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

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I have been trained in NLP, first to 15-day NLP Diploma level in 1990 and then to Master Practitioner level in 2003. My involvement with NLP began in 1986 when I was a Biology and Prevocational tutor at Southeast Essex Sixth Form College (SEEVIC) and attended a public workshop entitled “Understanding Understanding.” In 1987 I invited the two workshop leaders, both NLP trainers, to lead a college short programme entitled the Personal Effectiveness Pilot Project. The programme comprised eight 75-minute sessions run with three groups of students (26 in all) and four members of staff (including myself) as participant-observers. The sessions explored various aspects of learning – including understanding, concentration, memory, and motivation – using NLP techniques. The project was a very mixed success for both staff and students (Grove-Stephensen et al, 1987). However, I was convinced that NLP had potential in providing a structure for personal exploration – for myself, other staff, and for students. I believed that the project had revealed two particularly powerful approaches: modelling, and target-setting based on the NLP approach of well-formed outcomes.

In Autumn 1988, in my role as the college’s Teaching and Learning Strategies Advisor, I worked with colleagues in a Learning Strategies initiative informed by the concepts of Nisbet and Shucksmith (1986). This included exploring and disseminating students’ good practice in key learning activities such as essay-writing, and revision and exam technique.
Fifteen 1–2 hour sessions were run involving, in all, 15 staff across eight subjects (Biology, Chemistry, Economics, English, History, Home Economics, Religious Studies and Sociology). Approximately 200 first year A-level students were participants. Sessions variously covered research-type essays, exam technique, timed essays, revision technique, coursework projects, and communication and thinking styles. The sessions on research-type essays, timed essays and exam technique adopted a modelling approach.
Student and staff responses were encouraging. In an early questionnaire survey, of 53 student respondents (all those present on the day the survey was carried out), 51 indicated they had enjoyed the sessions, with 44 referring to specific strategies they were intending to adopt. In a follow up questionnaire survey with a subset of students, of 17 respondents, 14 claimed they had incorporated into their study new approaches they had identified in their earlier questionnaires. Verbal feedback from staff and students suggested that students investigating and modelling good practice was a particularly beneficial approach (Day, 1989).
After a post-SEEVIC career in management consultancy and training, and then lecturing and science writing, I returned to the question of whether NLP approaches are effective in an educational context, particularly in relation to examination achievement.
In Spring 2002 I gained Raising Quality and Achievement (RQA) funding from the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA) to collaborate with colleagues at Havering Sixth Form College, Essex (Day, 2002). This enabled me to work as consultant, researcher and course co-provider with four subject teachers and, in each case, one of their classes. For each class the teacher and I devised an examination-preparation course of 8-hours duration. The funding was tied to continuing professional development aimed at raising student and staff achievement. The staff and their classes represented subject areas (GCSE English, GCSE Psychology, AS Accounting, AS Psychology) for which specific improvements in student examination results were being sought by the college senior management team.
The Havering Raising Achievement project enabled some of the current research’s methods to be piloted, such as the action research process and the design of questionnaires. The Essex project‘s requirement to achieve demonstrable results in the few weeks prior to examinations militated against incorporating the more exploratory approaches that characterise classroom modelling. The courses were also rich in overtly non-NLP approaches, such as mind mapping (Buzan, 2000) and Edward de Bono techniques (de Bono, 1985). NLP modelling was to play only a small part in the programme. The 6-hour Learning Toolkit programme run at FCC – the focus of this paper – was more overtly NLP-based than the Havering project, with a much greater emphasis on NLP modelling.

A new course and an associated research methodology

Classroom modelling differs from formal NLP modelling because the student modellers (those who do the modelling) have little or no previous training in NLP. The classroom modelling approach is part of their introduction to NLP, and they are introduced to NLP skills and concepts through two or more cycles of modelling the successful strategies of their peers. Classroom modelling contains elements of NLPmodelling (making new discoveries using NLP methodology) and NLPtraining (training in NLP methodology and application) and to a lesser extent NLPapplication (application of the products of NLP; Bostic St. Clair and Grinder, 2001). The major NLP skills and concepts to which students are introduced include:

Anchoring (an external stimulus or a person’s mental representation being associated with a particular behavioural or physiological response)

Perceptual positions (moving between first, second and third perceptual positions to gain insight)

Dilts’s neurological levels (mapping levels of experience and interpretation – transpersonal, identity, belief, capability, behaviour, and environment)

Devising well-formed outcomes (a rigorous target-setting process)

Table 2. Comparison of classroom modelling and formal NLP modelling

Classroom modelling

Formal modelling

Time allocation

In class, small-group investigations of individuals in a 60-minute lesson. The findings of several groups are then combined for presentation during a second 60-minute lesson.

