Higher Level Thinking: A Learner’s Perspective


Life is full of situations that require each of us to solve problems, make decisions, and deal with issues. This is true both in the workplace and in the rest of our lives. Such has been the case since the dawn of time but as the world has become more complex the demand on our intellect has increased immeasurably.

The problem is this: School programs are currently marginalizing higher order aspects of intellectual development. “Higher standards” translates to more standards, often of a trivial nature. Proponents argue that their standards include the higher order thinking skills called for here, but close examination reveals that low-level skills dominate the lists. Further, our classroom visits and discussions with teachers indicate the time spent is shifted far in the direction of rote memorization of content.

To find related articles on Higher Level Thinking, CLICK “THINKING STRATEGIES” at the top of the page.

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While formal education seems to be emphasizing low-level thinking while eliminating or reducing art, music, advanced science, and professional/technical courses, the workplace is shifting its demands to include cognitive skills of a much higher order (See the article “21st Century Basic Skills” elsewhere on this site). Jobs requiring analytical skills, creativity, teamwork, and problem solving are now the norm according to many experts, and the supply of workers with this skill set is small and not growing.

What kinds?

The author spent a decade researching and teaching higher order thinking to college students, teachers and business people. Much of that time was spent learning to teach teachers to teach thinking. The outcome of the effort was a model that used the primary colors of light as an organizer for three basic kinds of thinking.

In this model the recall of information already learned and the ability to find resources that contain needed information is called red-light thinking. Manipulating information to place it into categories, analyze it, or use it to reach conclusions makes up a second category of thinking that we call green-light thinking. The third category, blue-light thinking, includes creativity, invention, and putting information together in new ways. In novel situations we use these three types of thinking in various combinations to achieve our purpose.

Organization of this article

The following sections describe in more detail each of the three types of thinking along with suggestions that readers can adopt to improve their ability to use the indicated type of cognitive processing. The final section of the paper provides ideas for putting the entire package together to improve one’s ability in a wide array of situations. It is not expected that by reading this article one will have all of the tools necessary to instantly become a top-notch thinker. Like all complex skills higher-level thinking requires experience over a period of months or years. Our purpose is to get the reader started on the path that will have to be navigated as the trail unfolds.


The red light signifies “Stop and think about it.” This category consists primarily of recalling and remembering things, ideas, and events. We have also included here information that is easily retrievable from books and other information sources and data that can be collected through the senses.

One of the first things most of us do when presented with a learning task or problem is to search our internal memory banks to determine if we already know the answer or know how to solve the problem. A second strategy that can be applied is to simply “look it up.” The answer or solution may already exist and if we have access to a suitable library it is not always necessary to carry the information in one’s head.

Most of us use mnemonic devices, visualization, and various other techniques to improve our memory. A prime example is to use the initial letters of a list to compose a phrase that makes sense to the person trying to memorize the list. “Roy G. Biv” has been used for many years by students to recall the sequence of colors in the spectrum of sunlight. Memories tied to emotional events are particularly strong. This can be exploited by attaching information to music or art that has a high emotional component. Much of what exists in our long-term memories does not rely on these gimmicks, however. Most of what we remember is connected to previously learned concepts in an ever-growing network of sights, sounds, tastes, and smells. When we acquire the habit of consciously making these connections we increase the chances of the event being recalled later when triggered by a new set of circumstances.


The green light means “Go and find out.” Green light thinking consists of the cognitive skills of conceiving, sequencing, analyzing, and synthesizing. Each of these, in turn, can be thought of in more discrete terms. Within the concept of conceiving we include such things as grouping and labeling, categorizing or classifying, and comparing or contrasting. Sequencing includes ordering, pattern recognition, and prioritizing. When we analyze we do such things as discriminate relevant from irrelevant, identify assumptions, and recognize part-to-whole relationships. Synthesizing includes such things as inferring, predicting, summarizing, and concluding.

The green light strategies are obviously more complex than red light strategies. One might proceed through them in different orders depending on the current state of knowledge of the topic or of the information available. For example, if a data table is presented one might look for patterns or might first try to group the information in some reasonable way. We could try to separate the irrelevant from the relevant or attempt to identify assumptions that were made in order to develop the table. Often one of these steps triggers a red light memory or the need to look up some information that might help in figuring out the problem. As you can see, green light thinking can be very idiosyncratic based on the experience of the thinker.

The skills of green light thinking are best learned through experience in using them. The aspiring “thinker” must find opportunities to practice the skills individually and in combination. For instance, try writing an essay on a topic you already know something about, let’s say it is the causes of the Civil War. The first step might be to generate a list of things you know about the war. Try to group the items generated in a logical way and assign names to the groups. You may find that information needs to be collected from other sources in some areas and that you must sort out the irrelevant data. The essay can summarize the findings of your research and you can assert a conclusion backed up by the evidence you have gathered. This activity is an example where many of the red and green light thinking skills are employed, but the main point to be made is that you need to become conscious of the skills as you use them. Metacognition, as this process is called, is your key ally in becoming more proficient in all of the higher-level skills.


The blue light signifies “Blue-sky thinking.” This is where creativity comes in. For some it is required when all else fails but for others this is a routine part of their thinking strategy and can be dropped in at any stage of the process. Once this type of thinking is added as a regular part of a person’s skill set it is likely to kick into gear in the most mundane situation. Traditionally, creative thinking included such things as flexibility, originality, and elaboration but some authors have now added metaphorical thinking, imagery, and model making to the components.

In the early stages of development of blue light thinking a person might follow some sort of pattern to come up with creative ideas. For example it might be beneficial to use brainstorming to get a number of ideas on the table (fluency). One or two of the ideas could be extended (elaborate) and a metaphor developed that applies to the problem being pursued. One of the more useful creativity techniques is called Synectics. (http://members.ozemail.com.au/~caveman/Creative/Techniques/synectics.htm) This technique can be learned and used in a wide variety of situations.

Again, experience is the name of the game. Check out the resource provided on Synectics, buy a couple of books by Edward de Bono (Lateral Thinking comes to mind) and begin to practice the strategies being cognizant of the skills as you apply them. Try to invent something to solve an everyday problem. For example, arthritic fingers make it difficult to do many everyday things such as buttoning buttons. Try to use the principles of Synectics to invent a device that solves this problem. As you work through the process it is important to think about the steps you are taking, to give them names, and generally become more aware of your current problem-solving strategies. Metacognition is as important in creative blue light thinking as it is in green light thinking.


An implicit assumption of the author is that each of us can take charge of our intellectual development. It is within our power to begin where we are as “thinkers” and develop a plan for continuous improvement of our cognitive skills. As described in the previous section, metacognition must play a dominant role in this plan. You must first become aware of how you are using the skills. Which are you especially good at? Which would be of most value in the short run? Which would you set as longer range objectives?

As you become more conscious of your thinking strategies and your needs for the short and long term you can begin to make a plan to develop needed skills. A good “thinking” coach would be invaluable, but they are in short supply. The reader has the power to make the change but commitment is the key. Take the first step and then take another. If you need a little help, stop by valetc.com from time-to-time. We plan to be here and to add to this discussion as time allows.


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