In Defence of the Six Thinking Hats

I have been embroiled this week in a number of long twitter conversations in a tentative defence of Edward De Bono’s six thinking hats. I’m not quite sure how this happened; if I were to defend a pedagogy to the death, it would be Mantle of the Expert, but for some reason I find myself feeling the need to write an explanation of my position.  Before I go any further, and because some people seem to think that the thinking hats involves leaping around classrooms wearing headgear and pretending to be someone else, I should point out that the hats are simply a metaphor, like a ‘thinking cap’. When people say they need to put their thinking caps on, they rarely rush off to the wardrobe. The same is true here – when I talk of putting a hat on below, I merely use it as a shift in thinking mode. There are some people who do use hats in their classrooms. Each to their own, I say, but I don’t. Nor do I sit here as a big fan of the very wealthy Edward De Bono. Suffice to say, I prefer people to look at my face when they speak to me. But I like the thinking hats rationale.

The Six Thinking Hats are so overquoted and misused that it’s become an educational cliché and there is some truly misguided practice out there. I can understand in part, therefore, why some people have come to view them as little more than a gimmick. I come across a lot of teachers who think they know the six thinking hats. I’ve sat in on training where advisors and consultants have ‘taught’ the thinking hats to teachers and got it wrong. Nigel Newman of the De Bono Foundation says it happens a lot – and that there are many schools in which this simple and effective technique is misconstrued and misunderstood. I’ve seen Thinking Hats linked to Bloom’s Taxonomy – there’s no connection. I’ve seen Thinking Hats used in classrooms where one group sits in black and another in yellow, debating an issue. This undermines the very point of thinking consensually.

So what are the thinking hats? Why are they useful? What is the thinking behind the thinking? And, most importantly, what is their application to the classroom?

What is the underlying principle?

The Six Thinking Hats are lateral thinking tools devised by De Bono in the 70s. They are one of several thinking tools he developed to help people to clarify their thinking and move towards a more productive and collaborative model of decision making; a process which in part led to a nobel prize nomination for Economics. In his book ‘The Six Thinking Hats’, he explains what is wrong with the way we approach thinking and the historical reasons for this.

De Bono’s concerns about the way Western societies discuss problems are mirrored in ‘Metaphors We Live By’, by Lakoff and Johnson. In this book, they starkly expose our flawed approaches to argument. Consider the following phrases:

‘He shot me down’
‘I won the point’
‘He destroyed my argument’
‘He fired criticism after criticism at me.’

Lakoff and Johnson highlight that our decision-making is often combative; a state which can lead some people to avoid discussion altogether. De Bono agrees – he points to the development of dialectic thinking, stemming from the works of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato in which detailed questioning and probing form an argument that challenges accepted thinking and norms. In a society in which the hierarchies of power are being challenged, this combative form of debate can be useful. But does it have a place in the classroom or the boardroom, where the ideal is a consensus – a consensus in which there is freedom to share ideas without fear of attack and where it is recognised that there will be many ways of looking at an issue?

The thinking hats process attempts to move discussion away from the adversarial towards the collaborative. In his book, De Bono makes great claims about the impact this approach has had on efficiency in industry – Seimens, 3D and IBM are just three international companies committed to the approach. The thinking hats process facilitated parts of the Northern Ireland peace process, and has been used in marriage counselling. So what can it do in the classroom?

What are the Thinking Hats?

The idea is that when we think, we tend to default to modes and patterns ingrained in us. Rooted to experience and largely left to their own devices, these modes influence the way we approach our thinking. We all have the capacity to think in each of the six ways De Bono colour coded and iconised as hats (and probably more), but we tend to rely very heavily on just a couple of them. These ‘types’ of thinking are all important and all serve their uses. They are:

Red – The emotional hat – described as ‘gut instinct’. Emotions are important in driving our responses to issues. We all have them, although some people deny their place in business. People accuse each other of “Being emotional”, as if it’s a weakness. In fact, says De Bono, it is important to allow everyone to share their emotional reactions to an issue so they don’t fester and affect their thinking in other areas of their work.

In a Thinking Hats exercise, people are asked to quickly share their emotional responses to an idea at the beginning of the project. Then they can examine later whether those early emotional or gut feelings have changed (in the classroom I sometimes do this as a continuum task). Being able to put on and take off the red hat is crucial in developing perspective and objectivity – a crucial skill in the emotional and social development of children. If this doesn’t happen, the red hat thinker remains in an emotional mode throughout the discussion – this is rarely productive.

