Academic journal article High School Journal

Ausubel's Learning Theory: An Approach to Teaching Higher Order Thinking Skills

Academic journal article High School Journal

Ausubel's Learning Theory: An Approach to Teaching Higher Order Thinking Skills

Article excerpt


The language of education is rife with talk about teaching higher order thinking skills. What exactly are these skills? And how can they best be taught? These are important and difficult questions. All too frequently educators have elected to take the easy way out. They have settled for having students memorize Bloom's taxonomy. "In the minds of many educators," Ennis (1987) informs us, "Bloom's top three levels (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) are the higher order thinking skills" (p. 10). Though the taxonomy may serve many useful purposes, teaching higher order thinking is not one of them. If the nation's children are to learn how to think clearly and cogently, they must be provided with appropriate instruction.

How well are the nation's schools responding to the challenge of teaching higher order thinking? Quellmalz (1987) believes their performance leaves much to be desired. "Schools' commitment to higher order thinking has been largely rhetorical, while curriculum development has been infrequent and ineffective" (p. 86). In most classrooms higher order thinking receives little or no attention. "When higher order questions do occur, they often concern specific, isolated skills; they seldom ask students to sustain a line of reasoning in order to draw a conclusion or explain a judgment" (p. 94). Quellmalz concludes his dismal assessment by saying: "We have mountains of test data to document that most students of all ages do not perform well on higher order tasks" (p. 95).

Before something can be taught, educators must first decide what it is they wish to teach. What is higher order thinking? Ennis (1987) believes the concept is fraught with ambiguity, "too vague to provide the schools and colleges with specific guidance" (p. 10). He does concede, however, that the concept has served to remind us there is more to learning than the mere memorization of facts and figures. Ennis concludes his analysis of the matter by reminding us that "to teach higher order thinking skills one needs criteria for making such judgments" (p. 11).

Teaching higher order thinking is generally accepted as one of the objectives of public education. The problem arises from the fact that no one seems to know exactly what the concept means. In the absence of a good working definition, let us suggest some criteria for or characteristics of such thinking. (Hopefully, Ennis will not object too strenuously to our use of the word "criteria" in this context.) Higher order thinking tends to reflect three related criteria: (A) The utilization of abstract structures for thinking. Jerome S. Bruner (1965) in his classic work, The Process of Education, argues all knowledge has structure. "The basic ideas that lie at the heart of all science and mathematics and the basic themes that give form to life and literature are as simple as they are powerful]" (pp. 12-13). Hence, if we wish to think in abstract terms, we must necessarily come to grips with the structure of knowledge.

(B) The organization of information into an integrated system. Sexton and Poling (1973) pose a contrast between the thinking of low performing and high performing students. The slow learner sees most of the material presented to him as a series of random, unrelated pieces. The student of exceptional ability sees things as classes, systems, relationships, and analogies. His mental world is organized. Consequently, if we are to materially aid the functioning of intelligence, we must design curricula within a structure of related concepts." (p. 7) Higher order thinking organizes information into an integrated system.

(C) The application of sound rules of logic and judgment. Max Black (1959) asserts that logic is the study of reasoning. It is thinking about thinking. "Logic may be thought of as the art of improving reasoning, and the science of the conditions to which this art must conform" (p. 9). Can schools be expected to teach logical thinking? …

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