Susan Norman explains non-conscious learning. Do you know what’s going on in your classroom when your back’s turned? Or even when it isn’t?

You’ve diligently planned your lessons, you know what you’re doing, and you know what your pupils are supposed to be learning. But what are our pupils actually learning, and how are they learning it?

According to Dr Emile Donchin at the University of Illinois, more than 99% of our learning is non-conscious. So pupils are learning much more from the way the classroom is arranged, the way you are teaching, the way you behave, even the way you are dressed, than they are learning about the subject you’re trying to impart to them. At a basic level, are you teaching by your behavior that learning is quick and easy (for example, by breaking the subject down into small bits, explaining things over and over again, keeping the knowledge within your control rather than handing over to the students, etc), or are you implying that it is difficult, and therefore setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The mind can be likened to an iceberg. We are taking in huge amounts of information through our senses all the time (represented by the vast majority of the iceberg below the surface), but at any one moment, only a very small fraction of that information is brought to our conscious awareness (‘the tip of the iceberg’). The conscious and the non-conscious minds work in very different ways. Traditionally we take a ‘top down’ approach when we teach to the conscious mind, but the way human beings learn naturally (and the natural state for human beings is to learn) is through a bottom-up approach – we take in large amounts of information non-consciously (I am using the word ‘non-conscious’ rather than ‘unconscious’ to avoid the implication of being knocked out, and any use of the term in psychotherapy) and those things which are of importance rise to conscious awareness when we need them.

The important word, of course, is ‘need’. How much of the information we want pupils to learn is actually something they need – except to pass an exam? If learning is to happen naturally, it almost certainly will not follow the national curriculum, so the big question, then, is how do we harness the power of non-conscious learning? How can we teach to the non-conscious mind? In fact, there are lots of things we can do, which can make it easier for pupils to learn by appealing to their nonconscious minds.

Peripheral learning

We notice all sorts of things going on around us without conscious awareness – and the non-conscious picks up subtle signals much more than obvious ones.

Decorate the walls

In your own classroom, have a varied display of items, which are visually pleasing and interesting in their own right. (For temporary displays when the room is not your own, put lots of small items on large sheets.) We learn best things which interest us or which we like – pictures, cartoons, jokes, quotations, interesting stories, etc. Within the display include information about topics recently – and about to be – covered in the course book. Encourage pupils to add their own contributions too.

Conscious Non-conscious
Active & controlling Receptive, spontaneous, participatory
Part analysis; build from part to whole (focus on separate units) Whole comes first; from whole to part (interconnection, patterns, fields)
Low volume, reductive High volume
Specifics, exactness Ambiguity
Interpretation, consistency Incorporates new material
Right/wrong; obsession with correctness Errors are learning material
Machine-like fixed approach; attachment to the status quo Organic plasticity; let it emerge
Analytical, going deeper into detail Creative, looking for new relationships
Does it make sense? Does it give pleasure?
High focus, concentration Relaxation
Competitive (separating/ranking) Co-operation, bonding is first impulse
Mental dominant Holistic – feeling, sensation, intuition dominant
Objective Subjective
Serial function Parallel function

From ‘The Quantum Revolution in Education: Organic Learning’ by Grethe Hooper Hansen, in Proceedings of 9th International SEAL Conference: Opening Minds to Holistic Learning SEAL 2001.

Learning environment

Following on from the previous point, have a learning environment, which is conducive to learning. Do anything you can to make the physical surroundings more pleasing (welcoming music, flowers, a bright sheet used as a table cloth which can add a big splash of color) – but the most important aspect is how you respond to the learners. A welcoming, accepting teacher who likes the pupils and is enthusiastic about the subject and their learning will have much more impact than any method. And you can’t fake it. The non-conscious takes notice of the subtle signals of body language, gesture and expression rather than the words you use. (People who don’t like pupils should get another job – they’re never going to be successful teachers.)

Big picture

The non-conscious mind likes to have the big picture before going into detail.

  • Let learners know where they’re going. Give them your plans for the lesson, the week, the term… or from now until the exam. Most importantly, make sure it’s an overview of the subject and not just of your timetable. It’s much easier to understand how something fits in if you know what it’s fitting in to. Write it up in black and white, possibly as a mind map, and color it in to show progress.
  • If you’re using a course book, spend some time with learners getting to know it. Ask quick simple questions to help students find out what’s on different pages or in different units or sections. This alone can predispose the mind to be more accepting when you come to look at each topic in detail.
  • Look at the last unit of the course book and show them what they’re working towards and reassure them about how much they’ll know and understand by the time they get there (tell them when that’s likely to be).


The non-conscious mind works by taking in huge amounts of information and then making sense of it. It does not easily learn from step-by-step information presented out of a realistic context.

You’ve already looked at the final unit of the course book. Why not start at the back of the book with the final unit and work backwards to the beginning? Your lessons get easier and easier rather than more and more difficult. Use the earlier parts of the book for reference to enable you to deal with more complicated information. After the initial surprise, learners rise to the challenge and you get through the book much more quickly and efficiently. (You may also have the kudos of being the first class ever to do that final unit!) It really is a myth that subjects need to be taught in a certain order.


The non-conscious mind looks for things that it needs. Need means immediate need for the human organism. A distant examination doesn’t count – although an exam next week might! But one of the real difficulties about learning in school is that the non-conscious mind knows there’s no urgency about it and therefore doesn’t make it a priority. So we have to find ways of creating need.

  • Asking questions, using real materials and letting learners choose projects of interest to themselves will create more of a perceived need to learn than giving information or doing unrealistic and de-contextualized exercises.
  • The immediacy of improvised drama and role-play with an emotional impact on the learners creates a need to find appropriate responses (e.g. for historical or moral topics).


