In his 1991 article “Promoting Higher Order Thinking in Social Studies” (Theory and Research in Social Education 19:4), University of Wisconsin education professor Fred M. Newmann describes six key characteristics that can be observed in a thoughtful classroom, condensed with his permission here:
1. There was sustained examination of a few topics rather than superficial coverage of many. Mastery of higher order challenge requires in-depth study and sustained concentration on a limited number of topics or questions. Lessons that cover a large number of topics give students only a vague familiarity or awareness and, thereby, reduce the possibilities for building the complex knowledge, skills, and dispositions required to understand a topic.
2. The lesson displayed substantive coherence and continuity. Intelligent progress on higher order challenges demands systematic inquiry building on relevant and accurate substantive knowledge in the field and working toward the logical development and integration of ideas. In contrast, lessons that teach material as unrelated fragments of knowledge, without pulling them together, undermine such inquiry.
3. Students were given an appropriate amount of time to think, that is, to prepare responses to questions. Thinking takes time, but often recitation, discussion, and written assignments pressure students to make responses before they have had enough time to reflect. Promoting thoughtfulness, therefore, requires periods of silence during which students can ponder the validity of alternative responses, develop more elaborate reasoning, and experience patient reflection.
4. The teacher asked challenging questions and/or structured challenging tasks (given the ability level and preparation of the students). Higher order thinking occurs only when students are faced with questions or tasks that demand analysis, interpretation, or manipulation of information-non-routine mental work. Students must be faced with the challenge of how to use prior knowledge to gain new knowledge, rather than the task of merely retrieving prior knowledge.
5. The teacher was a model of thoughtfulness. To help students succeed with higher order challenges, teachers themselves must model thoughtful dispositions as they teach. Key indicators include showing interest in students” ideas and in alternative approaches to problems; showing how he or she thought through a problem (rather than only the final answer); and acknowledging the difficulty of gaining a definitive understanding of problematic topics.
6. Students offered explanations and reasons for their conclusions. The answers or solutions to higher order challenges are rarely self-evident. Their validity often rests on the quality of explanation or reasons given to support them. Therefore, beyond offering answers, students must also be helped to produce explanations and reasons to support their conclusions.