Sharon Guan

I Am Red, What Are You: Understanding the Color of Our Brain

My husband Lee and I were sitting at the dinner table one evening chatting about what we should do for the kids during the time when school’s closed and summer camp hasn’t started yet. I pulled out the computer trying to search for ideas. A couple of minutes later, I sensed this vibrating sensation on the floor that resembled a minor earthquake. It was mild, constant, rhythmic, and very annoying.

I moved my eyes from the computer screen to Lee. He looked at me—what? The vibration stopped for a second. I moved my eyes back to the computer—there, the rhythm started again.

This time I closed down the laptop. “Lee, do you know you are very blue?” I said.

“What?” He was completely lost.

“Wait a second,” I said. “Let me show you something… well, let me just draw it.”

Knowing that he wouldn’t have the patience to wait for me to go get the literature from my bag, I grabbed a piece of paper from the table and quickly drew a big circle and then a horizontal and a vertical line to divide it into four quadrants.

“Look, this is a brain and those four colors represent four thinking styles. Blue is logical, the mathematicians and engineers who would shake their legs when they are running out of patience. Green is organized, the ones who will clean your desk when they visit your office, like Joan—remember you went to her house and took a cup from the shelve and put it back, but she noticed since the handle was not facing the right direction? Yellow is holistic or into the big picture, the ones who doodle at meetings since they are thinking ahead of others. And red, is me—passionate and emotional!”

In less than five minutes, I updated my logical, leg-shaking engineer husband on the core of Whole Brain Thinking, which was the theme of the 2013 DePaul Faculty Teaching and Learning Conference. The leg-shaking diagnostic analysis came from the keynote speaker Dr. Ann-Louise de Boer, research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

Based on the Hermann Four Quadrant Whole Brian Model, Dr. Boer developed a model for understanding thinking styles and the important role that they have in teaching and learning. Although only thirty people were able to take the full thinking style assessment, it wasn’t hard for the conference attendees to run a quick self-diagnosis just by looking at the image of the model (see below).

Hermann Whole Brain Thinking Model
Hermann Whole Brain Thinking Model

When Ann-Louise asked what color they thought they were, hands were raised enthusiastically and even the “multicolored” individuals were able to identify a dominance of the four.

Like any conference session, the takeaways for the audience depended largely on how one could relate the content with his or her situation. As a manager, an instructor, and a mother, I think this whole brain model provides me with useful guidance that can be summarized as What, Why, When, and How.

The What: for Diagnosing the Situation

Without knowing the Whole Brain model, my husband’s leg-shaking behavior could be easily interrupted as a disrespectful habit instead of a body language common to the “blueman” group. The same is true when I catch a staff member doodling in a meeting or a student drawing in class. I now know that this may not mean that they are not paying attention, but that since they had got it already, their minds simply moved ahead or on to something else.

The Why: for Better Understanding

When I asked around, I saw my group of instructional designers occupying every quadrant of the diagram, making us a very colorful team. While the profession of instructional design may embrace a variety of thinking styles, I do see some professions leaning toward one quadrant more than the others. I see blue professions like engineering, green professions like admin assistants, yellow for strategists, and red for arts and acting.

As a manager of a colorful team, the model helps me understand why my green staff are so interested in a clearly defined procedure while the blue ones always seek a proof and a rationale behind any decision.

The When: for Time and Task Management

My to-do list has always been in a quadrant style with each section of the page representing a domain of work: university, department, class, and personal. Although it wasn’t mentioned in Dr. Boer’s presentation, I think that we should be able to color the tasks as well: is it procedural, such as approving a procard edit, which will make it green? Does it require emotional undertake, such as preparing a provocative piece of argument, which will make it red? Is it data quenching, which is blue or is it policy development, which is yellow? Based on the color, I can then pick the right time to handle the task. For example, if you have ten minutes on hand before attending a meeting, the best thing to do is a small green task that will fill out the slot without causing any brain delinquency.

The How: to Find the Path for Growth

After the keynote session, I had a little chat with Ann-Louise who shared with me her unique path of life: at age eight, she was told that she would never be able to go to college because she couldn’t do math; she followed that command after high school and never dared to apply for college. She told me that this Whole Brian Thinking approach developed in the 1970s by Ned Herrmann changed her life. After knowing that there was this diverse type of intelligence and cognitive capability, she quit her job and applied for college. If I remember correctly, this woman managed to get her masters in eight months and her doctoral degree in a year and a half. She became a researcher and an advocate for Whole Brain Thinking.

“So what color are you?” I asked Ann-Louise.

She looked at me with a mysterious smile as if she was asking: you guess.

I changed the subject, “So what color is most needed to be a leader? Is it blue? Or is it yellow?” By trying to guess my way out, I was completely exposing my lack of knowledge in the subject area.

“No matter how good you are with logical thinking or planning, if you don’t have the passion, you can’t inspire anyone,” said Ann-Louise.

“It is red,” I said with excitement. “And you are red!”

She nodded with a smile.

Sharon and Ann-Louise
Sharon and Ann-Louise

To access Ann-Louise’s presentation, please visit DePaul Teaching Commons at:

Sharon Guan

About Sharon Guan

Sharon Guan is the Assistant Vice President of Faculty Instructional Technology Services (FITS). She has been working in the field of instructional technology for nearly 20 years. Her undergraduate major is international journalism and she has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in educational technology from Indiana State University. She has conducted research on interpersonal needs and communication preferences among distance learners (dissertation, 2000), problem-based learning, online collaboration, language instruction, interactive course design, and faculty development strategies. She also teaches Chinese at the Modern Language Department of DePaul, which allows her to practice what she preaches in terms of using technology and techniques to enhance teaching and learning.

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