More nonsense for teachers to avoid

I recently ran a staff survey asking for comments and suggestions about our peer-coaching programme. Within this questionnaire, I also asked what teachers would find interesting to read on this blog and one response asked for something on using Neuro Linguistic Programming as an effective way of communicating to students.

So, here’s a whirlwind tour of NLP and a brief explanation for why it’s utterly misleading nonsense.

What is NLP?

NLP began back in the 1970s as a systematic approach to understanding how charismatic individuals managed to quickly form a rapport and manipulate others. It developed as a form of psychotherapy, ostensibly reproducing the way that skilled therapists created rapport with their clients. The basic idea is that our picture of the world is a subjective representation based on the five senses and that by manipulating these sense-based subjective representations, the behaviour of individuals can be modified.

NLP claims that for most people, under most circumstances, three of these five senses dominate; visual thoughts like sight or mental imagery, auditory thoughts like speaking or other sounds and kinaesthetic sense including temperature, pressure and (oddly) emotion.

Yes, this is where most of the ideas around VAK as different learning styles originated.

Modern proponents of VAK typically use questionnaires to determine a person’s sensory preferences. Here’s one posted on the TES for KS2 children. VAK questionnaires are also in business, career guidance and one from a Staffordshire University personal skills course.

Typically, the responses to the questions are added and the mode response indicates your learning style. For example:

I tend to say:
a) I see what you mean
b) I hear what you are saying
c) I know how you feel

Another method NLP practitioners use to help identify which kind of mental processing habits a person possesses are eye movements. There’s no single system for analysing this, but a common system considers upward movements to indicate visual thinking, side-to-side for auditory and downwards to the right for kinaesthetic. NLP practitioners are usually quick to point out that this isn’t true for everyone. They observe a person for some time to identify patterns and correlations between eye movements and thinking styles.

Mouvements-oculaires-PNL

The therapy appears to involve forming an instant rapport with the client through verbal techniques like using ‘predicates’ and ‘keywords’ (i.e. sensory based words) and non-verbal tricks like ‘mirroring’ (i.e. deliberately using postural echo). Like scientology, NLP treats all psychiatric conditions as psychosomatic. This means that some practitioners claim to be able to use NLP to treat serious conditions like schizophrenia, depression and epilepsy. The major therapeutic claim is that by using techniques to ‘tap into’ these preferred thinking styles, the therapist can help the client reframe their subjective map, helping them to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.

NLP as a way of forming instant rapport and as a basis for effective teaching has found a significant foothold in education. There are numerous training courses offering their services to teachers and a small, but evangelical community of researchers. It has started to gain considerable credibility; for example, this report from 2006 details teachers using NLP techniques with the financial support of Durham LA.

“This report outlines the findings from the research projects. What you’ll discover is an impressive array of positive effects of the use of NLP-based interventions not only on the children, but also on the staff themselves.”

Action research projects into NLP have also be supported by the CfBT Education Trust in 2010.

“This report provides a comprehensive and detailed survey of how NLP relates to effective learning and teaching and so increases our confidence in continuing to explore and extend our understanding of its potential.”

Uncritical positive appraisals of NLP can be found almost anywhere, for example this BBC Active (in partnership with Pearson) article from 2010.

“The benefits of understanding and utilising sensory-based learning and representational systems in the classroom will change the face of education. The knowledge of NLP allows the teacher to have an amazing set of tools to get the best out of their class.”

So, I can perfectly see why teachers might want me to run sessions on NLP. It’s not going to happen for reasons I’ll explain:

NLP is utter pseudoscience

One of the major reasons we need an evidence-based approach to education is because of the sheer amount of non-science and nonsense that has managed to inveigle its way into teaching. I’ve written before about some of the neuromyths that stubbornly lurk in the staffroom.

Proponents of NLP often suggest that it is something very new, but as I’ve related it’s actually been around since the 1970s. Therefore, if there was something genuinely useful to the system, one would expect a significant body of evidence to have been built up in the last 40 odd years. However, if anything – where NLP actually makes testable claims – the evidence has stacked up against it.

