[The Montana Professor 21.1, Fall 2010 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Is there a place for Six Thinking Hats in higher education?

Barbara Zuck


—Barbara Zuck
Barbara Zuck

Think about the last several meetings you facilitated or attended. Think about a discussion you led in the classroom with students. Was there ever an instance where the discussion got off course? Was there ever a time when people were looking at the information, forming ideas, and judging someone else's ideas all at the same time? "Confusion is the biggest enemy of good thinking," writes Dr. Edward de Bono, long recognized as the world's leading authority on the teaching of thinking as a skill. "We try to do too many things at the same time. We look for information. We are affected by feelings. We see new ideas and options. We have to be cautious. We want to find benefits. Those are a lot of things that need to be done. Juggling with six balls at the same time is rather difficult" (de Bono, 1999, p. 11).

Now imagine those same meetings and conversations if everyone had been in sync from the beginning to the end of the discussion. Dr. Edward de Bono's "Six Thinking Hats" method creates this synchronized team thinking and allows a person, or a group of people, to do one thing at a time. Instead of trying to do everything at once, the different aspects of thinking are separated out. "Instead of having to take care of emotions, logic, information, hope and creativity all at the same time, the thinker is able to deal with them separately" (de Bono, 1999, p. 172). In a public training session, Dr. Edward de Bono (1994) presented the following analogy. "Think of full-color printing where the basic color separations are made and then each basic color is printed separately on the same sheet to give full-color printing. In the same way we separate the modes of thinking and then apply each mode to the same subject in order to end up with full-color thinking on the subject." In essence, the Six Hats methods unbundles thinking and the use of all hats achieves full-spectrum thinking on a particular topic.

When people use the Six Hats method, they engage in parallel thinking. In parallel thinking each thinker puts forward his or her thoughts in parallel with the thoughts of others, thus allowing the conversation to go in one thinking direction at a time and fostering a cooperative exploration of the subject. The Six Thinking Hats method makes everyone look and think in the same direction. Everyone present wears the black hat at the appointed time, for example. Parallel thinking helps focus the discussion.

The hats are used as symbols to request a particular type of thinking. A hat is a direction to think. Each one is done separately and in parallel to keep the thinking focused and effective. Everyone present wears the same color of hat at any one time. A switch in thinking is a request for a person to take off one hat and put on another hat and serves to request a certain type of thinking.

The color of each hat is related to its function. In the Six Hats method, each colored hat represents a different type of thinking, as explained in the section below.

White Hat: objective facts and figures—known and needed

The white color represents neutrality. The white hat is concerned about facts, figures, and information. White hat thinking is "a convenient way of asking for the facts and figures to be put forth in a neutral and objective manner" (de Bono, 1999, pp. 27-28). Without argument or opinion, the thinker strives to be more neutral and more objective in the presentation of the information.

When meeting participants "wear" their white hat, they discuss factual, objective information available to them for that particular topic. They can quickly identify what they know, what is missing, and how to get that missing information. In reality some facts may be checked and proven, while others are believed to be true. Questions asked from a White Hat's perspective are:

Red Hat: feelings, emotions, intuition

Red hat thinking is opposite to white hat thinking. The red color symbolizes fire and warmth. The red hat focuses on feelings, emotions, and intuition. Red hat thinking "gives official permission for the expression of feelings that range from pure emotion to hunch" (de Bono, 1999, p. 51). Without any need to explain or justify, the thinker strives to express his, or her, feelings as they exist.

No matter what the meeting topic, most everyone has an opinion and wants to be heard. Emotions may be triggered by past experiences, perceptions, or self-interest. If emotions are left unattended, emotions can affect thinking. When meeting participants "wear" their red hat, they use their intuition and feelings to guide them in their thinking about the topic at hand. Questions asked from a Red Hat's perspective are:

Black Hat: difficulties, dangers, potential problems

The black color symbolizes somberness and seriousness. The black hat is about being careful and cautious. The weaknesses of an idea are exposed. Black hat thinking promotes criticism and "with the black hat we point out what is wrong, what does not fit, and what will not work. It protects us from wasting money and energy. It protects us from doing silly things and from breaking the law" (de Bono, 1999, p. 73). With an attempt to play the devil's advocate, the thinker considers the risks, dangers, obstacles, errors, potential problems, and the downside of a suggestion.

