Complex Thinking and Transfer

Students are coached and taught to engage in higher order thinking through instructional activities and practice tasks. Assessments are designed to prompt complex thinking, integration of concepts and ideas, and application of learned skills to new materials or situations.
Supporting Beliefs
  • Every student is capable of complex thought.
  • Higher order thinking promotes student engagement.
  • Learning that promotes transfer of knowledge and skills prepares students for the future.
Key Traits
  • Student and teacher questions move beyond fact/recall and require deep thinking and connections.
  • Students wrestle with complex (higher-order thinking, aligned with/exceed standards, requires multiple perspectives/processes, and may be multi-step, ambiguous, and/or novel) and authentic (measured by student connections to other learning, their own relevance, or the world outside this classroom) problems.
  • Students transfer what has been formerly learned to a new context or application
Cognitive Demand Levels
  • Remember: Students retrieve relevant knowledge from long-term memory (list, recognize, recall, identify)
  • Understand: Students construct meaning from instructional messages including oral, written, and graphic communication (summarize, classify, clarify, predict)
  • Apply: Students carry out or use a procedure in a given situation (respond, provide, carry out, use)
  • Analyze: Break material into constituent parts and determine how parts relate to one another and to overall structure or purpose (select, differentiate, integrate, deconstruct)
  • Evaluate: Make judgments based on criteria (determine, judge, reflect)
  • Create: Put elements together to form a coherent whole; reorganize into a new pattern or structure (generate, assemble, design, create)
Literature Supporting the Element
1. “Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferrals of information.”
—Freire, P. (2000). The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (30th ed.) ( p. 79). New York, NY: Continuum.
2. “It may seem counterintuitive to endeavor to inspire confusion, refusal and resistance in the learner, but cognitive
developmental psychology and neuroscience have shown that authentic, complex, deep, and long-lasting learning
seldom occurs without struggle. This is because cognitive dissonance forces a decision in the mind of the learner:
‘Do I accept the new knowledge or work to reject it? And if I accept it, what needs to change in the way I think about
things?’ The learner’s challenge of integrating the knowledge that comes in with the knowledge already possessed
forces the brain to make comparisons, weigh perspectives, consider options, evaluate plausibility, and judge merits.
When the learner is compelled to make these sorts of determinations, the process activates and strengthens the
most complex parts of the brain.”
—Toshalis, E. (2015). Make Me!: Understanding and Engaging Student Resistance in School (p. 67). Cambridge, MA:
Harvard Education Press.
3. “Schools that engage low-income and minority students in deeper learning have stronger academic outcomes,
better attendance and student behavior, lower dropout rates, higher graduation rates, and higher rates of college
attendance and perseverance than comparison schools serving similar students.”
—Noguera, P., Darling-Hammond, L., Friedlaender, D. (2015, October). Equal Opportunity for Deeper Learning,
Executive Summary (p. 2). Deeper Learning Research Series. Click here to access.
4. “Activities and assignments that promote learning tend to share certain characteristics: (1) they emphasize thinking
and problem-based learning; (2) they permit student choice and initiative; and (3) they encourage depth rather
than breadth.”
—Danielson, C. (2007) Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching (2nd ed.) (p. 58). Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
5. “High schools must respect adolescents more and patronize them less. The best respect is high expectations for
them, and a level of accountability more adult in its demand than childlike. We should expect them to learn more
while being taught less. Their personal engagement with their own learning is crucial; adults cannot ‘give’ them an
—Sizer, T. R. (2004). Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School (p. 34). Boston, MA:
Houghton Mifflin.
6. “[H]igher-order thinking happens when students engage with what they know in such a way as to transform it. That
is, this kind of thinking doesn’t just reproduce the same knowledge; it results in something new…. Higher-order
thinking only makes sense if to truly ‘know’ something means that you can use it and transform it.”
—Brookhart, S.M. (2014). How to Design Questions and Tasks to Assess Student Thinking (pp. 2-3). Alexandria, VA:
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
7. “Experimental psychologists in the last half-century have been fascinated with motivation as a prerequisite for
learning. They have discovered that when we come in contact with ambiguous, complex or conflicting information,
our nervous systems become aroused, amping us up and forcing us to pay attention. When we are puzzled, we find
a resolution very rewarding, which sets us up for efficient learning (Berlyne, 1966; Lowenstein, 1994).”
—Ostroff, W. L. (2016). Cultivating Curiosity in K-12 Classrooms: How to Promote and Sustain Deep Learning (p. 12).
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.