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The role of the teacher

The role of the teacher

This introduction was co-authored by Dr John Edwards and Sandra Russell.

As Head of the Science Department in a large High School in 1978, John replaced part of the curriculum with de Bono’s tools. The impact on the thinking of himself and his students was dramatic and positive. He began researching student thinking and went on to become one of the leading research grant recipients in cognitive science in Australia. John has been one of the few international researchers on thinking to have turned his research into award-winning results in education, in the corporate world and in high performance sport.

Sandra heard Dr de Bono on radio in New Zealand in 1982, purchased his books and began using them in her own life and with her own children. This convinced her to use the tools in her early primary school classroom in New Zealand. She has blended the tools with her own practical research and applied this across the education and business sectors. Sandra continues to focus on thinking in her consulting, as an author and as a company director.

John and Sandra are currently working together on their new book Rediscovering the Joy of Teaching.

Why teach thinking?

The de Bono Thinking Tools prepare children for our contemporary world. Every child deserves to leave school with a rich, conscious repertoire of thinking tools. Currently they do not.

This programme:

  • introduces practical thinking tools that will enrich the way you think and the way your students think

  • provides lesson plans, and practice items, that enable you to get started on the direct teaching of thinking

  • links you to a rich creative tradition of teaching thinking directly rather than teaching thinking as a by-product of teaching academic disciplines

  • helps students find their unique voice

So, how is this going to be of value to you?

How is this different to what you already do in your classroom?

Let’s explore these questions together.

Most of us are somewhat unclear about what type of thinking we are going to use in any particular situation. We commonly fall back on thinking we have used successfully before.

Achievement in this programme is measured by where students apply their thinking tools and their confidence to continue so doing throughout their life. The tools are simple, powerful and elegant. They have been refined over many years and are in successful use across education, business and sport.

Your students will learn that there are thinking tools they can use in any situation in their life. They can use them in the classroom to penetrate and open up their thinking in traditional classroom curriculum content. And they can apply them in their daily life.

These lessons can be very different to what teachers and students are used to. They are not subject/curriculum driven. So these thinking tools do not become out-dated by changes in curriculum, in life or the world of work. And the students do not move into adulthood seeing thinking as “something I’m not good at”. This toolkit gives students the flexibility they will need in an ever-changing world. They are as helpful to a parent, a factory worker, an elite sports person as they are to a medical researcher, a teacher or a university professor.

Many of the tools are familiar and children may recognise them in what they already do or what they hear others doing. This programme formalises common skills such as looking at pros and cons, staying open minded, challenging our thinking, and generating fresh insights. It makes these skills teachable, learnable and applicable to everyday life, school life and work life. It makes them more tangible.

For example, when a teenage child is moaning and groaning about their world, they can be asked to do a PMI (Plus-Minus-Interesting). This asks: is there anything good about this terrible situation, and what really are the problems? And on top of this, what interesting fresh ideas may there be which will help me see this differently? Once learned, in three minutes a PMI can turn a situation around. With confidence in using this tool, children will independently apply their tool, because it works for them.

The programme also introduces tools that will be completely new and novel for most of us. Our experience is that children enjoy being more independently productive, effective and creative.

Children need a strong inner core of who they are. Caring about what others think is important, and it can also lead to discounting your own ideas. Many children learn over time to downplay their own voice, to be fearful, conservative and “convenient”. This toolkit aims to help children find and celebrate their unique voice, and at the same time to know how to collaborate strongly with others to learn together.


The only point in developing a thinking toolkit, is to use it widely in one’s life. The lessons in this programme provide starting points. Students learn and practice thinking tools, and develop confidence in their use. This learning sits inside a learning environment where students and teachers together learn to apply these tools in situations they see around them; at school, at home, in their wider world.

Regular dialogue around this applicability and functionality is crucial to developing confident, skilled thinkers. We need to share regularly how we are applying our thinking tools. “We tried this tool and realised it was the wrong tool, so which other tool may work for us in this situation?” This personal practical knowledge can only be learned by each of us having a long-term focus and experimenting. Learning this together helps. Thinking tools can become like secret weapons that the children take everywhere with them.

As the teacher, it is important to be developing your own skill and confidence in using these tools in your own life. When the headmaster of a school confided to the children that him and his family had used these thinking tools to decide where to go during the holidays, and were delighted with the outcome, the students found this inspiring.

In preparing to teach thinking directly it is important to be clear about why you are doing this. What impact have thinking tools had on your life and work? How confident are you in your own passion and commitment to continually improving your own thinking repertoire? How would you answer the questions: “Why should we be learning these tools? How do they work in your life? What examples can you share with us?”

These tools are for lifelong use and are a gift that keeps giving.

They impact the way I cook, the way I sew, the way I solve business problems, the way I coach elite sports teams, the way I make music, the ways I live my life.