Almost everyone has been to a meeting where one person finds something wrong with every idea presented. This scenario represents classic black hat thinking. Black hat thinking is powerful, but overuse of the black hat is detrimental to the discussion at hand and group dynamics. When meeting participants "wear" their black hat, they have an opportunity to raise legitimate concerns, check out perceived difficulties, and examine problems surrounding an idea.

Yellow Hat: optimism, hope, and positive thinking

Yellow hat thinking is opposite to black hat thinking. The yellow color represents sunshine, brightness, and optimism. The yellow hat focuses on the positive assessment. Yellow hat thinking is "on exploration and positive speculation. We set out to find the possible benefits. Then we seek to justify them" (de Bono, 1999, p. 99). With an attempt to put forward soundly based optimism, the thinker seeks to find value and looks for benefits.

The people who always have a smile on their face will excel at yellow-hat thinking. When meeting participants "wear" their yellow hat, they speculate on the success of an idea. Yellow-hat thinking is the deliberate search for the positive. Time and effort are allowed to ensure that every idea is given an equal chance for consideration. Questions asked from a Yellow Hat's perspective are:

Green Hat: creativity and new ideas

The green color symbolizes fertility, growth, the value of seeds. The green hat is all about creative thinking. Green hat thinking is where "we put forward new ideas. Under the green hat we lay out options and alternatives...; we seek to modify and improve suggested ideas. [This method] is also used to overcome some of the difficulties put forward under the black hat" (de Bono, 1999, pp. 115-116). In a deliberate and focused effort, the thinker seeks to find better suggestions, look at ideas in new ways, and provide innovative solutions.

Creativity is a part of thinking. The green hat provides a formal way to spend time trying to generate new ideas, new approaches, and alternatives. Some people may naturally be better at creative thinking. Some people can readily visualize the problems in a new, open, and unrestricted way. Some people who continually find better ideas and solutions to problems exhibit a spirit that supports green hat thinking. But creative thinking is a skill that can be learned, and there are a variety of techniques to help generate new ideas. When meeting participants "wear" their green hat, they think outside of the box and consider unusual ideas. Questions asked from a Green Hat's perspective are:

Blue Hat: managing the thinking process

The blue color represents the sky, which is above everything else. Often referred to as process control, the blue hat is concerned about the organization of the thinking process and the appropriate use of the hats. The blue hat thinker "is looking at the thinking that is taking place. He [/she] is the choreographer who designed the steps, but he [/she] is also the critic who watches what is happening" (de Bono, 1999, p. 161). The blue hat thinker should wear the blue hat throughout the entire meeting. While preserving the integrity of the Six Hats method, the blue hat thinker may also wish to participate in the meeting discussions.

Typically worn by a meeting facilitator, the individual wearing the blue hat is responsible for managing the thinking process. The thinking process includes the following types of activities: defining meeting or discussion topics, organizing the hat sequences, summarizing what has been achieved, assessing priorities, and identifying next steps at the conclusion of a meeting or discussion. Questions asked from a Blue Hat's perspective are:

The application of Six Thinking Hats in higher education

The Six Thinking Hats technique has assisted people in creating a complete and concrete view of a particular topic, such as a problem to be solved, a suggestion to be evaluated, a topic to be assessed, or a decision to be made. The Six Hats method considers diverse thinking styles and incorporates multiple views. Critical and higher-level thinking is achieved as people are able to discuss the full complexity of decisions or suggestions in an organized and focused manner.

The Six Hats method has been used by leaders in various industries, such as NASA, IBM, DuPont, NTT (Japan), Shell, BP, Statoil (Norway), Marzotto (Italy), Federal Express, and others, including Nestlé USA and most recently Nestlé Chile (de Bono, 1999). Companies around the world have used the Six Thinking Hats method. Will the Montana University System be added to the list of users?

Works Cited

de Bono, Edward. (1999). Six Thinking Hats. New York: New York: Bay Back Books / Little, Brown and Company.

Walwoord, B.E. (2004). Assessment Clear and Simple. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

[The Montana Professor 21.1, Fall 2010 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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