Higher Order Thinking | David G Lazear
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The following article is an adaptation of the first chapter of David Lazear's newest book entitled Higher-Order Thinking, the MI Way! (currently "in press," available in the Fall of 2003)


Moving Students’ Thinking to Higher-Order Realms

by David G. Lazear

Imagine the following scene:
A group of middle school students are involved in a unit where they are studying the process of photosynthesis. They are currently learning about the parts of a plant, how they function, and each part’s role in the larger photosynthesis process. They have been working in expert groups where the assignment was to make drawings which illustrate each part of the plant and its role in the life of the plant. One group has drawn a cross section of a plant’s leaf system, another group has illustrated the workings of the root system, another the plant’s reproductive system, and so on. They have created large posters using colored markers. The functions of each system have been appropriately labeled. The teams are now sharing their posters with the whole class, explaining the inner workings of their respective part of the plant. The posters are colorful, imaginative, visually appealing, and instructive.

The teacher asks the teams to post their drawings at the front of the class. He says, “We now have some drawings which represent the basic functions of the parts of a plant. Now we are going to put them together and understand the relationships and dynamics which go on between these parts.” He proceeds to give a mini-lecturette (based on information from the science book) explaining what goes on at each stage of the photosynthesis process. “ Step one of the process, the rays of the sun strike the plant. This causes the chlorophyll in the plant to turn towards the sun. The chlorophyll grabs the sun’s energy and uses it to split the water molecules inside the leaf.” He then asks the class to think of fun and creative images, patterns, designs, symbols, and pictures they could add to the leaf system poster which would show this happening; namely the chlorophyll turning toward the sun to capture its energy. As the students have ideas they come to the front of the class and draw their ideas on the poster. In this case they draw little green solar panels on the surface of the plant. Coming out the solar panels are funny little hands which are grabbing the rays of the sun.

As the instruction continues (using the process of mini-lecturette then stopping and finding a way to illustrate it) some students begin to draw symbolic connections between the plant’s various systems, such as a complex set of pipes coming from the root system to the leaf system or water trucks traveling along the plant’s stem to deliver the water to the leaves. Students are having a great deal of fun finding unusual ways to illustrate the various steps of photosynthesis, and you suspect that the pictures, shapes, images, designs, and patterns they have drawn on the posters have produced a great deal of understanding of how the different parts of the plant interact during the photosynthesis process.

In the final stage of the lesson, each student is given an 11” x 17” piece of white construction paper. They are instructed to imagine they are abstract artists creating pictures for the Museum of Modern Art. The title of the painting is “The Process of Photosynthesis.” Using colored markers only, they are to create something that illustrates the process. No words are permitted on their creations! It must tell the story through shapes, images, patterns, colors, designs, and visual symbols.

What you have just witnessed is an example of how to use multiple intelligences (in this case visual-spatial intelligence) to produce higher-order thinking and reasoning in students. As with any higher-order thinking task, the key is to move students thinking from “the facts ma’am, nothing but the facts,” to an understanding of the dynamic relationships of the facts and the various processes involved, to the level of synthesis, integration, application, and transfer of the learning. It is at this level the learning is internalized, is invested with meaning, and becomes part of one’s being.

What I have just described is obviously a much simplified version of Benjamin Bloom’s now famous taxonomy of cognitive abilities (Bloom, 1956). In my opinion, Bloom’s taxonomy is still the best model we have for what is involved in thinking with logical-mathematical intelligence. However, this book proposes, first, that each of the eight intelligences possesses it own unique taxonomy of cognitive abilities, and second, that educators need to be using all of the intelligences at their respective higher-order levels in order to promote students’ deep learning and mastery of the curriculum.

Often, when teachers first adopt an MI approach to teaching, the intelligences are used simply either to “spice up” otherwise dry lessons or as mnemonic devices to help students remember certain facts and figures. Of course, the entertainment value of a lesson will certainly be higher when we use MI in teaching and learning, and MI will most certainly aid students in remembering some of the information. However, from the perspective of the full range of cognitive abilities each intelligence represents, this is akin to never moving beyond the information recall levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. When we deeply understand the multiple taxonomies of multiple intelligences, we have a way to help students think at higher levels in and through the different intelligence domains.

The Cognitive Domains of the Eight Intelligences

Each of the eight intelligences has its own language, its own jargon and vernacular, its own modus operandi (Lazear 1998). In Frames of Mind, the book in which Dr. Howard Gardner documented his original research on the theory of multiple in intelligences, he discusses the criteria he used to identify the various intelligences. One of the criterion was, that for an intelligence to qualify it must have its own “symbolic notation system” or its “susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system.”

