoning the profession before replacement teachers can be fully qualified.

That phenomenon has a spiral effect. Because there are fewer teachers, the student-teacher ratio increases: more kids in class mean more papers to mark and more reporting to do.

Where, in all of this, do teachers get to use all of the classroom strategies they learned in their teacher training?

If students cultivating higher order thinking skills were simply a matter of teacher availability, solving the problems that beset teachers would mean that they would be available to encourage students to think critically and solve problems, right?

To be sure, the pressure teachers labour under is untenable and something must be done. Hopefully soon!

However, if the Department for Education intends to arm British students with 21st-century skills and help them learn how to think, they will have to make some major changes to our education system.

Let’s take a look at where such changes could be made and how much better general education could be – for teachers and for our students.

Multiple choice exams test memory more than any depth of knowledge Multiple choice questions do not require critical thinking or problem-solving Image by tjevans from Pixabay

The Ongoing Assessments

Our DfE is keen to know that what they’re doing is going to show a good return by turning out students who are ready for both college and career.

To that end, students must demonstrate their depth of knowledge by sitting exams – in virtually every subject, possibly after every study unit, but certainly after every trimester, semester, and at the end of every Key Stage.

And then, the icing on the cake: GCSEs and A-Levels.

When seen from this perspective, it seems our kids are tested more than educated, doesn’t it?

That perspective also begs the question: what, exactly, is being taught?

Here, we arrive at the inevitable claim of teaching to the test: for all of the summative assessments being conducted, our national curriculum leaves little room for teachers to make use of any classroom strategies they might have picked up during their professional development.

Or, if you prefer analogies, you might say that teachers are harnessed to a careening carriage and expected to keep upright and in control.

Teaching to the test is only half of the trouble.

The other half – and perhaps the bigger issue at hand is that a lot of the learning in today’s classrooms is more a matter of memorization than a cognitive process.

That claim is substantiated by the fact that exams seem to consist of more multiple choice questions than essay questions.

There is value in multiple choice, but the downsides far outweigh them: one can score well on such an exam by guessing or merely memorising the correct answers.

There is nothing wrong with building a fantastic memory but, no matter how many questions a student answers correctly on a bubble sheet, it still gives no indication on how well s/he understands the concepts s/he is being tested on.

Asking the right questions leads to building cognitive skills You can encourage your students to build cognitive skills by asking open-ended questions Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

On Building Cognitive Skills

Cognition: the mental act or process by which knowledge is acquired.

For children in the Early Years Foundation Stage, the education program is all about building cognitive skills.

Teachers in these classes employ a variety of teaching strategies designed to maximise student learning, such as brightly coloured visual material, music and movement.

Students are mainly taught through games and play but are expected to sit still for maths and literacy lessons.

In fact, EYFS is a fantastic example of educational psychology at work: it emphasises teaching and learning methods and is focused on cognitive development.

And then, as though a water tap had been suddenly shut off, all of the pedagogy that addressed every learning style and all of the active learning is replaced by teacher-centred instruction.

Starting at Year 1, students are treated to teacher-led lessons. Reading skills are cultivated, math and science are taught… but little critical thinking is encouraged.

In fact, relatively little room is given for students to exercise any kind of thinking skills. That pattern follows students throughout their academic career and it is not the fault of any teacher.

Learn more about higher order thinking here.

Common Core Versus Blooms Taxonomy

The term ‘common core’, imported from across the pond, represents the most important subjects of a curriculum.

Maths, English and science are considered common core. Other subjects, like arts and humanities, are not considered core subjects.

You can find a good reflection of UK schools’ core subjects in the compulsory GCSEs: the subjects that everyone must sit are considered ‘core’.

Of our core subjects, only English and Literature truly lend an opportunity for group work; for students to cultivate critical thinking skills.

For example, a teacher may group students and assign them various aspects of the text to dissect and render conclusions about. Or s/he might task student groups to engage in character analysis, to discuss the setting and the period of the piece…

Opportunities for creative thinking are much more difficult to spot in other classes.

The critical question here is: while students’ formal learning goals are generally met – often with the help of a private tutor, are their learning needs being met?

An Overview of Benjamin Bloom

Mr Bloom was an American educational psychologist who pioneered the classification of educational objectives. Specifically, his work resulted in the understanding of three realms of knowledge acquisition:

  • the cognitive domain, which encompasses the analysis, comprehension and application of knowledge
  • the affective domain is the emotional dimension of learning which includes how students characterise, organise, value and respond to information, and
  • the psychomotor domain: this aspect touches on the perception and adaptation of knowledge and the mechanism through which it is applied.

Teaching a student how to use a computer would involve all three domains.

The first domain would involve the understanding of how a computer works, the second would attach a value to this skills set as a tool for both entertainment and a way to earn a living and the third would entail addressing the machine through typing and activating the mouse.

Our public education system does a great job of addressing the cognitive domain but does little to evoke any affective response to the material being learned and permits virtually no physical activation while class is in session.

Between crowded classrooms, overwhelmed teachers and only one aspect of student learning being addressed, something needs to be done to change the status quo!

Letting students debate is an excellent way to cultivate thinking skills You may group your students so that they may debate an issue before presenting conclusions Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

How to Bring Higher Order Thinking Into the Classroom

Nobody is disputing teachers’ role as an educator; we only point out that their work might be more stimulating and rewarding if they thought of themselves as facilitators of knowledge.

What’s the difference?

A teacher teaches, meaning, s/he imparts knowledge. Whether said information is understood, assimilated and useful remains to be seen – and is not necessarily demonstrated through assessment techniques.

By contrast, a facilitator is someone who helps bring about a certain outcome. In educational circles, those would be learning outcomes.

Here is one example of how facilitating could work.

First, you would organise your classroom to permit group study. You would then seat students of similar cognitive abilities together – your more advanced learners, your SEN students and students anywhere along that spectrum.

You may even consider putting some of your more advanced students with groups who are not quite at that level to make use of peer teaching strategies.

Next, you would assign them to work according to their abilities and interests.

Your high achievers may enjoy higher level thinking projects – those that call on both problem-solving skills and critical thinking.

The bulk of your students may focus on either critical thinking or problem-solving and your SENs might be comfortable summarizing the lesson or other learning activities that target their interest but are related to the material currently being learned.

Far from being a classroom out of control, you will find your student engagement at an all-time high!

Meanwhile, you can circulate around your groups asking open-ended questions designed to assess their understanding of the material and the work at hand.

You may even find time to mark papers while your students are engaged.

Another way you could help your students develop thinking skills would be through debate.

Choose an issue that is related to your day’s study topic. It can be a current event or something that affects student life (that helps students find value in the exercise). Write the issue on the board.

Label each the four corners of your room: Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree and Strongly Disagree.

As your students start their learning session, point to what you wrote on the board and then indicate the four positions they may take. Invite them to take a few minutes to think about the issue and then head to the corner which represents their position.

You will be pleasantly surprised to find that debate over the issue will start spontaneously, in each corner, as students reinforce each other’s views.

You would then ask them to explain their views, either in writing, orally or a combination of both. You might even permit them to create a visual of their position.

There are so many ways teachers can encourage higher order thinking skills; doing so might lighten their load and may even help rediscover their passion for educating!

Now discover the difference between critical thinking and higher order thinking?

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