Nlp modelling in the classroom: students modelling the good practice of other students

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NLP modelling in the classroom: students modelling the good practice of other students

Trevor Day

Department of Education, University of Bath, UK.

Supervisors: Dr. Paul Denley and Ms. Kate Bullock

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association New Researchers/Student Conference, 14 September 2005


In the summer of 2005, the A-level pass rate in England and Wales was 96.2 per cent (Joint Council for Qualifications, 2005). The pass rate has risen every year for the past 23 years, with AS levels forming part of the 16-19 achievement framework since 2000. Behind the apparently encouraging statistics lies a climate in 16-19 education that is responding to a political agenda that demands greater social inclusion and Success for All (Learning and Skills Council, 2005). There is a national policy focus on lifelong learning and an acceptance among many educational managers and policymakers in the 16-19 sector of the need for young adults to “learn how to learn” in a rapidly changing technological world. But are most students leaving school and college with the skills to support them as autonomous learners able to make the most of the opportunities that follow? In this respect, approaches from the working world beyond schools and colleges that have proved influential in empowering individuals to manage their own learning may have a role to play. One of these disciplines is neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a field that is contributing to “accelerated” or “brain-based” learning approaches (Smith, 1998; Jensen, 1998, 2000; Ginnis, 2002; Tosey and Mathison, 2003a, 2003b; SEAL, 2005).

Research focus

The focus of the research that is reported in this paper is an examination-preparation programme for AS-level students facilitated in a subject-specific context. The programme is strongly influenced by NLP, a field regarded as controversial in education (Craft, 2001; Tosey and Mathison, 2003a, 2003b; Abrams, 2004).

The research seeks to:
a) Use NLP-influenced approaches to prepare an examination-preparation programme for use at sixth-form level in schools and colleges. The programme has an emphasis on students modelling the good practice of other students.

b) Explore the subjective learning experience of AS-level students on this programme and determine which of its elements are regarded by students, and teaching staff who are participant-observers, as most beneficial.

c) Use value-added criteria to compare the examination results of participating students with non-participating students at the college (taking the same subject and level) as a tool to help evaluate the efficacy of the programme.

d) Consider which learning style, personality or other traits, if any, might predispose students to benefit from the programme.

This paper is an initial report on students’ experiences of the modelling elements of the course. It also discusses how students’ predispositions might influence their responses to certain NLP approaches and suggests avenues worthy of further investigation.

NLP and modelling

O’Connor and Seymour (1993 p. 1) describe NLP as “the art and science of personal excellence. Art because everyone brings their unique personality and style to what they do … Science because there is a method and process for discovering the patterns used by outstanding individuals in any field to achieve outstanding results. This process is called modelling, and the patterns, skills and techniques so discovered are being used increasingly in counselling, education and business for more effective communication, personal development and accelerated learning.”

