Thinking strategies are techniques that we can use to help us understand something at a deeper level.
Sometimes we need a resource or procedure that can help us to reach a clearer understanding of the topic we’re struggling with. Strategies that follow a clear procedure can help us sort and organize our thinking.
Thinking Strategies for any Situation
Below are thirteen thinking strategies that are incredibly useful for people struggling with their thinking.
1. De Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats
De Bono developed this thinking strategy to help people to see a topic from multiple different perspectives. By approaching topics from multiple perspectives, we can see how different people would view the. We would also learn how topics are far more complex than we might first have thought.
The six thinking hats are best used in groups but can be used individually as well.
De Bono created 6 ‘hats’. Each time you put one of the hats on (either literally or metaphorically), you need to consider the issue from another unique perspective.
Here are the six hats:
- Red Hat: When you wear the red hat, you need to think about what your intuition is telling you. What is your gut feeling and emotional reaction to the topic? Does it reveal something deeper about the topic that needs more examination?
- White Hat: Look at the data and hard facts. What do they tell you about the issue? Write down the exact facts so you can look over them. What hard facts are you missing that you might need in order to have a better understanding about the topic?
- Yellow Hat: The yellow hat is all about positivity. When you’re wearing this hat, you need to think about all the benefits of the situation or any positive outcomes that could occur. How do you go about reaching the outcome you’re striving for?
- Black Hat: The black hat is the opposite of the yellow hat. When you put the black hat on, you need to think about all the possible negative consequences of actions you take. Similarly, you might look at all the negative aspects of a situation and highlight them in order that you can address them or avoid them.
- Green Hat: When you wear the green hat, you are required to think creatively. Use your lateral thinking skills to envisage out-of-the-box alternatives. When the green hat is on, there’s no bad answers!
- Blue Hat: The blue hat is all about process thinking. When you wear this hat, you need to think about the processes that will be required to get from where you are to where you need to be. What processes, procedures, deadlines or milestones do you need to put in place to ensure progress occurs?
If you’re struggling to think through a task, put each hat in on turn and see if you can crack through your struggles with the ideas that flow from thinking from each of these six unique perspectives.
The sociocultural theory of learning states that we learn better through conversation with others. When we talk to others, we can talk through our thoughts to create breakthroughs.
Talking things out with others has several benefits for your own thinking:
- Seeing others’ perspectives: When you talk to other people, you can see things from their perspective. Someone else might talk about things in a language that you haven’t heard before. Their explanations might be different to any you’ve heard before and in clearer language than the explanations your teachers gave. Those new ways of explaining things might help concepts ‘click’ in your mind. Similarly, your peers might have simple metaphors that sum something up really clearly for you that will help you reach a breakthrough!
- Talking out loud: The very process of needing to say something out loud requires you to think about how you’d structure ideas into a logical sequence. You need to explicitly step through the ideas in your mind one at a time. Simply talking out loud can be very good for helping you to clear things up in your head.
3. Mind Mapping
A mind map is a cognitive tool and thinking strategy that helps you to think deeper about a topic by giving you the chance to sort things out on paper. Your mind map will help you explore one topic in depth.
The topic that you are exploring is written in the middle of the page. Then, spokes poke out from the central concept. At the end of each spoke is a new idea that’s related to the original idea. From that sub-idea, you can create even more spokes sticking out adding even more detail to that node.
To create a mind map, consider using free mind mapping software like MindMup.
Brainstorming is a great way to start a thinking exercise. A brainstorming session is a fixed period of time – perhaps 10 minutes – where you get to write down any thoughts about a topic that come to your mind. The thoughts don’t need to be perfect. In fact, they probably won’t be – yet.
I like to get a big piece of paper like a flip chart or butcher’s paper sheet and put it up against a wall. Then, I’ll write down ideas all over the paper for 10 minutes.
Once the 10 minutes are up, you’ll be able to step back and look at all the ideas you wrote down. Which ones stand out as the best ideas? Which ideas link to other ideas? Use this group of ideas on paper as your springboard into your next task.
5. Pros and Cons Lists
Pros and cons lists help you organize your thoughts into a group of positives and negatives. Split a piece of paper into two halves vertically. At the top of one half write ‘Pros’ and on the top of the other write ‘Cons’. Then, write down as many positives you can think of, and as many negatives.