You can challenge students to take tools home and try using them with their family and friends, and bring back the results and learning.

Collecting the ways we use these tools in our life is a valuable class exercise over a year.

The age and experience of who you are teaching

These tools have a long successful track record of value and impact across all age groups. As the teacher you bring context to the lessons. This is obviously very different for younger children, older children and adults.

The experience they bring, the language skills they bring, and their ability to work with the processes, are your key design starting point.

Younger children are usually more initially willing to be playful, flexible, open to exploration. It is important to choose topics that they understand and are of interest to them. For example: Why do pencils keep disappearing in our classroom? This is a great topic for using the Define The Problem tool. Rather than thinking “I’ve got a problem, what can I do?” students know that they have tools to apply in such situations.

Older children and adults are usually initially more interested in how can I apply this right now in my learning or in my life. How can I get value immediately, solve a real problem, something “serious”? The tools can seem deceptively simple. Establishing deeper understanding of the tools in these cohorts, before rushing into applications to “serious matters”, is wise counsel.

In a thinking skills classroom the content of the lessons is a vehicle for practising using thinking tools. The content should be of interest to the learners. At the same time it should not dominate the focus of the learning.

Most of us have learned “thinking tools” from studying academic disciplines over many years of our schooling. However these tools are so deeply buried in the content, that if asked to articulate them we struggle or cannot find them at all.

There are no right or wrong answers

One of the keys in using thinking tools is to move away from dichotomies such as right-wrong, good-bad, thoughtful-thoughtless, yes-no, relevant-irrelevant.

This can be initially challenging for learners used to this framework. Ideas that may seem “irrelevant” or “wrong” initially may shift in value with deeper exploration.

Shifting to non-dichotomous language changes the way the students think.

So, “how is this working for you? or not working for you?”

“Do we need a different way of thinking about this?”

“How can we explore this together?”

“What thinking tool can we use together here?”

”Are there other ways we can look at this?”

Such language brings a different mindset.

The language of the tools also provides a structure for this openness.

If you do not begin with a right or suitable answer in mind, that will normally free you from the tendency to keep pushing for that answer or those answers. Such pushing can become like a heavy weight in the lesson. Learning thinking tools is best when it is light, open, fresh, creative, enjoyable.

“It ain’t necessarily so” is a useful bird to have on one’s shoulder.

The tools are designed to promote:

  • Fluency of thinking – the number of ideas that can be comfortably generated;

  • Flexibility of thinking – the number of categories of ideas that are generated; and

  • Originality of thinking – the number of ideas that are fresh and new to the learner.

Alignment and fluency

The role of the teacher is to create an aligned space focussed on developing thinking as a skill.

Each lesson focuses on one specific thinking tool and provides situations to practice that tool. You choose which practice items are suited to your class. You can also generate your own, particularly as you become more familiar with each tool. Choose the type of output you will ask for and how much time you will give to each item.

The aim is to have everyone thinking in the same direction at the same time. This creates synergy where ideas bounce off each other and stimulate other ideas. This avoids “jarring” and loss of fluency and flow.

Gently redirecting those who veer off course helps in maintaining fluency and alignment. “We are looking at the positives at the moment. Let’s keep our focus there.”

Then shifting direction together generates flexibility: “Let’s now look at the minus sides together.”

Throughout the lessons originality is celebrated and encouraged.

Variation and enrichment

You can vary the situational context as long as the focus remains on the thinking tool. For instance, you may decide to try one of the practice items with a role-playing or debate format or as a scoring game. Enjoy yourself and adapt to your own context and experience.

Enrichment refers to how the class will process the output from the groups. You are freed from right and wrong answers. Most students will notice differences in the quality and originality of ideas generated. The key is to avoid judgment during the idea generation phase. There is a range of processes for trimming long lists of ideas back to the priorities or key ideas. These ideas are seldom the first ideas generated. Patience, openness and lack of premature judgement are important attitudes to bring to thinking skills lessons.


These lessons work best at a crisp pace. Remember our focus is on process, not on content. Bogging down in the content shifts the focus there. Some classes work well autonomously. For others you may need to be more like the conductor of an orchestra. The lighter your touch the better.

Engagement, enjoyment, humour, listening, respect, crispness, idea generation, and process focus, are all descriptors of a thinking skills classroom. Encouraging students to leverage from each other’s ideas; generate synergy; look for links; promote stretch; celebrate originality; feel the strength from collaboration; are all components you will observe in these lessons.

The degree to which you may have to exercise control will vary with the class. With a well-motivated and experienced class, you will probably be a caretaker watching the thinking as it flows. With students who expect knowledge-orientated lessons you may need to help them adapt to volunteering their own ideas.

