Thinking Skills

How do we developing thinking skills?

'Thinkers' is one of the IB learner profile attributes. It is defined "in terms of exercising initiative in applying thinking skills critically and creatively to recognize and approach complex problems, and make reasoned, ethical decisions." (IB)

Thinking skills are central to the constructivist approach to learning that influences all IB programmes. All of the IB programmes puts the development of thinking skills central stage. For example, in the Diploma Programme the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) course plays a central part in exploring what and how we know.

Thinking skills are key to content mastery or deep understanding (higher skills & scores), lifelong learning skills (growth mindset, higher transfer, etc.), IQ-type skills (synthesis, analytics, and problem solving), and EQ-type skills (emotional intelligence, pro-social behavior, grit, compassion).


  • Read the following opinion piece.
  • Identify key words.
  • To what extent does this opinion piece challenge your practice?

"In order to succeed at the most academic universities, students need to now how to think... Schools can promote thinking by challenging "correct" answers, creating a classroom ethos in which supplementary questions are to be expected: 'Is that quite true?', 'Is that always true?', 'Can you generalize?', 'Is there a specific example?', and so on. The opposite environment is when a question is asked that seeks a specific answer and the giving of the correct answer heralds the move to the next question. Teachers have to be allowed to challenge students and allow themselves to be challenged.... This is uncovering the joy of hard-thinking, the delight that comes from winning a logical argument. It is also a matter of deepening understanding and developing an expectation that the subjects studies should make sense, that we can look for patterns, make predictions and solve problems. It is turning knowledge from a collection of facts to a tool that can be used. No academic subject allows for absolute truths - not even pure mathematics - and in order to relish the hurly-burly of academic debate, students need to have their answers challenged (even the correct ones). Being able to think is at the heart of university scholarship and so students have to get over the idea of education being a process of absorbing, unchallenged, the knowledge of the sages and regurgitating it on to an examination paper." James Handscombe, Principal of Harris Westminster Sixth Form, London, Tes, 5 April 2019.

WHY thinking skills?

Watch the following video as an activator to establish the context - and to demonstrate what you do not want thinking to be like!

WHAT are thinking skills?

In the following video Trevor Maber describes the Ladder of Inference. The Ladder of Inference describes the thinking process that we go through, usually without realizing it, to get from a fact to a decision or action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder. If you wish to read more about the ladder of inference visit the Mindtools site by clicking here.

WHICH thinking skills?

The term 'thinking skills' is often used to refer to a group of closely related skills. Within the Diploma Programme specific attention is given to metacognition, reflection and critical thinking. We will therefore look at these three in turn by providing an overarching definition and then sign posting resources that staff can search. One way of doing this is to divide the faculty into groups, with each group exploring one element, and use a protocol such as Scavenger hunt and/or Jigsawing to collate key points and then a Gallery Walk to share the understanding with other groups.

1. Metacognition

Well-established research has shown that metacognition is one of the most important components of how people learn. "A “metacognitive” approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining learning goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them." (How People Learn, Donovan et al., 1999 - note the full book can be downloaded free).

Metacognition “refers to higher-order thinking which involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning” (Hattie 2009,Visible Learning). Metacognition refers to the executive function of thinking and focuses on the self-management of learning - planning, implementing and monitoring learning efforts. It's about the learner being able to monitor, evaluate, control and change how they think and learn. Developing these metacognitive skills has a positive impact on the development of all other thinking skills. It turns learners into independent learners who can learn new topics and domains.

Students should reflect and identify in which situations they can use the skills and tools they already have. When we remind them and they become aware (metacognition) that they are developing the same skills in two or more subjects and identify real life situations in which these skills apply (connection), they will have attained higher-order thinking skills (metacognition being one of them).

All IB programmes have metacognition embedded in the application of the inquiry learning cycle which is central to the IB approach to learning. The cycle of reflection (sustained inquiry + principled action + critical reflection) when it is applied to the process of learning creates metacognitive awareness.

Robert Sternberg and Howard Gardner have produced a model that develops the following five metacognitive themes in order to raise student performance:

  • Knowing Why - understanding the purpose of all learning and tasks.
  • Knowing Self - identifying strengths and weaknesses in present learning strategies and skills.
  • Knowing Differences - recognising that different school subject requires different types of thinking and learning.
  • Knowing Process - understanding the steps needed in learning and the range of possible learning strategies available.
  • Revisiting - using review of content and process effectively.

"Those with meta-cognitive skills become co-constructors with their teachers of the process of teaching and learning and progressively transfer the role and function of the teacher to themselves." (About Learning, Demos, p.18)

Activity: Search activity

Use the following sources to search for a deeper understanding of metacognition and strategies to develop this skill in the curriculum.

