An Introduction to the Study of Law (Part I): How the colour of your hat can change the direction of your thinking and save you from an ill-fated marriage

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For the past three years, I have delivered an ‘integration programme’ to first year law students at Queen’s University Belfast. What began as a simple session to help students  transition into university education – by familiarising them with the structures, practices, and expectations at tertiary level – has become much more ambitious. Students are now offered multiple sessions on thinking, reasoning, and learning, each of which is designed to stimulate elation about the adventure ahead – what an opportunity this is! – and to equip them with the tools needed to soar as high as their ambition will take them.

And what ambition they possess! In each session, countless students repeatedly fired their arms up eager to participate. Each intervention yielded a new direction in our discussion, compelling me to be even more creative than I originally envisaged. My students’s lesson on cognition quickly morphed into an exercise on adaptation for me.

Inspired by Edward de Bono, I launched the first session with a fable about a money lender, a debtor, and a young woman (who doubles as the debtor’s daughter). Like most fabled money lenders – you must draw your own conclusions about real life – this one is cruel and greedy: he calls in the debt at a moment when the debtor is at his lowest, unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The choice is blunt: pay back the debt or go to prison. The debtor begs and pleads and eventually the money lender relents: ‘if you cannot pay the debt, I may take your daughter’s hand in marriage in lieu.’

Both the young woman and her father are horrified at the proposition, even more so when the money lender’s almost imperceptible smirk conveys that he had been planning this all along. Sensing that the debtor was about to frogmarch himself into gaol, the money lender offers an olive branch, suggesting they submit their fate to chance. The money lender will place two pebbles, one white and one black, in a sack (they stood on a pathway covered in white and black pebbles). The young woman will pick a pebble out of the sack. If she picks the white one, she marries the money lender; if she picks the white one, the debt is forgiven. Instead of choosing between prison and marriage, the choice is now between marriage and freedom. Money lenders, however, are not renowned gamblers . After he secures their agreement, he surreptitiously places two white pebbles in the sack, the act of deceit noticed only by the young woman.

After recounting the plight of the debtor and his daughter, I present the conundrum to the students: what would they do in her position? The choices are not as simple as they first seem:

1) Call out the money lender? Her father goes to prison.
2) Say nothing? She marries the money lender.
3) Renegotiate the rules? Hardly.

Some 300 students shifted uncomfortably, unsure how to save the young woman from the money lender’s lewd avarice (just as many of the readers of this post are equally stumped and just as I was when I first learned of the fable).

I reminder you that this exercise is part of an introduction to reading law and, as I pointed out to the students, the fable encapsulates many of the social functions of law itself. Law, here, is the source of:

1) Identities: money lenders, debtors, and daughters
2) States of mind: entitlement (money lender), desperation (debtor), and responsibility (daughter)
3) Choice: settlement, prison, or marriage
4) Morality: the fairness of the circumstances
5) Social relations: all of the above.
Highlighting these aspects of law, however, is not the sole aim of the fable.

Law is indeed a series of rules (content), regulations (processes), norms (morality), and relations (expectations) but it is, particularly so in the law school context, a thinking process. How do we even begin to decide about the cornucopia of elements listed above? More to the point, how do we resolve the trial facing the young woman? We now enter the crux of the lecture: thinking strategies.

We take thinking for granted. This is not surprising for the most simple acts are usually the ones we have difficulty defining. To think is to apply our minds to a given situation; to deploy our knowledge and experience in search of a way forward. But what does this even mean? Rare is the lecturer who defines the thought process to students. Instead, they merely qualify the act telling students to think critically, to think creatively, or, if Marxist-minded, to think collectively. Yet, in this instance, the qualifiers only serve to muddy the waters even further.

Students, just like lecturers, barristers, politicians, media pundits, and everyone else with a pulpit revert to argumentation when told to think about a given subject. Evaluating both sides – our world is two-dimensional you see – provides a balanced view of the matter at hand. So revered are arguments that debate stands alone as the pinnacle of intellectual engagement, purportedly presenting parties with a sound basis for decision making. Yet, we need only watch a single session of the PMQs to verify how flawed this position is. It is difficult to locate any substance in debates as rhetoric, gags, and churlish barbs monopolise the spotlight. With politicians and pundits as models, students inevitably fall into the practice of treating all positions as either right or wrong, as either sensible or naff. Personal preference and confirmation bias are mistaken for a sound thinking strategy.

Drawing further on the work of de Bono, I suggest that students abandon the four legs good, two legs bad approach and experiment with the thinking hats model. Colour coordinated hats facilitate parallel thinking, a strategy that allows for the group to pursue like-minded thought patterns. At all times, all parties are directing their cognitive stamina in the same direction, ensuring that each possibility receives a breadth and depth of treatment that is impossible through double-barrelled arguments.

– Blue hat: organisational
– White hat: inquisitorial
– Yellow hat: cheerleader
– Black hat: skeptical
– Red hat: emotional
– Green hat: creative

Each hat is deployed in turn and all parties, in unison, will pose questions (white hat), search for risks (black hat), and verify that the objective has been achieved (blue hat). Stated otherwise, the six thinking hats model allows participants to move beyond the adoption of a single position – in support or against a proposal – allowing them to acquire a more comprehensive understanding of the issue(s) at stake.

To be clear, there is nothing transcendental about the thinking hats model and we could just as easily make use of another thinking strategy. The point is that, in law just as in law school just as in tertiary education, thought is a site of contestation: different approaches necessarily lead to different outcomes and it behooves students to be clear as to the approach they adopt and why. In this way, the potential to rise above a simplistic binary choice becomes limitless, an advantage of immense value when seeking to understand the world we inhabit or when trying to regulate it in a manner that accounts for the multiplicity of interests, aims, and moralities we interact with on a daily basis. Education, law, and thought are more rainbow than yin yang.

And what of our debtor’s daughter? Hardly a binary thinker herself, she quickly sussed out the situation. With a smile, she put her hand in the sack, grasped a pebble, and, accidentally, stumbled backwards the pebble falling into the pathway underfoot: ’Apologies my dear money lender’ she said. ‘How clumsy of me! Not to worry, however, we need only look into the sack to confirm the colour of the pebble I did choose.’

In contrast to my students and, I suspect, to the readers of this post, the young woman shifted her gaze from the binary choice before her, toward the setting that surrounded her. And, in one instance, her future became much brighter.


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