VAK is unforgivable nonsense

The idea that we have learning preferences based on our Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic senses is widely repeated and believed, despite having been repeatedly and convincingly debunked. For all that the small community of evidence-interested teachers promote this fact, the case against learning styles has failed to penetrate the educational community.

Sharp et al (2008) reviews the evidence base for VAK learning styles. The title of his paper somewhat reveals his conclusions: VAK or VAK-uous? Towards the trivialisation of learning and the death of scholarship

He starts by looking at some genuine, though unsuccessful, attempts to define and measure learning styles. The evidence suggests that, even where this is approached in a psychometric way, these learning style models lack validity or simply haven’t been evaluated with anything approaching rigour. This conclusion was also reached in a systematic review by Coffield et al (2004) Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review.

What puzzled Sharp’s team was where teachers were getting this idea about VAK from.

“What perplexed us most was that no one we spoke to seemed to have any idea about where the VAK they were familiar with came from. We also quickly established that the VAK instruments we had been able to find and look at in schools bore little resemblance to any of the research instruments from within the learning styles ‘establishment’.”

The VAK questionnaires are shoddy and poorly designed compared to the sorts of questionnaires that psychologists interested in learning styles actually use. In their research into this question, they found that:

“What we did not expect to find was that most teachers seemed to be relying fully on the authority, knowledge and say-so of others for their information and that VAK seemed to be working its way around some schools on a ‘by word-of-mouth’ basis.”

In terms of identifying learning VAK preferences, Sharp et al make the same connection to NLP.

“On the determination of individual learning styles preferences, Smith begins by suggesting that these can be ‘discerned through noticing different [physiological and linguistic] cues’ (1996, 42), a technique imported, we assume, from NLP.”

“Children with visual learning styles preferences, for example, might direct their gaze or move their eyes upwards, their breathing might be shallow and take place high in their chests, their voices might come across as high pitched, they might comment, ‘I see what you mean’, and they can ‘readily construct imagined scenes’. But no evidence is presented to help the reader establish how such cues ever came to lead to such determinations.”

The authors point out that DfES as recently as 2006 were effectively endorsing VAK on their website, though they believe this was a response to its sudden popularity rather than an instigation.

“At no time, however, has the Department indicated that teachers are under any obligation to adopt VAK in their teaching at all, though the potential benefits of doing so are clearly implied, possibly as a result of government’s drive towards individualised and personalised learning.”

Sharp et al do not pull their punches in their conclusion:

“VAK, as it appears to us, is, in many instances, shrouded in pseudoscience, psychobabble and neurononsense. VAK’s instrumentation, as far we have encountered it, is seriously flawed, never establishing any sense of validity or reliability. As such, it can lay no claim to any diagnostic, predictive or pedagogical power whatsoever. The labelling of children in schools as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners is not only unforgivable, it is potentially damaging, though the various authors associated with VAK are not to be blamed for how VAK has been taken and applied. Any evidence that VAK ‘works’, be it with instrumentation, activities or strategies, is, at the present time, entirely anecdotal.”

The psychologist Daniel Willingham has tried to explain why VAK learning styles feels so plausible, but is entirely wrong here: Learning styles don’t exist

NLP doesn’t work

NLP originated as a form of psychotherapy and (like CBT is doing now) invaded the classroom as a way of manipulating children’s personalities so that they ‘learn better’.

As related above, NLP practitioners sometimes make extraordinary bold claims about the things it can treat. If it’s effective, then despite its flawed theoretical underpinning, there might be an argument in its favour. So, the serious question is, does it actually help people?

Back in 1985, Krugman et al identified that some of the claims of NLP therapy were not standing up to scrutiny.

“Overall, the findings of this study indicate that the NLP single-session treatment for phobias was no more effective in reducing public speaking anxiety than … a waiting-list control condition, as measured by self-report and behavioral ratings”

Witkowski carried out a review of 35 years of NLP research, examining the research database in order to establish the strength of the evidence-base supporting this psychotherapy. He notes, despite the absence of NLP from any academic psychology textbook, that its tenets are informally applied within the UK education system.

