Developing Second Order Thinking in Kids

Wouldn’t it be great if your child knows the mental model of second order thinking you can drastically improve his or her decision-making skills? This in turn will make your child’s life much easier by sky-rocketing their problem-solving skills and preparing them for the responsibilities of adult life.

The Thinking Skills

The term “thinking skills” refers to the specific mental and cognitive processes that a person draws upon to think effectively. Basically, thinking skills are what we use in our heads to problem-solve, reason, infer and hypothesize.

Second Order Thinking

The thinking skills we talk about here are derived from years of research into executive functions — the brain-based cognitive skills that manage critical thinking. These thinking skills represent both individual executive functions and cognitively-linked categories of two or more executive functions.

Below, you’ll find a brief explanation of each skill. 

  • Focus: Focus helps your child start a task without procrastinating and then maintain his attention and effort until it’s done. Children with executive functioning difficulties have problems in getting started and sustaining their attention and effort to a variety of tasks.
  • Working Memory: Working Memory helps your child to recall and retain information in his mind while working. Difficulty in Working Memory impairs the capacity to follow directions and learn new activities both at home and school.
  • Self-Control: Self-Control helps your child to manage her feelings and behaviors, and stop herself from acting inappropriately. Difficulties in regulating feelings and behavior are often present. Moodiness, impulsivity, and unpredictable behavior are observed.
  • Time Management: Time Management helps your child to be aware of her use of time and to manage her schedule and tasks efficiently. Children may have difficulty managing their lives at age-appropriate levels. Time management difficulties can manifest themselves as the 10-year-old who is unable to get ready for school in the morning independently, or as the teen who cannot manage more than two competing activities.
  • Planning: Planning helps your child to develop a systematic approach for setting and achieving goals by understanding step-by-step processes. Children may experience difficulties in completing step-by-step procedures and may often struggle in setting any type of future goals.
  • Organization: Organization helps your child to arrange and coordinate materials and activities in order to complete a task. Children may have problems with keeping track of their material and may frequently lose things necessary at home or at school.
  • Self-Awareness: Self-Awareness helps your child to understand and articulate his own thoughts and feelings as well as the thoughts and feelings of others. Children may have difficulty understanding the feelings and experiences of others and struggle to express themselves effectively.
  • Flexibility: Flexibility helps your child to adapt and adjust to changing conditions and expectations without becoming frustrated. Children may have difficulty adapting to new situations. These children struggle to learn from their mistakes.

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What is Higher Order Thinking Skill (HOTS)

HOTS stands for Higher Order Thinking Skills. It is based on Bloom’s Taxonomy model which works on a few important levels to promote higher-order thinking in children aged between 6 and 13 years of age. HOTS help children to move from low-order learning to higher-order learning, using the Taxonomy’s levels of synthesizing, analyzing, reasoning, comprehending, application, and evaluation. 

Second Order Thinking

Later on, these levels were revised as remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, revising, and creating. The basic difference between HOTS and LOTS (lower-order thinking skills) is that in the latter, a child learns through memorization, and in the former, a child learns to understand and then apply the knowledge. This gives the child an edge over the other children who follow the traditional mode of learning.

The term higher-order thinking refers to the ability and the skill to think above the information which was gained. In simpler terms, to think on a level that is above memorization and rote information. It is basically using your cognitive ability and doing something with the information shared with you and not just memorizing it.

Higher-order thinking skill also known as HOTS is a way to judge the caliber of the thinking ability. Individuals who use higher-order thinking skills are capable of analyzing and evaluating gained information to connect the dots to figure out missing pieces of the whole picture.

It helps the kids to think on higher levels and be creative, innovative, and evaluative. Steps for enhancing higher-order thinking skills or HOTS can include active learning, teaching, explaining the foundation of concepts, naming and categorizing the concepts. It can also be in a form of tell, show, and interact rather than just tell. There are activities for kids that are specifically designed to increase their thinking skills.

Higher Order Thinking Skills are different from critical thinking; they go beyond memorization and observation of facts. Here are 10 teaching strategies to enhance higher-order thinking skills in your kids.

