Cognitive Skills Instruction



Therefore, if teachers are going to help students use cognitive skills and strategies, they should help them (1) monitor their cognitive processes effectively; (2) avoid the use of simplistic, primitive routines when better strategies are available; (3) develop an adequate knowledge base of general and specific information and of the strategies available in various subject areas; (4) develop a pattern of attributing both success and failure to the effectiveness of their own efforts; and (5) help them to transfer effective strategies to new situations. Cognitive strategy instruction should help learners develop these skills.

Jones (1986) defines cognitive instruction as "any effort on the part of the teacher or the instructional materials to help students process information in meaningful ways and become independent learners." (p. 7). She adds that "Cognitive instruction has the potential to alter substantially the capability of the learner, especially the low-achieving learner, in much the same way that microchips radically altered the capability of the computer." (p. 7).

The essential feature of cognitive instruction is a focus on how and why specific topics are to be mastered, with an emphasis on how the specific topic fits into an overall framework of related topics and skills. Instruction can be "direct" to the extent that the teacher or material makes explicit what is to be learned or "indirect" to the extent that students themselves make the connection between thinking skills and problem solutions. In effective strategy instruction, the teacher serves as a mediator by helping to activate prior knowledge, represent information, select learning strategies, construct meaning, monitor understanding, assess the use of a strategy, organize and relate ideas, summarize, and extend learning. A review of the literature regarding strategy instruction suggests that the most successful programs are those that (1) stimulate the learners to be active, (2) provide clear feedback regarding the effectiveness of that learner activity, and (3) provide instruction in the questions of when, why, and where such activities are likely to be effective (Brown, Day, & Jones, 1983).

In some respects, the situation with regard to thinking skills is similar to that regarding physical or athletic skills. It would be possible to go through the sets of guidelines for teaching thinking skills in this chapter and to replace the words thinking skills with athletic skills, and the result would be an accurate and useful set of guidelines for effective physical skills instruction. Most people learn to walk and eventually to run without deliberately planning to do so or receiving professional instruction. They develop these skills as the need demands and as their bodies permit. However, in order to overcome a physical shortcoming through physical therapy or to develop running ability to a higher degree through athletic training, it may be useful to focus on and teach the specific subskills involved in walking and running. Physical skills training consists of identifying component skills, explaining an executive routine to manage and coordinate these components, and then providing opportunities to practice the skills in a planned way. Thinking skills can be taught in a similar manner. Just as in the case of athletic training, successful instruction in cognitive skills means that the learner must devote attention both to the thinking skill itself and to relevant metacognitive knowledge - that is, knowledge about how, when, and why to use that strategy (Pressley, 1990).

Cooperative learning environments can be ideal settings for developing thinking skills. Explaining ideas and information to someone else often requires the explainer to think about and present the material in new ways by relating it to the other's prior knowledge or experience, translating it into terms familiar to the other, or generating new examples. These socio-cognitive activities induce the explainer to clarify concepts, to elaborate on them, to reorganize content, or to reconceptualize the material in some other manner (Bargh & Schul, 1980). Research has shown that peer tutoring is often of greater benefit to the tutors than to the tutees. One reason for this is that the tutors themselves reflect upon the process of learning; that is, they often practice metacognitive skills more than the subject matter during tutoring sessions.

Although it is possible to conduct a program designed to teach thinking skills in relative isolation from subject matter, it is not necessary to do so. Instruction in thinking skills need not detract at all from the learning of subject matter. Effective understanding of content subject matter is more likely to occur when students are required to explain, elaborate, or defend their position to others; the burden of explanation is often the push needed to make them evaluate, integrate, and elaborate knowledge in new ways (Brown and Campione, 1986). By interacting with peers, teachers, and information in this way, students can master the subject more thoroughly. By reflecting on what they did during this learning process, students can learn the thinking skills that were successful in learning the subject matter. In addition, by learning thinking skills in meaningful contexts, students are able to recognize the usefulness of these skills for practical purposes (Palinscar & Brown, 1988).



Remember When… Now Let's….

A simple way to encourage transfer of thinking skills to new situations is to use the " Remember When… Now Let's…." rule (van Deusen & Vockell, 1989).

"Remember when we changed just one thing at a time this morning in science class to see what factor was causing eye color? Well, let's try that now in this social studies lesson by…."

When using this rule, it's good to shift the burden to the learner….

"Remember when we changed just one thing at a time this morning in science class? Why did we do that? Well, let's try that now in this social studies lesson by…."

