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.