Think - but how?

Dear colleagues,

One of our standard goals in teaching is to help students learn to think critically. But do other types of thinking need to be taught as well?

Edward de Bono says that thinking critically is an excellent skill, but it isn't enough. De Bono is familiar to many for having coined the term "lateral thinking", and is generally associated with creative thinking. But there is more to his approach than this.

For several decades, de Bono has been developing tools for thinking. The tools are simple, practical and often very powerful.

One of his most widely known tools is the six thinking hats. De Bono divides thinking into six types, each associated with a coloured hat. The white hat is for dealing with information, the black hat for critical analysis, the green hat for new ideas, the red hat for emotions, the yellow hat for optimism and the blue hat for process control.

Normally when people talk about some issue, the various types of thinking are mixed together, for example emotional responses mixed with critical analysis. This can make it difficult to move forward. At a meeting, it can be very helpful to deal with a contentious issue by using one hat at a time. De Bono cites many examples of the six hats improving productivity.

The six thinking hats offer a useful lens for seeing both the strengths and limitations of academic work. Nearly all research and teaching in humanities and social sciences involves either the white or the black hat: information and critical analysis. The other four types of thinking are neglected.

When I receive a report from a referee on an article, almost invariably it is based on black-hat thinking: what's wrong with my article. It is rare indeed for a referee to use the green hat and suggest some original directions for the research.

De Bono writes a new book every year or so. The most recent that I've read is Think! Before it's too late (London: Vermillion, 2009). Like de Bono's other books, it is easy to read, with many practical examples.

If you want to be critical - to don the black hat - then it is easy to find shortcomings in de Bono's work. Think! is repetitious, sometimes covering the same points in different chapters, and lacks references for many of the claims made. In fact it doesn't have any references at all, as de Bono says he's developed all the ideas himself. Think! contains sweeping generalisations. Finally, de Bono tells the reader what an important figure he is: he is influential and he rubs it in.

But if, instead of looking for weaknesses in the standard academic way, we look for worthwhile ideas, there is plenty in de Bono's work to provide stimulation. As well as the six thinking hats, there are many other thinking tools, such as the six value medals, perceptual thinking, and the cognitive research trust programme.

De Bono says repeatedly that critical thinking and problem solving are excellent skills - but they aren't enough. He says universities are excellent at what they do, but they should do more. He challenges the idea that the only things to be fixed are those that have problems. He says things that are working well need to be improved too.

After saying how many degrees he has - four earned and others honorary - de Bono says "I have a great respect for universities, but the theme of much of this book applies to them as well: 'Excellent but not enough.' In other words, universities are excellent at the game they have come to play, but this game is not enough. Being blocked by excellence is always the danger." (p. 113)

De Bono's tools are excellent for teaching. In my experience, students find using the tools challenging at first, because they aren't used to other ways of thinking, but with a bit of practice they can use them for learning. De Bono says that research has been done in schools showing that teaching his thinking techniques can lead to great improvements in regular subjects.

For research, I don't expect that de Bono to be taken up very widely. The critical mindset is deeply entrenched in academia. There is rhetoric about the importance of developing original ideas, but in practice there's not much support for doing it. Instead, new ideas are met with relentless black-hat criticism rather than sympathetic green-hat creativity. The path of least resistance is to join the crowd and stick with white and black hat thinking.

But perhaps this is too pessimistic. Using de Bono's tools, it should be possible to come up with ways to promote new research ideas and overcome or sidestep the academic emphasis on criticism. The opportunity to publish on the Internet should make it easier to share new ideas. I don't expect de Bono's ideas to be taken up rapidly by academics, much less that academics will come up with thinking tools of their own, but for those who pursue this approach, there are great opportunities.

3 August 2010

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