The Ministry of Silly Hats

I noticed some discussion recently about Edward De Bono’s silly thinking hats. So I thought it might be worth re-posting this old piece that first appeared on the websofsubstance blog back in September 2013. Apologies for the fact that I’ve since reused the voice projection anecdote on this blog.

When I was a young pup, during my first year of teaching, I had to attend a special training session each week with the other young pups and our professional tutor. One week, this session was led by a drama teacher and the subject was the proper projection of the voice. We were all stood in a line and asked to say the word, “Now,” in turn. Apparently, we were to do this from our stomachs – which oddly seemed to be located in our intestines – and not from our throats. I failed. So, the instructor asked me to jog on the spot and say, “Now.” Begrudgingly, I did this but it seems that this exertion was in vain because I was still utilising my throat in the process.

Not to be discouraged, the instructor had another idea. I should run from one end of the room to another saying, “Now,” repeatedly as I did so.

“No,” I said throatily, “I won’t be doing that,” and I sat down.

My professional tutor was embarrassed and  there was something of a flap before we all agreed that it was perfectly fine for me to sit out the rest of the activity.

This highlights the importance of seeing things from multiple perspectives. What the instructor perceived to be playful and constructive, I perceived to be pointless and demeaning.

Imagine, therefore, that someone were to ask me  – literally or metaphorically – to don Edward de Bono’s red thinking hat and declare my emotional reaction to a proposal to alter the end-of-term reporting criteria. On a good day, I may confect something trite in order to move the discussion on to the next step. On a bad day, I might just refuse to play.

Further, imagine it is 2006 and the boss of a big bank is conducting a thinking hats session around the proposal to take-over a profitable sub-prime mortgage provider. Imagine an underling is given the job of performing some ‘black hat’ thinking in a meeting and divine the potential problems. Which of the following scenarios do you think would be most likely?

1. The underling plays “It’s the end of the world,” by REM on the boardroom sound-system whilst swaying rhythmically and issuing dire prognostications about the death of the bank, a global financial crisis and huge sovereign debts accrued in bailing-out a banking system deemed too big to fail.

2. The underling notes some branding differences between the two banks that will need to be overcome.

One of the largest risks we face is hubris. Just in the last decade, we have had the Iraq war and the banking collapse. Whatever you think about the moral case for the Iraq war, there is no denying that it was badly thought through, largely due to hubris. The banking crisis is a monument to hubris. Could it have been avoided with thinking hats? Probably not. What is worse, such strategies have the potential to provide a veneer of proper analysis where no such analysis exists. They replicate the form of different types of thinking without necessarily replicating their substance. The confusion of form with substance, the idea that by adopting a form you can short-cut the need to engage in the substance, is a significant error of reason.

Simply donning a white hat does not give you the knowledge – known as ‘information’ in the thinking hats schema – that you need to make a good decision. Yet, this is where the majority of the work is to be done in the majority of cases; the collation, evaluation and comprehension of sufficient domain knowledge.

I first came across thinking hats when I picked-up de Bono’s book as a Penguin Classic a few years ago. It was a cheap, impulse buy. I assumed that it would contain psychological insights based upon, well, the science of psychology. What I found was a sequence of assertions and a description of a method, plus lots of testimonials. I soon tired of this, declaring the whole thing ‘silly’ and not paying it further attention.

My next encounter was quite recently, in the book “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World,’ by Francis Wheen. To my astonishment, I found that the Blair government had actually been a big fan of de Bono and his thinking hats. Wheen explains;

“When Blair entered Downing Street, several executives from Andersen – and McKinseys, the other leading management consultancy – were seconded to Whitehall with a brief to practise ‘blue skies thinking’. Soon afterwards, in perhaps the most remarkable manifestation of New Labour’s guru-worship, they were joined by Dr Edward de Bono, whose task was ‘to develop bright ideas on schools and jobs.’

In the autumn of 1998 more than 200 officials from the Department of Education were treated to a lecture from de Bono on his ‘Six Thinking Hats system’ of decision making… ‘Without wishing to boast,’ he added, ‘this is the first new way of thinking to be developed for 2,400 years since the days of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.’”


