Guide to methods part 2: NLP in ELT

Would you like to have it all? Be the person you’ve always known you could be? Unleash the real power of your mind? Even have the ability to influence other people’s decisions? All of this is possible through the power of Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). 
NLP is a therapy type of self-help program which was invented in the 1970s by two undergraduates, a linguist, John Grinder and a mathematician, Richard Bandler (though he later studied psychology). It was based on the idea that everyone views the world through one of their senses (PRS) and that if you know which sense is dominant in an individual then you can subtly influence their behaviour. NLP trainees are taught that a person’s ‘PRS’ can be detected by listening to the language they use.  For example a person who says “I see” a lot is visually orientated and someone saying “I get your meaning” is more of a kinesthetic person.  If this doesn’t work you can always watch their eye movements and this will also tell you what PRS a person has. 

Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of NLP you can become a “master practitioner” in around 12 days for the bargain basement price of £2,000. It’s so easy that the BBC’s Chris Jackson managed to have his cat George registered with the British board of Neuro Linguistic Programming; an impressively short amount of time for something claims to give users so much power and promises so much.

And promise it does; NLP practitioners can apparently cure allergies, phobias, depression, among (many) other things. It is also claimed that NLP is useful for business people, teachers, writers, athletes and even parents.  There is certainly no shortage of ways to find out about NLP, as well as the training courses there are over 400 NLP books listed on amazon

To devotees NLP is incredibly effective and its creators are geniuses. Devotees fill conference halls and pay thousands to watch the likes of Bandler speak. It is also vague enough to avoid really close scrutiny. Claiming to offer “more success” or “greater happiness” are not things which can be easily measured or falsified. Some of the more concrete claims however can, and have been subjected to scientific evaluation and the results are not pretty. 

Two large reviews of NLP literatureshowed it to be ineffective; it is all but ignored in the field of psychology where it is regarded as pseudoscience. More specifically, research has shown flaws with the basic tenets of NLP, that eye movements neither indicate honesty nor show that PRS is a useful concept. None of this, of course, fazes supporters of NLP, who, like fans of homoeopathy or horoscopes “know it works”. 

NLP is also something of a shape-shifter. It started in the field of psychology but moved to self-help where it currently resides. It has also moved into business and teaching and from there it started making inroads through both business English and through the more touchy-feely humanistic side of ELT. 

In the field of TEFL, NLP has continued to have support among a small but dedicated group. There have been books and numerous positive articles in TEFL magazines like English teaching professional, and there has even been an uncritical paper about NLP in the hallowed pages of The English language teaching journal

And while NLP is not a major approach (some teachers have no doubt never heard of it) it does have a hard-core of committed enthusiast headed up by Mario Rinvolucri. These teachers spend time trying to work out their students’ PRS by watching their eyes or listening to which words they use. All this means we have the rather ironic situation where educators and education journals promote ineffective pseudo-science in the name of education. Perhaps though, as Ben Goldacre has shown with BrainGym’s widespread use in schools this shouldn’t be all that surprising.  

On a final note, there is also a potentially sinister side to NLP. The idea of ‘programming’ students, -changing their way of thinking- potentially against their will and without them even knowing you did it, is at best creepy, and at worst unethical. Luckily, by all accounts, NLP doesn’t work, so we don’t need to worry about that. It does however cost a lot of money and goes against what teachers really should be doing in class. More worryingly though is how easily our educators can be fooled into buying into this kind of magical thinking. I wonder anxiously if our classrooms will soon be full of teachers touting the benefits of tarot cards for vocabulary retention and Ouija boards for improving reading skills.

Book review: Bad education & teacher proof

Both Tom Bennett’s “Teacher proof” and “Bad education” share something with this website. As I noted before, one of the biggest influences on this site was Ben Goldacre. These two books owe a debt to Goldacre as well; Bad Education opening with a quote from “Bad Science” and Bennett notes of Goldacre “it was [his] book that started me thinking about science in education.”(2013:74).
They also, perhaps unsurprisingly, tackle similar topics to this blog, so we have debunkings of learning styles and (in Bennett) NLP and BrainGym. Both books also talk about two topics I haven’t touched on yet Emotional intelligence (because I’ve never seen it mentioned in regard to EFL) and Multiple intelligences (It’s been sitting in my “drafts” for months!). But this is where the similarities end.