  • Help Determine What Higher-Order Thinking Is: Help children understand what higher-order thinking is. Explain to them what it is and why they need it. Help them understand their own strengths and challenges. You can do this by showing them how they can ask themselves good questions. That leads us to the next strategy.
  • Connect Concepts: Lead kids through the process of how to connect one concept to another. By doing this you are teaching them to connect what they already know with what they are learning. This level of thinking will help children learn to make connections whenever it is possible, which will help them gain even more understanding. For example, let’s say that the concept they are learning is “Chinese New Year.” An even broader concept would be “Holidays.”
  • Teach children to Infer: Teach kids to make inferences by giving them “real-world” examples. You can start by giving kids a picture of a person standing in line at a soup kitchen. Ask them to look at the picture and focus on the details. Then, ask them to make inferences based on what they see in the picture. Another way to teach young kids about how to infer is to teach an easy concept like the weather. Ask kids to put on their raincoat and boots, then ask them to infer what they think the weather looks like outside.
  • Encourage Questioning: A classroom where children feel free to ask questions without any negative reactions from their peers or their teachers is a classroom where kids feel free to be creative. Encourage them to ask questions, and if for some reason you can’t get to their question during class time, show them how they can answer it themselves or have them save the question until the following day.
  • Use Graphic Organizers: Graphic organizers provide children with a nice way to frame their thoughts in an organized manner. By drawing diagrams or mind maps, they are able to better connect concepts and see their relationships. This will help them develop a habit of connecting concepts.
  • Teach Problem-Solving Strategies: Teach kids to use a step-by-step method for solving problems. This way of higher-order thinking will help them solve problems faster and more easily. Encourage them to use alternative methods to solve problems as well as offer them different problem-solving methods.
  • Encourage Creative Thinking: Creative thinking is when kids invent, imagine, and design what they are thinking. Using creative senses helps children process and understand information better. Research shows that when kids utilize creative higher-order thinking skills, it indeed increases their understanding. Encourage them to think “outside of the box.”
  • Use Mind Movies: When concepts that are being learned are difficult, encourage children to create a movie in their mind. Teach them to close their eyes and picture it like a movie playing. This way of higher-order thinking will truly help them understand in a powerful, unique way.
  • Teach kids to Elaborate Their Answers: Higher-order thinking requires children to really understand a concept, not repeat it or memorize it. Encourage kids to elaborate their answers by asking the right questions that make them explain their thoughts in more detail.
  • Teach QARs: Question-Answer-Relationships, or QARs, teach children to label the type of question that is being asked and then use that information to help them formulate an answer. Children must decipher if the answer can be found in a text or online or if they must rely on their own prior knowledge to answer it. This strategy has been found to be effective for higher-order thinking because they become more aware of the relationship between the information in a text and their prior knowledge, which helps them decipher which strategy to use when they need to seek an answer.

What are System1 and System2 Thinking

System1 Thinking

A perceptual and intuitive system, generating involuntary impressions that do not need to be expressed in words. This system is fast to react, automatic, associative, emotional, effortless, and learns through repeated experiences and gradually over time.

For example, Answering the arithmetic equation 2 + 2 = 4, without effort.

We are instead often happy enough to trust a plausible (System 1) gut judgment that comes easily to mind.

System1 is the process that is really in charge as it “effortlessly originates impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2”.

It is System1 thinking that is responsible for many of the everyday decisions, judgments, and purchases we make and explains many of the heuristics.

Characteristics of System1 Thinking:

  • Fast
  • Defining Characteristics: unconscious, automatic, effortless
  • Without self-awareness or control “What you see is all there is.”
  • Role: Assesses the situation, delivers updates
  • Makes 98% of all our thinking

System2 Thinking

The conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices and decides what to think about and what to do.” Allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.

For example, Remember how to multiply decimals then use a pencil and paper to work out the equation 17.54 x 24.04 = 421.6616.

It is hard work to process information using System2, however, and our capacity for System2 thinking is very limited.

We use System2 to make rational decisions. It is this slower system that retrieves mental data and weighs the pros and cons for us.

