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List of Stages

Stages for teaching higher order thinking skills include:

  • presentation of complex life situations

  • activation and execution of complex thinking skills

  • development of prerequisites

  • building of bridges (connecting networks)

  • inclusion of targeted teaching and learning strategies

Stage 1: Presentation of Complex Life Situations

Life engages people in many situations that require complex thinking and most of these situations are multicategorical without "known answers." Instruction for higher order thinking must also have situations that do not yet have "learned answers." A situation must require learners to apply at least two rules or principles, going going beyond applying routine rules or previously learned knowledge or steps. 

  • Examples of the kinds of situations to provide include ambiguities, challenges, confusions, dilemmas, discrepancies, doubt, obstacles, paradoxes, problems, puzzles, questions, uncertainties. Situations from a real-life context could be case studies, scenarios, or investigations that require speculations based on the information provided. Other purposes achieved through complex thinking skills include finding problems, incompleteness, anomalies, troubles, inequities, and contradictions; developing methods of inquiry; making decisions; making choices, creating new ideas or objects, and making predictions.

  • Examples of objectives that express the need for complex thinking skills in particular subject matter areas include the ones listed below (Florida DOE, 1996).


Uses and justifies different estimation strategies in a real-world problem situation and determines the reasonableness of results of calculations in a given problem situation.

Language Arts

Selects and uses strategies to understand words and text, and to make and confirm inferences from what is read, including interpreting diagrams, graphs, and statistical information.

Stage 2: Activation of Complex Thinking Skills

To deal with the situation that is presented, it must be necessary to use multidimensional skills of more than one rule or to transform known concepts and rules to fit the situation. Examples of skills needed include complex analysis, creative thinking, critical thinking, decision making, evaluation, logical thinking, metacognitive thinking, problem solving, reflective thinking, scientific experimentation, scientific inquiry, synthesis, systems analysis.

Learners must be challenged to combine new with unfamiliar information and use skills within limits set by the material or context (e.g., an accident to investigate). Perceiving the correct difficulty is important because the way a problem is seen or defined will limit the kinds of answers that will occur to the thinker. Learners must be able to reformulate issues and steer thinking in the right direction (e.g., adjust thinking about causes of an accident when given new information about runway conditions). 

Stage 3: Development of Prerequisites to Complex Thinking

Content, simple thinking skills, and learner dispositions and habits are prerequisites that learners must possess before they can grapple with the complex thinking skills. They are interactive, each supporting the other.

  • Content includes subject area content (vocabulary, structure, concept definitions, procedural knowledge, reasoning patterns) and thinking content (thinking terms, structures, strategies, heuristics, and processes). Content is a building block for thinking skills. Whether or not thinking can be learned without content is only a theoretical point because education and life engage both.

  • Simple thinking skills include cognitive strategies, comprehension, concept classification, discriminations, routine rule using, simple analysis, and simple application. In life situations, individuals must be able to select and organize what knowledge, thinking skills, and dispositions to apply and when to apply them. In order to develop complex thinking skills, learners need opportunities to practice within the the simpler lower-order levels of content and thinking skills.

  • Dispositions and habits contribute to the success of thinking. in developing valid outcomes for life situations.  Examples of ones that support thinking include the dispositions and habits of seeking accuracy and clarity, restraining impulsivity and in its place using analysis of a situation, analyzing and monitoring one's own thinking processes, thinking critically and creatively, organizing information and ideas, persisting when answers are not apparent, setting goals and making strategic plans, evaluating  reasons and justifications for conclusions or courses of action,  sustaining intellectual curiosity,  and remain open-minded in exploring alternative views and generating multiple options. (The MCREL Institute has a set of rubrics that list elements of complex thinking and habits of mind.)

Stage 4: Building Bridges to Complex Thinking Skills

Learners need bridges to connect prerequisites (content, simple thinking, and dispositions) to new situations and the use of complex thinking skills. These bridges are built with linkages, schemata, and scaffolding.

  • Instruction or events of learning must link previous learning to the new content and to higher order skills. This can be done by elaborating on the content, making some inferennces beyond what is explicitly presented, and "talking aloud" about how to build representations or to analyze and construct.

  • Schemata, such as a new organizational framework, conceptual map or representation, or arthitecture, helps the learner to organize the new learning so that it makes sense.

  • Scaffolding such as guidance, structure, visual and verbal representations, explained examples, hints, corrective feedback, and modeling of complex thinking skills can support this "bridge-building." However, it is not appropriate to use much structure and guidance for "experts" in a subject area. Additionally, too many examples can limit creativity.

Stage 5: Targeted Teaching and Learning Strategies

Teaching strategies make a difference in learning outcomes. For example, a Socratic method, or the use of stories or case studies, or class discussions may produce different kinds of learning. Ready-made rules and generalizations to memorize can interfere with the development of thinking skills, an observation that has led to greater popularity of process-oriented guided inquiry learning (POGIL).

The synchronous development of thinking skills with a deepening of the knowledge base promotes higher levels of thinking. The "spiral curriculum" concept of building through layers of instruction,each elaborating on the previous levels, progressively moves the learner from simple to complex concepts and thinking processes.

NOTE 1, TERMS: Complex thinking skills encompass higher level skills defined in Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives and the problem-solving level of skills in the hierarchy of learning capabilities described by Gagné and Briggs. Terms used to describe complex thinking skills include active inquiry and discovery, creative thinking, critical thinking, decision-making, evaluation, higher order thinking, inquiry, insight, logical thinking, metacognition, problem solving, scientific reasoning, rational thinking, reflective thinking, synthesis, and systems analysis.

NOTE 2, MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES: Complex thinking can involve multiple intelligences, as learners have different ways of "knowing the world."

NOTE 3, INSIGHT:  Non-insight problems require routine application of rules. Insight is the product of the "prepared mind" and reveals itself in the sudden unexpected solution to a problem. It involves finding appropriate problem elements, searching for a new problem representation, finding alternative approaches, persevering, taking  risks, applying broad knowledge, and the often the use of analogies.

NOTE 4, CREATIVITY: Creativity has originality and must go beyond previously learned concepts and rules to generate rather than merely reproduce something. Creative problem solving involves finding problems, working to find fresh ways to view them, evaluating shortcomings and weaknesses, selecting relevant aspects for attention while ignoring the irrelevant, and putting the pieces together in a coherent way.

Some high-impact examples of products resulting from the creative process include Benjamin Franklin's application of conservation and equilibrium, Coleridge's Kubla Khan produced after many revisions, and Elias Howe's invention of the sewing needle reportedly after a dream of arrows with holes in their tips.

NOTE 5, METACOGNITIVE STRATEGIES: Metacognitive strategies may be simple or complex.  At the complex level, they might include problem finding and the linkage of problem finding and creativity through activities of planning, self-monitoring of progress, and self-adjustments to thinking strategies.

NOTE 6, NAMES IN THE NEWS: Piaget and Bruner focus on different processes for acquiring skills, but both include the importance of linking previously learned concepts and information to new learning. Bruner's spiral curriculum has long served as a model for developing higher levels of complexity over periods of time. Vygotsky observed that cognitive development progresses as children learn and that internalizing knowledge facilitates higher mental functions. Finally Marzano and MCREL have focused on developing dimensions of thinking and learning in which core thinking skills and more complex thinking processes interact with types of knowledge.

© 2009 Ludwika "Ludy" Goodson