From the sample of articles, he found that a sizeable number merely contained polemics and discussion about the benefits of NLP rather than testing any empirical claims and that a similar number actually had nothing to do with NLP, but had somehow found themselves incorporated into the NLP research base.

“All this leaves me with an overwhelming impression that the analyzed base of scientific articles is treated just as theater decoration, being the background for the pseudoscientific farce, which NLP appears to be.”

Witkowski (2012) reports in the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice that:

“Despite this lack of scientific support, NLP has evolved into a big business, luring people with the prospects of amazing changes, opportunities for great personal development, and uniquely effective psychotherapy results. This raises an important ethical question: Is it ethical to promote an intervention that is devoid of scientific support?”

NICE do not recommend NLP as a psychotherapy and a number of reviews have found that it does not live up to its claims. Interestingly, this was in the news within the last year. The BBC reported that a Welsh charity was recently criticised for using NLP to treat war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress. Dr Neil Kitchiner, head of the NHS All Wales Veterans Health and Wellbeing service, said he has not seen evidence of the treatment working.

“None of them are cured as far as I’ve seen, after three days treatment,” he said. “Some have been made very unwell as a result of going there and have needed a lot of support from NHS and veterans’ charities.”

The invasion of the pseudosciences

The drive towards evidence-based medicine has done us all a great service. Superstitious beliefs, dangerous practices and quack remedies have slowly been weeded out over time, as well-controlled research has taken root in the profession. Not so for education, where anecdotal evidence or ‘opinion with numbers’ frequently rules the roost. As a result, teachers are especially vulnerable to these pseudoscientific ideas.

Having been ousted to the very fringes of psychotherapy, NLP appears to have found a home within education. NLP is a pile of empirically false assertions mounted on theoretically flawed foundations. It started as a systematic way of understanding how charismatic magicians and charlatans managed to persuade people. It failed to do this in a scientifically valid way and risks becoming that which it originally sought to understand. Action research into this field represents the worst kind of education research as it starts with a false premise then investigates them using methods which are fundamentally open to bias and expectation effects. The publication of this research then goes on to mislead other teachers into thinking there is something worthy of consideration – and the infestation of pseudoscience grows.

This is why evidence-based research is vital. We need to weed out these time-consuming, wasteful, frankly ridiculous ideas from education. Where teachers undertake research, we need to base these investigations on more empirically solid foundations. For all the problems of meta-analysis and the limits of RCTs, we have to start building these foundations if we hope to genuinely deserve the title of professionals.

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30 Responses to More nonsense for teachers to avoid

  1. I think one of the reasons why the VAK model has caught on is because children often utilise some sensory modalities better than others. This is often the case if the child has an impairment in one modality. For example, children with Down’s syndrome are often described as ‘visual learners’, not because they have a visual ‘learning style’ but because they often have problems with auditory processing.

    When my son (who doesn’t have DS) was little, he had real difficulty with visual searches. If he was looking for a particular type of lego brick in a box, for example, he would have to handle the bricks during his search. He was later found to have minor auditory and visual impairments that wouldn’t be a problem individually, but together present significant problems. Minor sensory processing impairments often aren’t detected until well into children’s school careers because they are not looked for unless all else has failed.

    I agree with Willingham that the most important sensory modality for teaching is the one that sheds most light on the particular subject matter being taught, but it’s easy to mistake minor impairments in one sensory modality indicate a ‘preference’ for learning in another.

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    • Yes, we use all of our sensory modalities depending on the material we are trying to learn. There may be specific cases where a modality possesses a deficit, but that’d not the same as the claims of VAK. There are no learning styles – and indeed, if we struggle with a specific modality then likely we need more practice at it.

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      • I’m not claiming sensory deficits are the same as VAK. I was pointing out that children with known sensory deficits are sometimes described as [insert sensory modality here] learners because of their sensory deficits, and that’s why VAK could have acquired more credibility than you’d expect.

        Maybe I’m giving VAK proponents too much benefit of the doubt, but also, teachers in mainstream schools are often unaware of the range of sensory processing problems children can encounter. Unfortunately, ‘more practice’ doesn’t always hack it.

