What is Higher Order Thinking?

Highlighted articles. Text courtesy of Sargolini et al., 2006.

Highlighted articles. Text courtesy of Sargolini et al., 2006.

I was working on my masters thesis today, and I started to think fundamentally about what my brain is doing as I work on an academic project like this. Like many other students undertaking academic writing for the first time, I have found it quite hard at various points. Sitting with a journal article in front of me, or having a blank document on the computer screen can be daunting.

I have found the best solution to be to break everything down in to small pieces. If I don’t know what I’m looking for in a journal article, I begin by just highlighting different bits of key information, such as areas of the brain, or the rationale for the study. Instead of viewing the project as a linear entity that I just need to get on and do, I look only as far as the first step that will open more doors for me.

When I view it this way, I begin to realize that academic work is really just making lots of small decisions. Each decision requires me to take what I know, and decide how it relates to something else. This process is a microcosm of thousands of such decisions that will be made between the start and end of a project. For me, thinking about it this way builds my confidence and makes my work more achievable.

When I tell people I’m doing a masters degree in cognitive neuroscience, I often get replies such as ‘I’d rather you than me…’ or ‘I’m too stupid to do anything like that…’ My message here is that this need not be the case. Achieving in university need not be something just for the ‘smart’. All that I do at university is practice decision making in such a way that I produce scientific research. I suppose somewhere along the way I also memorize some stuff, but that is really just a natural bi-product as I learn this new way of thinking.

The point I want to make about this is that anybody can do it! I’m not saying it will happen at the click of a finger, but I am saying almost anyone can do this with the right mentoring and practice. This, however, is what separates higher education from regular learning and work. There’s lots of very straight forward jobs out there where we know exactly the what, when and how. That’s fine; there are plenty of jobs that need doing, which are highly valuable (or ought to be), but that don’t take much higher order thought. But there’s plenty of complex problems to solve too, which can be addressed by a higher level process of thought. I hope when we view higher education in this way, it can become more graspable. Rather than a scary and mysterious realm of perpetually hard work, a place for the mind to be excercised.


The Division of Knowledge

I was re-reading the paper by George Siemens entitled: Connectivism: A Learning Theory For The Digital Age. While I was reading, something hit me.

Siemens talks about the way the abundance of information in today’s world is forcing us to do things differently. He explains how the continuity that existed for people in days gone by is all but gone. People living in previous generations may have trained for one career and remained engaged with that their life long. Now, however, we have an ever growing pot of knowledge which would be almost impossible for any one person to handle or evaluate.

A solution, which Siemens calls connectivism, stores knowledge across social networks instead. In connectivism, groups of people benefit from laterally stored knowledge, which is then evaluated almost phenomenologically by the collective intelligence of the group.

Now all this is very smart, but where does it fit in to the real world?

Well. Once upon a time, a couple of hundred years ago, there was a different revolution: the industrial revolution. We discovered that we were sitting on an abundance of fossil fuels. Through organisation and the division of labour, the production capacity of what had been until very recently a manual process, grew exponentially.

In the UK, productivity benefits from the division of labour have been commemorated on the £20 note.

In the UK, productivity benefits from the division of labour have been commemorated on the £20 note.


This is the information revolution. Our fossil fuel is computing power. As we use one another as a surrogate for knowledge (Stephenson, undated), our modern replacement for the division of labour is the division of knowledge. Just as our industrial ancestors created highly productive patterns out of the chaos, businesses and researchers alike can benefit holistically from team work and effective divisions.

When I hear talk of the knowledge economy, I am aware that this is not merely a transition to office jobs. Those who will thrive will be those who can sift through the meaningless noise and identify the applications that will yield a real benefit.