I’ll be Learning to Learn at the Better Software conference

Next week I’m doing a new talk at the Better Software Conference in Las Vegas about learning models, where I was planning to talk about various learning styles and about how ineffective and systemically flawed most school systems are. Then I read up on Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats model (I’ve linked to Liz Keogh’s write up because it was her who introduced me to it), which I’ve subsequently used to facilitate a workshop, and was amazed to say the least. So much so that it caused me to turn the Learning to Learn talk on its head. I still believe our schools are ineffective and systemically flawed but now I know why! de Bono goes beyond suggesting we should learn how to learn, and suggests ways of learning how to think. These strike at the heart of Western thinking models, which by and large haven’t moved forward since the days of the three amigos of Aristotle, Socrates and Plato, although arguably the scientific method adds something to the mix.

Briefly, five of the six hats represents a different “style” of thinking – yellow is positive, black is critical, green is creative, white is factual and red is emotional – and the idea is to get everyone thinking in the same style at the same time. The sixth blue hat is a kind of meta-hat or “process” hat, which the facilitator wears. You can either run a workshop with a fixed timeline of which hats you will wear when, or you can choose to switch hats reactively during the session when you think a different mode will be more useful or enlightening. The important thing is that everyone is in the same mode at the same time.

Edward de Bono calls this parallel thinking, as opposed to the usual mixed-up scrappy thinking we do most of the time, and has discovered it is far more powerful than the usual dialectic approach of taking a stance and trying to beat the other guy into submission. It also gives you a construct for talking about thinking styles. If someone is being critical or obstructive – usually for what they believe are good reasons – you can describe that as “excellent black hat thinking”, and ask them to note it for the next black hat segment (“but right now we have our yellow hats on, so assuming nothing could possibly go wrong, what would the best possible outcome be for this situation?”). It allows people to feel acknowledged without having the conversation derailed by either defensiveness or emotion. Of course you have to follow through and allow sufficient time with the appropriate hat later on. The same technique allows you to acknowledge and deal with emotive issues in a safe way, rather than pretending to suppress the emotions or risk having them take over.

Liz introduced the six thinking hats in a workshop with a client a few months ago, and I decided I wanted to find out more about it. I discovered that the original Six Thinking Hats book is now available as a Penguin classic, which means you should be able to find it for peanuts in your local bookshop. It’s well worth a read (not least because it finally gave me a decent definition of lateral thinking), and some of the anecdotal evidence is very persuasive – usually involving groups of people reaching consensus far quicker than they expected to.

One of my favourite observations is that often a good answer almost presents itself, and in a non-threatening way. Shifting the emphasis from pitting my idea against your idea to collaboratively trying to find the best idea makes it safer and easier for a group to arrive at a sensible conclusion. It even worked when I split the group of around 20 people into smaller groups (four groups of five, tackling different aspects of the topic). We would all still change hats in sync and it kept the flow going.

Oh, and I found that coloured paper party horns are a great substitute for real hats: they can be heard above a room full of people, and you can wave the hat around to emphasise the new colour.


  1. Hey Dan,

    This sounds awesome – I need to figure out a place to try this out. I’m also beginning to collect ideas for how to do school right so we should talk. Karissa and I are planning on starting a Montessori school in a couple years that will eventually be for kids 3-9(ish).

    Exciting times, mate!

  2. Hi Jeremy! Great to hear from you.

    I would say just try it in the next internal meeting you have. Read the book – it’s very readable and you’ll get through it in no time – and cut yourself about 10 minutes at the beginning of your next meeting to explain the hats, then just start. You can tell them it’s your first time if you like, but I didn’t worry and it seemed to work out ok.

    The first time I used it was for an internal ThoughtWorks session about quite an emotive topic, and it was amazing to watch how the dynamics changed in the room due to parallel thinking.

    Another significant part of the puzzle for me as far as schools go is Systems Thinking. Take a look at Joseph O’Connor’s excellent book and think about how most schools are focused on exam results and GPAs, and you’ll see what I mean. If you can avoid getting caught up in the fixation on results and focus instead on the child’s learning journey you are on to a winner.

  3. His stuff on “CORT” [??] thinking tools, for example, “Teach your Child to Think” is good, and different from Six Hats, and the various lateral thinking books of his are good too. There are large overlaps in his books, but as a whole they make a good collection. I didn’t find the one on simplicity to be very practical; it’s more like a manifesto. “Po: Beyond Yes and No” is good. “Mechanism of Mind” is excellant: hard to tell if he’d read up on Hebbian learning, the work of McCulloch and Pitts, but if it is independently reasoned, then it is brilliant.

  4. Stefan Verstege · ·

    Hi Dan,

    Went to your talk on the Better Software Conference and i think it was great.. A great sidetrack beside all the other talks, but still with a link to everything i have learned last week!


    1. Hi Stefan.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the talk. I had a lot of fun presenting it. I was lucky to have a good audience with lots of energy, which always makes it a pleasure!

  5. Hey Dan, I’m glad that you find this technique useful.
    It is part of my old agile tales talk and if you remember in Stockholm, I introduced it on the fly, since I had time available at the end. I now have a couple of slides for it and perhaps they could be useful to you: http://www.slideshare.net/cperrone/passionate-teams-cooperative-customers-388318 (slides 58 and 59).
    I agree with hgs’ suggestions, and I found “Teach yourself to think” really good too, by the way.

    1. Hi Claudio

      That talk is still one of my favourite ever for the genius of the photos you chose! I checked the slideshare link and you’re right – I hadn’t seen the talk since you added the de Bono slides. I’m hoping I will get to catch up with you later in the year, either at JAOO or Øredev?

  6. Ah thanks, Dan. I’ll be unlikely around this year unfortunately.
    Our first baby is due in 2-3 weeks ;-)
    Pushed by Chris Hedgate, I’m writing a post called “what is the secret of a great presentation?”, by the way.
    It will be ready next monday, and I’m confident you’ll find it interesting ;-)

  7. I agree that today’s school system are flawed, systematically so.

    The most fundamental reason however is often overlooked, regardless of which method you do use. Students do not understand what they are being taught because of misunderstood words. How can a student understand his subject if the building blocks – the words – are not understood, or the teacher and the student use different meanings? It is like trying to argue that a program with failing unit tests should still work …

    In DDD we learn about ubiquitous language and how critical it is that all stakeholders use the same words with the same meaning.

    Well, at http://www.AppliedScholastics.org we learn that the language and its elemental building block – the correctly understood word for a given context – are critical to learning (and a lot more).

    I’ve been using for more than 20 years with great success. I’d invite you take a look.

  8. Hi Dan,

    Can you share us what have you learned and implemented in real life? Is it that easy?

    ~Atty. Adam F., drunk driving lawyer Tampa

    1. Hi Adam,

      I’ve used the Six Thinking Hats as well as a number of other models many times since I wrote this post (which was back in 2009). As with any facilitation technique it takes practise: the more times you do it the more you understand about it and the more you can get from it.

      In terms of what I’ve learned since you can look at later posts on my blog, especially the articles about deliberate discovery and opportunity cost.

      1. Teresa Johnson · ·

        Hello Dan,

        Can you post those links regarding the articles about deliberate discovery and opportunity cost.

        Thank you,
        Teresa J. Johnson
        injury attorney in Tampa

      2. Hi Theresa. I’ve updated my comment to include the links.

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