White – The information Hat. The white hat is used when information is required. It allows the group to discover what they already know to be true. The group can then discover what gaps exist in their knowledge and can decide how to fill those gaps. It also allows the group to report, factually, other people’s views. A white hat thinker can find themselves being exasperated by a red hat thinker:

Mr Red: I hate the idea.
Mrs White: Don’t be ridiculous – you’ve not even looked at all the facts yet.

Mr Red: I don’t care – I’m sick of the way these things are always pushed on us.

Mrs White: You’re being too emotional about this.
Mr Red: Yadda yadda…

Mrs White-Turning-Pink: Oh for heaven’s sake!!

I’m sure we’ve all witnessed conversations like that one 😉

Yellow: the ‘benefits’ hat. It looks for the good and the possible benefits of any given situation. Reasons must be given, but the thrust of using the yellow is that it asks for the positives. Sounds simple – but strangely, many people find the yellow hat difficult, particularly adults who have come through an education system in which they have been trained to be critical and objective.

Yellow hat thinkers get negative reactions – they can be described as “hopeless optimists” or “away with the fairies”. But optimism is crucial to our survival and to progress and innovation. We need to practice this thinking mode more often.

Black: The cautionary hat. Black hat has been referred to as a ‘negative’ hat – this is wrong. The black hat is productive and vital, but looks specifically for the risks and advises caution in the decision making process.

This is obviously crucial in any decision making process. The government might have benefitted from a little black hat thinking when introducing League Tables into the education system. A good black hat thinker might have foreseen the impact on local house prices surrounding schools appearing ‘high’ in the league tables, the subsequent increasing polarisation of the classes and so on…

So what happens when yellow and black join a discussion about organising an event?

Mr Red (angrily): I hate the idea.
Mr. Black (calmly): So do I.
Ms Yellow (enthusiastically): I love it – think of all the people who would come to look at our work – no-one else is doing anything like this.

Mr. Red (sarcastically): Quite!

Mrs White (warily): You’ve not looked at all the facts yet.

Mr Red (impatiently): I don’t care – I’m sick of the way these things are always pushed on us.

Mrs White (calmly): You’re being too emotional about this.

Mr Red (dismissively): Yadda yadda

Ms Yellow (soothingly): Don’t get upset – I really do think there are lots of benefits. You might enjoy yourself!

Mr. Black (cautiously): And there are lots of problems. What about car parking?

Ms. White (thoughtfully): Hmmm yes – how much car parking would we need?

Mr. Black (dramatically): Loads and that’s just the start of it – think about congestion.

Ms. Yellow (waving her hards): It’s worth it – think about the PR!
Mr Black (pointing his finger): This is a big mistake – we can’t accommodate all those people.

Ms Yellow (shaking her head): All those people will bring in money – and raise our profile.

Mr. Black (frowning): I disagree.
Ms Yellow (frowning): Well I disagree with you.
Ms White (frowning): I think we need to call another meeting to discuss the parking issue.

Mr Red (frowning): Oh yes, another bleeding meeting. I hate meetings.

And so on. As you can see, good decisions are rarely made when all hats are allowed to talk at the same time and are unregulated.

Green: the creative hat. The green hat is characterised by statements like “What if?”, “Why not try”, “Wouldn’t it be fun/interesting if…?”. In the above conversation, Mr Green might have said: “What if we get a shuttle bus to bring people here?”. The problem is that green is often drowned out – because other modes of thinking have become entrenched. Green is also often silenced by the tension in the room.

Applying the thinking hats.

In meetings like the one above, nothing is decided and all leave feeling frustrated. The loudest get heard. Arguments are ‘won’ and ‘lost’, and wonderful ideas get lost in the fray. So how is a Thinking Hats meeting different?

In a Thinking Hats meeting the colours are worn by everyone at the same time. The above exchange fails because a different person wears each hat and they all clash.

Turning to each mode of thinking in turn and ensuring that everyone looks at the issue from the same angle at the same time allows people to shift their point of view. There is no ‘winning’ – because you’ll be contradicting your own arguments in a few minutes time as you try on a different hat. This removal of the adversarial gives quieter children time and confidence to put their points of view forward.

It is a crucial rule of the process that everyone makes a contribution to every hat. This is most easily managed by putting the children into groups. All the groups are working on the same hat at the same time – but talking in small, manageable groups (I’ve found that using Kagan structures like Round Robin help here). Most importantly, there is a consistency of approach, time is used effectively and there is an opportunity for everyone to try a new way of thinking – reminding the brain that there might be more ways to approach a problem than through its habitual modes of thought.

