Teaching the World to Think – 1979 to 2019

The New Idea of ‘Thinking Instructors’

As an innovator in the new field of cognitive science, my own original idea was ‘thinking instructors’. My specific idea was: ‘Anyone can learn to think if they have a thinking instructor.’ Today there are over 6 million thinking instructors worldwide.

This innovation all started at HBO studios in New York in 1977 when I produced a 3-part video training series called ‘Train the Trainer’ for Equitable Life. Copies were made and sent to all 185 branches. It was the first nationwide corporate video training product in America. The train-the-trainer techniques were based on my previous decade of experiences in and out of the military especially principles from the Australian Army’s clever ‘Scheyville Method’ for thinking way outside the box. Later, in 1979, I researched and adapted ‘Train the Trainer’ for training ‘thinking instructors’ and designed the ‘Learn-To-Think Project’: to train 300,000 thinking instructors in America for teaching lateral thinking skills in schools, in businesses and in communities.

In November 1979, I presented the Learn-to-Think Project to Cambridge Professor of Investigative Medicine, Edward de Bono, on one of his visits to NYC. Edward was very animated by the idea of ‘thinking instructors’. He said it was ‘brilliant because of the multiplier effect’ and offered to contribute his 60-lesson version of CoRT Thinking as content for the thinking lessons to be used by the thinking instructors. Although the CoRT content was indeed excellent to get us started the instructors soon found that 60 lessons were impractical – being far too many skills to train and disseminate widely – and so we worked to replace these 60 with 6. We then published our detailed plan for implementing the ambitious national project in a comprehensive train-the-trainer’s manual entitled ‘Learn-To-Think: Coursebook and Instructor’s Manual’ (Capra New 1982).

I got going in New York without government funding, grants or corporate sponsorship. The ‘teaching thinking’ idea was resisted for some time but I self-funded and persevered with training instructors in school districts in New York, Dallas and San Francisco and eventually the idea of ‘thinking instructors’ got real traction.

With the help of a small but talented and mission-devoted team of senior instructors whom I personally trained the big breakthrough came in April 1983 when we collaborated with the Readers Digest (#1 audited magazine in the world) in an initiative to publish our coursebook’s thinking lessons in a cover story across all international editions. Anticipating the internet, this media Big Bang went viral and totalled a distribution of nearly half a billion thinking lessons in a major international publishing event. It was a part of a cascading media phenomenon which was launched on January 9th, 1983 in our special 2-page supplement in the New York Times called Teaching Thinking: The new trend in education. The emphasis was on the importance of having thinking instructors in schools because “… without specific efforts there is no assurance that students will learn to think laterally”.

Eric Bienstock with Edward de Bono at SOT event in New York in 1980

Dr Eric Bienstock was the very first thinking instructor who I trained in New York in January 1980. He later became a director and shareholder of SOT.

Today there are more than 6.6 million thinking instructors in the world. Over 3 million in primary schools and over 3.5 million in secondary schools. Many instructors are still teaching the ‘Six Thinking Hats Method’ originally developed by the School of Thinking in 1983.

So, on this day (17 November 2019) which is the 40th Anniversary of the School of Thinking, after 40 years of focus and energy and on this occasion of my retirement as Principal SOT, I believe I can safely say: Mission accomplished!

Going forward SOT will no longer be public pro bono. It will be a private school for selected projects.

But, the question is: do the efforts of thinking instructors really have a significant impact on schools, businesses and communities? Yes they do and the evidence is both positive and plentiful. Like the flap of a butterfly’s wings or a pebble in a pond the sudden intervention of the ‘teaching of thinking skills’ in schools and businesses can trigger a concatenation of consequences that go on and on over long sequels of time.


For example teaching thinking (metacognition) disrupted the standard curriculum in schools in the Bay Area in the mid-80s with very valuable consequences not only for graduate students but also for their employers. The sudden introduction of lateral thinking skills to the SFUSD (San Francisco Unified School District) in 1984 was signed off by Superintendent Robert Alioto. I was personally invited to train all the primary school principals. By 1985, all public primary schools began the special lessons for teaching metacognition (thinking about thinking) to students across the Bay Area. In the 90s and 2000s a significant explosion of cognitive surplus took off in the valley. The majority of all male and female paid thinkers on the Silicon Valley payrolls were products of the SFUSD system, and among the first in the US to be taught by thinking instructors. The return on payroll for Bay Area employers was exponential far outpacing both the state and the nation in patents issued. Many scholars have pointed out this overlap of education and economy in the Bay Area.

