Teach your students the Six Hats of Critical Thinking

What exactly is critical thinking?

How do we teach critical thinking skills to students?

Critical thinking involves looking at problems in new ways and making connections across subject areas and disciplines (Johanning & Ellis, 2013).  Critical thinking skills are believed to be imperative for developing skills such as objectivity, honesty, empathy, and self-regulation.  Students benefit when these skills are explicitly taught (Kivunja, 2015).

Dr. Edward DeBono is a leading scholar in critical thinking.  He believed that there are three fundamental difficulties people experience when attempting practical thinking:

1) emotions:  relying on gut feeling, emotions, and prejudice as a basis for action

2) helplessness:  reacting with feelings of inadequacy

3) confusion:  trying to consider too many things at once

DeBono created the Six Thinking Hats Model (1992) to represent six different cognitive approaches to critical thinking.  The power lies in the individual’s ability to wear one hat, assess a situation, and wear another hat.  Each hat represents a different cognitive approach to a situation and to overcome the three fundamental difficulties in order to solve a problem.  All are of equal value.

Here are characteristics of each of DeBono’s six thinking hats, some suggested questions offered by Kivunja (2015), and my own beginning list of classroom application ideas.

Six Thinking Hats

The Black Hat


  • associated with thinking that checks feasibility of ideas
  • seeks to evaluate and pass judgment
  • provides caution; assesses possible consequences
  • uses evidence

Questions to ask students

  • What is the evidence?
  • Why might this plan not work?  What might go wrong?
  • What are weaknesses in this strategy?
  • What consequences will flow from these actions?
  • Is what we are proposing fair?

The Blue Hat


  • defines the problem and the purpose
  • organizational critical thinking
  • metacognition
  • focused on thinking about thinking (not solving the problem)
  • identifies strategies for solving the problem
  • defines and articulates the nature of the problem
  • sets clear objectives or targets involved in solving the problem
  • assesses progress

Questions to ask students

  • What is the purpose of what you plan to do?
  • What are we trying to achieve and how do we get there?
  • Can you explain how you reached that conclusion?
  • What have we got so far?
  • What strategy might help us to complete this successfully?
  • Zoom out and evaluate this process for a minute… comment on your thinking

The Green Hat


  • creative and innovative problem solving
  • creates new ideas, new possibilities, suggestions that do not currently exist

Questions to ask students

  • How can you modify or improve what was just said?
  • How many ideas can you brainstorm?
  • Can you use a graphic organizer or concept map to generate further or better ideas?

The Red Hat


  • expresses personal emotions, feelings, hunches, and intuitions
  • emotions do not need rationale, explanation, reasons
  • shared without judgment from others
  • subjective
  • asks “What do I feel about this?”

Questions to ask students

  • What do you like or dislike about this idea?
  • What do you find interesting about this?
  • What about this idea is boring or exciting?
  • Why do you prefer choice A over choice B?

The White Hat


  • Asks:
    • what information do we have?
    • what information do we need?
    • how do we get the information we need?
  •  involves personal and group searches for information
  • uses neutrality and objectivity
  • no suggestions, ideas, arguments, or feelings
  • considers the relevance of information and source integrity, importance, validity
  • incorporates basic research techniques

Questions to ask students

  • How is the information you have relevant?  How does this help us understand the concept or solve this problem?
  • What information here seems most important?
  • What information is missing?
  • How can we gather the data we need?
  • How should we analyze the data we have?
  • How reliable/valid is this information?

The Yellow Hat


  • includes optimism and determination to succeed
  • looks for ways to add value
  • based on evidence
  • identifies strengths and opportunities
  • Asks:
    • what are the good points here?
    • what are the benefits?
    • why will an idea work?
    • what is the likelihood for success?

Questions to ask students

  • What good points can you summarize from this?
  • What are the benefits to the group?  the class?  the school? or community?
  • What value do you see in this?
  • If we could change the situation, what could we do to make the situation better?


Application Ideas

As a general suggestion, having posters or a chart similar to this one or this one in the  classroom will help foster critical thinking and help students use these questions during class and group conversations.  Here are some ideas for using the Six Hats in the classroom to promote critical thinking:

  • PBL:
    • The PBL approach lends itself really well to incorporating the six hats!  Use a timer to give groups a set amount of time to analyze their project and their work through various hats throughout the process.  For example, in the beginning of the project, you may want to give groups 10 minutes to use the green hat to see if they can come up with any additional/better ideas.  Towards the middle of the project, give groups time to use the blue hat to get a birds eye view of their approach and their progress.
  •  IceBreaker/Advisory/Homeroom:
    • Ask students to look at the chart and assess which hat(s) they are most likely to consider naturally during a challenge.  What are the pros/cons of focusing on that perspective?  Which hat would be helpful to incorporate more often?
    • Try grouping students in ways that take advantage of their natural “hat personalities” while trying a fun challenge – does this impact how the group functions?
    • Encourage students to see how other students may offer different perspectives and help them see a benefit from each type of thinking
  • ELA
    • Literature Circles:  assign each group member a different hat color to consider for an assigned chapter:  how does the reading experience change?
  • Math
    • Use the above questions to help students think about choosing a strategy and attempting a complex problem during whole class discussions
    • Encourage students to consider each hat during group work or when confronting a difficult problem
  • Science
    • Assign or have students rotate through the different hats throughout a lab.  What is the value of having each perspective?  Which hat (type of thinking) is most important during the beginning of the experiment?  middle?  end?
  • Social Studies
    • Use the above questions to help students process and discuss complex issues
    • Ask students to act through different hats to imagine what world leaders were thinking while making important decisions
  • World Language
    • Use the hats as a way to teach new expressions to students as an authentic and natural way to engage in group conversations and group work
    • During studies of history or culture, ask students to consider the cultural differences from the perspective of each hat.  How does this change the conversation?
  • Art
    • Ask students to provide feedback to a classmate’s work:  set a timer for 1 minutes per hat
  • P.E.
    • Assign roles to various students to approach a game setting using the different hats.  Which type of thinking is helpful when?  Which thinking proves helpful during what sport?




DeBono, E.  (1995).  Serious creativity.  The Journal for Quality and Participation, 18, 12-18.

Johanning, D. I. & Ellis, A.  (2013).  Mathematical practices that promote 21st century skills.  Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 19(3), 132-137.

Kivunja, C.  (2015).  Using DeBono’s six thinking hats model to teach critical thinking and problem solving skills essential  for success in the 21st century economy.  Creative Education, 6, 380-391.



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