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      • Yes – you’re right. Having a cognitive deficit or a sensory impairment is definitely not the same as having a preferred learning style that allows people to ‘tap in’ and alter your perception of reality (this is what VAK basically is!). It’s true, that many teachers aren’t aware or equipped for dealing with some of the complicated cases that come through our classroom doors – (yes, practice in some cases simply isn’t the answer). However, VAK is utterly invalid and unhelpful and we should discourage these ideas wherever we find them!

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  2. bt0558 says:

    I have never been convinced by the general claims of NLP.

    However, I worked with a guy about 16 years ago who was an NLPer. On a not too frequent but regular basis, he was able to sort out some serious phobias extremely quickly. How he did it I never quite understood but he did have a good deal of success.

    I am not sure that this leads us anywhere at all, but I always wondered whether there was some sort of overlap twix NLP and other forms of intervention therefore what he was doing was NLP, but at the same time it wasn’t if you know what I mean.

    I am still gobsmacked when I recall the various instances that I was aware of.

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    • That’s the difficulty of case or anecdotal level evidence – we don’t have a comparison group to judge the result against. Having been around for over ~40 years, it would be reasonable to expect stronger evidence to support the role of NLP in psychotherapy. As the Wales case suggests (in the article),

      Prof Greenberg says unless NLP is subjected to what are known as randomised clinical trials it cannot be established as an appropriate treatment for PTSD.
      He added: “NLP has not been investigated by proper scientific trials to show it works.
      “The key point is, just because someone feels good at end session, there is no guarantee they’re going to feel good in the future.”

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      • I think bt0558 makes an important point. Complex interventions can be genuinely effective even if the effective element is embedded within a bunch of snake-oil elements and accompanied by a spurious theory. Take, for example, the ancient practice of anointing patients with wine. There’s no question that alcohol applied to the skin prior to surgery (especially in the form of the spirits used by naval surgeons) improved survival rates, but it wasn’t because of the anointing ritual in and of itself or because it had religious significance.

        I’m uneasy about the current preoccupation with RCTs in education; unlike medical trials which usually involve highly specified treatments and highly specified groups of patients, most educational interventions are complex and the students involved don’t form a homogeneous group. An RCT is likely to tell you little about effectiveness unless you are looking for one-size-fits-all interventions or are prepared to take a closer look at what happens to particular sub-groups of students.

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      • I recognise that one concern about RCT research in education is that it might lead to rather overly simplistic ideas about what teachers should be doing. Making unequivocal judgements based on limited data isn’t science though. Real science is cumulative and contingent – and typically the conclusions are treated very cautiously until a large significant body of reliable results allows us to state with some certainty (e.g. Earth goes round the Sun rather than the other way around).

        You’re not against RCTs, by the sound of it; you’re in favour of genuine science.

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      • bt0558 says:

        I didn’t mention feeling good in the future. Indeed interventions backed up by RCTs will probably be unable to make such claims.

        I am just telling you that these people had phobias. I have a phobia of spiders so I know what phobias are like. I have seen people who have phobias, who no longer respond to the things about which they were phobic after a very short time. I still know some of them and they are still “cured”. I don’t know whether they were cured by NLP, but I do know that the NLP practitioner, who was not a nutcase, believed that they were doing NLP and that the phobias were sorted.

        It makes no difference to me whether people see my expereince as anecdotal and based on limited instances. I am simply saying what I saw.

        I have seen qualified doctors who use some form of “natural medicine” in addition to modern RCT based medicine and they guarantee they get results, and indeed their patients confirm such. When I am cured, I am not too bothered whether there is an RCT to support the intervetion I received.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for your post. Actually, medical RCTs often do look at long term outcomes, but I sense this isn’t the issue you have with my post. I can’t argue about your experience; but there are different interpretations for why it appeared successful (e.g. placebo effect or spontaneous remission) and we can’t generalise about the efficacy of a psychotherapy from a specific case.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. ijstock says:

    Thanks – the more this kind of thing can be said, the better. However, I still fear that your preferred antidote is a step too far. Being able to debunk false cures for bodily aliments is one thing, and being able to do the same thing for speculative, pre-emptive educational interventions is quite another.
    My worry is that putting too much faith in the supposed power of research will simply leave the profession wide open to all of the junk that currently ails it. After all, it is possible to find social-science research that ‘proves’ pretty much anything…

    Far better to accept our limitations and seek another approach entirely.

