Tools for thinking: Introduction

It is fitting that for this first ‘proper’ post on my new blog, I’m writing about tools for thinking. I’ve been thinking about tools for thinking more and more, and for some time now, although I haven’t always used the term ‘tools for thinking’.

For instance, I wrote a whole book about tools for thinking, called Creative Explorations, published by Routledge in 2007. A quick text search in the manuscript shows that the phrase ‘tools for thinking’ does appear in it, but only once, and sort of by accident.

So what do I mean by tools for thinking? Well, that’s what this blog post is about.

Because I’ve been thinking about tools for thinking, and wondering if perhaps I’ll write my next book about this subject, I searched on Amazon to see if there were actually hundreds of books already with ‘tools for thinking’ in the title.

Now, as an author, I obviously hope to be saying something distinctive. I don’t know where the phrase ‘tools for thinking’ came from. Did I invent it? That would be nice. Or did I just hear it somewhere? I have no idea. In self-serving terms, I hope that the number of books with ‘tools for thinking’ in the title is zero. But that’s not very likely, is it? In rational terms, ‘tools for thinking’ sound like a very obvious kind of thing that most people have a real need for, and so you’d expect that Amazon would offer a few hundred ‘tools for thinking’ books, at the very least.

In fact: there are very few. There’s a new book by Daniel Dennett, called Intuition Pumps, and Other Tools for Thinking (2013), of which more in a moment.

And then there’s a book on modelling in management science, called Tools for Thinking: Modelling in Management Science (by Michael Pidd, third edition 2009), but thankfully, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not really the same as what I’m talking about, because it’s about modelling in management science.

Then, on the Amazon list, after those two, that’s the end of the books with ‘tools for thinking’ in the title, and we’re on to other items such as Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono, then other de Bono books. Soon after that, we’re onto items like the ‘Gerber Suspension Multitool’, which looks like this:

Gerber Suspension Multi-tool

That’s not really what I meant. But I’m quite impressed that Amazon was able to identify Six Thinking Hats as a book about tools for thinking, because that’s what it is, even though it doesn’t say so in an obvious place like the title, or even in the blurb. Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats was first published in 1985, and was preceded by De Bono’s Thinking Course: Powerful Tools to Transform Your Thinking, first published in 1982.

That book, published more than 30 years ago, talks about ‘tools’ for thinking a lot. You can see that from the Amazon page previews. I’ve looked at that book before, probably, and there’s certainly a copy of Six Thinking Hats in the house somewhere. Edward de Bono always seemed like a bit of a hack, parcelling up his ideas into several rather-too-similar books and videos and courses, turning them into a big money machine. But maybe that’s just the sound of my brain being jealous. And did I invent the phrase ‘tools for thinking’? That’s a no.

So I’m going to have to order that De Bono’s Thinking Course, just to be comprehensive. And meanwhile, I’ve already ordered, and received, the Daniel Dennett book which is #1 in Amazon’s ‘tools for thinking’ list. Here it is, photographed for this blog post next to my own Creative Explorations:


Now, by coincidence (but it can’t exactly be a coincidence), I’ve encountered Daniel Dennett before. In fact, he’s discussed in Creative Explorations – not because of anything to do with ‘tools for thinking’, but in his role as a philosopher and cognitive scientist who made an argument for consciousness being a kind of illusion (to simplify greatly). Since then, Dennett has also become notable as a fundamentalist atheist in the Richard Dawkins mould, which I find unattractive (simply because dealing with religion by telling religious people that they are idiots doesn’t seem to be a very compassionate way of going about your ‘humanism’). But we can put all that aside for now.

So what’s Daniel Dennett up to in his ‘tools for thinking’ book?

Well the good news for me is that it’s definitely not the ‘tools for thinking’ book that I might want to write.  It’s basically about the kinds of thought experiment and thinking tricks that you can do in order to test arguments. Dennett has collected some old ones and some fresh ones, but a classic example to give here, so you can see the kind of thing we’re talking about, is the Reductio Ad Absurdum: taking an argument to the extreme to see if it still makes sense. Another well-known ‘tool for thinking’ of this kind is Occam’s Razor, which is the idea that you shouldn’t use a complex explanation if you’ve got a simpler one which works just as well.

So the ‘tools’ here are words and ideas and ways of thinking, and it would be a useful book for students of philosophy, or critical thinking, or indeed anyone who wants to get better at exploring and testing arguments. Both religious and scientific ideas could be tested with these tools.

But when I’m talking about tools for thinking – and you’ll have to forgive me for being so literal-minded – I’m talking about actual tools. Things you can hold in your hand. Tangible things you can shift and manipulate, which help you to think about things. (And also, their digital equivalents, and physical/digital hybrids, but that’s for a future blogpost).