Much of human representation and communication of knowledge takes place via symbol systems--culturally contrived systems of meaning which capture important forms of information. Language, picturing, mathematics are but three of the symbol systems that have become important the world over for human survival and human productivity. . . While it may be possible for an intelligence to proceed without its own special symbol system, or without some other culturally devised arena, a primary characteristic of human intelligence may well be it “natural” gravitation toward embodiment in a symbolic system. (Gardner, Frames of Mind, p.66)

The key to working deeply and effectively with MI is immersing yourself in the language system and capacities of the different intelligences. A good analogy for this is the experience of visiting another culture than your own. You will have a much greater understanding of and appreciation for that culture if you speak its language.
The same is true for the intelligences, especially when we are concerned with the higher-order cognitive abilities and processes involved with the different ways of knowing. So, for example, when working with musical-rhythmic intelligence you are working primarily with the knowing and understanding which occurs through sound and vibration including such things as tones, pitch, timbre, beats, rhythms, percussion, music, and all manner of auditory stimuli from the environment, from the human vocal chords, and from machines. Or when you are working with bodily-kinesthetic you are in a cognitive realm which primarily “knows” in and through physical movement and thus involves such things as dance, dramatic enactment, role play, mime, facial expressions, postures, physical games, “body language,” and the like. We must learn to speak the language, understand the information we receive, and operate within the cognitive domains of the different intelligences!

Part of the difficulty of working with multiple intelligences from an instructional-assessment point of view is that, other than verbal/linguistic intelligence, their “language systems”, for the most part, are not verbal “ways of knowing.” They use other media than the spoken, written, or read word. For example:

• the language of visual/spatial intelligence is the language of shapes, images, patterns, designs, color, textures, pictures, visual symbols, and “inner seeing” involving such things as active imagination, pretending, and visualization.

• the language of body/kinesthetic intelligence is the language of physical movement and thus involves such things as creative and interpretive dance, drama, mime, role play, gesture, body language, facial expressions, posture, physical games, and physical exercise.

• the language of logical/mathematical intelligence is the language of recurring patterns discernment (including patterns which involve numbers, words, geometric designs, etc.), problem-solving tactics and strategizing to meet new challenges.

• the language of the naturalist intelligence is the language of natural patterns, flora, fauna, species groupings, subspecies categorizations, external and internal sensory experience of the natural world, and all manner of encounters with plants, animals, water, weather, inorganic matter from the microscopic world to what can be seen with the naked eye.

• the language of musical/rhythmic intelligence (or what I have started to call the “auditory/vibrational intelligence”) is the language of tones, resonance, beats, vibrational patterns, timbre, pitch, rhythms, sounds (including sounds from the environment, humanly produced sounds, sounds from machines, and sounds from musical and percussion instruments).

• the language of verbal/linguistic intelligence is the language of the spoken word (including formal and informal speaking), reading others writing, doing one’s own writing (including poetry, essay, persuasive writing, and so on), storytelling, linguistically-based humor (such as riddles, jokes, puns, limericks, and other “twists of the language),

• the language of interpersonal intelligence is the language of human relating, collaboration, being a good teammate, cooperation, noticing distinctions among other persons, common goals, consensus, empathy, and meaningful encounters with others.

• the language of intrapersonal intelligence is the language of introspection and awareness of internal aspects of the self, including awareness of one’s own feelings, intuitions, thinking processes, “who am I?” quests, spiritual pursuits, beliefs, and values.

Another of the qualifying criteria for an intelligence in Howard Gardner’s original research was a clearly identifiable set of core operations within the brain, mind, body system and which are stimulated by input from the external world. "Central to my notion of an intelligence is the existence of one or more basic information-processes operations or mechanisms, which can deal with specific kinds of input. One might go so far as to define a human intelligence as a neural mechanism or computational systems which is genetically programmed to be activated or “triggered” by certain kinds of internally or externally presented information." (Gardner, Frames of Mind, p.64)

In other words, these core operations, once “triggered” in the brain-mind-body system, are then able to process, interpret, and understand the certain kinds of information peculiar to different ways of knowing. For example, in the case of verbal-linguistic intelligence, information presented via the written or spoken word would be meaningless if at the same time it did not stimulate the language centers of the brain (primarily Broca’s area which is the main language production center of the brain, Wernicke’s area for receiving language, and the temporal lobes where our language memory is held). Or with visual-spatial intelligence, we could conceivably receive much visual stimulation but it would be confusing and be perceived as irrelevant if it did not simultaneously stimulate the parietal and occipital lobes in the right hemisphere of the brain: the parietal lobes perceive shapes, images, color, texture, patterns, etc. and the occipital lobes interpret and make sense out of those very the shapes, images, color, texture, patterns, etc.

In my work, I have referred to these core operations as “intelligence capacities.” I have also suggested that working with development of these capacities is the key to strengthening all of our intelligences. The better students are in using the different capacities the easier it will be for them to move to an intelligence’s higher-order realms. Below is a summary of these capacities for each intelligence. If you want more detailed description of these please refer to my books Eight Ways of Knowing and The Intelligent Curriculum. In Eight Ways of Knowing you will also find an exercise related to each of the capacities which can help you learn what is involved in deeply accessing and developing each of the intelligences in your our life as well as that of your students.

