Edward de Bono: Lateral thinker in despair at the wasted state of British schools

The man who invented the phrase "lateral thinking" is in despair over the state of thinking in British schools. "The British education system is wasting two thirds of the talent in society," says Edward de Bono, shaking his head sadly.

"The one third who do well at school and exams go on to university and are fine," argues the Maltese-born doctor who became a multimillionaire by applying his thinking skills to problems in business, foreign policy and education.

"But the others leave school believing that they are stupid. They are not stupid at all, many are good thinkers who have never had the chance to show it. But that lack of confidence will pervade the rest of their lives. I am horrified by people who tell kids of 14 that they cannot succeed academically and so had better go in for carpentry of something like that."

English educators have fallen behind the rest of the world in teaching "thinking" because they are too set in their ways and obsessed with exam results, he says.

And he believes the surprise resignation of Estelle Morris and her replacement as Secretary of State for Education by Charles Clarke, will do little to change the direction of educational policy which, he says, is totally wrong.

"Education is like a ship where the lights have gone out, the rudder is broken, the crew is demoralised and it's drifting in the wrong direction. You can fly in a new captain, mend the lights, fix the rudder and inspire the crew but you'll still be heading in the wrong direction.

"There's a lot of fixing needed in education. But I do not think that who manages the administration of the education system will really make much difference to the direction in which it is heading."

Dr de Bono, who has written more than 60 books on the subject, believes that "thinking" should become a school subject. He argues that Mr Clarke's first act as Secretary of State should be to convene a committee made up of people from every walk of life except education to reconsider how the nation's children are taught.

The Government's growing reliance on computers in education, he warns, poses "a great danger" to children's ability to think.

"Kids are getting so tied up in their internet searches that they are missing out on social interaction and the ability to think for themselves," he said.

"There is a great danger that this is teaching children that somewhere out there is the answer and all you need to do is find it.

"That is very damaging as it stops youngsters believing that they have to think and come up with an answer themselves. A lot of information by itself is not necessarily valuable. There's a lot of rubbish on the internet."

Dr de Bono was speaking at the relaunch of his seminal board game, the L-game, which has been redesigned 30 years on by Fridgeplay, a games company, as a magnetic game. He claims it is the simplest possible game requiring complex strategic thinking and hopes it will be used to teach thinking skills in schools.

His ideas are already being used in thousands of schools around the world through his Cognitive Research Trust, a charitable organisation devoted to teaching his methods. In Venezuela, all school children must by law spend two hours a week on his programmes. And, he says, the Dominican Republic, Siberia, Malta, Singapore and Canada all teach his thinking methods.

He believes British ministers' reluctance to recognise the importance of thinking skills is "sad and extremely disappointing".

"The British tend to believe that intelligence is enough. That if you are an intelligent person then any thinking you do must be good thinking," he says. "That is definitely not true. Some mighty intellectuals are extremely bad thinkers.

"In this country there a whole layer of education advisers who really are incredibly out of date. There have been ministers who have been well disposed to my ideas but their advisers tell them 'this is funny stuff' and that's the end of it. The sad thing is that youngsters love thinking."

David Blunkett encouraged teachers to teach "thinking skills" during his time as Secretary of State for Education and even invited Dr de Bono to the Department for Education to teach his methods to civil servants. But the ideas proved extremely controversial and were derided by many traditionalists, including Chris Woodhead, who was chief inspector of schools. "England has the idea that thinking is a passive skill. We need to get children to work out strategies and to look ahead at the consequences of these strategies." Games are not enough but they are a useful component, he says.

"Children should be taught to think in an active way by doing things and playing games. It is very different to what is taught in schools which involves sitting back and absorbing information.

"Schools have an obsession with teaching children to avoid mistakes. If you are driving a motor car the only way to avoid mistakes is to leave your car in the garage.

"Even when schools tackle thinking they tackle it extremely badly. When it comes to teaching thinking, schools are just not very good at it. Schools say: 'Here's the material, you analyse it and write an essay on it.'

Dr de Bono's L-game was devised 30 years ago as a complex game with few pieces and rules which could be played by all ages. It uses four pieces on a four-by-four grid. Players win by arranging their pieces so that their opponent is no longer able to move.

"In some ways, games are miniature life situations," he says. "In the isolated purity of a game there is an opportunity to practise skills of learning and strategy that may have wider implications."

It is 35 years since Dr de Bono first used the term lateral thinking in his 1967 book, The Use of Lateral Thinking. He defines the term as "escaping from established ideas and perceptions in order to find new ones".

His ideas have made him extremely rich. As well as owning an island off Venice, a Georgian hall in Norfolk, a farmhouse in Malta, he has a flat in Albany, a luxury apartment block off London's Piccadilly.

He spends most of his time jetting around the globe giving seminars to businessmen, educators and officials.

The son of a leading professor of medicine and a former Tatler journalist, Dr de Bono followed in his father's footsteps by reading medicine at the University of Malta aged 15, qualifying as a doctor at 21. He later won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford to read psychology and physiology. He took doctorates at both Oxford and Cambridge, where he researched and lectured in medicine for 14 years until 1976, when he left to become a full-time thinker.

In his book, Six Thinking Hats, published in 1990, he argued that business meetings and lessons could be run more efficiently if employees or pupils put on imaginary coloured hats to encourage the group to "think in the same direction": white for examining facts, black for pessimistic criticism, yellow for optimists, red for gut feelings, green for creative ideas and blue for the chairman of the discussion.

Over the years he has come up with lateral solutions to everything from the miners' strike to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which he suggested could be partly due to the low levels of zinc found in a population which eats unleavened bread. A known side-effect of zinc deficiency is aggression so he suggested shipping jars of Marmite to the Middle East.

While his ideas have been embraced by many, others have ridiculed his techniques. But Dr de Bono remains unperturbed. "Any pioneer gets treated as mad," he says. "But before you know where you are, their ideas are so accepted people say they're obvious."

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