#70: Parallel Thinking for the Online Educator

#70: Parallel Thinking for the Online Educator

This content first appeared at APUEdge.com

Thinking is a skill that can always be further developed and improved upon. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares insight into the concept of parallel thinking, which focuses on constructive and creative thinking. Learn more about this unique approach to thinking that uses the concept of “thinking hats” that enables individuals to view something from six unique viewpoints to more fully understand it.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Thank you for joining me today. If you’re here listening to this podcast, I assume that you’re either an online educator or you work with online educators. Or perhaps you’re a parent who is working with your young person at home in an online education fashion. Either way, regardless of who you are or from where you approach online education, one thing is certain that education comes with some traditional Western views. In the United States, we often think of Socratic analysis or Socratic discussion, which is largely the discussion—the question and answer method—and we’re looking for the truth.

We might have some kind of logical analysis, definitions, categories, principles, and analysis that we use in critical thinking, generally speaking. And a lot of what we’re doing in our online education pursuits and education generally is to describe how things are, what it is. We want to define it, we want to use the terms correctly, we want to use them to describe it so we can speak the language as if we’re in that subject matter as participants.

What is Parallel Thinking?

Today I’m going to introduce to you something called parallel thinking. This is a little bit different than the traditional way we look at things in our educational world. This comes from “Six Thinking Hats” by Edward de Bono. It’s an international bestseller and it has changed the way the world’s most successful business leaders think.

The idea is that thinking is a skill and we can develop it further and we can improve upon it. If you think about traditional critical thinking, we’re analyzing, we’re judging, we’re arguing. We are describing what is. We’re trying to understand something from various points of view.

In the idea about “Six Thinking Hats” in the book, we’re talking about how there’s another aspect of thinking, which is what can be. It is constructive thinking, creative thinking, and it’s known as “designing a way forward.”

The idea behind parallel thinking is that it is a new and unique approach to seeing something. Instead of judging the way forward, we’re going to “design the way forward” using parallel thinking. We need to be thinking about what can be and not just what is.

Now, if you think about the jobs that exist in the world today, many of the jobs people hold never existed 10, 15, or even 20 years ago. And I can give you an example of my own job. I’m an online educator. I’m a professor at an entirely online university. I’m also a faculty director and I manage a large team of online faculty in my department.

When I was going through my bachelor’s degree to become a band teacher, face-to-face, I would have never imagined in the mid ’90s, early 1990s, that this kind of a career was even possible. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know I would want to do it, nor did I know I would do it.

Over time, online education emerged. The internet became a staple of modern society, and now we have online careers. Of course, due to the pandemic, even more work has moved online than we ever thought would be possible.

As we think about the changing world that we live in, and we know that careers that exist today as we now know them never existed in the past, the world of tomorrow could yet be different, still. We need to think about our students and what they will need to move into the future that lies before them, and to have the thinking skills and capacities to meet the demands of tomorrow.

In the introduction to his book, “Six Thinking Hats,” Edward de Bono gives a really great example to explain what parallel thinking is. And I’m going to just share that example with you today to share the concept generally.

So in the introduction, he tells us to think about a large, beautiful country house. We’re just going to pretend for a minute that I’m standing in front of that house and you’re standing behind the house. Two of our friends are standing on each side of the house. We’re not seeing the same side of the house, but all four of us have a view of the house.

We’re all arguing over our cell phones. So we’re kind of on a group call and each of us is standing on one side of the house and we’re arguing that the view we are seeing is the view of the house. I’m describing this front door, big garage doors, and all of the plant features. You’re describing the back door, the things that are in the backyard, all of those features. And likely we’re going to disagree because we’re not looking at the same side of the house.

As de Bono says, using parallel thinking, we would walk all around and look at the front. Then we would all walk around to one side and look at that. Then we would all look at the back of the house and look at that together. And finally, we would all look at the remaining side together.

And in doing this, each of us is going to be looking in parallel from the same point of view. We’re all going to be looking at the front of the house at the exact same time. Instead of being an argument, this is really the opposite view point. We’re not going to be having adversarial thinking. We’re not discussing whose viewpoint is right, and we’re not taking the opposite view. We’re looking at all sides of the house and we’re exploring the subject of the house fully, each of us.

So parallel thinking is the idea that we’re all looking in the same direction at that object at the same time. It could go a little bit further if we were just using traditional critical thinking. If you and I were to disagree, there’s an argument in which each of us is going to try to prove each other wrong. We’re going to assert our points and gather evidence and support our point of view.

If we were to be using parallel thinking, we’re going to use both of our views and, even if they’re a little contradictory, we’re going to set them down in parallel, then we’re going to choose at that point whose viewpoint we’re going to adopt. We’re going to really consider all the possibilities when we’re looking at things from the same vantage point. And the emphasis is to have a cooperative viewpoint, to have a way forward.

Understanding Parallel Thinking by Wearing Different “Thinking Hats”

Basically, parallel thinking as presented in “Six Thinking Hats” introduces six different perceptions or directions of thinking. We would put on the same hat at the same time and we’re all going to try to take that perspective. There are some labels we’re going to use here to talk about parallel thinking. And so the metaphor is colored hats.

