Higher Order Thinking Skills

What is the purpose of learning something? Is it to be able to remember and recite, or to be able to use that knowledge in the real world somehow? Learning lists of verbs in class is useful when our teacher tests us, but in our lives we need that knowledge to do practical things like understand a news article we read, or describe a situation to someone. Our understanding of how knowledge learnt in the classroom can be turned into useful action has changed significantly in recent years, and that’s where higher order thinking skills (or HOT skills) come in.

HOT skills are the tools students use to transfer their knowledge into actual use. These include problem-solving, analyzing, evaluating, imagining and making connections, amongst many other strategies. In an effective language lesson, students should be spending as much time using these strategies as they are learning new vocabulary and grammar rules. Without them, they may know a lot of language, but be unable to use it in a meaningful way.

HOT skills can be defined in a number of different ways, but many educators split them into 4 groups. The first of these groups, ‘application’, involves problem-solving and experimenting. In the language classroom, this might involve experimenting with rhyming and syntax in poetry writing, solving a mystery using clues, and performing role-plays. 

The second set of skills, ‘analysis’, is comprised of identifying patterns and organising ideas. Students are often encouraged to do this through a teaching method called ‘guided discovery’. This is where students identify language structures in a text in order to work out the rules for it, without the teacher simply presenting it. Students should also be encouraged to keep well organised notes using brainstorms, colour-coding etc., making it easier to review work before exams. 

The third group is called ‘synthesis’, and engages the students’ imagination and ability to predict or infer. This is particularly useful when reading in another language. Students should be predicting the end of stories before they read them, trying to infer the hidden meanings behind the author’s words and imagining other stories happening in the same fantasy worlds.

The final group, ‘evaluation’, covers the skills of assessing, comparing, and judging merit. Participating in discussions and debates, rating study strategies, and assessing their own work all help students to hone these abilities. 

These activities are not only language based, but the higher order thinking involved allows students to immediately use the language in a practical or creative way, mimicking how they may need to use it in the future. For students hoping to move on to university level studies, these skills are not only helpful, but essential to their success.

At the British Council, higher order thinking skills are a core part of all our young learner courses. Each primary course is built around a series of tasks which require different higher order thinking skills to complete. They also allow teachers the opportunity to assess students on how well they use language, not only how well they remember it. Our secondary courses encourage students to discuss and evaluate, set goals for their learning and make connections to make sense of what they’ve learnt in context. By doing this, we hope to prepare our students not only for exams, but higher study and their future careers.