Can we really maximise pupils' brain power by observing which way their eyes move during tricky mental tasks? Fans of an increasingly influential technique claim it could revolutionise our schooling, but others are less convinced. Fran Abrams reports
Tuesday afternoon at London University's Institute of Education and Joanne Webb, a primary teacher from Luton, is standing in front of 100 people trying to spell her name backwards. Joanne, who is studying for an advanced diploma in specific learning difficulties, is dyslexic and she stumbles as she spells out the letters: e-n-n-a-o-j.
The trainer leading her through the exercise, a greying, middle-aged former headteacher whose irrepressible enthusiasm seems to swell his small frame, is delighted with Joanne's successful attempt, though the order in which she produces the letters is of little interest to him.
He turns to his audience, his face alight with triumph. "Did anyone notice her eye movement? She looked up," he announces proudly.
Joanne's eyes, it transpires, hold the key to her brain. That upward glance tells us she is thinking visually. If she were hearing the words, she would look sideways, towards her ears. If she were experiencing them in an emotional or sensory way, she would look down. Welcome to the strange world of neurolinguistic programming.
If this session were taking place at a weekend retreat for enthusiasts of new age philosophy, it would be unremarkable. But it is, in fact, an integral part of an advanced diploma in specific learning difficulties run by the UK's most prestigious institution for the study of education. NLP, as it is commonly known, has penetrated the very heart of Britain's educational establishment.
The institute is not alone in taking these notions seriously. A growing number of local authorities, including Ealing and Essex, are working with the NLP Education Network, founded by today's host, Jeff Lewis. The annual turnover of his company, registered as New Oceans Ltd, has grown from pound;40,000 five years ago to pound;150,000 in the past year. Dozens of consultancies and training organisations are now selling NLP-based courses to schools.
NLP has come a long way from its roots in 1970s California, where it was founded by a mathematician named Richard Bandler and a linguist named John Grinder. They claimed to have distilled the essence of success: positive thinking. They did this by studying three leading therapists - Milton Erickson, Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir - and their thought processes.
Using methods already common in hypnotherapy, they developed a method by which they said the brain could be reordered to channel energy more effectively.
The techniques were taken up by enthusiasts of new age thinking, and, over the years, became popular in corporate training departments. The stage hypnotist Paul McKenna adopted NLP and founded the McKenna Breen Institute to disseminate it more widely. Recently, NLP has begun to make its way from the private sector into the public. The BBC, for example, now runs courses for some of its staff. And it seems to be taking hold in education.
Proponents like to describe it as "a user's manual for the brain". It is, on the evidence of Jeff Lewis's seminar at the Institute of Education, an easy-to-swallow mix of the outlandish and the staggeringly obvious. Little aphorisms crop up throughout the session: "We all have learning preferences"; "The way we act is based on assumptions about the world"; "We prefer to move towards pleasure rather than move away from pain"; "Our eyes are directly connected to our brains". Or, a glorious piece of quasi-mystical banality: "The map is not the territory."
At the heart of this movement is the well-trodden notion that each of us has our own style of thinking. But NLP takes this idea further. Thinking styles can be pinpointed, it teaches, through eye-movement exercises such as the one Joanne was involved in. Or we may discover it through quizzes in which we are asked to visualise the face of a friend, imagine the sensation of cold water on our hand or summon up the sound of church bells.
By such tests we can discover whether we are visual, auditory or kinaesthetic thinkers, and, allegedly, transform our lives. We can all use these "tools" to improve our self-esteem, become more motivated, communicate better and get richer. We can use our new-found self-awareness to manipulate our moods, or even those of others: by recognising the mechanisms through which we experience happiness, or positivity, we can induce them at will.
Jeff Lewis is ambitious. "My dream is to have this systematically in education from the word go," he says. And many of the 100 or so people who attended his seminar are clearly impressed. Sharon Hutton-Young, a learning mentor studying for a PGCE, says she has already used similar techniques with her pupils after reading a book on the subject. "I've used it to manage anger," she says. "I get my child to imagine a happy situation, then turn up the volume and turn up the brightness. It really works. Every now and then I strengthen the positive image by getting him to go back to it again."
Jeff's Lewis's "guinea pig", Joanne Webb, is bursting with enthusiasm after the "excellent" session. "It's amazing. I'm planning to take this back to my headteacher and use it in my school," she says. "I want to learn more about it. I could use this not just with pupils who have problems with spelling, but with children who have behavioural difficulties, too." Jeff Lewis - a self-confessed "kinaesthetic" thinker - requests a hug from Sharon and Joanne and promises to keep in touch.
