Private tutors are in the enviable position of having great influence in helping their students develop, cultivate shape their thought processes.

Unlike school teachers who, in spite of their best efforts, may feel constrained by the limitations on their pedagogy imposed on them by the Department for Education, tutors have the leeway they need to encourage students to think about what they’re learning.

Anyone who has any formal dealings with the DfE – teachers who spend their nights and weekends tutoring, for example, may experience growing frustration with the processes currently in place to impart knowledge and assess mastery of such.

Because of the well-publicised propensity these current curriculum standards force for teaching to the test, little room is left for teachers to help students develop critical thinking skills or problem-solving skills.

That means that students must learn creative thinking and how to solve problems outside of the classroom.

There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, humans are capable of thought long before their first brush with formal schooling.

However, the disconnect between the acquisition of knowledge and thinking about it; finding connections from one subject to the next often keeps students from higher academic achievement.

That is where private tutors come in.

Tutors fill the space between cognitive knowledge and comprehension of concepts. Where there are missing links between academic subjects, say between maths and science, tutors are the ones who point out the complementary nature of those disciplines.

The question is: how far should a tutor go to instal and develop students’ capacity for summarizing, classifying and understanding what they learn?

Should cultivating thinking skills be a tutor’s primary objective?

Or are students truly better served by a tutor restating school lessons rather than one asking open-ended questions and employing instructional strategies that will encourage the student to think?

How much is too much before the tutor has strayed far beyond the boundaries of what s/he has been engaged to do?

This is a thorny issue. Let’s take a look at all of the facets involved in higher-order thinking skills before presenting our thesis.

The Back Story: Teaching Victor

Victor, the feral child, as he appeared on the cover of the book about him
The pencil drawing of Victor which adorned the cover of the book about him. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Gallica Digital Library

One of the earliest and most credible cases of teaching a feral child: Dr Itard and the child he named Victor.

Reports that a wild child had been captured in the woods near Lacaune, France, rocked the medical and academic communities.

Initially, nobody saw this child as someone to be nurtured; the focus was on proving the Noble Savage theory – that humans, unbound by social mores and general education would be kind, selfless and enlightened in their own right.

Victor, having completely missed out on any nurturing as well as early childhood education, and his entire young life spent being wary of harm, failed to cooperate or perform as expected.

The clinicians – whose instructional design left a lot to be desired, had put all of their hopes into this abandoned child. Needless to say, were disappointed at being unable to prove their Noble Savage theory.

Seeing no further reason to work with him, they shipped the boy to Paris to be institutionalised. There, Dr Itard rose to the challenge of educating a child that everyone had deemed incapable of learning.

It took quite a while for that educator to teach the boy social norms and even longer to teach him empathy. Once those concepts were mastered, Dr Itard resolved to educate the child, now somewhat behaved, in how to speak.

Here his pedagogical skill met with abysmal failure and, after all of his best efforts had come to nothing, he turned away from the child altogether, effectively abandoning him anew.

In these events, we see perfectly well how much is too much.

Victor, desiring – perhaps not to learn so much as to please his mentor, simply did not have the psychomotor development necessary to learn how to speak after so long of being nonverbal.

Critics of Dr Itard postulate that, had he employed other means of student engagement; maybe if he had taught the boy sign language, perhaps Victor could have learned to communicate.

As Victor displayed a strong affective inclination, music might also have been an effective teaching tool.

Besides making a fascinating case for the need for differentiation in education, Victor’s story gives the strongest proof of the validity of Blooms Taxonomy: that there are three distinct domains that educational faculty and staff must address to guarantee student achievement.

It also clearly underscores the importance of faculty development in schools so that teachers can recognise and meet students needs.

Finally, it offers a cautionary tale to tutors who might be inclined to push their students toward independent thought in a manner for which they are not yet ready.

Join the discussion: do impact students' ability to master higher-order thinking?

Rote memorisation of facts does not a problem solver make!
Reading skills are essential for learning but they don't make a problem solver! Image by balancepft from Pixabay

Higher Order Thinking and Academic Learning

Higher-order thinking is comprised of equal parts of critical thinking and problem-solving.

