How can neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) be used to support teaching and learning? Richard Churches, principal consultant for National Programmes at CfBT Education Trust and a doctoral researcher in the School Management of Surrey University, explores

In April 2003 I attended a DfES conference for 500 Fast Track teachers being delivered by CfBT Education Trust. I had just joined the programme as a consultant and was there to support the development of training for teachers on the programme. Fast Track teachers are known for their enthusiasm and interest in debating effective leadership and specifically ‘how’ to do the sorts of things that leaders need to do, such as influencing, motivating others and being resilient yourself. In one conversation was a trainer, and executive coach from industry, Lynn Murphy, who suggested that we might want to introduce sessions on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and proposed topics in the areas of communication, building rapport and exploring your values as a leader and as a teacher. Although I had come across some ideas from NLP before, in my work as an advanced skills teacher, the wider field of NLP was largely new to me at this time.

For the next series of conferences we delivered short sessions and in 2004 expanded training to deliver three-day residential training events in NLP by experienced NLP trainers Roger Terry and Henrie Liddiard. Since then NLP tools have been incorporated into training delivered by trainers from Alistair Smith’s training company Alite: Will Thomas, Sarah Mook, Penny Clayton and Nick Austin. Not only has the response to this sort of training been overwhelmingly positive, but teachers also began to talk consistently about the application of NLP approaches and skills in the classroom as well as in their development as leaders. Over the last four years, training in NLP has been given to more than 1,200 teachers and school leaders within the Fast Track teaching programme, as part of the London Leadership Strategy and within other training and CPD programmes. Within the London Leadership Strategy, NLP is part of the Consultant Leader Programme in PRUs and EBD schools and the Coaching Programme for Middle and Senior Leaders. NLP for Teachers: How to be a Highly Effective Teacher (published in December 2007,) by Roger Terry and myself, came about as a result of feedback from the teachers on these and other programmes, and from the wider training delivered by Roger and Henrie Liddiard.

What is NLP?

The term neuro-linguistic programming was first used by Dr Richard Bandler and Professor John Grinder, at the University of California in Santa Cruz in the mid-1970s. Grinder was an associate professor of linguistics and Bandler was a student at the university. Bandler and Grinder wrote a series of books in the late 1970s and then worked with a number other people, such as Robert Dilts, to design training for people in areas of therapy, communication and presentation skills. What was different about their approach to the study of human behaviour was their interest in highly effective people rather than just the study of the general population or dysfunctional groups. They were particularly interested in uncovering the things that made a difference between someone who was good at what they did and someone who was outstanding. To support this work they developed a methodology that has come to be known as ‘modelling’. modelling, like any research approach, aims to drill down into the detail of something which is observable, or which can be uncovered through questioning. NLP modelling is unique in that it focuses on the areas of language patterns, the details of internal imagery, metaprogrammes (the NLP term for traits, personality type preferences and some types of schema), beliefs, values and micro-body signals and patterns. Bandler and Grinder’s interest in this area was inspired by discussions with Gregory Bateson, who encouraged them to begin research in the areas of therapy. Their first four books describe in detail their study of Virginia Satir, the family therapist and Milton Erickson, the hypnotherapist. From Satir they developed a language pattern model for reframing and influencing to support effective change, and from Erickson they mapped the structure of hypnotic communication patterns, influencing and rapport.  Further work outlined approaches for the manipulation of internal images to change the emotional feelings associated with past experience and the development of simple practical approaches for managing emotions. Their latter work suggested that effective communicators and achievers do similar things to what they had observed in Erickson and Satir. It is this extended body of knowledge that is widely published in books on NLP. Interest in NLP has grown significantly in recent years. In part this has been the result of television programmes by Paul McKenna (who makes use of NLP in his therapeutic work). There has also been a significant increase in the availability of NLP training and consequent publication of a number of popular texts on the subject.

