Problem Solving Classroom

Tips from a Master Teacher (This is a work in progress.)

Higher-Order Thinking

by Mark Illingworth
Higher-Order Thinking
Aim Your Curriculum Correctly

We often answer the wrong question: “What’s in the curriculum?” While having a curriculum is important, you better make sure that curriculum serves the students. The question we should always return to is “What do my students need in order to thrive?”

A Road Map We Already Have

We don’t have to look far to answer this question. We were all given a road map when we trained to be teachers: Bloom’s Taxonomy. At the time, we understood the importance and relevance of helping our students develop higher-order thinking skills. Did you remember this when you landed in a district ruled by checklists of skills that could easily be assessed and marked as completed?

Skills for the 21st Century

If you wanted to bring your company or organization to the next level, which of these skills would you be looking for in job applicants? Would you want someone who could memorize theorems and complete worksheets of single-step problems, or would you be more interested in someone who could analyze complicated systems to develop cost-saving measures or innovative new directions?

If you’re thinking beyond jobs, which skills do you want to develop in the young people who will be solving tomorrow’s big problems? After all, you are partially responsible for developing the minds of the next generation.

It became clear to me early in my 35-year teaching career that knowledge was not enough. I wanted to help my students become stronger thinkers and not just puppets who were trained to demonstrate proficiency with memorized routines. This led me to develop original materials that went beyond what textbooks asked of students, and I later translated these materials into a form that other teachers could use at Trapeze Education.

Reshaping Bloom

I like this depiction of Bloom’s Taxonomy that I adapted from Fractus Learning because it doesn’t show the higher-order skills as the tinier blocks at the top of a pyramid. Their sizes are more proportional to their importance. Take a few moments to look at verbs in the diagram in the context of your own teaching. What changes do you need to make either to what you do or to your school’s curriculum? While you may think that the Secant-Secant Theorem is essential to your students’ lives, are you as focused as you’d like to be on giving your students the thinking skills they need to thrive in the today’s world? Ask yourselves how your students would do on the Squirrel Problem.

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In a Nutshell


A curriculum should be based on what your students need to thrive—even if that means that writing appropriate goals is more challenging than brainstorming a list of basic skills.


Bloom's Taxonomy already provides us with an excellent map of higher-order thinking skills, although it should be withdrawn to better reflect the importance of these skills in the 21st century.

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