You can also adapt a pros and cons list to talk about ‘advantages’ and ‘disadvantages’, ‘benefits and ‘limitations’, or ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ of the topic you’re exploring.
6. Venn Diagrams
A Venn Diagram is one of the thinking strategies that help you to identify the similarities and differences between two or more concepts.
For a simple Venn Diagram, draw two circles that overlap in the middle. The point of overlap represents the similarities. The points where the circles do not overlap represents the unique aspects of each topic. This is shown in the image below:
Then, write one topic or idea at the heading of each circle. Write anything you can think of as similarities between the two ideas in the overlap area. Write any unique aspects of each idea in the areas that don’t overlap.
To extend Venn diagrams, you can have multiple circles all overlapping in the middle to show the complex relationships between three or more things.
7. Developing Metaphors
A metaphor is a form of analogy where you compare two things based on their similarities. Here is an example of a metaphor:
“The cards player is a shark. He can smell blood.” Of course, you know the cards player isn’t a literal shark, but it’s a good analogy for showing how the cards player is ruthless at attacking his opponents when he sees weakness.
Metaphors are amazing ways we can explain concept ideas in terms we understand. Sometimes we have terrible trouble understanding something until someone says … “Think of it like this …” and then they state a metaphor.
Suddenly, it all clicks into place.
Try to develop a metaphor for something next time you are stuck at understanding it.
Anticipating involves trying to hypothesize about what will happen in the future given your current amount of knowledge. We might also call it ‘estimating’.
Anticipation is a cognitive skill that requires you to focus on:
- Patterns: What patterns can you identify in the situation under examination? If you extrapolated those patterns into the future, what would you get?
- Evaluation: What is the most logical conclusion that would happen based on the facts you have at hand?
According to the cognitive theory of Jean Piaget, complex anticipation skills develop during our adolescence in what’s called the ‘formal stage’ of cognitive development.
9. The Five Whys Technique
The five whys technique helps you to dig deep down to the core reason for something. This strategy involves asking a simple question: “Why is this the case?”
You will come up with an answer to this first “Why?” question, but then you should ask again: “But why is this the answer?”
And again, to the third answer
This is an annoying strategy that you might have heard children use to bother their parents. Constant squeaks of “Why, why, why, why, why!!!”
But, it’s also a good strategy to use in order to truly get to the bottom of a question.
Here’s an example about why I speak English:
- Why do I speak English? Because my parents spoke English.
- Why did my parents speak English? Because they grew up in an English speaking country.
- Why does my country speak English? Because it was invaded by Britain.
- Why was my country invaded by Britain? Because they wanted to control the world.
- Why did the British want to control the world? For power and money.
Wow … that got deep fast!
But, it shows how asking ‘Why’ five times really does help us get to the bottom of an issue. Instead of saying “I speak English because my parents spoke English”, now I’m saying “I speak English because the British invaded my country in order to control the world and make lots of money 250 years ago!”
10. Cause and Effect Diagram
A cause and effect diagram helps us to understand something better. It is a thinking strategy that will get us to think about both what came before and event, and also what would come after. It helps us to identify the events that are proximal to the event under analysis and whether they have an impact on each other.
To create a cause and effect diagram, write the topic under analysis in the middle of a piece of paper. Then, to the left of the topic, write down all the possible causes. These will feed into the event. To the right of the topic, write down all the possible effects that feed through from the event.
This method can be used in multiple circumstances, such as when analyzing the storyline of a novel or movie, or in examining scientific experiments.
11. Flow Chart
A flow chart is another strategy that you can use to help with your thinking. A flow chart will allow you to pin down the exact sequence of events that led to an outcome. This can help you map out in your own head a clear and unambiguous timeline. This might be useful when trying to trace a series of events, find something you lost, or think about the process involved in your workflow.
Thinking things through isn’t always easy. Sometimes we get stuck on something and need to come up with some strategies to help us create a clearer picture in our minds. Similarly, sometimes we need to ‘show our thinking’ in order for our boss or teacher to assess how well or how effectively we completed the task.
The above thinking strategies can help you on your way to thinking through any topic you need to get a stronger grasp on.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]