Characteristics of System2 Thinking

  • Slow
  • Defining Characteristics: deliberate and conscious, effortful, controlled mental process, rational thinking
  • With self-awareness or control, logical and skeptical
  • Role: seeks new/missing information, makes decisions
  • Makes 2% of all our thinking

What is First Order Thinking (Inside The Box Thinking)

First order thinking looks for easy answers driven by our past experiences and beliefs. It puts more weight on the immediate effect of our actions and ignores the subsequent impact. When we seek instant gratification, our first order thinking is at play. 

It’s activated by system1 thinking which is intuitive and fast. This form of thinking is really effective when we need to make quick decisions without exerting effort. A good part of our daily decisions falls into this category – what dress to wear to the office, where to meet a friend for dinner, and which turns to take while driving to work.

The conventional nature of first order thinking confines us to get the same results as everyone else. 

In short, first order thinking is safe, superficial, reactionary, obvious, fast, easy, and conventional with a focus on immediate impact.

What is Second Order Thinking (Outside The Box Thinking)

Second order thinking is hard and looks beyond our current assumptions and beliefs. It requires massive effort to dig out the potential impact of our decisions way into the future. 

Given the complexity and uncertainty of our decisions, it involves system2 thinking which is deliberate and logical. 

Going beyond intuition and seeking unconventional solutions by applying second order thinking philosophy is what separates great thinkers from the ordinary who outperform others and achieve greater success.

In short, second order thinking is hard, complex, uncertain, and unconventional with a desire to explore potential future consequences and maximize its benefits.

Difference Between First Order Thinking and Second Order Thinking

Following is the difference between First Order and Second Order Thinking:

First Order ThinkingSecond Order Thinking
Easy answers driven by our past experiences and beliefsHard and looks beyond our current assumptions and beliefs
Activated by System1 thinking which is intuitive and fastInvolves System2 thinking which is deliberate and logical
Immediate effect of our actions ignores subsequent impactsRequires massive effort, potential impact of our decisions in future
Confines us to get the same results as everyone getsSeparates great thinkers from the ordinary who outperform others
First order thinking is safe, superficial, reactionary, obvious, fast, easy, and conventionalSecond order thinking is hard, complex, uncertain, and unconventional

How To Develop Second Order Thinking

Second Order thinking is a deliberate and proactive process and will take some practice to get right. Let’s look at five steps that you can use to develop second order thinking skills:

  • Question Everything: Don’t stop once you reach your first solution or conclusion, or even your second. Keep questioning yourself, and ask, “what happens then?” Continue to do so until you have a clear roadmap of potential outcomes.  Equally, it’s essential to establish the credibility of the information you use when making a decision – what is the evidence for any assertion, who’s the source? Critically evaluating information in this way is particularly relevant in the era of fake news. Once you have a comprehensive list of possible outcomes, you can then compare the options. Learning to code can help developing the critical thinking.
  • Involve Others: Sometimes you get caught in first order thinking because you simply don’t know what other outcomes are possible. But when you bring others into the decision-making process, you’ll likely get new perspectives and solutions. These alternative viewpoints could be valuable! It might not be practical, or you might not have the time, to involve others directly. Nevertheless, be sure to consider the likely impact of your decision on other people, teams, or departments. 
  • Think Long-Term: The power of second order thinking comes from being able to look past the immediate results and consider the impact long term; sometimes a bad outcome now might result in a good outcome in the future. One way to do this is to explore how the decision will play out at different time points. What might the results be in one day? One week? A month, or a year? Ten years? It’s important not to assume that conditions will be the same at each of these points. For example, if you are thinking about investing in some new systems for your team, consider how people might be using technology in the future.
  • Don’t Discount Options Too Quickly: Keep all your options on the table initially. The purpose of second order thinking is to examine options carefully, from different perspectives. Chances are, your first ideas won’t be the best, but sometimes it could be “spot on”!
  • Keep Practicing: For most of us, who probably rely on first order thinking more than we’d care to admit, second order thinking will be a very different approach to problem-solving and will need frequent practice. Aim to apply it to all kinds of decisions to help you to build up the skill. It could be used when assessing everything from what to have for lunch, to whether to sign a new client.