Metacognition: The gift that keeps giving, Edutopia, contains ideas on how to teach students to be more metacognitive together with a list of further references. Click here to access the page.

Metacognititon: Thinking about one's thinking. Vanderbilt University have produced a very clear introduction to metacognition with links that could be used as a thought piece with staff faculty. Click here to access it.

ATL in the IB Diploma: A literature review of the key skills of effective learning, King, L. 2013 (pages 6-7, 21-23)

2. Reflection

Reflecting can be challenging. This is why it is important to create structured opportunities for it to take place - both within the student and the staff body.

Structured reflection activities form part of the learning programmes of all IB subjects and should encourage students to think deeply. These activities can take many forms: written (case studies, blogs, reflective journals etc.); oral (discussions, video diaries etc.); or creative (photo montages, films etc.). They can be an individual or collaborative activity (e.g. on line discussion forums, wikis and micro-blogs).

Reflection does not always have to come at the end of activity.It can be part of the activity (making choices; de Bono’s six thinking hats routine, concept mapping) or even at the beginning of the activity (thinking of ways forward etc.). Reflection, if chunked, is a multi-faceted operation: (a) understanding the dimensions of the task; (b) imagining a way forward; (c) considering how each member of a group can contribute; (d) initiating a process of discovery; (e) analyzing what went right, what didn't, and how to improve next time; (f) imagining next steps; (g) linking to other similar/dissimilar tasks; (h) moving to 'essential understandings' from the specific task.

Activity: Search Activity

Critical Reflection, Miller, M. provides a framework in developing critical reflection. Click here to access the article.

The Reflective Student:A Taxonomy of Reflection, Pappas, P. applies Bloom's taxonomy to develop reflection in students. Click here to access the post. You may also like to read his post on The Reflective Teacher and The Reflective Principal.

3. Critical and Higher Order Thinking Skills

Discussions of the difference between lower and higher order thinking skills often refer back to Bloom's taxonomy of thinking (1956) which was later revised by Anderson and Krathwohl (2001). IB programmes underline the importance of developing higher order thinking skills, as is illustrated in the subject aims (see Diploma subjects) and the command terms.

Activity: Search Activity

Anderson and Krathwohl - Bloom's Taxonomy Revised is a helpful refresher of the main concepts of Bloom's taxonomy. Click here to access it.

The Project Zero “Cultures of Thinking” project focuses on the importance of developing individual and collective thinking in a visible way through the use of thinking routines. Click here to access their site.

Visible Thinking is a project of Harvard Graduate School of Education. Their Thinking Routines provide a framework to help students to become better thinkers, thinking that will enhance their understanding. The idea of 'thinking routines' emerged from a study of what made a teacher an expert (contrasted with experienced): see the discussion at Expert vs Experienced Teachers.

"Thinking routines are designed as scaffolds for thinking. They give us as learners a framework for our thinking and often lay out a sequence in which each step builds on the next. This helps demystify the process of thinking."

(Creating cultures of thinking, Ritchhart, R. 2015:194)

Visible Thinking Routines

These thinking routines help build an infrastructure for thinking and learning in the classroom. Expert teachers model these routines in front of students so that they can learn from them. For we know that "the students are watching."

Knowledge and thinking frameworks

These knowledge frameworks are conceptual models that identify levels of thinking (and learning).

Model #1: Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom's taxonomy is a helpful framework to encourage higher-order thinking. It is especially helpful when planning inquiry-based work to structure performance tasks and higher-order questions that are related to exploring concepts.

Vanderbilt university have an excellent site introducing this taxonomy. Click here to access it.

Exploring Bloom's Taxonomy

How do the questions we ask move pupils and staff through the framework from knowledge to synthesis? Which prefixes do I use most? How do I make my thinking visible to pupils and staff so that it becomes part of their critical apparatus toolkit?

Why is it important to ask a range of questions, and especially the higher order questions? Consider this from the point of view of pupils and staff. Do we encourage pupils and colleagues to think critically, analytically?

  • Click here for an introduction to Bloom's taxonomy
  • Click here to access command terms used in IB
  • Click here to access apps using Bloom's Taxonomy
  • Click here for 14 brilliant bloom's taxonomy posters for teachers.

The following US video is an amusing way of explaining Bloom's taxonomy - however, it might not be your taste of humour so watch and use with care!


Create your own Bloom's-based activity / task for pupils which fits into a topic you will soon be teaching. In order to allow for the individual needs of students in your class (differentiation) the task may have a number of parts allowing for students' learning to be scaffolded in difficulty.

