By Alice Thomas and Glenda Thorne
Thinking Out Loud
Most of us don’t think about thinking – we just do it. But with all the new emphasis on accountability and increased student achievement, educators, parents, and legislators have been thinking more about thinking, and thinking about how we want our teachers to teach our students to think.
As children move from elementary to middle to high school, the ability to think in more than one way becomes more and more important. As children move up in grade level, teachers ask them to do more and more things with the information that is stored in their brains. They may ask students to write a new ending for a book they’ve been reading, or they may ask why a certain character in the story behaved in a particular way. If they’re studying sound in science, students might be asked to design and construct a new kind of musical instrument. They may be asked to think of some ways to keep whales from coming extinct. Perhaps they will be asked to compare and contrast Julius Caesar and Adolph Hitler, or to talk about the lessons Nazism holds for events in Bosnia today.
These kinds of thinking require what is called “Higher Level Thinking” or “HLT” for short. Some or all of these kinds of Higher Level Thinking may be easy for some students, but difficult for others. But here’s the good news: 1.) Higher Level Thinking, like most skills, can be learned; and 2.) with practice, a student’s – and an adult’s – Higher Level Thinking skill level can increase.
What can parents and teachers do to help children increase their HLT skills? The first step to increasing one’s skill level is to know what Higher Level Thinking is, so we recommend that teachers and parents talk frequently with children about HLT. It is also important for adults to model for children what HLT looks like by “thinking out loud” – tell your thinking process to children when you are using HLT.
Quick Facts About HLT
- No one thinks perfectly or poorly all the time.
- Memorizing something is not the same as thinking about it.
- You can memorize something without understanding it.
- Thinking is done in both words and pictures.
- There are three main types of intelligence and thinking: analytical, creative and practical.
- All three intelligences and ways of thinking are useful in our everyday lives.
- You can improve your thinking skills by understanding the processes involved in thinking.
- Metacognition-thinking about thinking-is part of Higher Level Thinking.
In a nutshell, Higher Level Thinking is thinking on a higher level than memorizing facts or telling something back to someone exactly the way the it was told to you. When a person memorizes and gives back the information without having to think about it, we call it rote memory. That’s because it’s much like a robot; it does what it’s programmed to do, but it doesn’t think for itself. Higher Level Thinking, or HLT for short, takes thinking to higher levels than just restating the facts. HLT requires that we do something with the facts. We must understand them, connect them to each other, categorize them, manipulate them, put them together in new or novel ways, and apply them as we seek new solutions to new problems.
To understand a group of facts, we must understand the conceptual “family” to which this group of facts belongs. A concept is an idea around which a group of ideas may revolve. A concept is something that helps us organize our thinking. It’s a mental representation of a group of facts or ideas that somehow belong together. For example, football, basketball, tennis, swimming, boxing, soccer, or archery all fit our concept of sports. In addition, we might also group these sports to create two other concepts: team sports, such as football, basketball, and soccer; and individual sports, such as tennis, swimming, boxing, and archery.
Concepts can represent objects, activities, or living things. They may also represent properties such as color, texture, and size (for example, blue, smooth, and tiny), things that are abstract (for example, faith, hope, and charity), and relations (for example, brighter than and faster than). Concepts come in a variety of forms, including concrete, abstract, verbal, nonverbal, and process.
A. Concrete or abstract. Concrete concepts are those that we can see, touch, hear, taste, or smell. Dogs, chairs, telephones and hamburgers are examples of concrete concepts. Abstract concepts can be used and thought about, but we cannot use our senses to recognize them as we can with concrete concepts. In order to understand abstract concepts, we either have to experience them or compare them to something else we already know. Imagination, friendship, freedom, and jealousy are examples of abstract concepts. As you can imagine, concrete concepts are easier to understand than abstract ones because we can actually see or touch concrete concepts. However, as students move up in school, they need to be able to deal with more and more abstract concepts. Not only are abstract concepts harder for students to learn, but they are also harder for teachers to teach!
B. Verbal or Non-verbal. Verbal concepts are those that use language to explain them. Verbal concepts are described by using words. Examples are concepts of love, democracy, or politeness. A concept may be both abstract and verbal (for example, democracy). Non-verbal concepts are those that lend themselves to be best understood by being pictured or visualized. Examples are concepts of a circle, proportions, or evaporation.
Many times both verbal and non-verbal concepts can be used to explain something. Sometimes a person may prefer one over the other. It is a good idea to try to think about a concept both by picturing it and by putting it into words. This will give you a more thorough understanding of the concept.
C. Process. Process concepts are those that explain how things happen or work. They often include a number of steps that a person must understand in order to master the concept as a whole. Photosynthesis is an example of a process concept in science. The photosynthesis process has certain steps that must take place in a certain order. Math and science courses use process concepts a lot.
When a student is exposed to a new concept, it is important to connect the new concept to concepts he already knows. He can do this by classifying, categorizing, recognizing patterns, and chaining. It’s like finding all the “relatives” of that concept and making a family tree for the concept. For example, if a second grader is studying Thanksgiving, a larger concept Thanksgiving belongs to could be Holidays, and a larger concept Holidays could belong to is Celebrations. Other Holidays include Christmas, Hanukkah, and the Fourth of July. These are all celebrations of some kind. It is good to also think about what is not a Holiday, so students will know where to “draw the line” in the larger concept of Celebrations. For example, weddings and birthdays are generally considered celebrations, but for most of us, they do not become national holidays!
