Higher Order Thinking Skills?

By Nathan Woods

Thinking taxonomies establish a hierarchy of thinking; ‘simple’ or ‘less -sophisticated’ thinking skills, such as describing, noticing, or remembering, are seen as inferior to ‘higher order’ thinking skills like analysis and evaluation. However, some popular taxonomies – such as Bloom’s Taxonomy – can over-simplify and misrepresent the nature of ‘higher order’ thinking.

Often what are classified as ‘lower order’ thinking skills can be more demanding than many ‘higher order’ thinking skills, depending on the context in which they occur. Take ‘observing’ and ‘describing’ as examples. In some situations the ability to observe and describe something accurately and in detail is demanding. Because human minds tend to impose patterns or ‘meanings’ onto their perceptions, the ability to see accurately and in detail is often difficult.

At the same time, some ‘higher order’ thinking skills can be very easy. Evaluating is not always a difficult task, neither is testing or analyzing something. It is easier to analyze (break into parts and see how the parts contribute to the whole) a simple text than it is to describe a more complex one. It is easy to make connections, when the connections are obvious. It is easy to make comparisons and evaluations when the things we are comparing obviously differ in type or quality.

Furthermore, some taxonomies imply that thinking is linear – that we move from lower to higher order thinking as we develop a deeper understanding of a concept or skill. Yet in many cases we begin with application and analysis and then begin to notice and describe something more accurately. Thinking is a messy, back and forth type of process.

In Bloom’s Taxonomy, ‘understanding’ is referred to as a learning skill, and a relatively low order one at that. However, I would argue that ‘understanding’ is not a skill at all, it is an outcome of thinking – some would say it is primary aim of education. Others would say creativity is a primary aim of eduction, yet in many taxonomies creativity is treated as just another thinking skill.

My point is not that thinking taxonomies are unhelpful; they are helpful in naming a variety of  thinking moves. But if we take them too seriously, we risk over-simplifying thinking, and getting ourselves into a pedagogical muddle. Thinking is not reducible to a set of generic skills. To understand thinking we need to know what a specific person (or group) was thinking about, with what knowledge and resources, where, when, etc. What was insightful in one context may have been obvious in another.

I would like to her your thoughts on this. Do thinking taxonomies over-simplify thinking? Why do you think so?

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Filed under Criticism of theories, Dispelling myths, General

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