My own best example of that is the things I’ve done with LEGO. In 2005 I became involved with LEGO Serious Play, a consultancy process developed by the LEGO Group – an activity for groups of adults, guided by a facilitator, in which participants would build metaphorical models using LEGO bricks. The models would typically represent their experiences of activities, structures and communications within their organisations, and then – having externalised this, by having built it in LEGO – they would go on to develop ideas for initiatives or strategies, in response to what they had built.

I worked with the LEGO Group on researching some aspects of this process, and I developed it as a social-science research tool. Specifically, I worked out how to use it as an alternative to the traditional social-science qualitative methods of interviews or focus groups. That’s what Creative Explorations is about. Later I worked with the LEGO Group on the open source release of LEGO Serious Play, and co-wrote the documentation.

It’s all about getting people to physically build stuff, representing their ideas, experiences and feelings, so that then you can look at it, reflect on it, respond to it, move things around, change it, and make new plans. That’s what I call a real tool for thinking.

Now, my use of LEGO Serious Play as a social-science research tool was intended to be a good thing for participants – giving them a stimulating, creative experience which is more interesting to do than traditional research methods. Ultimately, though, I now reflect that basically it was done for the purposes of the researcher rather than anything else – it was meant to be a good research tool, which is fair enough, but that’s not actually about helping people to solve their own problems, which is what I’m interested in now. I’ll say more about that in a future post.

It’s surprising, I think, that you don’t find more physical, hands-on tools for thinking. I was recently delighted to be contacted by Fanny Bissa, a final year Design student at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She was working on a whole set of hands-on tools for working through different kinds of problems and relationships (see her excellent Tumblr blog and online booklet). We met up a couple of times to talk about it. One of the tools can be seen in the image at the top of this blogpost. I’ll write more about that, as well, in a future post. For now, here’s a short video she made about her tools (3 minutes):

Image at the top by Fanny Bissa, reproduced by kind permission.

9 Responses to “Tools for thinking: Introduction”

  1. David Hendy

    A fascinating post, written with your usual generosity and insight – thank you! The ‘tools for thinking’ approach is very fruitful. I’ve been starting to write recently about various old media, I.e. radio, cinema, television – as being ‘machines for thinking’. I suppose I use the machine word as a way of raising the notion if one thing that is neither fully autonomous nor fully under human control, and so therefore getting into a fascinating debate about agency. Anyway, I look forward to more posts – and congratulations on your new site. D.

    • David Gauntlett

      Hi David H!,

      Many thanks for the nice comment. I like the ‘machines for thinking’ idea … would love to hear more about that. (I wonder why it’s ‘old media’?).

      Best wishes, David G

  2. Helene Galdin-O'Shea

    Hi David,

    Delighted to see you have a new site although I’ll keep visiting too!

    I just wanted to say that you should read a little more about De Bono’s Thinking Hats and how his ideas have been ‘debunked’. A good starting point is the new book by Tom Bennett, Teacher Proof. I think you’ll find it interesting!

    Thank you again for talking to our Park High students last term. Good luck with the new site.

    • David Gauntlett

      Hi Helene,

      Yes, I suspected de Bono of being a bit phoney, as I hinted above. On the other hand it seemed unfair to be rude about something I’ve not looked at very closely … and his basic approach, that you can have tools for thinking, mental techniques to help you get your head round things, seemed perfectly good, even if it’s based on rather pseudo-scientific claims when you look at the detail. (In which case, he’d simply be better off with the pseudo-scientific claims!).

      Many thanks for the comment. Best wishes, D

  3. Carianne Buurmeijer

    Thanks for that! Speaking of the senses, does inspiring music/muse/powernap count as tool for thinking? Or perhaps, are they just placebos?

    • David Gauntlett

      Hi Carianne,

      Well, I’m talking about actual tools that you can use to work on particular ideas … I mean the tools actually relate to the ideas. Whereas things like music or a powernap might be helpful for thought in a general way but they are not (probably?!) about working on the actual ideas. If you know what I mean. But no I don’t think it’s a placebo effect either.

      Best wishes, David

  4. Carianne Buurmeijer

    It was meant in a more general way indeed, however… For a college assignment, I once used the ‘Carnaval des animaux’ by St. Saens to make a toolbox which explained creative thinking methods, each animal representing a thinking method. Not at all a scientifical approach, but who knows, musical psychologists might have such tools.

  5. Mary Kay Culpepper

    Thanks for writing about this topic, David; I study creativity and often think about tools that can engender it. Most of the physical tools I encounter in my research about sketching as a means to solve problems involve paper and pencil or keyboard and monitor.

    What’s so captivating about The Circles is that unlike paper, they are infinitely reusable; unlike a computer, they capture the immediacy of moving a thought from the brain to a sketch on the chalkboard. While they were designed for children, I would use The Circles for sketch-based storyboarding–beginning with the problem, ending with the desired result, and working my way to a solution from both ends.

    Like Fanny’s other tools, The Circles are novel and useful, which is a generally accepted definition of a creative product. Plus, they’re handsome, and as the design theorists say in unguarded moments, pretty never hurts.


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