Developing Metacognitive Literacy through Role Play: Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats

Ed Nuhfer, Retired Professor of Geology and Director of Faculty Development and Director of Educational Assessment,, 208-241-5029

In recent posts on the “Improve with Metacognition” blog, we gained some rich contributions that are relevant to teaching metacognition across all disciplines. (Scharff, 2015) offered a worthy definition of metacognition as “the intentional and ongoing interaction between awareness and self-regulation.” Lauren Scharff’s definition references intentionality, which John Flavell, the founding architect of metacognitive theory, perceived as essential to doing metacognition. Actions that arise from intentional thinking are deliberate, informed and goal-directed (see

Dr Edward de Bono created Six Thinking Hats as a framework of training for thinking. De Bono’s hats assign six distinct modes of thinking. Each role is so simple and clear that the thinker can easily monitor if she or he is engaged in the mode of thinking assigned by the role. Further, communicating the thinking through expressions and arguments to others familiar with the roles allows a listener to correctly assess the mode of thinking of the speaker or writer. Successful training eventually vests participants with the ability to shift comfortably between all six modes as a way to understand an open-ended problem from a well-rounded perspective before committing to a decision. Both training and application constitute role-play, in which each participant must, for a time, assume and adhere to the role of thinking represented by each particular hat. During training, the participant experiences playing all six roles.

Six Thinking Hats: Summary of the Roles

The White Hat role offers the facts. It is neutral, objective and practical. It provides an inventory of the best information known without advocating for solutions or positions.

The Yellow Hat employs a sunny, positive affect to advocate for a particular position/action but always justifies the proposed action with supporting evidence. In short, this hat advocates for taking informed action.

The Black Hat employs a cautious and at times negative role in order to challenge proposed positions and actions, but this role also requires the challenging argument to be supported by evidence. This hat seeks to generate evidence-based explanations for why certain proposals may not work or may prove counter-productive.

The Red Hat’s role promotes expression of felt emotion—positive, negative, or apathy—without any need to justify the expressed position with evidence. Red Hat thinking runs counter to the critical thinking promoted in higher education. However, to refuse to allow voice to Red Hat thinking translates into losing awareness that such thinking exists and may ultimately undermine an evidence-based decision. De Bono recognized a sobering reality: citizens often make choices and take actions based upon affective feelings rather than upon good use of evidence.

The Green Hat role is provocative in that it questions assumptions and strives to promote creative thinking that leads to unprecedented ideas or possibly redefines the challenge in a new way. Because participants recognize that each presenter is playing a role, the structure encourages creativity in the roles of all hats. It enables a presenter to stretch and present an idea or perspective that he or she might feel too inhibited to offer if trepidation exists about being judged personally for so-doing.

The Blue Hat is the control hat. It is reflective and introspective as it looks to ensure that the energy and contributions of all of the other hats are indeed enlisted in addressing a challenge. It synthesizes the awareness that grows from discussions and, in a group, is the hat that is charged with summarizing progress for other participants. When used by an individual working alone, assuming the role of the Blue Hat offers a check on whether the individual has actually employed the modes of all the hats in order to understand a challenge well.

Six Thinking Hats exercises are overtly metacognitive—intentional, deliberate, and goal-directed. One must remain focused on the role and the objective of contributing to meeting the challenge by advocating from thinking in that role. Those who have experienced training know how difficult it can be to thoughtfully argue for a position that one dislikes and how easily one can slip out of playing the assigned role into either one’s usual style of thinking and communicating or toward starting to advocate for one’s favored position.

Classroom use can take varied forms, and the most useful props are a one-page handout that concisely explains each role and six hats in the appropriate colors. Two of several formats that I have used follow.

(1) The class can observe a panel of six engage a particular challenge, with each member on the panel wearing the assigned hat role and contributing to discussing the challenge in that role. After the six participants have each contributed, they pass the hat one person clockwise and repeat the process until every person has assumed all six roles. Instructors, from time to time, pause the discussion and invite the observers to assume each of the roles in sequence.

