S. Athavan Alias Anand, Senior Research Associate, Department of Chemistry, Prayoga, Bengaluru. - email@example.com
In the early part of the 20th century, science education focused on developing basic learning skills of students such as remembering, understanding, reading, writing, and calculating. The learning and teaching practices do not teach for critical thinking and reading or to solve complex problems. Textbooks are loaded with scientific terms and facts and the students were expected to memorize those facts to prove their learning abilities. But the recent educational research approaches emphasize learning with understanding which is closely related to thinking and reasoning. This idea was formulated by Perkins and Unger  in the following way:
‘Understanding a topic is a matter of being able to think and act creatively and competently with what one knows about the topic … The ability to perform in a flexible, thought-demanding way is a constant requirement’
In the past two decades, there have been many attempts made to train science teachers to apply constructivist learning theories and higher-order thinking among their students. International reputed associations like the National Research Council (NRC); National Science Teachers Association (NSTA); and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) are continuously working to introduce science education reform into secondary and high schools. However, the progress in this area is still lacking due to various reasons. One of the main reasons is the lack of pedagogical knowledge among science teachers that required for teaching according to an active knowledge construction model of instruction. The central goal of science education reform is to make students think in higher levels which enables them to ask research questions, reasoning, and solve problems . For effective research or to develop higher-order thinking skills among students, there is need for a very clear and precise understanding of what those skills are.
What are Higher Order Thinking Skills?
Active learning strategies that help students to develop their higher-order thinking skills (HOTS) play an important role in the science education system. Higher-order thinking can be conceptualized as non-algorithmic and generates multiple solutions due to the complex mode of thinking. HOTS consist of creative, critical, logical and metacognitive thinkings, which are activated when students encountered unusual problems, uncertainties and inquiry in the learning process. Most of the classical scientific methods such as asking research questions, formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, draw conclusions are also included in higher levels of thinking. To this end, the following definition is offered: “Higher-order thinking occurs when a person takes new information and information stored in memory and interrelates and/or rearranges and extends this information to achieve a purpose or find possible answers in perplexing situations”.
Figure 1: Old and revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy.
A significant contribution is observed from two disciplines to understand the higher-order thinking: Philosophy and Psychology. Philosophy’s contribution finds its roots in the writings of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. Philosophers have been interested in discipline-based logical thinking and critical thinking. As for psychologists, they are more concerned with the thought process and how this process can help people bring meaning to their experience. Psychologists emphasize problem-solving skills rather than reflective and logical thinking.
Several research studies were reported in science education that focuses on the intentional development of students’ higher-order thinking abilities. But the systematic research interest in HOTS is originated after the contribution of Benjamin Samuel Bloom  who suggested a hierarchy of intellectual learning skills based on six categories (Figure 1). There are a number of taxonomies that have been developed after Bloom’s taxonomy [4-6] in order to target higher-order levels of thinking, but Bloom’s as the most common. Later, Anderson worked with Krathwohl, et al. and published the revised version of Bloom’s taxonomy in 2001 with the title A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching and Assessing . Based on revised Bloom’s taxonomy, the Remembering, Understanding and Applying are classified as lower-order while Analyzing, Evaluating and Creating are classified as higher-order.
Indeed, the learning levels focused around the revised taxonomy of Bloom such as analyzing, evaluating, and creating, develop skills in problem-solving, estimating, inferring, predicting, generalizing, concluding, critical and creative thinking, which is all considered as higher-order thinking skills. Examples of such skills include question-posing, decision-making, critical and systemic thinking. Let us understand HOTS better by differentiate lower order and higher order thinking.
Lower and higher order thinking
Research reports demonstrate there is a general agreement that lower order thinking and higher order thinking can be distinguished. Educators used various words/phrases to define higher order thinking skills (Figure 2), and among them (i) Critical thinking, (ii) Problem-solving and (iii) Reasoning skills are the most common. Researchers emphasized that the teaching of lower and higher order thinking skills are likely to be interwoven in the classroom. Research studies also demonstrate that higher level of thinking such as “elaborating the given material, making inferences beyond what is explicitly presented, building adequate representations, analyzing and constructing relationships” are involved in even the most apparently elementary mental activities . For example, to understand what they read, students need to make inferences, and they may be think beyond what is written in the text. Thus, the teaching involves an interweaving of both lower order and higher order thinking skills. But most of the research studies highlight that the lower order thinking demands only routine or mechanical application of previously acquired information such as listing information previously memorized and using particular method/formula to solve problems. In contrast, higher order thinking, “challenges the student to interpret, analyze or manipulate information”.
According to the Commission on Science Education of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the lower order skills include observing, measuring, inferring, predicting, classifying, collecting and recording data. The higher order skills include interpreting data, controlling variables, defining operationally, formulating hypotheses and experimenting. In conclusion, there is a difference between lower order and higher order thinking and both the skills are taught together in the classroom. The use of higher order thinking is depending on the nature of the task and the students’ learning ability. To evaluate students’ higher order thinking skills, the teacher should approach them with a situation or a question that cannot be answered through simple recall of information.
Figure 2: Word cloud depicting the prevalence of codes representing the different phrases given in the literature to define HOTS. The larger the word/phrase, the more frequently the phrase was used in the definitions.
Why is it important to help a student acquire HOTS?
Based on modern cognitive theories, learning does not occur by simply adsorbing or by collecting information that was transmitted to the students by the teacher. Instead, students construct knowledge with some new experiences based on their pre-existing knowledge. Van Glaserfeld  for example, suggests that “knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication. Knowledge is actively built up by the cognizing subject”. It becomes clear now, that the knowledge cannot simply be ‘transferred’ from teacher to student. The student may think a content taught by the teacher very differently from what the teacher had in mind. With this high order thinking, a student will be able to use prior knowledge and manipulate information to obtain a reasonable response to the new situations.
Generally two things are considered to be more important to develop higher-order thinking skills among students . The first important point is, anytime an individual faced with a perplexing situation or a situation where it is necessary to decide what to do or believe, higher-order thinking is necessary. Secondly, research suggests that failure to cultivate aspects of higher-order thinking skills may be the sources of major learning difficulties even in elementary school. Hence, combining the teaching of thinking skills with the teaching of concrete subject is believed to enhance two aspects of learning: thinking and conceptual understanding.
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