To an extent, essay writing is an exercise in critical thinking: the student must take in information, analyse it and draw conclusions from it.

While essay writing or report writing provides an opportunity for learners to think critically and draw conclusions, chances to think critically about other academic subjects are minimal.

It is quite unfortunate that many perceive critical thinking to be an exercise in which the practitioner must find fault in whatever is being examined – in other words, to criticise.

Quite the contrary! Critical thinking involves the suspension of personal bias; it requires a dispassionate view of the topic at hand and the ability to discern fact in a sea of fiction.

Developing such skills requires a fair amount of time and mental agility.

In crowded UK classrooms, the first is decidedly in short supply and the second is a diverse proposition because not every student has the same level of academic aptitude.

What about problem-solving? Here, teaching strategies are also lacking.

Again, not through any fault of hard-working teachers!

Today’s curriculum and instruction mandates leave little time for teachers to plan co curricular activities that would permit the development of problem-solving skills.

Tutors see the fallout: unused to thinking critically throughout the academic year, learners struggle with higher level thinking outside of the classroom.

Tutors Can Encourage Higher Order Thinking

It would be safe to say that nobody, tutor or teacher, ever went into the field of education to become rich or famous.

However, anyone could believe that both tutors and teachers have made education their life’s work because of their passion for learning and a desire to impart that knowledge.

Oddly enough, for all that they have the same motivations for instructing, teachers’ and tutors’ overall direction seems divergent.

Whereas teachers must follow the learning standards set forth by their schools, a tutor’s imperative is to improve student learning capacities.

To that end, one of the most effective tools a tutor can use in determining a student’s readiness for thinking questions is by conducting a formative assessment.

Naturally, your initial interview will assess your pupils’ learning skills overall but, as time goes on, your constant evaluation of their cognitive skills should signal when they are ready for more complex concept formation.

In providing academic support, tutors need to apply a bit of educational psychology:

  • Define ‘learning’: one does not acquire a breadth of knowledge only through rote learning; understanding and making sense of things also play a vital part
  • Make the lesson relevant: cultivating an interest in subject matter is a step in the right direction; revealing the interrelationships between the student and the material being studied is the hallmark of a master teacher
  • Reinforce the learning: find at least three ways to use the new information, preferably through different learning activities.

What happens if you employ all of these learning strategies, as well as others, and your student still doesn’t grasp the concept at hand?

This is where a real danger of pushing for a successful outcome lies. As you may have already experienced, it is not a good idea to go beyond that point, lest you risk students’ progress.

Perhaps it is time to revise your lesson planning to include more student-centered activities... you might, perhaps, focus more on the problem-solving aspect of higher-order thinking.

Make your students think by posing open-ended questions
Open ended questions are far better than multiple choice questions because they make students think! Image by balancepft from Pixabay

Higher Order Thinking Questions

Overseeing writing assignments and helping prepare your pupils for a math test are fundamental tutor obligations to ensure student success.

Unless it was specified when you were hired - ‘please teach my child how to think!’ - a tutor’s actual duty lies in providing learning services.

Said services should include project-based learning, active learning and activities that will foster metacognition – the awareness and understanding of one’s thought processes.

So, once you complete your initial assessment of a student and determine their learning goals, the course you chart should be pretty clear... right?

If we were in it for the money, that assertion would be spot-on.

However, upon ethical reflection, we tutors have taken a silent vow to strive for educational success with everyone we teach.

Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to not only provide learning support but also provide 21st-century skills – a continuum of services that will provide a rich student experience.

Content knowledge to appease an assessment system or thinking stems to cultivate higher order thinking?

Rote memorization of facts can only take students so far.

Asking them the types of questions designed to gauge their depth of knowledge and how they use what they’ve learned is the recipe for fostering thinking humans, but must be done in such a way that they become thinkers, not turned off from learning altogether.

Bottom line: knowing when to push, how to push and what to push on is as integral to a tutor’s professional development as it is essential for student development.

Your turn to chime in: how would you define higher-order thinking?

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A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.