In the 1970s, maths student Richard Bandler became interested in the work of therapists Milton Erickson and Virginia Satir and what they had achieved in improving confidence and altering behaviour. He changed to a psychology degree, teamed up with John Grinder, then an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and studied the EricksonSatir models to see how they might be applied to help others, including pupils.
When four Durham schools took part in a pilot project in 2006 designed to explore the potential impact of interventions based on the technique Badler and Grinder came up with - neurolinguistic programming (NLP) - the evaluation reported "an impressive array of positive effects ... not only on the children but also on the staff themselves".
NLP is based on the principle that we all "filter" data and events by distorting, deleting or generalising them. Understanding this led Bandler and Grinder to develop the meta model of language. Precise questioning can uncover what it is that pupils delete, distort or generalise; as a result you can better understand their beliefs and values.
Useful? Well, young people respond to their "map of the world" (their way of seeing things), not yours. Listening carefully to pupils' use of language can also establish their individual thinking styles - or "meta programs".
Do they like to see the big picture or the next small step? Do they build on what they know or look for what is new and different? Are they best motivated towards a goal or are they more keen to avoid what they do not like? These styles, and more, are identifiable from the language they use. Recognise them and employ them so that you can get through to pupils more effectively.
Pupils want teachers who take time to explain, have a positive relationship with them, communicate clearly and behave fairly. In NLP terms, good classroom practice is about creating rapport.
As Roger Terry, co-author of NLP for Teachers, says: "Gaining rapport with your students is number one. If teachers all became brilliant at gaining and maintaining rapport then this would make classroom work a breeze."
You can start off playing with "yes sets" - ask questions based on what you have done in the class that invite a "yes" response, such as "Have you finished?" Then slip in another question that less obviously has a "yes" answer but gets them to agree to your next goal - for example, "Shall we look at this in a bit more detail?"
Strategies for learning
The first step is to assume that you already have rapport with the pupils. Smile, make eye contact and get agreement to simple questions. Pick up on phrases pupils use and use them yourself.
You cannot get rapport if you are not in a resourceful state. Start by clarifying your own values and beliefs about what you are doing in the classroom. The key is to look at yourself first and not blame it on pupils. You can also improve your emotional state by "anchoring" positive feelings of confidence and motivation.
Remember a time you felt confident. Go back and picture what you saw, heard and felt. When the feeling is positive, anchor it by pressing on a knuckle or an ear lobe. Repeat this enough times and you can learn to recall those feelings at will.
Kate Benson, international director of education for the Society of NLP, believes that each pupil has a "strategy for learning". It is important, she says, to appreciate that "learners are doing the best they can with the resources they have".
A strategy is an internal sequence of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic elements that we employ when we want to do just about anything. So we might imagine what a completed task would look like (visual) and how that would make us feel (kinaesthetic), and we become motivated. Can a pupil remember a time when they were totally motivated? What was the first and subsequent trigger that caused them to feel this way? When you discover their strategy you can then use it to motivate them.
NLP offers a rich source of techniques that are useful in the classroom. Some call it the "technology of emotional intelligence". Teaching is about relationships as well as pedagogy, after all. If NLP still has a way to go to be universally accepted, its focus on outcomes for pupils, on rapport building, flexibility in the classroom and influential language means it has a real contribution to make to highly effective teaching.
Mike de Val is a trainer and coach following a career as an MFL teacher and director of children's services
Churches, R. and Terry, R. The NLP Toolkit: for teachers, trainers and school leaders (Crown House, 2009).
Churches, R. and Terry, R. NLP for Teachers (Crown House, 2007).
Mahony, T. Making Your Words Work (Crown House, 2007).