Today, it is said that If the Bay Area was a country like Switzerland or Saudi Arabia its own GDP of $790+ billion (which outstrips them both) would be one of the highest GDPs in the world.


In New York in 1985 Jack Welch of GE introduced teaching thinking to all GE senior executives and middle managers. Jack read my book NewSell (Boardroom Books, NY 1984) and personally authorised the teaching of ‘x10 Thinking’ (cvs2bvs: software for the brain) across the GE enterprise. He wrote, “I wish I had a management team that really understood Michael’s x10 Thinking because it’s the value-creation skill in the management process”. In subsequent years GE executive have been sought out by Fortune 500 companies because they were considered the ‘creme de la creme’ of the US leadership crop. For over 30 years cvs2bvs has been used by princes, presidents and prime-ministers around the world. By Olympic champions, scientists, soldiers, salesmen, parents, teenagers and kids.

With regard to the corporate sector it started in 1984 when IBM became the first of the Fortune 500 companies to introduce the cvs2bvs lateral thinking skill to senior executives. Then Jack Welch made a corporate mission three-year commitment to training all GE senior executives. The investment for this project was $50,000 and I was retained for top fees to design a 30 x slide projector multi-media training experience to teach – cvs2bvs – the universal brain software and we flew this unit around the GE world from New York to Crotonville to Acapulco training GE executives in ‘x10 Thinking’ from 1985-1987. At that time it was the biggest investment any US company had ever made in teaching lateral thinking skills. Looking back since then it’s worth noting the following facts:

• Jack Welch of GE was himself a master of x10 Thinking. He nicknamed it ‘boundaryless thinking” and also “boundarylessness’.

• By the time he left Jack had grown the world famous General Electric Company from a market value of $14 billion to a market value of $410 billion – a percentage change of more than 2,800%making it the most valuable company in the history of the world. Thinking way outside the box he had transformed it from not only a century-old manufacturer but also a national broadcaster and a global bank!

• “Our dream for the 1990s,” Welch wrote in GE’s 1990 annual report, “is a boundaryless company where we knock down the walls that separate us from each other on the inside and from our key constituencies on the outside.”

Jack was a business champion of x10 Thinking

In his book about his time at GE Jack: Straight From the Gut (2001) he wrote about cvs2bvs: “It would make each of us wake up with the goal of “Finding a Better Way Every Day”. It was a phrase that became a slogan, put up on the walls of GE factories and offices around the world. It was the essence of boundaryless behaviour, and it defined our expectations”.

• Famous for the little handwritten notes he would send to people, Jack sent me several and the one I prized most said simply: “Michael, you are a friend of our company”.

• In 1999, Fortune magazine named him “Manager of the Century”. • Since then, thousands of companies in the US and around the world have used ideas from the GE Model. Scores of Fortune 500 companies emulated the leadership example and transformation model set by Jack Welch at GE.

• Many business volumes, Harvard Business Review articles and other media have been written about Jack’s value-driven transformation of his company.

• Using his cutting-edge strategies like Work Out, Boundarylessness and Six Sigma, Jack has developed more leaders than any other CEO in business history.

• That I know of, the Jack Welch era at GE produced CEOs for Honeywell, 3M, Boeing, Intuit, Symantec, Home Depot, Chrysler, Siemans and Merck. According to USA Today the top three companies for producing CEOs of other Fortune 500 companies are GE (26), IBM (18) and McKinsey (16). Today, Larry Page of Google is the best proponent of x10 thinking and today Google is the most valuable company in the world. Page says he “lives by the gospel of x10″. (WIRED, Feb 2013, Cover). Like Jack Welch, Larry Page has also nicknamed x10 thinking. He calls it … ‘moonshot thinking’.

These two case studies – SFUSD and GE – show the compounding value and return on payroll of using thinking instructors for the direct teaching of metacognition – of lateral thinking and critical thinking skills.

There have been many other case studies, like The Clever Country in Australia, and thousands of other experiments in business and education still going on around the world today. Going forward and in a Darwinian world where human intelligence is now being seriously threatened by artificial intelligence (AI) we may need the idea of ‘thinking instructors’ more and more than ever before.

  • Michael Hewitt-Gleeson, 17 November, 2019