As of 2002, several thousand UK teachers had received a day or more of formal NLP training and several hundred had undergone an NLP practitioner training of 15 days or more (Coughlan, 2002). NLP has found its way into mainstream classroom guides for UK Teachers (Smith, 1998; Ginnis, 2002). NLP has many potential applications in teaching and education, including analysis of teaching technique and classroom management and offering solutions for better practice (Lyall, 2002; Brown, 2004).
The foundations of NLP were laid down between 1972 and 1976 by John Grinder, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Richard Bandler, initially a mathematics and computer science student at the university (McLendon, 1989). Bandler and Grinder originally set out to discover what made three outstanding psychotherapists – Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls, family therapist Virginia Satir and hypnotherapist Milton Erickson – so effective in their work (Bandler and Grinder, 1975a, 1975b; Grinder and Bandler, 1976; Grinder et al, 1977). These investigations gave rise to the emergence of NLP. The methodology Bandler and Grinder developed was NLP modelling. In the mechanistic-sounding term “neuro-linguistic programming, the “neuro” element refers to behaviour as a product of neurological processes, “linguistic” highlights the use of language in communication and the revealing nature of the analysis of its structure, and “programming” – adapted from cybernetics and computing terminology – refers to ways in which internal processes and external action are organised to produce results (Robbie, 1988; O’Connor and Seymour, 1993). There is debate in the educational literature about the nature of NLP – whether it is a theory, a methodology, or both (Craft, 2001; Tosey and Mathison, 2003a, 2003b).
Part of the confusion over the nature of NLP originates from a failure by many authors to distinguish between the methodology by which discoveries are made within the field of NLP, the application of the products of NLP, and the teaching of NLP methodology and application. Bostic St. Clair and Grinder (2001) suggest that the labels NLPmodelling, NLPapplication and NLPtraining respectively be used to distinguish the three approaches.
Another difficulty is that NLP is eclectic and – through its modelling of experts and development of explanatory frameworks – freely draws upon disparate disciplines such as Gestalt psychology, Ericksonian hypnosis, linguistics, cybernetics, behavioural psychology, psychosynthesis, and neuroscience (Harris, 1998; Bostic St. Clair and Grinder, 2001; Tosey and Mathison, 2003a, 2003b). However, NLP is arguably unique among psychotherapeutic disciplines in its pivotal use of modelling and in being overtly radical constructivist – its starting point is that as individuals we construct our own models of the world from sensory experience. And “though I may find reasons to believe that my experience may not be unlike yours, I have no way of knowing that it is the same.” (von Glasersfeld, 1995, p.1). Tosey and Mathison (2003a) regard NLP as “transdisciplinary (Gibbons et al, 1994), in the sense that it draws on sources from academe and from elsewhere, and has been generated through application more than being deduced from axioms.” I agree. NLP is both radical constructivist and transdisciplinary.
NLP’s approach to modelling involves exploring how a person achieves an outstanding performance in some endeavour (as judged by others), such as revising for an examination, conducting a job interview, or playing a game of tennis. This exploration involves not just observing behaviour. It also embraces investigating the internal and external factors that prompt the individual to move forward with the task, the person’s beliefs that relate to the task, their emotional/physiological state, and those mental strategies (including sequences of sensory-based representations) that appear to be pivotal in enhancing performance (Dilts et al, 1980; Dilts, 1998).
The steps in a formal NLP modelling process are (adapted from Dilts, 1998):
1. Find a person to be modelled, and the contexts in which they apply the capability you wish to model.

2. Gather information about how they undergo the process you wish to model. This can include experiencing the process in first perceptual position (as if you are in their shoes), second perceptual position (as a person interacting with them), and third perceptual position (as a detached observer). Findings can be mapped onto a conceptual framework, such as Dilts’s neurological levels (see below).

3. Distil the findings into cognitive (thinking) and external behavioural patterns.

4. Organise the elements or patterns into a logical, coherent structure (the “model”).

5. Test the usefulness of the model for yourself in different contexts.

6. Reduce the model to its simplest and most elegant form.

7. Identify ways to teach the model to others.

8. Determine ways to measure the effectiveness of the model, and the limits of its usefulness.

In practice, many modellers stop at step 5. In eliciting information and testing its usefulness, modelling involves both implicit phases (imagining what it is like to be the person being modelled) and explicit phases (“standing back” and through observation, questioning and reflection, seeking to make sense of the process being modelled).
The elements of an NLP model can be mapped onto Dilts’s so-called neurological levels (Table 1), which may provide a rich description of process and help identify those elements that appear pivotal to the success of a particular strategy. The elements may be mapped through time to show the dynamics of the strategy.

Table 1. Dilts’s neurological levels (adapted from Dilts, 1998)



Common questions to elicit


Relating to a larger system of people.

Who else? For whom?


Who we are when we are engaged in the process.


Beliefs and values

What we believe and what matters to us (permission and motivation).



What we can do (the organisation behind the action).



The specific actions that can be observed.




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