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Thinking Skills Vocabulary and Definitions

Dr. Bob Kizlik

Updated October 9, 2014

Many, both within, and outside education, disagree whether thinking skills can be taught. Perhaps they are correct, but there is no question whatsoever that thinking skills are learned. Human beings are not born with not much more than rudimentary thinking skills. Thinking skills are one of the most important, yet inadequately implemented areas of the curriculum. Certainly a part of helping students develop and improve their thinking skills is connected in some significant way with challenge and discovery. However, it is often the case that what works in a given situation may not work at all in another, different situation. The variables related to thinking skills are themselves quite formidable, and there is no shortage of opinion about that. Having both developed and taught thinking skills courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, I have a few ideas and opinions about this area, and perhaps a good way to begin is to start with the fundamentals, so...

The vocabulary below and the definitions are intended to help the prospective teacher sort out the various thinking skills and terminology associated with curriculum and instructional decision making. When preparing lessons, almost without exception, good teachers seek to help students acquire thinking skills that relate to the content of the lesson and, if possible, extend beyond it. Something to remember is that if your students aren't thinking about what you're saying or doing, you are not communicating effectively. Good teachers have always known this and use this principle to engage, motivate and keep the attention of their students. I am also convinced that the most effective teachers find ways to improve the thinking skills of their students by showing them how to make connections between new information or subject-matter content and the information and understandings they have already acquired. The outcome is invariably genuine learning.

The vocabulary below can help you sort out some of this so that it makes sense to you.

PART I: GLOBAL TERMS

Thinking - thinking refers to the process of creating a structured series of connective transactions between items of perceived information (my own definition).
Metacognition - metacognition refers to awareness and control of one's thinking, including commitment, attitudes and attention.
Critical thinking - critical thinking refers to reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do. Critical thinkers try to be aware of their own biases, to be objective and logical.
Creative thinking - refers to the ability to form new combinations of ideas to fulfill a need, or to get original or otherwise appropriate results by the criteria of the domain in question. Often thought of as "thinking outside the box."

PART II: SPECIFIC TERMS

Activating prior knowledge: recalling something learned previously relative to the topic or task
Analyzing skills: core thinking skills that involve clarifying information by examining parts and relationships.
Attention: conscious control of mental focus on particular information.
Attitudes: personally held principles or beliefs that govern much of one's behavior.
Classifying: grouping entities on the basis of their common attributes.
Commitment: an aspect of knowledge and control of self that involves a decision to employ personal energy and resources to control a situation.
Comparing: noting similarities and differences between or among entities.
Composing: the process of developing a composition, which may be written, musical, mechanical, or artistic.
Comprehending: generating meaning or understanding.
Concept formation: organizing information about an entity and associating the information with a label (word).
Conditional information: information about the appropriate use of an action or process important to a task.
Core thinking skills: cognitive operations used in thinking processes.
Creative thinking: original and appropriate thinking.
Critical thinking: using specific dispositions and skills such as analyzing arguments carefully, seeing other points of view, and reaching sound conclusions.
Curriculum: a structured series of intended learning outcomes.
Decision making: selecting from among alternatives.
Declarative information: factual information.
Defining problems: a focusing skill used in clarifying puzzling situations.
Disposition: inclinations to engage in some types of behavior and not to engage in others. Certain dispositions are associated with critical and creative thinking.
Elaborating: adding details, explanations, examples, or other relevant information from prior knowledge.
Encoding skills: remembering skills that involve storing information in long term memory.
Establishing criteria: setting standards for making judgments.
Evaluating (as applied to metacognition): assessing one's current knowledge state.
Evaluating skills: core thinking skills that involve assessing the reasonableness and quality of ideas.
Executive control: evaluating, planning, and regulating the declarative, procedural, and conditional information involved in a task.
Focusing skills: core thinking skills that involve selected to selected pieces of information and ignoring others.
Formulating questions: an information-gathering skill that involves seeking new information through inquiry.
Generating skills: core thinking skills that involve producing new information, meaning, or ideas.
Identifying attributes and components: determining characteristics or parts of something.
Identifying errors: disconfirming or proving the falsehood of statements.
Identifying relationships and patterns: recognizing ways elements are related.
Inferring: going beyond available information to identify what may reasonably be true.
Information-gathering skills: core thinking skills that involve bringing to consciousness the relevant data needed for cognitive processing.
Integrating skills: core skills that involve connecting or combining information.
Knowledge and control of process: a component of metacognition that involves executive control of declarative, procedural, and conditional information relative to a task.
Knowledge domain: a body of information commonly associated with a particular content area or field of study.
Metacognition: a dimension of thinking that involves knowledge and control of self and knowledge and control of process.
Mnemonics: a set of encoding strategies that involve linking bits of information together through visual or semantic connections.
Observing: an information-gathering skill that involves obtaining information through one or more senses.
Oral discourse: talking with other people.
Ordering: sequencing entities according to a given criterion.
Organizing skills: core thinking skills that involve arranging information so that it can be used more effectively.
Philosophic tradition: an approach to studying thinking that focuses on broad issues about the nature and quality of thinking and its role in human behavior.
Planning: developing strategies to reach a specific goal; delineation of end-means relationships.
Predicting: anticipating an outcome based on the use of one's personal knowledge.
Principle formation: recognizing a relationship between or among concepts.
Problem solving: analyzing a perplexing or difficult situation for the purpose of generating a solution.
Procedural information: information about the various actions or processes important to a task.
Psychological tradition: an approach to studying thinking that focuses on the nature of specific cognitive operations.
Recalling skills: remembering skills that involve retrieving information from long-term memory.
Regulating: checking one's progress toward a goal.
Rehearsal: an encoding strategy that involves repeated processing of information.
Remembering skills: core thinking skills that involve conscious efforts to store and retrieve information.
Representing: changing the form of information to show how critical elements are related.
Research: conducting inquiry for the purpose of confirming or validating one or more hypotheses.
Restructuring: changing existing knowledge structures to incorporate new information.
Retrieval: accessing previously encoded information.
Schemata: knowledge structures associated with a specific state, event, or concept
Self-knowledge and self-control: a component of metacognition that involves commitment, attitudes, and attention.
Setting goals: a focusing skill that involves establishing direction and purpose.
Summarizing: combining information efficiently into a cohesive statement.
Thinking processes: relatively complex and time-consuming cognitive operations - such as concept formation, problem solving, and composing, all of which employ one or more core thinking skills.
Verifying: confirming the accuracy, truth, or quality of an observation, hypothesis, claim, or product.