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    • Thanks – you’re right, we can’t point out how wrong this stuff is often enough! But how do I know it’s wrong? Well, because the scientific evidence simply doesn’t support its claims.

      I simply think we haven’t actually tried an evidence-based approach in education. The purpose of science isn’t to positively ‘prove’ that something works, but to falsify theories and claims. Without this process embedded within the profession, we leave ourselves open to repeating these kinds of mistakes over and over.

      Science has shown that it can be applied to enormously complicated topics (e.g. climate change, understanding the human genome, etc). For all the limitations of the scientific method, I disagree; I just don’t see a better approach out there.

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      • ijstock says:

        You may well be right – and if we can use it to avoid rubbish, then it has to be good. But part of the reason the problem has always been there is that no one has yet found a good solution to it. And when it comes to climate change etc., then science isn’t as yet doing anything more than offering possibilities/probabilites – not certainty. Yes the evidence looks strong, but it certainly isn’t preventing disagreement or poor practice.

        If you can spare the time, I would be interested for your thoughts on the points I wrote here: http://ijstock.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/smacks-of-inconsistency/ I’m just trying to get my head round all of this…

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      • I suspect my reply to logicalincrementism (above) might have equally worked here. I agree. Genuine science doesn’t offer certainty off the back of one or two studies – evidence is cumulative, not an event. Actually, it tends to be the pseudoscientific approaches that offer bogus certainty rather than scientific doubt.

        Thanks for the link – I’ll definitely read when I have chance.

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        • ijstock says:

          Thanks again. I think the most persuasive part of your last comment is the acknowledgment of the limits of evidence. As you say, it is the trumped-up claims that are the give-away with pseudo-science. I would suggest that real science still only deals with probabilities since one can never know the future – the difference between a rule and a law.

          But the problem is, you then suggest that science ‘proves’ their claims wrong, but go on to accept that science struggles to prove much at all – beyond a shadow of doubt. If it can’t prove something incontrovertibly right, then it can’t prove it wrong either – and we’re back to square one. And that is with pure science, let alone behavioural/social science. It is this, rather than any ideological objection that I am struggling with – and the fact that confidence levels of anything less than 100% make it very difficult to know what to use when in a behvioural situation.

          If there were an easy answer, I guess we would have found it by now!

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      • Thanks for the comment. I can see why you might feel there’s an inconsistency between my saying that science never ‘proves’ something true and saying that it’s purpose is to falsify bad ideas (leading them to be rejected – or at least refined). Part of this comes down to the very essence of the question ‘what is science?’

        If you’re interested in what think about the relationship between scientific method and teaching – I explore this issue here: https://evidenceintopractice.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/the-restless-relationship-between-science-and-teaching/

        Liked by 1 person

  4. chrishildrew says:

    I had a session on NLP and VAK as part of my NPQH just two months ago. I’m not kidding. https://twitter.com/chrishildrew/status/476669419264159744

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  5. ijstock says:

    Thank you for that link – a very helpful read. But bt0558’s recent comment also echoes my concerns. Whether RCTs etc. can tell us ‘what works’ in a practical sense or not is not the entire issue.

    Educational interventions are only of any real significance precisely at that individual level which fall within the margin of error of any scientific probability measure. The only way to know what (might) work in any specific situation is to be there and try it. I suspect the average pupil/parent is also less concerned about what works in a general sense so much as whether the individual child is getting a good education.

    Your other post comes close to conceding that ‘what works’ can really only be measured in terms of exam results. While I am no wishy-washy in this respect, neither do I accept that exam results alone are a satisfactory end-measure of what we do.

    And then there are the philosophical objections: even assuming we could crack this, there are ethical implications for such cast-iron mind control that I would not want to be part of. History ought to warn us of the implications for this kind of exercise.