Why Second Order Thinking for Kids

Following are the key benefits of second order thinking for kids:

  • Make safe and smart decisions in all areas of his or her life (eliminating drink driving, partying, wrong associations, early pregnancy, etc.)
  • Stop unproductive habits (addiction to video games, social networks, etc.)
  • Become much more respectful (eliminating backtalk, siblings rivalry, arguments)
  • Focus on what truly matters in all areas of life
  • Eventually build a great career and get the job/role of her/his dream
  • Design a great and financially secure life protecting themselves from job automation and robots

Higher Order Thinking Activities for Kids

Encouraging kids to play brain games help in developing their higher order thinking skills. Here are some of such activities:

A. For Preschoolers

1. I Spy: The traditional game of I Spy can be played in many ways e.g. spying objects based on initial sounds (teaching letters) or colours (colour recognition). To test your child’s thinking, play this game by using descriptive clues that don’t involve sounds or colours.

Second Order Thinking

2. Build a Story: This game is about creative thinking and language development.

Start by making up an introduction to a story:

Once upon a time, there was a little grey cat.

Your child then adds a sentence to the story, thus changing the direction of the story:

The little grey cat was lost in the woods.

Then you add a sentence and so the story continues:

Suddenly, he heard a whisper behind him and he froze.

Second Order Thinking

This game usually ends in fits of laughter and a ridiculous story but uses a lot of brainpower and imagination.

3. Rhyming Game: Play this rhyming game by challenging your child to think of words that rhyme with an easy word such as cat or tap. This game is great for developing auditory perception. Say a sentence such as “I have a…” or “I see a…” and add in a simple word such as cat. Your child then responds with the same sentence using an appropriate rhyming word and you continue the game until you run out of words together.

4. How Many Can You Think of?: This game challenges children to think of words that fit into a theme or category. Choose a category, such as colours, and put a timer on for one minute. Ask your child to name as many words as they can that fit into the category, without repeating any. Write down the words as they are said and count the total at the end. Your child will be motivated to beat the total in the next round.

5. Matchstick Buildings: Build 3D structures out of matchsticks and a variety of materials that can be used to join the edges – e.g. Prestik, Blu Tack, jelly sweets, little marshmallows, tape, playdough, glue, etc. This will teach some technology skills and encourage planning, thinking, and problem-solving as your child tries to figure out how to join parts together and make things stand, balance, or hold in a particular position.

Second Order Thinking

6. Cloud Stories: Every child will enjoy this activity. Go outside on a nice cloudy day, lie next to each other on the grass and look for pictures in the clouds.

Second Order Thinking

7. Tangrams: Tangrams are great for learning geometry and pattern recognition. They usually come with pattern cards to follow but this particular activity should be done without them.

Second Order Thinking

 8. Tic Tac Toe: This game, also known as noughts and crosses is an excellent game to stimulate thinking and planning skills. Draw a simple table like the one above on paper or a chalkboard. Take turns to add naught or a cross to the table and see who can make a row of three first. Your child will probably catch on in no time and start thinking carefully before placing their symbol. This game can also be played with coloured counters or different objects.

Second Order Thinking

B. For Primary and Middle Schoolers

1. Mind Squeeze: In this activity, you would choose a set of 5 words for every kid. The whole process revolves around showing these words for a few seconds and then hiding them; later, the kids would recite the words aloud by remembering them. A lot like the memory game, Mind Squeeze tests the recalling ability of the children while giving them a chance to improve their memory. Thus, this is a good recognizing and recalling activity for primary and middle schoolers. 

2. Anonymous Passage: Practicing passages would be a great routine to develop reading habits in kids. It also helps them retain crucial details. To start with, you make a passage and a set of questions. You then read the passage aloud so that all the kids can hear it. Now, a few questions are asked on the basis of the passage. The activity stimulates the children to remember the whole passage so that they can answer the questions being asked later. This game helps kids improve their recalling memory, as the whole game is about remembering the passage. Moreover, the communication and understanding skills of the children are put to the test as their answers would wholly depend on it.  

