Design Thinking: Synthesis 1 | Hexagonal Thinking

Complex thinking isn't chaotic, nor is it linear.

If your students have been deep immersing themselves in conflicting, complex ideas for some time, there will come a point when it's essential to make sense of things. One effective tool for beginning to synthesise ideas is Hexagonal Thinking.

The Why

In Design Thinking, and in other deep stretches of thinking, we can all get muddled by the complexity of the ideas before us. It is a difficult mental task to work out what connects to what, which ideas are more outliers on their own, and which concepts tie to the core of the challenge we're exploring. Linear thinking, where 'a' causes 'b' to happen is great for textbook writers, but isn't the way the world works. How can we help students make sense of information in a why that also shows up the complex connections and sub-connections between ideas, concepts and facts?

The Experiment

Hexagonal Thinking is where either student or teacher writes key concepts on hexagonal cards, at the end of a period of learning, where the content behind each 'headline' is relatively clear to a team of learners. The students then place the cards together in the way that makes most sense to them - some ideas will connect to up to five others, others will lie at the end of a long sequential order, others still will appear in small outlying positions, on their own.

The technique was first pioneered in the oil and gas industry, and is highlighted in The Living Company, by the creator of "the learning organisation" concept and Royal Dutch Shell, Arie de Geus. De Geus had found that when he and executives were trying to help insurance people better understand their complex products, the expensive computer simulations they had developed were not doing the job: staff were too busy trying to "win" the simulation that the more significant, and complex, information about the products was lost. With the introduction of hexagonal thinking those complex connections were made swiftly and deeply. It has since been used in business as a means of tackling perennial 'wicked problems'.

In schools, we've seen it put to use by practitioners such as Chris Harte and David Didau. Harte has used the visual, tactical hexagons to help students see the complex connections between the various verb structures of the French language, and shared the thinking and impact of this in a TeachMeet presentation, "Why hexagons are better than squares".

Hexagons help show complex connections between French verb structures

After a NoTosh workshop, Brisbane educator Elisabeth Hales used a simple set of cards to help students hone down on the key connections after a rich environmental immersion, as part of a design thinking project. Quickly, students were able to model to one another their different takes on what they had experienced and researched - no two hexagonal syntheses are the same.

Even with out youngest learners, in a Juniors class in Sydney, teacher Anh Nguyen was able to record the thinking process and reasoning of children as they connect complex and abstract concepts together using this simple technique. Offering students the chance to verbalise, publicly, about why they have chosen a particular connection is vital for the process to have its biggest potential impact on thinking and learning.

Students in Anh Nguyen's Sydney class explain their thinking about how ideas connect, using hexagons

Your Next Steps...

  • Get hold of some hexagonal post-it notes or paper cutouts, and have them ready for moments where students show uncertainty about how different elements of a project or knowledge area fit together.
  • Prepare hexagonal cutouts in advance as a means of checking for understanding of complex areas about which students have been learning.
  • Encourage students to draw out the key headline areas of the area they have been exploring, make connections, and peer assess for understanding. What's missing? Why are some connections from different team members or groups different?
  • Use hexagonal thinking outputs as wall display to help guide ideation and prototyping of thinking.
  • You can prepare online versions of hexagonal thinking outputs using Triptico's free ThinkLink software.