But others are more sceptical. During the session, Laurens Pattiasina, a primary teacher from the east London borough of Tower Hamlets, sits at the back of the room with an expression of distaste on his face. At one point he mutters something that sounds like "rubbish". "This is too good to be true," he explains afterwards. "Where does it come from? It seems very superficial. Where's the research? You can't just come here to the Institute of Education and teach something that is just a hypothesis.
"Most of this diploma course has been quite well chosen, well documented.
You can go back and look at the references. But in this session that has been missing," he says.
His course tutor, Jill Brackenbury, now agrees with him and has decided to drop the NLP session next year. "I think there are some useful things about it. Focusing on learning to learn is very important," she told The TES earlier this month. "I think some of the work is very interesting and it can work, but it wasn't made clear at all where the research evidence was coming from. I wouldn't invite them again."
Laurens Pattiasina and Jill Brackenbury have identified a problem with NLP.
Even its greatest enthusiasts are hard-pressed to find serious scientific research that backs up its wilder claims. A website has even been set up to gather research on NLP theories, but out of 12 pieces of academic research picked at random from its lists, only one agrees that NLP works. One is noncommittal, and 10 conclude unequivocally that it is plain wrong.
Several of the studies tested the notion that types of eye-movement might indicate modes of thinking, and conclude that it is unfounded. One study, reported in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, found subjects often proved visual in one type of test but auditory or kinaesthetic in others. Another examined an NLP claim to be able to "cure" anxiety in a single one-hour session, and found the method proved no more effective than simply sitting quietly for an hour. The US military examined NLP as a possible means of enhancing performance among its personnel but dismissed it, concluding there was "little or no scientific evidence" to support it.
Among those who have been critical of NLP is Anna Craft, a senior lecturer at the Open University who wrote a critique of it for the Curriculum Journal in 2001. She argued that there were fundamental inconsistencies in the approach which, she suggested, needed to be addressed before it could be taken up widely as an educational model.
In particular she argued that the theory on which NLP was founded - that by understanding how an expert works we can simply copy the process and teach it to others - was questionable. "I concluded that it was a set of strategies with some fundamental incoherences," she says. "They all need to be addressed before you could say this is anything like a theory. They may work as strategies but they are not as tidy as they seem.
"The idea that each individual has his or her own journey and makes their own sense of the world is at the heart of 21st-century living, and in that sense it's familiar. NLP is about enabling people to find their own path, but compared to other theories of learning it is not well underpinned."
But despite the lack of supporting evidence, these theories can be seductive, not least because their advocates are such committed, energetic people. Jackie Beere, headteacher of the Campion school, a comprehensive in Northamptonshire, says she was instantly fascinated when, browsing in a bookshop one day, she picked up a book on NLP. "What hooked me was the quotations from Alice in Wonderland. I just love Lewis Carroll and his 'six impossible things before breakfast'. My background is as a biology teacher and I have some knowledge of the brain. I felt, 'I can relate to this'."
Mrs Beere went on an introductory weekend course on NLP before taking a longer course at the McKenna Breen Institute. Since then she has been taking her new-found talents out into a wider field, running courses for other schools, teachers and special needs co-ordinators. She has also used the methods in her own school, training staff to use them with pupils as well as employing them in one-to-one counselling sessions.
"I've been doing this seriously for just under a year and I've probably got into contact with several hundred people. I've been going into schools running small workshops. I've done things for LEAs and I've also given speeches on NLP at conferences," she explains.
Mrs Beere was recently awarded an OBE for her work in developing "learning to learn" courses for schools, a project into which she has woven NLP. In her own school, pupils are enthusiastic about the course, which is accredited as a half-GCSE.
Andrew Broughton, a Year 11 pupil at the school, explains: "We've learned stress control, mood control, optimism and empathy. "We've learned, if we're feeling down or mentally weak, to imagine a circle and put the person we admire the most into it. Mine is my mum. Then you imagine stepping into the circle and becoming that person, so you feel all-powerful and have the strength they would have. It's been really good."
Andrew and his classmates have not been introduced to the phrase "neurolinguistic programming," which literally means language programming for the brain. Instead, they have been told what they are learning is "emotional intelligence". But despite this slight reticence, Mrs Beere is quick to defend NLP, insisting it has a legitimate role to play in our education system.
"To me it isn't about whether your eyes move this way or that way," she says. "It's about how you can control your mind to empower yourself. It isn't just about techniques, it's about an attitude to life."
Association for Neuro-Linguistic Programming: www.anlp.org. NLP Education Network: www.new-oceans.co.uk