There is one final hat – the Blue. The Blue hat is the organiser hat – the one that sets the agenda, decides on a time limit for each hat, sums up and records the discussion and keeps order. Usually the blue hat is worn by a facilitator sitting out side of the main discussion –like the teacher. But it is also the only hat that can be worn simultaneously with another.

For example, if a child wearing the yellow hat notices a flaw in the plan, another child in the group can stop that line of thinking – and tell them to save it for black hat thinking. Getting back on track is part of the blue role – it can be put on briefly to remind a group of the task in hand.

Case study 1: A Group discussion.
A class have been studying the evidence for climate change. As part of an assessment, you want them to write an essay which examines the evidence for man made climate change and to offer an analysis of the potential ‘solutions.’ To help them to prepare you have decided to set up a class discussion under the title ‘What could be done to minimise the impact of climate change’.

1. Red: ask them how they feel about the question and to share that with a single word – some of mine said ‘angry’, ‘overwhelmed’, ‘sad’, ‘unsure’ , ‘confused’ etc.

2. White: In groups of four, they compile a list of facts and questions relating to the facts. For example. ‘Weather patterns are becoming more extreme’ ‘Carbon levels in the atmosphere have passed 400parts/1000000’ and so on.

3. Yellow: list all the possible benefits of climate change – this should be hard, but they came up with ‘humans will realise how important it is to take care of what is left’ ‘the planet will survive even if humans don’t’ ‘perhaps the situation will challenge human innovation and new things will be invented to help us to cope’ ‘We won’t have to fly south to enjoy the sunshine (!?!)’

4. Black: What are the problems? ‘the threat to human, animal and plant life’ ‘decreased land mass and increased population’ ‘spread of malaria north’ etc.

5. Green – what could we do? Pupils offer a range of suggestions, not simply ordinary (recycle reuse etc) but also putting forward proposals for identifying changes to immigration policies, to energy and water use and even ‘move to Scotland’. The ideas are free flowing and enjoyable because there is no-one allowed to say ‘but’. We’re in green hat.

6. Blue – summarise the key points of the discussion.

Write an essay – kids who often struggle to order their ideas find that following the hats structure gives them a writing frame and generally speaking the essays are balanced and thorough with some evidence of original thinking.

Case Study two: Thinking Hats in role
Picture this. Year eight – a pretty boisterous group in Stoke on Trent. The pupils are about to embark on a Mantle of the Expert as employees of a failing drinks manufacturing company – StokaCola. Their jobs are on the line. New products are required which need branding (this is a joint English/business studies collaboration) in order to save the company. Some external consultants have been brought in to help the company but the ideas, the market profiling and the manufacture and marketing of the products is up to the employees.

When the class enter the classroom on the first day, they are initially bemused to be in role, but they soon warm up to the task. They are asked to identify where the problems lie in the current branding. The children immediately decide that the name ‘StokaCola’ is too regional. They find problems with the image of cheap cola – they think it is too unhealthy and too close to the main brands.

The children start to develop ideas for new products, but there is a lot of disagreement in the group. They are quite combative in nature, often rowdy and confrontational and this spills into the role. We decide that the children need some help to work more co-operatively and to organise their thinking. We decide to start the next session with some Professional Development training – with a ‘management consultant’ (or me!) specialising in Six Thinking Hats.

In role I ask the groups to identify what their problems are. They nearly all maintain their roles and speak in first person as if their enterprise is real. They know of course that it is not, but they are willing to suspend disbelief. I give them an overview of Thinking Hats and explain that we were going to use the hats to decide on a new drinks brand.

Even children who had taken entrenched positions the day before show that they are able to see the potential weaknesses in their ideas when doing the Hats exercise. One child who found it particularly hard to concentrate was fully focused in this task – he found it easy to switch modes of thinking quickly – his mind was occupied.

Far more ideas were generated after thinking hats training – and the ideas were followed through. The colours helped the children to peg an idea on an image, making it more memorable, so that in future meetings (and staff reported even in other lessons), they started to say things like “We need to put on a black hat here” before rushing into a decision.


