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Commentary: Humans have higher level thinking even without being taught

An article by social critic Henry Giroux published on Truthout.org on July 14 notes a Texas GOP Party 2012 platform that stated, startlingly, "We oppose teaching of Higher order Thinking Skills [because they] have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental control.”

What that statement doesn’t take into consideration is that to deny students instruction in higher thinking skills is to deny them assistance in reaching their potential. And it also doesn’t take into consideration that kids are engaged in higher thinking from the time they see that stacking all the plastic circles by size on a plastic tower means they will all fit.

They are able to do it because human beings have higher thinking ability from the get-go. Bloom’s taxonomy, one of the best-known codifications of higher thinking skills, is an observation of what happens, not just a reminder to do it. Thinking skills are generally divided into knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. What's more, even though the last three of these are considered higher order thinking, they are not necessarily confined only to human thinking.

Language and technology, as Ken Marable points out in his article, “The Neurological and Environmental Basis for Differing Intelligences: A Comparison of Primate and Cetacean Mentality,” are what are usually thought to differentiate human beings from other animals even though this division relies on only human terms to differentiate us. He notes that the ability to speak, using language--and to manipulate the world, using tools-- underlie these essentially self-referential terms.

But even primates have demonstrated over and over in observable circumstances that they can learn sign language and apply it in their relationships with humans. Besides, higher thinking abilities and skills not expressed in language can be expressed in action—like the primates who fasten two small sticks together to make a longer one, pile cartons on top of each other, and then stand on the cartons, long stick in hand, to reach a bunch of bananas.

Higher thinking also has parallels in the use of written language measured by what is familiarly called the Fog Index. That’s because analysis, synthesis, and evaluation are represented in sentences that don’t simply set out facts or apply them. They include additional phrases and clauses that condition the main clause, and so are ushered in by words like “because,” “although,” “before,” “and” and “but.”

These extra clauses and phrases give more information about the circumstances (why), at what time (when), in what location (where), by whom (who), and details that underlie the facts (what). The more clauses and phrases a sentence has, the more complex the ideas it expresses. That’s one reason that increasing the number of words in a sentence can make it more difficult to understand.

And the more syllables a word has, the larger the likelihood that it will contain prefixes and suffixes that create opposites, extend meanings, and synthesize ideas. If an activity is “pre-“, that is different from when it is “post”. An “-ite” is not the same as an “-ism.” So words of three syllables or more increase the reading difficulty, too.

The Fog Index mathematical formula measures the ratio of longer words and longer sentences in a base of 100 words in any given article and comes up with the grade level of that article. Often, a regional newspaper is written so that even those who have finished eighth grade can understand it. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t include passages that analyze, synthesize, and evaluate.

Then, too, even though human beings, along with their animal cousins, demonstrate higher reasoning in their language and actions, purposely excluding attention to these in reading, writing, and spoken expression and instruction is harmful to more than just individuals.

To exclude students purposely from learning more about analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating is potentially to exclude them from studying law, medicine, engineering, public policy, science, agriculture, television and radio broadcasting, and the arts—all of those elements of a culture that benefit both from varied input and from an intellectual community prepared to continue the research of previous generations.

And then, what on earth would the world become?

Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. She also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column. She is the publisher and editor of "Person, Place, Thing," a literary journal.