The potential of NLP to support teacher and school leader development

In recent years research has reinforced the central importance of teaching and learning and effective classroom behaviours in achieving school effectiveness alongside the importance of leadership. Numerous studies recognise the importance of teacher skills development, particularly in the areas of engagement, levels of interaction, questioning, positive atmosphere, teacher expectations and challenge. Alongside this, writers such as John West-Burnham have consistently championed the importance of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. As a ‘toolkit’ of approaches for developing personal effectiveness, influence and communication, NLP offers a wide range of approaches to support existing pedagogy and practice. In terms of our own work and the training that we have delivered, the response from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive and suggests that NLP could make a significant contribution to areas of personalisation and school leadership effectiveness.

A few years ago, when you first mentioned NLP to people in education very few people knew what you were talking about. There is now a growing body of practice that has emerged both formally through the inclusion of NLP in government training programmes and through the crossing over of training from personal development and business to the education sector. NLP itself as a body of knowledge is surrounded by myths and opinions. In part this has been the result of the somewhat complex language that surrounds NLP and the fact that until recent years there was only a small body of research from the fields of psychology that could be said to support the nature of the ideas and approaches that NLP training provides. In recent years, the findings of cognitive neuroscience about the relationship between the mind, brain and language have been used to provide a partial theoretical explanation for much of what is taught in NLP. Although specific research on NLP is still in its infancy there is a growing academic interest in this area. A formal university-funded research project is underway at Surrey University led by Dr Paul Tosey and Dr Jane Mathison and there are three doctoral researchers, including myself, working within the School of Management.

NLP tools and approaches can be said to fit into four categories:

Strategies and approaches for self-motivation and the motivation of others.

Approaches for building rapport and influencing others.

Techniques for developing personal flexibility and awareness of others.

Language models from hypnosis and therapy.

As well are defining areas of theory and practice in each of these areas, there are specific techniques to support the exploration of values, challenging of limiting beliefs, influencing, communication and motivation. One technique which Bandler and Grinder modelled from Milton Erickson is called pacing and leading. Pacing and leading is considered in NLP to be the basis of effective influencing and is the same basic approach used in hypnotic induction as part of hypnotherapy. Pacing and leading is when you seek to influence others by meeting people half-way and matching them where they currently are, in some way (pacing). Having matched their current behaviour, language, body signals, ways of seeing the world you are then in a position to take them where you want them to go (leading). In terms of body signals, Milton Erickson mirrored his patients’ body language. Erickson, a post-polio patient, was severely restricted in his movements but had become very effective making small gestures and movements that responded to the body movements of his patients. He also paced their experience and language before beginning to influence by making increasingly strong suggestions. Teachers on the training we have delivered have found hypnotic language patterns to be particularly helpful in the classroom for setting up lessons, establishing rules and explanations, encouraging and motivating students and dealing with unwanted behaviours as well as being an effective tool in leadership. At the heart of influential language is the idea of presupposition. Presuppositions are the unsaid meanings and information in a sentence or phrases. For example, if someone were to say: ‘Either now or in a moment you can think of a time when language has been important to you.’ You are very likely to follow this instruction. This is because the first part of the sentence presupposes that you are going to do what has been suggested. This particular pattern is called a double bind. In other words it gives you two choices or options both of which result in the same outcome. There is something about the element of choice that leads people to accept the suggestion without challenge. A classroom example might be: ‘Would you prefer to begin the questions section or draw the map first?’ The presupposition is that the person will start work now, whichever way he or she chooses to do it and that both things need to be done. Another very useful language technique is the yes set, which again comes from hypnosis. Yes sets are frequently used in sales, advertising and effective public speaking. The approach is known as ‘the foot-in-the-door technique’ in psychology, after a famous experiment in the 1960s. In a language context, if you tell someone three undeniable facts, one after another, and follow it with a suggestion, they are very likely to accept what has been suggested. I have told you a little about influential language, the background to NLP and yes set, now would be a good time to find out more, wouldn’t it? If you didn’t notice the yes set in the last sentence feel free to go back and look at it again. The pattern at the end of the sentence is called a yes tag and is quite difficult to say no to when used in this sort of context. Yes tags are particularly effective after explaining rules, to reinforce the point and gain agreement. Another area of NLP that has found a specific school-based application is perceptual positions.  This is an approach that is frequently applied in coaching to help people deal with difficult people, assess relationships and understand conflict. The approach involves mentally adopting three different mental positions in order to explore a situation: self, other and observer. In the self perspective, we see the world through our own eyes. In the other perspective, we see the world through eyes of someone else, through their values, their perspective. Finally, in the third position, the observer position, we are looking at the situation as an external observer. This other position is a dissociated and unconnected one emotionally. This technique can be used in conversation, or more formally, by arranging three chairs or spaces on the floor and moving between them. In a school context teachers have found it helpful in dealing with bullying and indeed several whole-school strategies have begun to be developed using this approach. NLP has been criticised at times for being a collection of disconnected tools and techniques without a fundamental theoretical base. At first glance this can certainly appear to be the case. However, such observations fail to take into account that the effectiveness of NLP approaches are likely to be the result of the application of several approaches at once rather than a single technique. For example, effective influencing is more likely to take place when rapport, effective language patterns and a positive mental image of success are applied together rather than one technique alone. In this sense research into NLP faces similar methodological challenges to researching effective pedagogy. As with classroom effectiveness, where a series of elements and factors come into play with several needing to be present to ensure high effectiveness, so it would appear to be with interpersonal and intrapersonal effectiveness. This said, cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience research that has taken place since Bandler and Grinder’s early work and development has provided a number of theories and studies which support a many key areas of NLP and suggest that they may be the practical application (in a technological sense) of cognitive neurological phenomena. This parallel is most obvious in areas such as research into positive mental imagery, hypnosis, mirror neurons and micro-facial expressions. Although, as described above, the effectiveness and impact of techniques is only just beginning to be researched.

