Nine Ways to Employ Higher-Order Thinking in the ESL/TEFL Classroom

As teachers, we want to draw out talent from our students while making them prepared for the world of work in the future. What constitutes as employment is fast-changing, but that doesn’t mean pedagogy is left behind from real-world developments. Our students will see a world that is definitely not planned for, but we can make some easy assumptions of the tools they will need.

Assumptions on the future of work

  • Increased use of technology – growth of AI and automation
  • More complex modelling of projects – building software and multi-environment work
  • More collaboration – global teams with no fixed location
  • More discussions – increased communications and negotiations

In each assumption the need for complex thinking is clear. The world is converging in both time and space, between languages and cultures, and importantly an emergent ‘ideal’ worker is being made. People who are sharp, confident, and adaptable will thrive in the office of the future.

Get them thinking

With the case for teaching higher-order thinking skills made, how exactly do we employ this in the classroom. Thinking in a complex ways requires environments that removes them from just memorising facts and dates. They would need to understand concepts, derive or infer meaning from them, and then see how they interact or link to other concepts.

Ten ways to employ higher-order thinking in the classroom

1. Have your students develop a strategy

Sometimes the best way to explain an idea is to have the students explain it back to you. You can give them the task to develop a systematic way to encourage other people to think critically. Then they would need to present this methodology to the class. If they get stuck on this, you can invite them to think about what types of questioning strategies are to the best to use to understand new ideas. If you have time you can even show them Socratic Questioning ideas and have them apply this to their studies. Realistically, how much reasoning or questioning of the source do they apply when taking on new ideas from the internet.

2. Using visuals

Not like pyrotechnics, but drawing diagrams, mind maps, and even Venn diagrams to help organise ideas. Doing this helps them see how they are linked and best ways to compare them, if needed. Complex thinking is formed by the simple building blocks of making links.

Online resources for mind maps:

Most of the above are free to use and are easily integrated into a classroom environment.

Some books to help you use these ideas in the classroom:

You can also use this free PDF slide developed by Dr. Deborah Wahlstrom to teach the differences between apples and oranges using graphs. Your students can use this concept and apply it to different objects and graphs. For instance; historical figures, places, machines, political ideas, and more.

compare-and-contrast-apples-to-oranges PDF

3. Yes, but why?

When we sometimes ask questions it can feel a little intimidating. It feels like we are being judged and others appear to be negative towards you. Try to dispel this fear by encouraging questioning in the class. The more frequently you do this the students will lose their sense of dread and it will become a natural routine during class. Encourage students to explain their reasoning to their answers and why they have this opinion. You can continue this task by having them research the topic some more at home and then come back and compare how their opinion has changed.

4. Elaborate to go deeper into a subject

Complex thinking requires the speaker to go much deeper into their reasoning and logic. A single sentence answer is not sufficient to help understand why someone believes their point of view. Ask the speaker to expand on their idea and to go into detail.

5. Connect ideas together

Help students understand each process of connecting ideas. This will help them when we are teaching a new idea which is unfamiliar to them. When they are making more connections during their learning they are better able to see the wider consequences of a concept and how it relates to other aspects of life. An example would be teaching the idea of ‘value’, this could then move onto ‘money’, then ‘commodities’ and then so on. The discussion will begin to link a whole range of subjects.

6. Infer

Teach students to infer meaning from ideas. Give them real-life examples. Take the following picture as a example. We see a young man spray-painting on wall. The questions you can use in class could be:

  • What are his motivations?
  • Is he breaking the law?
  • What is he painting?
  • Why is it surrounded by Star Wars stormtroopers?
  • Where was it taken?
  • When?
  • What meaning does it have now?

street scene photo

Similarly, the same can work with the picture below.

street scene photo

Where was it taken?

When was it taken?

What’s the weather like?

With each answer try to have students explain their reasoning with some evidence. So, if they believe the weather is during the rainy season in Asia, they would need to explain this by what they see in the image itself. Being able to use their own knowledge and some evidence they can piece it together to create something new.

Some worksheets to help you teach inferences, click the PDF images to download.

making-inferences PDF

making-inferences-2 PDF

7. Mind films

To better develop pattern recognition and developmental skills you can use story boarding. Just like what large film companies use to create animation during pre-production, this method helps students develop deeper and more value driven thinking skills.

Free storyboard template can be downloaded here

storyboard template PDF

8. Problem-solving strategies

Teach students how to understand and solve problems independently. This will help them arrive to a solution faster and much more easily. Have students think about alternative methods to think about a problem.

For more information on this we recommend reading Over Fifty Problem Solving Strategies Explained by John Malouff from the University of New England.

Alternatively can download the PDF version here in case the link above doesn’t work.

Over Fifty Problem Solving Strategies Explained

9. Creative thinking

Encourage students to ‘think outside the box’. Have them use their creative senses to find better answers to questions and the research better.

Final thoughts

The classroom is like a dress rehearsal for the real world. Having students mimic what they are to expect will help them prepare for their careers while challenging them to expand upon their talents.

If you liked this article please share with others and don’t forget to leave a comment to share your experiences with any of the activities written about here.

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