PART III: THINKING PROCESSES

A thinking process is a relatively complex sequence of thinking skills.

Concept formation - organizing information about an entity and associating that information with a label. A concept may be defined a perceived relationship between two or more facts.
Principle formation - recognizing a relationship between or among concepts.
Comprehending - generating meaning or understanding by relating new information to prior knowledge.
Problem solving - analyzing a perplexing or difficult situation for the purpose of generating a solution.
Decision making - the process of selecting from among available alternatives.
Research - conducting inquiry for the purpose of confirming or validating one or more hypotheses.
Composing - developing a product, which may be written, musical, mechanical, or artistic.
Oral discourse - talking with other people.

PART IV. CORE THINKING SKILLS

Thinking skills are relatively specific cognitive operations that can be considered the "building blocks" of thinking. The following (1) have a sound basis in the research and theoretical literature, (2) are important for students to be able to do, and (3) can be taught and reinforced in school.

FOCUSING SKILLS - attending to selected pieces of information and ignoring others.

1. Defining problems: clarifying needs, discrepancies, or puzzling situations.
2. Setting goals: establishing direction and purpose.

INFORMATION GATHERING SKILLS - bringing to consciousness the relative data needed for cognitive processing.

3. Observing: obtaining information through one or more senses.
4. Formulating questions: seeing new information through inquiry.

REMEMBERING SKILLS - storing and retrieving information.

5. Encoding: storing information in long-term memory.
6. Recalling: retrieving information from long-term memory.

ORGANIZING SKILLS - arranging information so it can be used more effectively.

7. Comparing: noting similarities and differences between or among entities.
8. Classifying: grouping and labeling entities on the basis of their attributes.
9. Ordering: sequencing entities according to a giver criterion.
10. Representing: changing the form, but not the substance of information.

ANALYZING SKILLS - clarifying existing information by examining parts and relationships.

11. Identifying attributes and components: determining characteristics or the parts of something.
12. Identifying relationships and patterns: recognizing ways elements are related.
13. Identifying main ideas: identifying the central element; for example the hierarchy of key ideas in a message or line of reasoning.
14. Identifying errors: recognizing logical fallacies and other mistakes and, where possible, correcting them.

GENERATING SKILLS - producing new information, meaning or ideas.

15. Inferring: going beyond available information to identify what may reasonably be true.
16. Predicting: anticipating next events, or the outcome of a situation.
17. Elaborating: explaining by adding details, examples, or other relevant information.

INTEGRATING SKILLS - connecting and combining information.

18. Summarizing: combining information efficiently into a cohesive statement.
19. Restructuring: changing existing knowledge structures to incorporate new information.

EVALUATING SKILLS - assessing the reasonableness and quality of ideas.

20. Establishing criteria: setting standards for making judgments.
21. Verifying: confirming the accuracy of claims.


The information presented above attempts to convey the meaning of terms that are commonly associated with thinking. Their usefulness rests in whether they help you to understand something, work more efficiently, or accomplish some objective. In this sense, they are not "true," but must be measured and evaluated in terms of their utility.

In preparing lesson plans, writing instructional objectives, or developing curriculum, the above vocabulary can be an invaluable tool to communicate more effectively to your students, other teachers, parents, administrators, and, of course, yourself.

And one last thing....

Having the luxury of perspective of over 35 years in education al all levels, there is one sure thing I can say about teaching thinking skills, and that is in order to be effective, you must give your students something interesting to think about. In this respect, substance trumps all the "form" information above.

Good luck.

Dr. Bob Kizlik

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