We have found that using NLP in the classroom has an immediate effect as it does not require a teacher to replace existing practice but allows for the improvement of the effectiveness of existing practice. Is all of this new? Well not really, just as Bandler and Grinder found these things being done by highly effective communicators in therapy and other areas of personal development, so the same things can be found in effective teachers who have learned no NLP.  Applying NLP training formally for teachers is allowing a more detailed and specific dialogue about teacher effectiveness in the areas of interpersonal influence, communication and resilience together with the development of a community of practice. In our book we suggest that NLP may be the ‘technology of emotional intelligence’ and certainly there are tools and techniques to support emotional and social intelligence across all the competences identified in the literature. Of course, the effectiveness and impact of these tools in a teaching context remains to be firmly established research wise.

Impact ‘The impact of NLP for teachers goes well beyond actual teaching and learning. For most teachers, managing challenging behaviour in and around class is a key concern. The NLP skills of rapport, re-framing and state-management are highly effective in supporting teachers to effectively manage both themselves and their students. This can have a positive effect throughout the school.’

Liz Robinson, headteacher, Surrey Square Junior School, Southwark

‘NLP is highly accessible and of immense practical use. It is innovative in that it does not require a teacher to replace any practice but allows them to improve their effectiveness through a number of techniques. All the techniques are easy to grasp and have high impact on classroom practice and learning.’

Tony Crisp, headteacher, PRU, Tower Hamlets

Communication ‘When I get called out to a disruptive classroom to get a challenging pupil out so that the rest can get on with their work, I don’t bawl the pupil out as the member of staff might expect. The desired outcome is always achieved by a bit of quiet rapport building and influencing. I pride myself on the fact I have never had to move a whole class because I cannot get the disruptive student to move.’

Sue Gwinnell-Smith, assistant headteacher, Littlehampton Community School, West Sussex

‘Effective communication is the cornerstone of good leadership. My enhanced understanding of influential language and how it works has extended my ability to communicate more effectively and elegantly.’

Rory Wilson, deputy headteacher, East Barnet School, London

Perceptual positions ‘Perceptual positions is great to use when helping a child who has bullied understand the effects of their behaviour by experiencing what it feels like to be in the victim’s shoes. It gives opportunities for a child to see their behaviour from someone else’s viewpoint – whether that be a teacher’s or fellow pupil’s and really helps develop pupils’ understanding of others’ emotions and thoughts by “walking in someone else’s moccasins”.’

Emma Partridge, inclusion manager, St Josephs RC Primary School, Kensington and Chelsea

NLP for Teachers: How to be a Highly Effective Teacher, by Richard Churches and Roger Terry, is available from Crown House Publishing.