Francis Wheen’s book was a real eye-opener and I recommend it. He goes on to explain that the warning signs around de Bono’s judgement were already there for the Blair government to see;

In his 1985 book… Edward de Bono offered the lessons that might be learned from a number of people… The millionaires he extolled included US hotelier Harry Helmsley, later convicted of massive tax evasion, and Robert Maxwell, subsequently exposed as one of the most outrageous fraudsters in British history.”

So I knew a little about Edward de Bono and his thinking hats but I hadn’t been aware that this approach had made it into schools until I read Tom Bennett’s excellent book, ‘Teacher Proof’ – another recommended read. It seems that some teachers are using the six thinking hats in class to develop thinking amongst their students.

I sometimes offend people when I criticise forms of pedagogy. Let me be clear; it is perfectly valid to criticise or even mock a teaching approach. This is not a personal attack. However, some people choose to see it as such: I am attacking something that they do and so they see is as an attack on them personally. It’s as if claiming that the England team’s tactics are unsound is a personal attack on the integrity of the manager. It is not. Such claims are fair in a free society. But this convenient line of reasoning is often effective at shutting down legitimate debate in education.

So here are my reservations about the thinking hats:

1. As I have mentioned, adopting the form of certain type of thinking is not a short-cut to the substance. Many responses are likely to be lazy, platitudinous and uninformed. Pretending to be a wizard doesn’t make you a wizard.

2. The role of knowledge is diminished. The white hat (information) is just one of a total of five active hats who are shepherded by the blue managerial hat. In real decisions, knowledge plays a much more central role and is critical to any success or failure.

3. It relies on a proposition; something open-ended to be discussed. This is not necessarily bad in of itself, but open-endedness is fetishised in some quarters in education at the expense of the transmission of knowledge. Such strategies fit this agenda.

4. It is silly.

Does this mean that you should never touch the hats? Actually, no, it does not. I don’t care for them but I can see that they could break-up a lesson in an interesting way. They could represent a fun way of having a classroom discussion. Even if we discovered the most efficient, optimal form of teaching then you wouldn’t want to do it all of the time; students would become tired because thinking is hard and then the strategy would be suboptimal. There is something to be said for mixing things up a bit. I just don’t think that thinking hats should be taken too seriously.

There’s another reason why I wouldn’t ban the hats. I find Debra Kidd’s defence of thinking hats to be lucid, detailed and convincing, although not convincing enough to change my mind just yet. I believe that if and when Debra uses this approach then she and her students find it to be effective. This may be because of a placebo effect. It may be because Debra integrates a lot of her experience and wisdom into its application – like the man who made soup from a stone. Or, it may well be that I am completely wrong. I’m not sure that there is enough evidence to decide it one way or the other.

What I would be dead against is a whole school ‘thinking hats’ policy where begrudging, rueful teachers are forced to apply thinking hats in a tokenistic way. I’ve been there with Building Learning Power and its a bad place.

Can you imagine; all those forlorn faces sitting underneath those brightly coloured hats…


4 Comments on “The Ministry of Silly Hats”

  1. Mike says:

    Oddly enough, whenever I explain De Bono’s silly hats (great title for the post, by the way!) to anyone OUTSIDE of the education biz, they peg it as a crock within minutes, if not seconds. A lesson in that, methinks.

  2. […] by @gragAshman’s piece entitles The Ministry of Silly Hats   that he wrote sometime in 2003 I decided to respond. I like Greg’s work and blogs which are […]

  3. Stan says:

    The folks claiming Thinking Hats works or is a best way clearly have not looked very hard. You can find no end of popular literature on how to think before you even begin to find the research papers. So picking thinking hats as a single way to play with this seems at best very limiting.

    I offer this link as food for thought

    You will love or hate how he lumps teachers in with the segment of society least involved in organizational management of their work. It is an interesting idea as although a lot of Greg’s blog is about how teachers are told what to do at the end of the day most of the time no one is watching them who will stop them doing what they decide.

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