The Thinking Hats formed only a small part of both of these processes. But the important thing is that it was contextualised in a ‘real’ learning context. Thinking skills are often taught in isolation and while I have heard many arguments as to why this is so, they ring hollow to me. Why waste time when the thinking skill could be being applied within the knowledge domain being studied? While it is necessary for the hats to be quickly ‘taught’ and experienced remotely before being applied to a real problem, the reason for their use was what gave them a direct relevance. One child said:

“I surprised myself. Don’t talk much normally, but I have a lot of ideas like – I just daren’t say them in case they sound stupid. But green hat lets you get em out, and we used one. I was dead proud when they chose that idea of mine.”


13 thoughts on “In Defence of the Six Thinking Hats

  1. Looking at something from a different perspective or looking at an aspect “let’s look at the facts” is obviously a good thing. However, I’ve seen De Bono speak, and he tries to claim hats as something more than that. In fact, I’d go as far as to say he can stifle creativity (he said you should put the blue hat on first to organise when you’re going to put the other hats on and stick to it).

    But I think your defence falls down on two fronts. First, you describe them used badly in a range of settings, including by people who have clearly read De Bono’s book. In my view this is because it’s such a cumbersome way of suggesting that we should look at something from a different perspective that the process gets in the way of the argument. So in the classroom, this is likely to manifest itself in the student thinking about the process more and the content less.

    Second, you refer to “red hat thinkers”, “green hat thinkers” and possible problems they might have between them: “A white hat thinker can find themselves being exasperated by a red hat thinker”. You may not have meant to suggest that people have a preferred hat, but such a crude tool (I resisted the word fad here, but I do think it applies) lends itself to describing learners as such or equivalent misunderstandings because the thinking hats metaphor is so cumbersome. Someone else who was a fan said on twitter that it’s only useful if you *really* understand it and *think carefully* about how to use it. Well if you have to be some kind of thinking hats expert, it’s really not that useful at all (and they tried to sell me the course to become a thinking hats trainer at thousands of pounds).

    In my view that’s as productive as ascribing a learning style to learners. It’s crude, pigeonholes people on no scientific basis at all and fails to get the point of learning via argument or discussion.

    It seems to me to be more likely that this is a sensible idea dressed up carefully to be able to be sold. Like so many things I’m sure you’d agree are fads and dangerous for students’ learning.

    I actually believe that polemic argument is more powerful for learning than consensus, but that’s another point entirely.

      1. See – that’s the problem with such a simplistic metaphor: it’s too easy for you to pigeon hole thinking. This can be merely another (more passive-aggressive) way to continue those ‘Western’ adversarial arguments.

        I have not problem with any of the lateral thinking rationale. Deliberately thinking in a way which is different to your normal approach can have interesting results. And to that extent, the hats could be a useful tool (get me with my yellow hat!). But I maintain that there isn’t an activity which wouldn’t be improved by using less rigid heuristics. Two of my favourites are ‘common sense’ and ‘devil’s advocate’.

        If your readers would like to read contrarian view, they can find it here:

        Thanks, David

  2. The problem with common sense David is that everyone claims their position is the common sense view. It’s too much of a screen. But thanks for the debate – I think it’s been useful and productive. I would never advocate that everyone use a technique just because it works for me, but I think it’s right and proper that we can discuss merits and limits without mockery. In any case, I rather hoped this post would allow me to move on and enjoy what’s left of my precious day off, so I’m going to do exactly that. Have a good weekend 🙂

  3. I generally agree with Debrakidd even though I would quiblle a little about some of the detail and interpretation at times. However these differences do not detract from my agreement that the Six Hats can be a very useful and powerful tool to aid decision making and problem solving.

    I have responded on David Didau’s blog at greater length but would support Debrakidd in the important detail. I have used the Six Hats both in both managerial (industry) and teaching contexts and have found it to be very powerful.

    I feel that Stuart’s comment above is interesting when he says….

    ‘Someone else who was a fan said on twitter that it’s only useful if you *really* understand it and *think carefully* about how to use it. Well if you have to be some kind of thinking hats expert, it’s really not that useful at all ‘

    The concept is actually quite simple, and quite why one would assume that “real understanding” and thinking carefully would not be necessary for effective use escapes me. I get the feeling that it is just this “I am sure if I have a bash at it even though I don’t really understand it” approach that leads some to dismiss it as gibberish.

    Great post Debrakidd and interesting comments, thanks.

  4. I have used 6 Hats and CoRT 1 tools for many years as a leader and teacher and have found both to be excellent models to direct thinking in a structured, inclusive and creative way. The model also creates a “whole school approach” which i think is incredible powerful in secondary schools which can be quite disparate in nature.

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