Model #2: Webb's Depth of Knowledge

Normal Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Levels categorize tasks according to the complexity of thinking required to successfully complete them. They can be used by teachers to help them design better instruction.

Model #3: Systems Thinking

In Systems Thinking Made Simple, Derek and Laura Cabrera lay out the case for understanding thinking as a complex adaptive system in which autonomous individuals act together to create some collective, emergent behavior. Think murmurations of starlings or hives of bees or groups of people. Such complex adaptive systems often have simple rules that direct their behavior. The murmuration of starlings does not have a leader directing movement; instead each individual is following simple rules (e.g., stay equal distance from those around etc.). The same is true of thinking.

In their book they describe the four simple rules of thinking: making Distinctions, organizing ideas into parts and wholes of Systems, identifying Relationships, and taking Perspectives (DSRP). DSRP is how we think. It shows how as educators we can integrate teaching thinking (systems thinking) into what we do. It helps to explain how people build knowledge from information using DSRP, and how we can apply systems thinking in our everyday lives, to complex issues we are facing as a society, and to the organizations within which we work and learn. DSRP is an analytical tool to understand any topic or issue. It can be used to map our thinking and knowledge of issues. It helps to make our thinking transparent.

The book provides a number of thinking tools. For example, Map-Activate-Check (MAC) is a systems thinking based curriculum design tool. “Map” is the process of identifying and describing the mental models using DSRP you want to others to construct (the knowledge you want them to have). “Activate” is identifying the most effective ways to activate that knowledge. And, “check” is determining if that mental model has been constructed, and if not, identifying another strategy to activate it.

Go to the Cabrera Research Lab website to learn more.

Click here to access it.

Design learning engagements

Activity 2

  • Identify the thinking skills you wish to teach.
  • Pick one thinking skill from your list and design a learning activity that will explicitly teach this skill to students. Make sure that the learning engagement is interactive.
  • Explore how you would assess proficiency and mastery in this skill. What would it look like?

Resource Bank

IdeaConnection brings together a rich diversity of thinking skills protocols and strategies. It acts as a sign posting site for other great sites. Click here to access their collation of articles, protocols and strategies on thinking skills. They include, amongst others:

Dig deeper

  • 3 Modes of thinking: lateral, divergent & convergent thought, TeachThought, January 2019: a good straight-forward introduction to thinking skills.
  • Teaching Problem Solving. Vanderbilt University have an introductory thought piece that could be used with staff. Click here to access it.
  • Thinking Traps are common ways of thinking which are unhelpful - for example, making generalisations, jumping to conclusions etc. You may like to explore these mistaken ways of thinking with students. Lists of these are easy to find. Click HERE and HERE. Also refer to what fallacies are when we were looking at Theory of Knowledge.
  • Grant Wiggins, Thinking about a lack of thinking, Teach Thought, April 2019. In this article Wiggins challenges us to consider the extent to which we develop students’ thinking skills: “education is the enterprise of making people more thoughtful. And too much mere work inhibits deep thought. Thoughtfulness only enters in when I wonder about the meaning of the work. Why am I doing this? What of it? Is there a better way to do it? What does this work or lesson assume that we might question? What are the unintended consequences of our actions? Etc. That’s why we talk about “depth” of thought. Can you dig below the surface, the ‘cover’ of ‘coverage’ to ponder what underlies it? Typically, however, both teachers and students need merely follow through, in a disciplined way, to complete all their assigned tasks. Yours is not to reason why; yours is but to cross-multiply captures the spirit of such schooling elegantly. If all I do is “teach” you things and then you have to show me you “learned” then, strictly speaking, there is no need for either of us to really think. A need to think only emerges when the work itself is designed to make us both question, really question what we are doing.”
  • Critical thinking essential to help students handle fake news. How Finland is fighting fake news - in the classroom, World Economic Forum. Developing critical thinking is essential: “We need to train a new generation of critical minds. We must tackle this issue through improved news literacy, and it is the task of our educators and society at large to teach children how to use doubt intelligently and to understand that uncertainty can be quantified and measured.” Jean-Pierre Bourguignon (President of the European Research Council). Finnish fact-checking organisation Faktabaari (FactBar) adapts professional fact-checking methods for use in Finnish schools, and says good research skills and critical thinking are key. It outlines three areas to be aware of: misinformation (defective information or mistakes), disinformation, such as hoaxes, and malinformation, stories that intend to damage.
All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and students at subscribing schools for the period of their subscription. Any unauthorised copying or posting of materials on other websites is an infringement of our copyright and could result in your account being blocked and legal action being taken against you.