3. The Scene Setting: Creativity is a crucial aspect of critical thinking. To be creative, children need to be good at visualizing scenes too. You show a prop in this game—any object like a pencil, bird, or ball. Kids need to create a scene and story around it. This game gets interesting as the prop gets unique. For instance, asking kids to write a story around a needle can explore the depth of their creativity. At first, it might seem like a challenging and daunting task. But later, it becomes quite fun, and kids gather ideas of how to present their prop in front of the whole group. This not only boosts their creativity but also appraises their communication skills. 

Second Order Thinking

4. Touch on the Error: The kids can know about their abilities to distinguish by this activity. You give children a chance to play with letters here. For instance, you provide children with a sentence where some letters are replaced with ‘Z.’ Now, kids may be asked to distinguish the errors and find out the right answers for the same. The activity’s primary purpose is to form a pattern that the kids can notice and later identify the actual word or sentence. For example, you might give words like- BZG, CZT, ZND, ZPPLE. The common letter here is ‘Z’; now, the children need to figure out what this Z stands for.  You may also mark off all vowels or cross 3rd word of each sentence. By increasing the difficulty level of these words, you can help kids brainstorm, which would ultimately add to their critical thinking skills. 

Second Order Thinking

5. Award the Winner: Here a kid is called upon and asked to judge traits of peers. To prop up this, they asked to choose one peer whom they wanted to award. It doesn’t end here; they need to offer reasons behind their choice. To make it more exciting, you can take the call of pairing two extremely unlike kids together and give them some time to know some crucial things about each other. Later, they can award each other based on their impression given during the few minutes. This shows and improves their judgment skills and, ultimately, critical thinking.

Second Order Thinking

C. For High Schoolers

1. Worst Case Scenario: Divide children into teams and introduce each team with a hypothetical challenging scenario. Allocate minimum resources and time to each team and ask them to reach a viable conclusion using those resources. The scenarios can include situations like being stranded on an island or stuck in a forest. Kids will come up with creative solutions to come out from the imaginary problematic situation they are encountering. Besides encouraging them to think critically, this activity will enhance the teamwork, communication, and problem-solving skills of kids. 

Second Order Thinking

2. Venn Diagram (Analyzing): Venn diagrams prompt children to compare and contrast. You can use them across all subject areas to promote analytical thinking. In reading, you could ask children to analyze a character, using a Venn diagram to sort traits belonging to the character, traits belonging to the reader, and ones shared by both the character and reader. For math, you could ask kids to compare the properties of geometrical figures. In social studies, kids might contrast the causes of different wars, while science students could note the similarities and differences of chemicals.

Second Order Thinking

3. Co-operative Decision Making (Evaluating): Imagine a situation in which a plane crashes in the ocean. There are a dozen survivors, all with their own stories, but only one boat that can hold no more than six people. After hearing of each survivor’s hopes and follies, kids must work in groups to decide which survivors will have a spot on the boat. Such a task inspires kids to collaborate and draw conclusions supported by evidence. You can use similar higher order thinking activities in almost any subject — e.g., soldiers who must decide which items to take with them to war or astronauts deciding how to stock the limited storage areas of their spaceship.

Second Order Thinking

4. Mock Trials (Analyzing, Evaluating): Mock trials obviously have their place in social studies, but they can be used in nearly any subject. Trials encourage children to form evidence-based arguments and examine their credibility, and both tasks require higher order thinking skills. Mock trial ideas include trying a literary character for excessive pride (or some other fault), a restaurant owner for unevenly splitting a sandwich among patrons, and a scientist for proposing an invention that violates Newton’s laws.

5. Engineering Challenges (Creating): Children of all ages can hone their higher order thinking skills with engineering activities. Turning engineering tasks into challenges that will engage kids’ critical thinking skills. Instead of telling children to make a paper bridge, limit their supplies and ask them to create a bridge that can hold 20 coins without collapsing. These engineering challenges are good for other subjects as well. For languages, kids can be assigned to build a model bedroom with all the supplies necessary for a book’s famous wizard to continue his studies, and social studies you could challenge them to create a survival kit for Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a Civil War spy.


A good process for making decisions requires second order thinking which unravels the implications of our decisions by thinking about its consequences in the future. It requires solving problems in a manner that avoids unintentional and unforeseen outcomes. Second order thinking is a necessity to think beyond what we know, things we haven’t thought about by applying divergent information and forming new associations and connections.

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