The non-conscious mind looks for things that it enjoys.

  • Use material and subjects of intrinsic interest to people. Let them bring in their own materials or work on specific projects of their choice. Not everyone has to use the same material at the same time.
  • Do activities that are fun and interesting – songs, rhymes, games, stories and projects help non-conscious as well as conscious learning. And – most importantly – make sure that you don’t destroy the pleasure by immediately following every pleasurable activity with searching questions on which learners are going to be judged.


The non-conscious mind loves metaphors and stories – preferably ones where the moral isn’t given as a footnote (Aesop take note). Remember how you enjoyed being told stories as a child? Try to recreate that atmosphere of involvement and magic when you’re telling stories to your class, rather than delivering a reading comprehension.

Metaphors can be understood in many different ways according to the personality, experience and current mood of the reader or listener, so exploit that by letting people share their own personal responses to the story – the three things they remember most strongly, the phrases or sections of the story that pleased them most, for example. Between them, a group can usually reconstruct most of the story with pleasure, before working out ‘the examiner’s answers’ at another time.


The mind likes to find ‘the answer’ – but when it does, it immediately moves on to the next ‘challenge’ or unanswered question. As we all know, understanding something is not the same as remembering it, but it is not so well known that under-standing something too quickly can make it much more difficult to remember. It is therefore important to ask questions rather than give too many answers. By telling students information, we are effectively robbing them of it.

Ask questions for students to discover their own answers. Don’t worry if learners don’t ‘get it’ immediately. Material that we have discovered for ourselves is much more memorable. So is information that we come to after a longer period of discovery. The non-conscious mind makes its own sense of material: chaos and the temporary frustration of incomprehension can lead to more retained knowledge in the long run.


While the conscious mind looks for solutions and action, the non-conscious mind works better given time. Have you noticed how the answers to problems often pop into your mind after a good night’s sleep or while you’re in the bath? That’s the ‘bottom-up’ approach in action. How can you access it?

  • Leave questions and problems open for a period of time – preferably until a following lesson. Leave processing time between giving people new information and asking them to answer questions about it.
  • Spend a few minutes pre-viewing homework in class, so that by the time learners come to do it, they will find it easier because their non-conscious will have been working on it.


More learning will come from creative activities than from contrived exercises. Poetry, creative writing, producing and performing short plays, songs and raps, playing with the subject, producing a newspaper, artwork and dance are all effective. Producing the work for display, performance or in-house publication creates the need for editing and rehearsal, so we are not talking about creativity at the expense of accuracy.


The non-conscious mind likes to co-operate, not compete. Although a degree of competition can be fun, it’s most fun for the winners and there are many more losers than winners. There are lots of activities and games, which are just as much fun if everyone wins. Competition should be encouraged in the form of competition against oneself – over a period of time learning to do things better than you could do them before – rather than competition between class members. Everyone who shows improvement should be acknowledged, rather than limiting praise to those who do better than others.

Encourage teamwork when things are being learnt. Benefiting from other people’s work is only ‘cheating’ when you’re in an exam. While pupils are working co-operatively on a project, they can be teaching one another.


It is important to set up an atmosphere where errors really are viewed as an essential part of the learning process and an opportunity to improve without the stigma attached to failure. This means reducing testing and competition to a minimum and focusing on teaching, experimenting and playing with the subject. Focus on success, improvement and those things people do well.


The natural learning state of the non-conscious mind is one of relaxed alertness, free from stress. So once again, reducing testing and the possibility of failure is essential, while creating an enjoyable, positive atmosphere of learning in the classroom with activities of intrinsic interest and without pressure to perform. In addition, it can be really helpful to teach simple relaxation techniques (taking a deep breath and focusing quietly, relaxing from the top of your head down to your toes, etc) and to practice these regularly in class.

In order to be relaxed, we need to be physically, mentally and emotionally comfortable. So acknowledge emotions (the teacher’s as well as the learners’) and give learners the language they need to express their emotions.

Direct access

There are many other techniques which appeal directly to the non-conscious mind, e.g. PhotoReading, speed listening, etc, but each of these really deserves an article in its own right. As a starting point, all the suggestions in this article can be easily incorporated into any teaching situation. One direct-access technique that can be described quickly and easily, though, is ’21-21′:

  • Choose a statement related to a positive response to learning, e.g. ‘I can learn (topic) quickly and easily’.
  • Each day for 21 days, sit quietly and write the statement 21 times.
  • As you write, notice any thoughts or feelings that arise. These can frequently give you insights into aspects of your mind that might be resisting the learning process, and may cause you to change the sentence, e.g. to ‘I deserve to learn (topic) quickly and easily.’

Although some of the proposals in this article may be new, part of my purpose is to validate a lot of good practice which is already taking place in classrooms. I do not want to imply that there is no place for the conscious mind in learning. It is the part of the mind that allows us to plan, prioritize, act, override our emotional responses to let us interact in a ‘civilized’ way – and to suppress information or emotions that might stop us from acting, and which can thereby inhibit learning. My suggestion is that by paying more attention to non-conscious aspects, we will release the mind’s natural ability to learn quickly and easily.


Special thanks to Grethe Hooper Hansen for many of the original ideas on the non-conscious taken from a pre-publication copy of her book Undermind.


Susan Norman was co-director of SEAL (Society for Effective Learning) until 2006 and has written numerous books, including two on NLP in language teaching – In Your Hands and Handing Over and Inspiring Teaching – Introducing SEAL Approaches.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, September 2004.