(2) One can arrange the class into a large circle and toss a single hat in the center of the circle. Every person must mindfully assume the role of that hat and contribute. The instructor can serve the blue-hat role as a recorder at the whiteboard and keep a log of poignant contributions that emerge during the role-plays. The process continues until all in the class have experienced the six roles. In follow-up assignments, self-reflection exercises should require students to analyze a particular part of the assignment regarding the dominant kind of “colored hat” thinking that they are engaged in.

I first learned about Six Thinking Hats from a geology professor at Colorado School of Mines, who had learned it from Ruth Streveler, CSM’s faculty developer. The professor used it to good advantage to address open-ended case studies, such as deciding whether to permit a mine in a pristine mountain area or to develop a needed landfill near Boulder, Colorado. Subsequently, I have used it to good advantage in many classes and faculty development workshops.

When one develops ability to use all six hats well, one actually enters the higher stages of adult developmental thinking models. All involve the obtaining of relevant evidence, weighing of contradictory evidence, addressing affective influences, developing empathy with others oppositional viewpoints, and understanding the influences of one’s own bias and feelings on a decision (Nuhfer and Pavelich, 2001 mapped Six Thinking Hats onto several developmental models: ModelsAdultThinkingmetacog).

We can become aware of metacognition by reading about it, but we only become literate about metacognition through experiences gained through consciously applying it. Draeger, 2015 offered thoughts that expanded our thinking about Scharff’s definition by suggesting that advantages can come from embracing metacognition as vague. The flexibility gained by practicing applications on diverse cases allows us to appreciate the plastic, complex nature of metacognition as we stretch to do think well as we engage challenges.

Six Thinking Hats offers an amorphous approach to engaging nearly any kind of open-ended real-life challenge while mindfully developing metacognitive awareness and skill. After experiencing such an exercise, one can return to a definition of metacognition, like that of Lauren Scharff’s and find deeper meanings within the definition that were unlikely apparent from initial exposure to the definition.


Nuhfer E. and Pavelich M. (2001). Levels of thinking and educational outcomes. National Teaching and Learning Forum 11 (1) 9-11.

About Ed Nuhfer

Ed Nuhfer received his PhD in geology from University of New Mexico, and served as a geologist and researcher in industry and government before starting an academic career. He held tenure as a full professor at four different universities, authored publications on environmental geology, sedimentary geology, geochemistry, petrology and geoscience education, served as a mentor for hundreds of geology and reclamation students. He served as a regional/national officer for the American Society for Surface Mining and Reclamation, the American Institute of Mining Engineers and as national editor for The American Institute of Professional Geologists from which he received three presidential certificates of merit and the John Galey Sr Pubic Service Award. His book, The Citizens' Guide to Geologic Hazards, won a Choice award for "outstanding academic books" from the Association of College and Research Libraries. While on sabbatical on 1988-1989 in Colorado, he discovered faculty development and returned to found one the first faculty development centers in Wisconsin. He subsequently served as Director of Faculty Development for University of Wisconsin at Platteville, University of Colorado at Denver, and Idaho State University, as Director of Faculty Development and Assessment of Student Learning at California State University Channel Islands, founded the one-week faculty development program "Boot Camp for Profs," which he directed for nearly twenty years, received the national Innovation Award Finalist and the Faculty Development Innovation Award, from POD and served in his last full-time job as Director of Educational Effectiveness at Humboldt State University "years beyond when I thought I would want to retire" before finally retiring in 2014. He has authored over a hundred publications in faculty development, and served as an invited presenter and featured speaker of workshops for The Geological Society of America, POD, AAC&U, WASC, Lilly Conferences, and as an invited presenter of workshops and keynotes on faculty development and assessment for many universities and conferences. He continues to work from as a writer and researcher, as a columnist for National Teaching and Learning Forum for which he has written Developers' Diary for over twelve years --a column based on the unique theme of using fractals and chaos as a key to understanding teaching and learning. Ed remains on as a member of the editorial review boards for several journals and publishers and is winding up a seven-year project with colleagues as principal investigator in developing and testing the Science Literacy Concept Inventory.

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