Neuro-Linguistic Programming & The Classroom – The Short Answer

Brief (very) History

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) first burst upon the psychological therapy scene in 1975 with the release of Richard Bandler and John Grinder’s written work, The Structure of Magic. At the time, Grinder was mostly involved in transformational grammar which was created by Noam Chomsky during the 1960s, and Richard Bandler was heavily involved in the study of mathematics with special attention to statistics. Transformational grammar is a systemic approach to uncovering the “deeper” meanings of communication by way of creating models of how grammatical knowledge is both represented and eventually processed by the brain prior to being articulated.

What Bandler and Grinder did was to apply their separate disciplines to the psychological counseling techniques of Fitz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson. For those not in the know, Fitz, Virginia and Erickson are absolute Titans in the field of talk therapy. The ultimate outcome of Bandler and Grinder’s efforts is that they were able to identify and quantify the specific patterns present in the practices of Perls, Satir and Erickson. Arguably for the first time, the mastery of psychological counseling was revealed in a very exacting and distinct series of concrete processes … the “how do they do that” puzzle was solved.

Okay, now that your eyes are glazed over from having read the above I suppose you are saying to yourself “Gee, that’s just swell, but what does any of this have to do with my being a successful classroom teacher?” I’m absolutely delighted you asked that question, gentle readers, and the answer begins below.

In the present form, NLP provides a highly refined matrix by which a person can capture the sensory input preference(s) of any individual. Huh? Okay, try this, we have all heard and probably read a great deal about “learning styles” and the importance of employing classroom instructional techniques that take into account a student’s preferred way of learning. When we say “learning style” we are actually addressing the preferred process, and not the content proper. We can know how a person is processing information but we cannot know the actual content, e.g., we cannot read their mind. One of the major criticisms, and justifiably so, that is leveled at proponents of learning styles is that the data substantiating claims of learning style are derived from self report forms. With NLP, we avoid the whole controversy by way of directly observing a person (student) process information … we ask them nothing and they tell us everything.

There are several ways, or active systems, for identifying how a person is processing information with regard to sensory input channel selection, e.g., up inside their head making pictures (Visual Learner), listening to their inner voice run a monologue (Auditory Learning), and so on. Please keep the context of NLP’s birth and development in mind as it is crucial to understanding what you can and what you cannot use in the NLP tool box. For example, while conversing with a person I can observe their breathing and have a decent understanding of what sensory channels they are engaging at that moment. That’s all well and fine in certain settings, however, a classroom filled with students and a busy schedule to maintain is not the right time or place for such a thing.

Ideally, we would all have the opportunity to create our capture – identify matrix out of several observation systems. The truth of the matter is we as teachers do not have that luxury. So what is our best course of action given that we want to add NLP to our teaching repertoire? We go with auditory cues and by this I mean we engage in active listening with a very specific purpose.

To get a feel for how NLP might benefit you as a teacher try the following experiment for an hour or so every day for the next 3 days. Listen carefully to the person you are conversing with and keep a mental tally of the times they used words like “feel” “hear” and “see”.

You are listening for patterns to emerge and here is a hypothetical conversation taking place in which you are the listener as an example: “You know, I feel real bad about the state of the economy today. I mean, it hurts me to think of all the people who lost their jobs right before the holidays. I can’t begin to imagine how painful it must have been for them to tell their Children that the holidays were going to be slim this year. Whenever I think of this mess we are in I just feel so bad inside …” Okay, now I know you are all quick studies, have all ready analyzed the hypothetical above, and properly concluded … “Aha, Kinesthetic Learner!” (KL).

Congratulations, without any fuss or muss you have just correctly identified the imaginary person’s sensory input preference and you immediately converted this knowledge into a learning style label. What is more important is that you did it without them even knowing and you did it without subjecting them to some “fill in the bubble” questionnaire. You actively listened, and they told you everything you need to know in order to quickly and deeply connect with them, namely, you frame your part of the continuing conversation by using words that are kinesthetic in nature.

There are some interesting visual and auditory cues that tend to present in all sensory input preference systems. A such consideration is that of mental processing intervals. One of the really "nice" things about KLs is they will tell you when they are actively processing and when they have completed processing.

Let's take the example of the ever present pen or pencil. KLs don't just hold the writing instrument; they are near constantly manipulating it in some fashion. If we key in on their prop during instruction we find that the speed - tempo and magnitude of twirling (example) changes frequently. What we are seeing is a metronome of sorts and it defines (can) where the KL is with regard to mental processing.

What we want to do is watch for the lulls in manipulation and the times where the rhythm and speed of movement slips into a leisurely, even cadence. That tells us the student has absorbed what was presented and processed the newly acquired information to some degree. This is a key time to ask a follow on question or do something that leads them to use what they have processed in order to create deeper - further understanding.

I hope you not only enjoyed the post, but come away with at least a glimpse of what could be a useful tool to you in teaching.

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Author's Bio: 

Currently completing an M.A. - Education program. My hobbies and interests are wide ranging and encompass the following: Spending time with my family, physical culture (Kettlebells most recently), sky diving, meditation (Tibetan), boxing, wrestling, practicing a very rare set of esoteric and arcane moving meditations collectively known as Nei Gung (Hakka bloodline in origin), music (ranging from Thelonious Monk to Skinny Puppy), social activist projects (working with organizations that oppose racism, bigotry, sexism, etc.), lateral thinking puzzles, accelerated learning protocols under Win Wenger, Ph.D., Neuro-Linguistic Programming under Richard McHugh, Ph.D., foreign languages (Farsi & Mandarin Chinese these days) and binaural beat brain wave entrainment.

I have lived (defined as 6 months or more of continuous residency) in 8 states from the east coast to the west coast of the USA. Additionally, I have lived in 2 countries on different continents, spent a considerable amount of time in South – Central America and visited a fair amount of Europe. Occupation wise I’ve been everything from a commercial fisherman to a soldier.

With regard to my most recent “incarnation” as a teacher I can only say that it “feels” like the right thing to do at this point in my life. I’ve been a part of corporate culture for many years. Certainly, the economic incentives served as the primary driver. However, as an aged Monk once told me “Material things cannot slake a Spiritual thirst.” It took a while, but I finally got it and understand what he was trying to tell me As the first of 3 generations not to go into teaching I suppose it was inevitable, perhaps even Karmic in nature, that I eventually gravitated toward the teaching profession. I get tremendous satisfaction from helping Children become aware of their true greatness. In retrospect, I probably should have made the profession change several years ago. Such is life.