If groups are initially overly wordy in their output, you can ask for a summary of their three main points. If students feel they are not getting enough time, then written output can be requested instead of group dialogue.

If no ideas are forthcoming, give groups time to learn to generate ideas without fear of being judged. The teacher's notes for each lesson contain suggestions for alternatives and enrichment. Over time, you will add to these yourself. Keep a record of powerful or unusual ideas generated, and of processes that work well in your context.

Process focus and emphasis

Please keep the thinking tool as the central focus of the lesson.

Remember that these tools can be applied very broadly across one’s life; to many situations and very different content. Understanding this is at the core of why we develop a thinking toolkit for life.

If your lesson becomes a general discussion of the practice situations then the power of the thinking tool becomes subsumed. Use the tool title or the acronym label regularly, so it becomes common, comfortable language. Over time, you should be able to ask someone to "do a PMI" on an idea or a "CAF". Although these may sound artificial at first, this soon passes.

It is important for the students to clearly see the difference between the different thinking tools. Understanding when, where and how to apply each tool will grow over time. It is important to also explore with them how the tools can be sequenced and blend with each other.

As all the lessons have practice situations, if the focus on the tool slips, the lessons will seem alike. Similarities, differences and ways to blend tools should be part of the initial introduction, the discussion phase and the final wrap-up.


Encouraging fluency at the start is crucial. Once students feel a flow to the learning, they will more comfortably ease into offering their thoughts. Openness to ideas, and creating synergy as ideas bounce off other ideas, is conducive to building confidence and creativity.

Blending individual responses with asking groups to work together then respond gives flexibility to the lesson. There is no one “right answer” in these thinking lessons; there are many possible productive responses.

Humour often arises as students relax into generating responses that are new to them and their fellow students. This is to be encouraged. Some students, unaccustomed to this intellectual freedom, can slip into offering trivial or silly responses. Moving forward crisply will usually see this fade away, as the joy of quality ideas is recognised and shared by all.

When the practice items are completed, and you are looking more broadly at the tool together, students should feel free to articulate what is “quality thinking” for them.

Introducing stretch and challenge

Once you have fluency well established as the norm in your thinking lessons, feel free to explore introducing stretch and challenge. However, if this starts to kill the flow or fluency pull back. Student confidence is crucial and can be fickle.

Your judgement of appropriate times for stretch is crucial. Initially this is usually best introduced when students are working in groups. Having groups internally stretch each other before sharing publicly is a worthwhile stepping-stone.

Some possible language for introducing stretch and challenge is listed below:

  • “Generate as many ideas as you can in your group and select your top three. We would also be interested to hear why you chose them as your top three, and how you reached agreement.”

  • “Imagine for a moment that your top ideas are all way off-track. Take a couple of minutes to come up with ideas from a completely different angle.”

  • “How might your idea be different from the one we just heard?”

  • “Take a moment to compare your idea with the other ones. What do you see?”

  • “Which of the ideas do you think is more important, and why?”

  • “I don’t understand – can you please explain?”

  • “What would happen next with your idea?”

  • “Please take a few minutes to summarise those variations into a single idea.”

  • “How important is that for you, and why do you think it may be important for each of us?”

  • “What might other people think about your idea?”

  • “Is there anything you would like to add to that idea?”

  • “What are your thoughts on the idea we have just heard?”

  • “Can you think of a situation where this thinking tool would be useful to you?”

  • “What are the benefits of being a better thinker?”

  • “What sort of mistake might someone make in their thinking if they didn't use this thinking tool?”


This can be challenging, especially for students used to dealing with situations for which there are definite right answers. They may miss the sense of achievement and personal credit. Students who have spent much of their school career becoming a top student in the existing system and approaches, can feel threatened. At times they can try to sabotage the new climate in the classroom and ask, “When will we be getting back to our real work?” You need to be clear about your responses to such questions and the importance of a comprehensive conscious thinking repertoire in further learning and in life, both personal and professional.

There are powerful examples of quality thinkers and creative thinkers across all areas of the curriculum. And there are great quotes to be found from these thinkers. Encouraging your students to find and share these examples adds richness to a thinking curriculum.

At the start some of your students may feel unsure of the rules for the thinking lessons and what they are aiming for. Be clear about this in your mind. You have the lesson process and progress laid out for you. What will create a valid sense of achievement with your students? What thinking achievement language will you use?


The main points are that the teacher should:

  • Make the lessons interesting.

  • Maintain a brisk pace.

  • Keep the focus on the thinking tool, not the practice exercises.

  • Help students to build self-confidence as a thinker, and a definite sense of achievement for putting effort into their thinking skill.

These de Bono Thinking Lessons are free to use by parents, guardians and teachers. (This means on this website, or to print and use in home or in the classroom. Not for further distribution or commercial use). 

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