For example, we’re going to put on a white thinking hat, and while we’re wearing the white thinking hat, we’re going to all be deliberately focusing on the information. We’re going to find all the information that’s available, determine what information is still needed, what questions we need to ask, and how else we could get the information. So the white thinking hat is about information. We’re not trying to argue it, we’re not trying to interpret it or get emotional about it. We’re just looking at all the information we have and all the information we need. And we’re doing this together. So this is a group effort, and we’re all coming at it from that same white hat perspective.

It’s not really me choosing the white hat because I like information and you choosing a different hat because you like that perspective. It’s all of us practicing one single point of view at the same time. We’re all going to put the white hat on and we’re going to look at information.

We’re going to go to the red hat and we’re going to look for feelings, intuition, and emotions on a particular issue. We can all put the red hat on and adopt this perspective at the same time and we can all explore what the intuition and emotions of that issue might be.

Then we could switch to black hat thinking. This is also going to be about cautiousness. It’s going to point out possible difficulties, loopholes, and problems, with this thinking.

We’re going to then go to the yellow hat, and the yellow hat is about benefits, values, and things like that. And we’re going to take each of these perspectives in turn so we can practice coming at a problem from each of these points of view.

How to Use the Principle of Thinking Hats in Your Teaching

The main idea is we want to be able to see things in different directions. We want to practice that with our students, and we want to use it in our online educator role. There are a lot of different ways we can use these six thinking hats.

One, we could have a forum discussion. So in the discussion space, we could teach the thinking hats ideas, introduce each of the “Six Thinking Hats” and the orientation. And we could have our students try on one or two of these hats in this particular discussion.

Or maybe when we are having them prepare for an assignment, we could do an advanced organizer, which would be sort of like a preparatory activity. We could teach the “Six Thinking Hats” and have them use one particular thinking hat to gather all the information they know about the issue.

Then when we’re having them talk about the implications or the impact of the issue in reality, we could then have them put the red hat on and write about the emotional impact of other people. We could also talk about whether we’re going to put on, say the black, the yellow hat, or one of the other colors.

The six hats are basically ways to get out of our stuck thinking about something and try on a new viewpoint. There are a lot of other ways to do this as well. And it’s possible you’ve already got your own strategies as an educator that you might employ.

I’m throwing this out there to you today because the “Six Thinking Hats” method is also used in business, and it’s a great way to objectively move between viewpoints or perceptions. We don’t want to use these hats to describe people. We don’t want say like that’s a white hat thinker or a black hat thinker or a red hat thinker, or maybe a green hat person.

If we start labeling people that way, we put them in a box where they are only going to be capable of one thing. It’s not about labeling people or labeling schools of thought. It’s really about the mode of behavior. That we’re looking at something in a certain way. It is true that you might know some people that sound like descriptions of these hats and it’s okay to notice that, but we definitely don’t want to use them for that purpose. It’s not why they’re there.

You might even prefer one of these thinking directions or modes to another one. Either way, understand that this is not about categorizing people. We want to teach every person to be skilled at looking at a problem or a situation in each of these six directions. The more we teach people about parallel thinking and looking at a problem or issue in six different directions, the more we equip them with skills to truly evaluate things, to look at things from so many angles that they have a thorough understanding. And problems can really be solved when we’re doing this.

You could also do this for different stages of an assignment. As I mentioned, the advanced organizer might start out with white hat thinking. And through the steps of creating the assignment, a student might want to put on each of these hats for different parts of their work. In any kind of presentation, you’re certainly going to want to present the cautious side of things, why one should be looking for potential holes in thinking, and we can also come up with a lot more considerations when we’re trying on each of the different hats.

If we’re working in groups or having our students work in groups and they do this together, they’re going to be able to see things the same way very quickly in each of the thinking hat categories and work together as a group a lot more effectively.

And if you’re in asynchronous online education, that’s particularly important. Students are logging in at all different times of the week, and it’s easy for them to get off base from each other, or see things in different ways, and have a conflict.

Benefits of Trying Different Directions of Thinking

One of the great benefits of exploring the Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono in our online teaching is that this is no longer about being right. Instead of being right, what we’re doing is sort of playing a game. We’re asking our students to try on different directions of thinking. And whether they are shy or assertive or participate a lot or a little, as long as they are able to try on the thinking hat that we’re working with at the time, they’re cooperating. They’re playing the game. And this is a great way to bring all kinds of students together that might otherwise have different types of behaviors or different habits.

As you think about trying on “Six Thinking Hats,” these are the six descriptions and I hope there’ll be useful to you. The white hat is neutral and objective, concerned with facts and figures. The red hat is the emotional view. The black hat is careful and cautious, the “devil’s advocate” hat. The yellow hat is sunny and positive. The green hat is associated with fertile growth, creativity, and new ideas. And lastly, the blue hat is the coolness, the color of the sky, above everything else, the organizing hat.

If you think about how you might use these different hats with students all at the same time to unify groups into trying on different types of thinking, it’s possible something might occur to you that you could try in a forum discussion, in a group activity, or even in an assignment.

I hope that you’ll step into the shoes, or rather step under the hat, of each of these colored thinking hats and try them on as an educator, as well as in the online classroom. For more information about Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono, the international bestseller I’ve been mentioning throughout this podcast, please see the link in the podcast transcript. I wish you all the best this week trying on Six Thinking Hats in your online teaching.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.