Once we are inside of an intelligence and it’s capacities, we are suddenly confronted with a staggering array of cognitive abilities which are unique to a given intelligence. For example, interpersonal intelligence is much more than just working with other people. It involves such abilities as empathizing with other people, building consensus in a group, appreciating and respecting opinions, beliefs, values and perspectives which differ from one’s own, mastery of a complex set of social skills needed to be an effective member of a team, knowing how to deal with disagreement and conflict in a group, understanding processes for group problem-solving, setting realistic goals, evaluating the dynamics of a group and knowing how to help the group alter its dynamics when necessary, and so on. Or consider bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. It is much, much more than our ability to perform various kinds of simple and complex movements. It also includes the many unrealized potentials of our innate kinetic potential; the infant’s potential to walk, the ability to develop and train both gross and fine motor skills at almost any stage of our development, and the subtleties of what we can express through facial expressions, posture, and other so-called “body language.” And we must not forget body of muscular imagination through which we possess the ability, via active mental performance, to improve, strengthen, and refine the movements and functioning of the real physical body.

The key premise of this article is that in order to work deeply with an intelligence you must fully understand and be able to utilize its unique “patterns of thinking.” Once we have some measure of comprehension of what is involved understanding the unique way each intelligence thinks, perceives, and understands the world, we can work with students to help them access the full cognitive potentials of of the eight intelligences toward their mastery of the required curriculum. However, in order to accomplish this task, we utilize what I am calling the “multiple taxonomies of multiple intelligences”; namely, the complex of cognitive skills and abilities which are specific to each intelligence.

Taxonomies of the Intelligences

The chart which follows shows how to work with the different intelligences from the basic, to the complex, to the higher-order cognitive realms. These categories are based on Howard Gardner’s discussion of an intelligence’s “developmental trajectory”; namely, its distinct developmental history (Gardner 1983, 1987). Again, the developmental journey is specific to each intelligence, however the underlying template applies across the intelligences. Generally, the development of an intelligence begins at the basic or novice level, the “raw patterning” of the intelligence, usually in early childhood. Its development then progresses to the complex level which involves a more disciplined acquisition of the skills and abilities of an intelligence. What I have called the higher-order level involves the integration and synthesis of the intelligence into one’s regular repertoire for living. You can most often see the mastery of an intelligence domain if you observe the intelligence applied through someone’s vocational and/or avocational pursuits (also sometimes referred to as “intelligence end states” by Howard Gardner--1999).

The chart transforms the overall developmental journey for each intelligence into taxonomies of cognitive abilities and describes what is involved in moving one’s thinking in the different intelligence domains through different levels. Within a unit of instruction there will almost always be parts of the unit (often involving several days!) spent at the gathering and understanding level. Here students use the intelligences to gather and understand basic concepts; so, for example, you might having them draw pictures of the concepts being studied, or act them out, or make up songs, raps, or jingles to help remember this basic information. However, as the unit progresses, once they have represented the key facts, figures, definitions, etc. using a given intelligence, you can move them to the level of analyzing and processing the information. In the example at the beginning of this article, students are seeing, visualizing, and drawing the connections and dynamic relationships between their gathering and understanding level drawings. But remember, as interesting and creative as this level may be, the more time you can spend at the level higher-order thinking and reasoning, and more involved and complex you can make the learning tasks at this level, the more you will be working with the transfer, application, synthesis, and integration of the concepts involved in the unit. Here you are moving the concepts from what is often called “book learning” or “classroom learning” to “life learning;” namely, students are learning about themselves and their lives in the world beyond school.

Earlier I mentioned that working with the multiple taxonomies for multiple intelligences will indeed make lessons more interesting and will definitely aid students in remembering the information being taught. But the benefits go far beyond this. When students are provided the opportunity to understand their own many intelligences or ways of knowing, and are given frequent opportunities to use them in lessons, not only are they more actively involved with the material at hand, but they also make many more personal connections with what they are studying, thus investing it with meaning. Teaching students about the different intelligences and how to use them gives them many tools for greater success in school, but you are also giving them tools for success in life beyond the classroom.

©David Lazear


Bloom, B.J. 1956. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. New York: .
Gardner, H. 1987. “Developing the Spectrum of Human Intelligences: Teaching in the Eighties, a Need to Change.” Harvard Educational Review.
_________.1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
_________. 1999. Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. Basic Books.
Lazear, D. 1998a. Eight Ways of Knowing: Teaching for Multiple Intelligences. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight Publishing.
_________. 2000. The Intelligent Curriculum: Using Multiple Intelligences to Develop Your Students’ Full Potential. Tucson, AZ: Zephyr Press.
_________. 1998d. The Rubrics Way: Using Multiple Intelligences to Assess Understanding. Tucson, AZ: Zephyr Press.