All hail Higher Order Thinking Skills!

HOTS (gotta love the acronym) conjures up images of Einstein, Hawking and Holmes. Who wouldn’t want to be them? Who wouldn’t want to have a company full of them? If our schools could teach more kids to have good HOTS, think of how far our country could go. Or so goes the lower level thinking of HOTS.

Higher order thinking skills involved analyzing and evaluating. In contrast lower order thinking skills involve things like observing and describing. We are being pushed towards prizing the former, when often we really value the latter because it can be so much harder to do.

Take our friend Sherlock Holmes. Yes he was able to use the art of deduction to solve crimes, clearly using higher order thinking. But his greatest skill was observing which we are told is a lower order thinking skill. His classic rebuke to Dr. Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia was, “You have not observed. And yet you have seen.”

Nathan Woods in the Journal of Education wrote, “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.”

In contrast, higher order thinking like analyzing a text, breaking it into parts and see how the parts make up the whole, can be much easier than writing an accurately descriptive paragraph of an observation.

Yet our schools want to focus heavily on HOTS. They want to teach it. Test it. Foster it. Why? Because business claims to want it.

As a business owner I might like the concept of a bunch of really smart people analyzing my business and coming up with creative solutions to bring in more revenue. I may even buy into the concept of business disrupters which worked well for Aldi, but not so much for Garmin after Google Maps completely blew apart their business model. Higher order thinking skills work really well for the entrepreneur who can analyze an existing market, like for-hire transportation, and come up with a completely different delivery model (Uber) to shift market share away from traditional models (taxis). However, so much of the business model of taxi service is invested in infrastructure (medallions, licenses, fleets, mechanics etc.) that shifting to the new model is almost impossible. Taxi services may not be so attracted to people with good HOTS.

Clearly not all businesses want people with HOTS. They can be deadly to existing large or entrenched business models. The employee who evaluates your business and finds a better solution to delivering the product or service, but one that would require a complete overhaul of your existing infrastructure, could be your more successful competitor tomorrow if you can’t justify the cost to change your model. Or they could convince you to change your model which could destroy your business. It may well be that AT&T’s partnering with DISHtv, which supposedly had greater access to channels and better picture quality than cable without the infrastructure investment of cable, will be a major disaster for the company. They have been losing market share as customers leave for provider that doesn’t quit in a storm.

Sometimes, rightly or wrongly, people with good HOTS decide that some of your business practices are not worth their time so they don’t do them. This is a problem when working with people who have been trained to evaluate, analyze and act on their conclusions. If they don’t directly benefit from the activity, they may see no point to participating in it.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of businesses who would appreciate their employees employing lower order thinking skills, like noticing whether or not they wore their construction boots to the work site instead of sneakers, or being able to describe the problems they run into in the field accurately so that a solution can be sought.

We can even see HOTS applied to the classroom with the push for flipping the classroom, where students view lectures outside the classroom, do exercises to master the material at home, and use class time to ask questions or use HOTS to apply the knowledge learned outside the classroom to novel problems. This, theoretically, frees up teacher time to work with the students who struggle while allowing advanced students to make even greater strides. Sounds great. And digital suppliers are more than happy to sell systems to facilitate this disruptive solution to the perceived inadequacies of the traditional classroom.

When actually implemented, however, teachers find flipped classrooms workable only in limited situations, more difficult manage, and not necessarily producing the outcomes expected. One teacher in response to My Flipping Failure wrote,

“Students were shocked that I expected them to work outside of the classroom, then they realized that the deadlines on Instructure Canvas did not impact their grade and so did not do the homework, which meant the classroom sessions did not go well. I actually covered less material in class than I do when lecturing. So, for the second semester, I turned on the lock dates and provided “mini lectures” in the classroom sessions and nothing much improved. This summer, I am having due dates before class, and lock dates after class to see how that works.”

“I found that the strong students sped through the work very quickly and performed well on the assignments while the poor students just floated around.”

Children are actually very good at analyzing evidence and coming up with new solutions. We all know children who play their parents like a Stradivarius, using emotional levers to get what they want or get out of consequences. Another example is no grades for homework policies. A simple cost benefit analysis of such policies results in students not doing homework. Why would they invest the time when there is no return for them?

This additional comment from the same teacher above highlights how we don’t always want HOTS.

“Right now, I am using i_Clicker, which it is good in principle until a student complains about the flipped classroom by saying ‘I am not learning anything from the iClicker problems because I am just copying the answer from my neighbor who is looking things up on Google.’ I did not know how to respond to that and just stared at him for a while. If I had not been running a study session, I might have walked away!”

While the specific activity did not require HOTS, as the answer could be looked up, the student did apply HOTS to the process. The goal for the student in the above example was to get a good score. Their analysis concluded that the best way to get that was to copy from someone who was getting information from an international supplier, Google. This example shows how important proper goal setting becomes if we want to foster HOTS.

CCSSO wants to make sure everybody’s eyes are locked on the HOT target. In their Developing and Measuring Higher Order Skills: Models for State Performance Assessment Systems they write

States are expected to adopt challenging academic standards that will serve to guide curriculum and instruction for all students. Furthermore, states must implement assessments that measure “higher-order thinking skills and understanding.” Because traditional multiple-choice tests are insufficient for these goals, the law explicitly allows the use of “portfolios, projects, or extended-performance tasks” as part of state systems.

This would seem to overlook the interplay between lower and higher order thinking, or at least make broad assumptions about the teaching of lower order thinking happening without specifically being tested. A life of all HOTS with little of LOTS may produce children who criticize the thoughts and words of other, but who cannot write any of their own.

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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