Brain behaviour - Think on

12th December 2008 at 00:00
University tutors are being trained in Edward de Bono's methods. Fay Wertheimer talks to the father of lateral thinking

"European education has, for 2,400 years, neglected constructive creative thinking," says Edward de Bono.

"But," he says, "it's a fundamental human skill. Taught separately, it improves all children's cross-curricular and behavioural performance by 30 to 100 per cent."

And, before he can be pinned down on this wide-ranging claim, he has moved back to a familiar theme: how philosophers from the Greek "gang of three" - Aristotle, Plato and Socrates - onwards have concentrated on logic, argument and judgment, leaving creative thinking out in the cold.

"Like a vehicle's rear left wheel, judgment is fine but not enough," he says.

Dr de Bono, 75, the author of 70 books in 34 languages and star of countless management seminars, has lost none of his zeal to fight the sad neglect of thinking "outside the box". Clad in a natty dark suit and red socks, the father of lateral thinking is in Manchester to salute a new stage in the march of his ideas in the UK.

It turns out we have been slower to adopt his techniques, at least in education, than countries ranging from China to India, Australasia, Russia and Canada (Kazakhstan is on the waiting list).

In Venezuela, he points out, all schools have been following his methods since 1985, when they were introduced by their ex-philosopher education minister.

His Edward de Bono Foundation UK, the recently established British branch of his worldwide foundation, has just settled into new premises on the Crewe campus of Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). And the De Bono Centre for Constructive Creativity and Constructive Thinking will be working in partnership with the university's Institute of Education to provide options based on his ideas in initial and in-service training. University tutors are now being trained in de Bono's methods.

There are already a number of schools and trainers in the UK accredited by the foundation to teach his techniques. But this will be the first time they have received a British university's stamp of approval.

"It's a fascinating tool for teachers to add to their professional kitbag," says Andy Jones, dean of the Institute of Education. But he stresses that Dr de Bono's methods will not become a compulsory element of teacher training at MMU.

So what are Dr de Bono's ideas and what techniques does he derive from them? The key lies in his education. Dr de Bono, who was born in Malta, added an Oxford psychology and physiology degree and a doctorate in medicine to his earlier medical qualifications before re-directing his career. The doctor drew conclusions about the workings of the brain from the way other organs worked.

"Looking at ideas of self-organising systems in the glands, the kidneys, circulation and respiration, I realised similar ideas could be applied to the neurons of the mind (brain cells)," he says.

The result was The Mechanism of Mind, his seminal book published in 1969, still recognised as a prescient and highly readable account of the way neural networks are formed and reinforced by experience.

Dr de Bono defines thinking as the operating skill with which intelligence acts upon experience. And he is adamant that, like driving, it can be taught - and should be taught - as a separate subject.

"My thinking tools are scaffolding," he says, "steps taken to examine our judgment and perception to develop our own constructive, creative-thinking process. The brain magically organises itself into patterns to systematise our thoughts and behaviour, but it will initially revert to its original patterns before they eventually alter.

"Thinking as a skill takes time to learn," he says. It's not enough to say: `I teach geography in a thinking way.' Thinking must be taught separately."

Many teachers will know the CORT Thinking Lessons devised by the Cognitive Research Trust he set up in Cambridge: six modules of 10 units which enable children from four to 18 to learn to manage their thinking. But perhaps the "scaffolding" most familiar to teachers is the Six Thinking Hats. With this technique, a class reaches a conclusion after working through six modes of thinking, teacher and pupils all thinking in the same mode at the same time. They put on imaginary coloured hats for each mode: white for fact gathering, black for negative points, yellow for positive points, red for gut feelings, green for creative ideas and blue for organising the thinking.

Lateral - or creative - thinking is largely a matter of changing people's perception, Dr de Bono says. "It is not logic but perception that accounts for 90 per cent of thinking errors."

Teaching children to think not only improves their all-round performance but gives those considered "less academic" a chance to shine, he says.

He recalls a class of five-year-olds that was trying to devise ways of motivating a dog to run. Predictably, pupils drew a pet chasing after a perpetually moving bone, a chunk of meat, or a cat. But one child depicted his dog towing a car battery with a live electrical rod poised to prod him whenever he slowed down. This child concentrated not on urging the animal forward but on preventing him from stopping - a concept he certainly could not have clarified in words.

Dr de Bono says that his thinking, though innovative, is no guarantee of superior intellect. Bright children do not necessarily think effectively whereas less academic youngsters can excel.

He believes in "operacy": doing things to generate new ideas - not only thinking outside the box but offering a focus within it.

So ask your pupils to look, really look, at their hands and feet.

"Just by telling children to look at their fingernails or shoes, their perception within that small framework will broaden," he says.


The Use of Lateral Thinking - 1967

Lateral Thinking - 1970 amp; 1990

The Mechanism of Mind - 1969

Teach your Child How to Think - 1993

Six Thinking Hats - 2000

I Am Right, You Are Wrong - 1990

Why so stupid? - 2006

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