Each book has strengths and weaknesses. “Teacher Proof” is accessible and funny, whereas Bad education is more thorough. While Bennett’s book is a more populist work, Bad Education veers more towards the strictly academic. So while in Bennett’s book there are jokes, Bad Education tends more towards academia ‘light’, -but even this isn’t really a fair characterisation of style as Bad Education, in contrast to “teacher proof” is a collection of essays with no single author. The advantage with this is that each author is an expert in the field they discuss. Thus the Chapter on Learning styles is written by Frank Coffield (he of that report) and the chapter on Multiple intelligence is written by Phillip Adey (who sadly died after the book was published).

Reading “teacher proof” was a bit of a roller coaster for me. Firstly, I was excited it finally came out. Next I got it home and read “Tom Bennett has been a full time teacher since 2003 and is the resident behaviour Guru for the Times educational supplement since 2009” Wow! I thought, teaching for less time than me and this guy writes for The Times?! (I had a similar feeling when I first discovered Anne Merritt “language expert” in the telegraph who has been teaching for all of 6 years.-how do you get gigs like this!?)  Next I thought, -What’s a behaviour Guru anyway? I pushed these (envious/bitter?) thoughts aside, and decided to judge the book by its content.
Basically “teacher proof” is a book of two halves. One half is good and the other is, well…not as good. The first section is a long treaties on the philosophy of knowledge. Bennett studied philosophy and so it’s tempting to think he probably felt quite comfortable writing this part, but it’s not at all clear the book benefits from it. At the start of this section he says it will be a “brief – I promise” so perhaps he’s aware that this isn’t the strongest part of the book. Goldacre manages to explain the ‘science’ as he introduces topics, which makes it far more engaging as concepts are explained to you “just in time” to understand why some particular fad is bogus. In short, the primer on epistemology doesn’t really work.  

The biggest problem in this section is when Bennett claims “Experience trumps theory every time”. At this point I was  almost ready to stop reading, as my feelings on experience differ greatly. In this section, as Willingham writes, it almost seems as if Bennett is disagreeing with himself though, I think, as another reviewer put it, Bennett is probably just a bit clumsy here. I’m guessing what Bennett means is “unproven theories” can be trumped be evidence, -not “experience is better than solid research”, -or at least, that’s what I hope he’s saying.

The second section on “voodoo teaching” is the meat and here he really strikes a chord, laying into group work, three part lessons and ‘gamification’ among many others in short sharp chapters. Bennett is often funny, and I’m grateful for that, as anyone who has to read a lot of papers will know, educational papers can be terribly dull . The only problem here is that  the style often seems to become a bit too ‘bloke-down-the-pub’ for example:

This is another thing that always gets me in education; there is a lot of this stuff, particularly the twenty-first century gas

It’s at these moments that the humour feels a bit too forced and the style a bit too loose. Perhaps this is Bennett and perhaps this is what appeals to teachers and makes it accessible but it wore thin at times. And this  highlights what was the biggest problem for me, the seeming lack of a good editor. I think Routledge let Bennett down somewhat, in this regard. A better editor would have cautioned against the first half and tidied the book. For example on p146 we have ‘incidentally’ twice in  quick succession and on p 71. he writes “I’m not making that up” twice. This might be nit-picking, but these kind of things add to the, at times, disordered feel of the book. And this is a shame as Bennett can write very well such as when talking about group work he argues that “In a group, lazy-kids get a chance to really spread their lazy-ass wings and reach heights of doing absolutely nothing”(77)  

Bennett’s writing was particularly good when he tackled “techno” love in schools. This is something I’ve thought about but haven’t really had a good chance to look into yet, so teacher proof gave some good insights. I found myself nodding when I read “I’ve noticed on social network sites I lurk around, especially twitter [that] many teachers put in their biographies that they are “passionate about integrating technology in the classroom”‘. (124) before pointing out how little evidence there is that technology helps enhance learning at all. He also points out how much of the push for ‘digital classrooms’ emanates not from teachers or researchers but from “commercially interested parties”.

All in all I enjoyed “teacher proof” especially as it helped me feel A) I’m not the only one who feels they are going insane where education is concerned and B) He taught me about some wacky teaching theories I’d not yet heard of. One example of this is “thinking hats” which is mind bendingly odd. I headed straight for Google after reading about it and sure enough, never one to miss a trick, someone in the TEFL world has managed to co-opt this nonsense.

Bad education was a very thought provoking read, challenging some assumptions I had, like, for example, the idea that smaller classes are better, for instance or the notion that progressive education trumps traditional education. There is even a section which (carefully) unpicks myths related to dyslexia. Bad education is probably more the kind of resource I can use, but whereas I read “teacher proof” from cover to cover, there are sections of bad education which don’t have any relevance to me and remain unread, like a chapter on “computers Vs calculators” and perhaps this is telling.