The investigation of one or more individuals is usually carried out by at least one modeller working two hours or more with each subject. The information-gathering, distillation, and testing phases may last several hours or even days.

NLP tools

A narrow range of NLP tools that are encouraged in 6 hours’ contact time. Emphasis on: perceptual positions; Dilts’s neurological levels; and, well-formed outcomes.

A wide range of NLP tools up to the student’s level of training.

Presupposition difference

To seek those models that represent good practice but with awareness of the potential for cognitive dissonance.

To seek the best available models in terms of their excellence in carrying out a particular task or role.


Emphasis on the exploration itself as a framework for learning. Interview, with implicit and explicit modelling. Use of three perceptual positions. Explanation in terms of Dilts’s neurological levels.

Emphasis on distilling a working model for a particular application. A wider range of procedures, such as formal testing by subtraction, the use of evidence procedures, and finding the limits of the model’s validity.


To offer students a selection of strategies, and key elements the strategies have in common, drawing upon subjects’ values, beliefs, capabilities, behaviour, and the context in which they are expressed.

The key elements of a successful strategy are distilled in a form that can be taught to others.

The classroom modelling I have developed since 1988-1989 differs from formal modelling in NLP in a number of ways (see Table 2). First, classroom modelling provides a learning framework for students as well as a means for exploring the elements of a successful strategy. Formal modelling, however, has the end product of yielding a model of a successful strategy that can be taught to others (Dilts, 1998). Formal modelling was not appropriate for the sixth-form environment due to the lack of time in the curriculum for students to nurture appropriate NLP knowledge, skills and attitudes. An alternative approach would be for teachers to teach NLP-derived models of good practice but I have reservations about this approach. Students would require a background in NLP deeper than they could develop in a 6-hour examination-preparation course. In addition, being taught NLP-derived models of success is akin to a transmission model of teaching, with the teacher as the authority figure and expert who transmits knowledge, skills, and procedures which students then practice, often outside the session itself (Chalmers and Fuller, 1996). Also, I had concerns about cognitive dissonance (Wickland and Brehm, 1976) – about whether students would recognise these models of best practice as something they could aspire to, because they may be so different from their own practice. Classroom modelling circumvents these objections to formal NLP modelling. The reasoning is that students observe how various peers use different strategies in completing a given task and at least some of the elements are likely to resonate with each student.

The strengths of classroom modelling include students investigating their peers, making discoveries for themselves, and building connections between what they discover and their own practice within a framework under tutor guidance. In so doing, students are also introduced to NLP skills and concepts that might serve them well. In devising the course, particular attention was paid to addressing the nine facets of learning articulated in Stoll et al’s (2003) It’s About Learning (and It’s About Time).
The content of the Learning Toolkit short course, as carried out with an AS Biology and an AS Psychology class at Frome Community College in 2004, is shown in Appendix 1. The research methodology that accompanied the course was considered in the context of my role as in-class facilitator with class teachers as participant-observers and resident subject experts.
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) has a novel research methodology that I chose not to adopt for the current research as its sensory-based evidence currently lacks academic acceptability (Craft, 2001; Tosey and Mathison, 2003a, 2003b). NLP also uses techniques that require specific NLP training. The results of NLP investigations are not readily amenable to interpretation by people without this training. Lastly, NLP research methodology, with its focus on the individual and differences between individuals, does not lend itself to generalisations that might apply to the wider student community.
The breadth of research methods was chosen to offer authenticity and richness of interpretation, and to provide opportunities for triangulation to strengthen validity (Andersen with Arsenault, 1998; Denscombe, 1998; Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2000). Patterns in the results are being analysed to construct theory inductively (grounded theory; Glaser and Strauss, 1967). The following research methods were adopted:
• action research (Kemmis and McTaggart eds., 1992; McNiff with Whitehead, 2002) with myself and my practice as the focus, classroom teachers who are participant-observers and subject experts as critical friends, and the vice principal with responsibility for staff development as chair of the validation group

• audiotaping of lessons (for referral, if necessary, during action research one-to-one meetings, and in subsequent qualitative analysis)

• pre-course and end-of-course questionnaire surveys of participating students (the first for course planning purposes, the second to evaluate students’ perceptions of the ease, enjoyment and usefulness of course components)

• semi-structured interviews shortly after the end of the programme with a representative sample of participating students across the range of responses from the final questionnaire survey

• semi-structured interviews with participating classroom teachers at the end of the programme

• using statistical methods to test for significant differences, if any, between value-added scores (based on A-level Information System scores) for participating students and those of the rest of the subject-year cohort

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