• January 2013

The Power of Colorful Thinking

By Dr. Carol Horn
K-12 Program Coordinator Department of Instructional Services
Fairfax County Public Schools

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Horn’s upcoming book, “The 10 Big Ideas: How to help your child think bigger, imagine more, and do better in school”

What color is your thinking?

“Six Thinking Hats,” a book by Edward de Bono, provides a colorful structure to guide children as they discuss a topic or issue from six different perspectives.

There are six colored hats and each color represents a different type of thinking: The white hat is used for facts and evidence, the red hat elicits feelings or emotions that are associated with the topic, the yellow hat focuses on the positive aspects, and the purple hat focuses on the negative aspects.

The green hat is reserved for creative ideas, and the blue hat takes all ideas into consideration in order to formulate a plan. The colors provide an important visual that children learn to associate with each type of thinking.

Children may draw, color, and cut out the hats from paper, cut out different color hats from a magazine, collect hats of the different colors, or create the hats out of colored construction paper.

The strategy helps children analyze their thinking and raises their awareness of the complexity of the thinking process.

For example, when they are wearing the white hat, they are focused on the facts.

They gather and check information that is available and search for information that is still needed by asking questions and consulting various sources.

Questions that accompany the white hat include:

  • What information do we have?
  • What information do we need?
  • What information is missing?
  • What questions do we need to ask?
  • How are we going to get the information that is needed?

This could be applied to a vacation that the family is planning.

Children would start researching various destinations and collect the facts about the location, what to do there, how long it takes to get there, means of transportation, climate, and what others have said about this destination.

Next, they would put on the red hat and focus on emotions that are associated with the topic, suggestion, or idea.

The red hat gives children the opportunity to express how they feel about each one and to consider how others may feel.

Questions associated with the red hat include:

  • What are my feelings about this?
  • How do I think others may feel?

The red hat helps children separate emotions from facts and leads to an understanding that emotions may change as they learn more information.

For example, when considering a location for a family vacation, they may initially choose a location that sounds exciting to them such as a theme park.

After doing some research on other choices, their feelings may change and they may be just as excited about a trip to the ocean.

The purple hat is used to point out the weaknesses of an idea and determine if it is even possible.

The purple hat is somber, serious, cautious, and careful. When children put on the purple hat, they check the impact or consequences of each alternative, both long-term and short-term.

Purple-hat questions might include:

  • What are the weaknesses?
  • What problems might arise?
  • Is this logical or practical?

As children consider different alternatives for a family vacation, the purple hat may reveal that a destination is too far for a week-long vacation or perhaps it does not meet the criteria of the family budget. Once the weaknesses are identified, it is time to be optimistic.

The yellow hat is sunny and positive.

It looks for the good points and logical reasons why an idea will work. It also comes up with reasons why the idea is a good one and why it is worth doing.

Yellow-hat questions include:

  • What are the benefits?
  • What are the good points?
  • What is the positive value?

This hat gives a child the opportunity to promote an idea using the power of positive thinking. What are the reasons that each destination would work well for a family vacation?

The next hat is green and gives children the opportunity to look at possibilities and create solutions.

Green is the color of growth and encourages the creation of new and different ideas. It is an opportunity to generate alternatives that might include a combination of ideas that have already been considered.

For example, instead of a theme park, a trip to the beach might include selecting a beach with a boardwalk that would include rides and entertainment.

Questions that lead to green-hat thinking include:

  • How can this be taken further?
  • Where does this idea take me?
  • What else is possible?

The blue hat is the last hat to be considered.

Blue is cool, and it is also the color of the sky, which is above everything else. The blue hat is concerned with planning and organizing the thinking that has evolved through the use of the other hats.

The blue hat helps a child process all of the ideas that have been generated and begin to plan next steps. It includes reviewing all of the alternatives that have been considered through the various hats in order to reach an outcome or solution.

Blue-hat questions include:

  • What other thinking is needed?
  • What is the next step?
  • What plan is needed?
  • Are we ready to make an informed decision and what will it be?

As applied to a family vacation, the blue hat can lead to a decision about what that destination will be and can engage the entire family in the planning process.

Once they are comfortable with the idea of the hats, parents can use the hats as a way of raising a child’s awareness of their response or reaction to different situations.

  • For example, if a child is upset, a parent may say, “I know you are upset, and it is important to recognize the red hat and your feelings. Now let’s put on the white hat, and tell me the facts, exactly what happened that led to these feelings?”
  • Or if a child is asking a parent for a pet such as a kitten, a parent may suggest that the child view this proposal through the various hats and ask, “What are the facts about owning a pet kitten and the care that it needs?”
  • Parents may also ask, “How does the rest of the family feel about the idea of having a kitten? What problems might arise, e.g., who will take care of the kitten when the family is away? What would be the benefits of having a family pet? If not a kitten, what other pets might be considered?”
  • And finally, once all factors have been considered, the blue hat would lead to a plan of action for obtaining and caring for the pet.

The hats are fun and can be used with people of all ages to solve problems, address issues, or make decisions.

Each hat is equal in value and helps children in their thinking by focusing on one type of thinking at a time. As children learn how to talk about each hat and the associated thinking, they begin to realize the difference between facts and emotions and how one can influence the other.

They realize the importance of considering both the positive and negative aspects of an idea. The green hat encourages creativity as they formulate new ideas and solutions that may not have been considered initially. And finally, the blue hat helps them organize their thinking and design a plan to move forward.

In the words of Edward de Bono, “The main difficulty of thinking is confusion. We try to do too much at once. Emotions, information, logic, hope, and creativity all crowd in on us. It is like juggling with too many balls.”

De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats are a powerful tool to help children become better thinkers and better decision makers.


About Dr. Carol Horn

Dr. Carol V. Horn is coordinator of Advanced Academics Program (former Gifted and Talented Programs) for Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia.

She has worked in gifted education for the past 20 years and has a Master of Education in Educational Psychology with an Emphasis on Gifted from the University of Virginia.

She earned her doctorate in Teacher Preparation and Special Education from The George Washington University and is the 2002 recipient of the Hollingsworth Award from the National Association for Gifted Children for outstanding research study in the field of gifted education.

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