Chaining is connecting concepts together that have some common thread. Dr. Mel Levine calls this horizontal threading. A student needs to do a lot of horizontal threading so his concepts will be connected to similar concepts. In order to do this, he needs to look through his memory for things that seem related to the new information. An example of chaining or threading is finding common concepts or themes in history. If a student is discussing what is going on in Kosovo, for example, he might ask himself what the Civil War, the Holocaust, and Bosnia have in common with the current events in Kosovo.
Schema is a pattern or arrangement of knowledge that a person already has stored in his brain that helps him understand new information. For example, a student may have a definite image in his mind of what a reptile looks like by the information that he has been told about reptiles, by pictures that he has been shown, and by what he has read. When he encounters a new creature that he has never seen before, but it has all of the qualities that he has stored in his brain about reptiles, then he can infer or draw the conclusion that it probably is a reptile.
Some schema is also linked to rules and predictable patterns that we have learned. For example, students can develop schemata for the tests a certain teacher gives, because she always gives the same type of test. This helps a student to know how to study for the test because he knows the kinds of questions the teacher is going to ask. Schema does not always follow a pattern or a rule, however, due to exceptions or irregularities. For example, sometimes students have just mastered a spelling rule or a rule in grammar when the teacher throws an exception at them! In any case, using schema or patterns is a good way to make helpful predictions.
Not all of the thinking that goes on in our brains is done in words. Sometimes we can form visual images or pictures in our minds that are just as meaningful to us as words. Have you ever tried to give directions to someone about how to get from one place to another? When many of us do this, we are able to see a map or visual in our minds that helps us give these directions. When you are reading a really good book, are you visualizing in your mind what the setting and the characters look like? Are you running your own movie camera? When you are asked the difference between a square and a trapezoid, do you see in your mind what each one looks like? If you can do these things, then you have the ability to use good visual imagery or cognitive maps. Both are useful in Higher Level Thinking and are especially helpful to students in subjects like literature, geography, biology, and math.
Not a day goes by that we don’t have to solve problems. From the moment a person gets up in the morning and decides what to eat for breakfast, what to wear to work or to school, or how to explain to the teacher why he didn’t get his homework done or to his boss why his monthly report isn’t finished, he is solving problems. Problems can affect many aspects of our life, including social, personal, health, and, of course, school.
Being able to problem solve in school is extremely important. What to write for an essay, how to solve a problem in math, choosing the correct materials for a science experiment, or even deciding who to sit next to at lunch can all be significant problems that a student must solve.
How a student goes about solving his problems is important in terms of how successful the results will be. Problems need to be worked through systematically and logically in order to come to a satisfactory conclusion. Being the first one to finish is not always the way to win in the game of problem solving.
When problem solving, it is important to remember the steps we need to take. First, define the problem and give it definite edges by drawing a mental box around it. Be creative and think up lots of alternative strategies or solutions. Try out solutions without worrying about making mistakes. Mistakes are learning opportunities – we learn what doesn’t work!
Thomas Edison was asked once how he kept from getting discouraged when he had made so many mistakes before he perfected his idea of the light bulb. He had tried over 2,000 ways before one worked. Edison responded that he had not made 2,000 mistakes. He had had over 2,000 learning experiences that moved him closer to the answer!
Abstract concepts – Concepts whose critical features are intangible – you can’t touch them. For example, democracy is abstract (intangible) while chair is concrete (tangible).
Analytical intelligence – Intelligence that involves thinking that evaluates, dissects, critiques and judges. For example, “Compare and contrast Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Critique the accomplishments of each and judge which one was the better leader for our country and why.”
Brainstorming – Freely thinking up lots of ideas or solutions to a problem; part of the problem solving process.
Concept – A category of related ideas, facts, steps in a process, or items.
Concrete concepts – Concepts whose critical features are tangible and have sensory identity – we can see, taste, smell and/or touch them. For example, chocolate candy bars, furniture, eggs, cars.
Convergent thinking – Thinking that generates specific facts or ideas in a specific category, such as who the first president of the United States or the product of 7 X 9.
Creative intelligence – The type of intelligence that thinks up new ideas of high quality and value. For example, the light bulb, CDs, and calculators are products of creative thinking.
Critical thinking – Thinking that involves evaluating or judging ideas, concepts, people, etc., and forming your own opinion about them.
Divergent thinking – Thinking that diverges (detours) off of a specific “path” when relating ideas and making connections; thinking that extends in different directions from a common point; sometimes called “free flight of ideas.”
Metacognition – Thinking about thinking; knowing how you think; monitoring, reflecting on, and regulating your own thinking.
Nonverbal concepts – Concepts that are better represented visually, such as a hexagon or trapezoid.
Practical intelligence – Intelligence that involves thinking with regard to effective use or application in daily life. For example, what lessons does Nazism hold for Bosnia and Kosovo today?
Process concepts – Concepts that explain how things happen or work, such as evaporation in science or how legislation gets passed in Congress.
Schema – Clusters or “families” of information about specific objects, situations or people.
Successful intelligence – Mental self-management. Using a combination of analytical, practical, and creative thinking on a regular basis.
Verbal concepts – Concepts that are best explained with words, such as love and hate.
Alice Thomas is the president and CEO of the Center for Development and Learning.