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Raising the Rigor! Incorporating Higher-Order Thinking into Your Lessons

October 22, 2015

BrainAs teachers, we are constantly bombarded with the message that lessons need to be rigorous.  We attend trainings in which there are great visual aids outlining the various theories – picture the circles for the zones of proximal development (Vygotsky) and color-coded iterations of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  We know about the importance of rigor and relevance; of big ideas and essential questions.  There is an ocean of research on the importance of developing higher-order thinking skills.  So, once we’ve read all the articles and attended all the inservices, conference sessions, and university seminars,  then what?

On a realistic level, how can rigor truly become a consistent part of one’s practice?

In my classroom full of beautiful, energetic children and the predictable unpredictability of the school day, there is no time to reread the lesson narratives I’ve prepared.   Instead, I “bullet” the higher order questions and tasks to ensure that they are an explicit part of each lesson.  Many opportunities for metacognitive development take place in the moment, when a teacher follows a student’s line of questioning.  

Trust yourself.    When your students latch onto a kernel within a lesson that exemplifies a big idea, an overarching ethical issue, a change across time – go with it!  It is far more important that we engage with students in authentic discussions than that we complete a lesson or lesson set according to a strict timetable.

 How can you make this a reality without rewriting the curriculum?  

A first step is finding high-quality content that can serve as a vehicle for critical thinking development.   When we know the content and have a solid delivery model, this frees us up to focus on pushing students to the higher levels of thinking.  Remember, Bloom’s Taxonomy is not a linear progression!  Creation, evaluation, analysis and synthesis can occur “out of order” and simultaneously.   

In my work with elementary students, much of what we do is cemented in the lower levels of Bloom’s.  This is okay!  It is the questions and discussions I facilitate among the students that bump us up out of the lower levels into higher-order thinking. You cannot have higher-order thinking without some foundation in knowledge of process, and you cannot make meaning of content without finding relevance and applying it in a broader sphere.

This is where resources such as the BetterLesson Master Teacher Project can help.  Quality content is a must in order to facilitate the development of higher order thinking skills in our students, as is a strong underlying structure and purpose to the lesson.  With those components in place, the teacher (YOU) is free to focus on asking and supporting meaningful questions and investigations.  

Remember this: All questions don’t need to be answered as long as they are pursued in a meaningful way.  The cognitive dissonance of facing a challenging problem can do far more to develop metacognition than a completed task, tied up with a pretty end-product and a bow.  As teachers, we are uncomfortable with this because it takes a different kind of thought process on our part to assess, it is more difficult to explain to parents and administrators, and it requires more rigorous engagement on our part as we navigate through the unknowns of how students will respond to and pursue these types of open-ended tasks and questions.  

Examples of How To Do This!

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and some of my best ideas come from looking at the work of others.  Here is where the BetterLesson Master Teacher site comes in!  These rigorous, high-quality lessons will give you some useful examples of strategies and concepts you can use in your own classroom.

Glenda Funk, 12th-grade English, “From Poetry to Informational Texts, Finding Common Ground”.  

As a 3rd-grade teacher, I used this lesson as a jumping off point for a conversation with students about the difference between narrative and informative text.  This evolved into a discussion about where the “line” is – are poetry and informational text mutually exclusive?  Of course not!  I have students write poetry related to science content, and I have them use factual information in their imaginative narratives.  There’s precedence for this, right?  Think of science fiction!  

Another lesson that has great value far beyond its assigned grade level is Erik Sussbauer’s  11th-grade English lesson,  “Comparing Rhetoric: Carson vs. Bill McKibben”.  If your students are old enough, you can use this lesson as it is written, to examine how culture, time period and individual personality shape how two different people frame the environmental issues facing our world.  As I have younger students, I used this lesson as a way to generate ideas for a similar discussion using simpler articles about environmental issues.  For example, students can look at the different perspectives on the merits and disadvantages of mining.   This is a topic  I examine in a 3rd-grade science lesson, Mountain Gorillas, Mining, and Natural Resource Use.

Another example of a lesson with great ideas is Paula Stanton’s 9th-grade ELA,“Perceptions v. Circumstance:  Target Organizer for the Wreck of Hesperus.  Again, while I don’t teach the exact content used in this lesson, in the introduction I was able to find something valuable.  There is a link to images from Katrina that were very controversial because individuals engaging in the exact same activity (taking food from a store) were portrayed completely different due to their ethnicity.

I find that any time I am searching for ideas on how to present something in a different manner, reading a handful of lessons on the BL site provides me with varied content, process and product that enriches and changes what I teach!  


Jennifer Valentine is a National Board Certified 3rd-grade teacher at Liberty Gifted and Talented Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona.  Jennifer has a genuine love of learning, creating new lessons with cross-curricular themes, developing intercultural competence and introducing new technological applications that enhance her students’ engagement with content and concepts. She is committed to bridging what she sees as an unfortunately persistent gap between “soft” humanities perspectives about nature and hard science by introducing real-world context and applications.

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