"What did we do in science class this morning to see what factor was causing eye color? Well, let's try that now in this social studies lesson by…."

I can think of a strategy that we used last week in {insert name of class or unit of instruction} that would be appropriate here. Can anyone think of what that might be and how we could use it?



Under ordinary circumstances, thinking skills are usually learned (and certainly practiced) within specific subject areas. Some of them are highly dependent on subject matter and are not likely to generalize automatically to other situations - even though their relevance may be objectively "obvious" to outsiders. However, it is possible to take specific steps to promote transfer of these skills.

The most serious problem with teaching thinking skills is that transfer is not automatic. That is, skills learned in science class do not transfer automatically to history class or to English class, even though they could obviously be useful in the other settings. Factors that influence the generalizability of thinking skills include these (Pressley et al, 1990; Salomon & Perkins, 1989; Schunk, 1994):


Since thinking skills instruction is a relatively new emphasis in education, the terminology used within specific programs is likely to vary; but the skills taught will tend to be similar to those described on the preceding pages. The thinking skills are usually introduced within specific curriculum areas and grade levels, but the teachers also make a specific effort to use, review, and reteach the skills as appropriate throughout the curriculum. This overall strategy is recommended by several major theorists on thinking skills (Beyer, 1984; Nickerson, 1984; Sternberg, 1984); Palinscar & Brown, 1984, 1987); Pressley et al., 1992).

It is likely that if students spent just slightly more time while learning a thinking skill (for example, by taking time to focus on its purpose and how it might be adapted), the ability to transfer that skill to other settings could be greatly enhanced. A major focus of current educational research is this area of how to teach thinking skills so that students will actually use them when they are needed.





Stanley Pogrow's HOTS Program


Dr. Stanley Pogrow has developed a highly successful, structured program for teaching higher order thinking skills (HOTS) to at-risk students. Pogrow has found that at-risk children typically benefit from traditional compensatory education programs up to the end of the third grade. Thereafter, the fact-oriented programs that were previously successful seem to stop bearing fruit.

Pogrow maintains that a major problem of at-risk children starting at about the fourth grade is that they "don't understand understanding." This is another way of saying that they lack metacognitive skills. Pogrow believes that most "normal" children develop these skills in ordinary interactions with parents or other caretakers - in what we might call "dinner table conversations." Because they are often raised in environments in which the adults who care for them cannot or do not engage in reflective conversations with them, Pogrow believes that at-risk youngsters often lack the ability to see commonalties among learning experiences - to think about their own thinking.

Pogrow recommends dealing with this problem by exposing the children to a program that combines computer programs with structured prompting by the HOTS teacher. The students run the computer programs not to learn the content presented by the programs, but to use them as a basis for Socratic conversations about important elements of the programs. For example, instead of teaching children to use a word processing program to write essays for social studies classes, the HOTS teacher would refrain from giving the child any direct instruction at all in how to use the word processor. Rather, the teacher would encourage the children to explore the use of the word processor and prod them with questions like, "What do you think the Escape key will do?" The children would be encouraged to formulate a hypothesis, to test this hypothesis, and to relate the concept of Escape to similar commands in other programs and to the ordinary use of the word in the English language. Pogrow's HOTS model described in Pogrow (1990).

Pogrow is quick to point out that the HOTS program should not be the entire curriculum for at-risk children. He recommends that HOTS instruction be conducted by a specially trained teacher four days a week for about 45 minutes each day. During the rest of their school time, the students should receive ordinary instruction from good teachers. While the HOTS program itself does not employ the direct instruction of specific academic skills, Pogrow points out that direct instruction and other strategies described in the present textbook can play an important role in the education of at-risk children - the HOTS program simply makes it possible for these children to benefit from these ordinarily effective techniques. The HOTS program applies many of the principles described in the present textbook - including reinforcement, shaping, motivation, scaffolded instruction, mastery learning - but it applies them in a different way than would occur during direct instruction of specific subject matter.

The HOTS program takes about two years to have a major impact. Pogrow's results have shown that children who complete this training make considerable gains in nearly all subject areas, including reading and mathematics. The gains are much greater than for children who spend a similar amount of time drilling on skills related to those specific subject areas. Pogrow says this is because children experiencing the HOTS program have learned to understand understanding - that is, they have learned to think, and they can apply these thinking skills to learning whatever subjects their teachers try to teach them.




Scaffolded Instruction


A common and effective strategy for helping students develop their higher order thinking skills is scaffolded instruction. This strategy is discussed in detail in chapter 12.



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Programs for Teaching Thinking Skills



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