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Features of early years pedagogies: Higher-order thinking

Students engage in higher-order thinking when they are required ‘to explore, to question, to probe new areas, to seek clarity, to think critically and carefully, to consider different perspectives, [and] to organise their thinking’ (Tishman et al. in Venville, Adey, Larkin & Robertson, 2003).

In the early years of education, it is critically important to develop higher-order thinking skills, which enhance children’s mental abilities (Polette, 2012). Children use higher-order thinking skills when they engage in learning activities that require them to arrive at new meanings and understandings. When children do this, they transform their initial understandings

The following table identifies teacher and student actions for feedback.


The teacher:

  • plans for learning opportunities that support higher-order thinking, using a hierarchal thinking taxonomy (for example, see Marzano 2015 or Anderson & Krathwohl 2001)
  • develops flexible learning spaces that emphasise thinking and persistence in problem-solving in independent play and inquiry (Aubrey, Ghent & Kanira, 2012)
  • employs pedagogical strategies like open-ended higher-order questioning (Martin in Yoon & Onchwari, 2006)
  • uses graphic organisers, e.g. PMI and Venn diagrams, so that children can gather, organise and represent information and ideas resulting from their higher-order thinking
  • reflect with students on how higher-order thinking creates opportunities for new meaning and understanding.

The student:

  • participates in purposefully planned and incidental learning activities and environments that provide opportunities for higher-order thinking
  • uses graphic organisers or other learning tools to make their higher-order thinking visible and represent new learning
  • demonstrates higher-order thinking by:
    • predicting outcomes
    • observing, collating or evaluating information and evidence
    • classifying information or objects
    • synthesising, generalising or hypothesising
    • making decisions: comparing, analysing, evaluating or justifying.

Classroom example

This professional learning example shows how one Prep teacher supports higher-order thinking in her Prep classroom.

Annette Woods
Associate Professor, Queensland University of Technology

Good teachers have always been engaging children in higher-order thinking, in thinking critically about what they’re learning, about actually thinking critically about the world, about the media, about texts, which are engaging with us.

Rae Welch
Prep Teacher Jamboree Heights State School

By providing them with opportunities to create, to design, to build on their own knowledge and think about things a little bit differently.

Rae Welch

We’ve got a slide section. We’ve got a roll section. And in the middle, this one would be the …?

Students (together)

Roll …
Slide …

Rae Welch

Roll and slide. We are going to have to sort all these objects into three different groups. You are going to have to test them out yourself. How would you find out if the things roll or slide or roll and slide? How could we find out? Artemis?

Student 1

Umm … well … put it on the ground and try and see if it can roll or slide.

Rae Welch

Test it out. Yeah, good idea. Good thinking.

That activity allowed higher-order thinking to happen because the children had to classify and sort the different objects and really think about what it was that was making things roll or slide.

Student 2

Slide and then pull it over.

Rae Welch

So when you looked at that, did you think that it would be something that could roll?

Student 2

Yes because it has round edges.

Rae Welch

Did you think it would slide?

Student 2


Rae Welch

Why did you think that it would slide as well?

Student 2

Because it has a flat edge on the top.

Rae Welch

They weren’t just putting things into groups. They had opportunities to test them out, try it out. They were hypothesising, as such. ‘I think this will do this. I’m expecting that this will slide and roll and now I’ll test it out and give it a go.’

You have to try and guess. Which group do you think is the slide group? Which group is the roll group and which group is the slide and roll? Have you got any ideas?

Student 3


Rae Welch

Tell me, Amy.

Student 3

This one is the slide and roll.

Rae Welch

You think this one here is the …?

Student 3

Slide and roll.

Rae Welch

Okay. Why do you think that?

So that last activity was an extension of the higher-order thinking that had already occurred, because they were no longer having to sort them for themselves. They needed to look and think and justify … Try and work out what the last group of children’s thinking was, and why had they classified things in that way, and give explanations.

Do you think that might be the slide and roll, Krisha? Do you think that’s right? Okay. So who can put a different label on it? What do you think Krisha?

Student 4

I think, I think it can do roll.

Rae Welch

It can do roll. Okay.

Annette Woods

So if we are wanting children to actually engage in high-order thinking, we need to actually provide spaces for substantial conversations to occur within our classrooms. Substantial conversations, substantial time to talk about the text that they’re engaging in, and substantial discussions about substantial issues that are happening both within our classroom, within our school, within our local community, but also global issues.

Children are clever. We know that children know what’s going on in the world. We know now that children at a much younger age engage with media in ways that we might not have ourselves as young children. And so for those reasons, we want to be able to capitalise on important global substantial issues that are occurring around the world and to provide children with spaces to have opinions, to have perspectives, to actually bring their learnings and their experiences into classroom discussions

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