Whenever I write about higher order thinking skills, I get bombarded with claims of success in teaching these skills to young children. Even a small amount of knowledge about brain development and higher order thinking skills must lead to the logical conclusion that this just isn’t happening.
So what is happening?
From about age six or seven to about age eleven or twelve, children live in a very concrete world. Abstraction is difficult beyond its most rudimentary form. Higher order thinking skills require complex, abstract thinking abilities and take time and energy to acquire, even after these abilities become fairly well developed. So what is really happening with children who are displaying higher order thinking skills at young ages?
They are learning rules.
During the concrete stage of development, rules are all important. Children begin to develop an understanding of rules beginning with the importance of rules that are absolute through (for a minority of people) to the understanding that rules are a construct of a group of people and are subject to change if the group agrees to change them.
If the unconditional primacy of rules sounds familiar to you as a quality of many adults that you know, this is not surprising. A huge proportion of our society lives in a basic concrete world with no intention of ever moving toward any form of abstract thinking. For many groups with our society, rational thinking and reason are seen as dangers to be avoided at all costs. Just ask the local minister of a fundamentalist religious group.
Back to children who display forms of higher order thinking abilities – the children are learning rules to a game. During primary school education, children are conditioned to do whatever is necessary to please their teachers. When teachers introduce elements of higher order thinking skills, these skills are taught to children as ways of thinking. The ways of thinking are formulated and expressed as simply as possible and are compartmentalized in a way that young children can understand. These compartmentalized, simple explanations of behaviours that a teacher is looking for can be memorized and parroted back looking like sophisticated thinking skills.
Just as a parrot can be taught a wide variety of words and phrases and can even link some words and phrases to rewards, only people who live in an absolute concrete world, where direct experience is the only reality, would think that parrots can really talk. Parrots can’t think the way we do. What they do is give back what they have been taught as a way of being rewarded.
Prior to the development of abstract thinking abilities, children can’t engage in complex thinking that requires complex abstract abilities. They can parrot sophisticated rules that appear to be complex thinking abilities, but they are not really engaging in higher order thinking abilities.
As basic abstract abilities begin to emerge and develop in older middle children (ages 10 to 12) and adolescence, the first abstract skills that should be tackled is self reflection – the foundation of metacognition.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.