    Good discussion – I may well discuss these ideas further on my own blog in coming days (in addition to the post on smacking).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: When Science only clouds the matter | teaching personally

  7. Pedro says:

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    I wrote some posts on myths in NLP: Mythbusting: I see the lies in your eyes? Ehm, no, you don’t. and this one on possible dangerous effects of NLP-based therapies. This overview gives more, a lot more. I never saw the link between NLP and learning styles actually.

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  8. Reblogged this on Blogcollectief Onderzoek Onderwijs and commented:
    Pedro De Bruyckere recommended this post at the ‘Evidence into Practice’ education blog, debunking NLP as one of the many persistent myths that invaded education over the last decades.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. wiltwhatman says:

    I’;d hazard a significant reason why Learning Styles, VAK and Multiple Intelligences are prevalent i education, and persistent as myths, is because they seem to be espoused by, and embedded in teacher training and educational training courses.

    This is only part of the reason for their persistence, I’d guess, but it may be a significant one.

    I’ve encountered them in every educational training course I’ve taken (not a huge amount), and took them on faith, and espoused them in turn, basing my belief not on facts, evidence, or data, but on faith in the expertise of those training me, until I encountered evidence based bloggers debunking them.

    It does seem that universities, training institutions, postgrad programs and instructors continue to give these myths currency, and the authority their positions and reputations can bestow helps propagate them further. It’s difficult to disbelieve and critically engage with everything you are asked to assess a.nd accept on training courses and degree programmes. There simply isn;t the time.

    Thanks for writing such a detailed, direct and fluent debunking.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments. Yes – these pervasive myths are so difficult to uproot from education. It’s likely that ed training courses reinforce these (though there are a great many that actively contest them), though much of the enthusiasm for VAK has come from teachers in schools rather than formal training providers in the main. Sharp et al (vocal skeptics from within university education depts) struggled to find where they came from and how they reached such prominence – suggesting that ideas about VAK were spread word-of-mouth rather than from a consistent source.

      My personal suspicion is that education consultants – trained in NLP – were likely the principle source of this snake-oil. There are NLP training courses for teachers and I’ve experienced two such in my career (complained bitterly both times). I’ve typically found VAK nonsense often crops up in SEN resources (suggesting ways of differentiating for learning needs) and occasionally in revision materials (including one from an external provider running a revision skills day). I wonder whether NLP sneaked in through external INSET initially – then was uncritically adopted by teachers (and even the DFES) by virtue of its popularity and a false consensus regarding its validity.

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      • ijstock says:

        I remember for certain that it appeared in my school via centrally-led INSET, and then immediately became the sine qua non to be demonstrating if you wanted a good lesson observation. Managers adopted it apparently without question and imposed it on those lower down. So to at least some extent it was propagated by those in L&T positions in schools. Where they got it from isn’t clear – but I suspect from consultants on the courses they seem continually to attend.

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      • wiltwhatman says:

        I’m writing from an Irish context and perspective, and my suggestions with regard to institutional and degree/course propogation are just that, suggestions.

        I don’t have any data, studies or analyses to back it up, mores the pity, and my experience is both limited, and confined to Ireland, in terms of formal training.

        There;s probably a larger question here, several larger questions.Learning Styles are just two, amongst many othger common myths that have significant currency amongst educators. Gardner and Multiple Intelligences, Digital Natives, Twitchspeed, left brain right brain…I think you know the list of suspects far better than I.

        And I’m wondering what are the vectors, specifically, in education. A lack of critical literacy amongst us practitioners in general (on a personal note, I feel keenly the lack of structured instruction around the whole area of assessing and analysing research I encountered in my own professional qualifications – it still shows).

        Is there a focus in the academic literature on research and paper types that don’t have the requisite rigor, or methodology ( I have seen some analyses suggesting that case studies, for example, are something hugely overly relied on in pedagogyl journals).

        Is there resistance to evidence based practice and policy, and is that resistance due to critical literacy issues, or misapplication of policy, or specific conditions and contexts in education that make it a less than perfect fit, or some othger reason?

        Is policy itself a driver of misconception, and poorly justified or patently incorrect procedures? Education seems to be an interface where ideology comes to the fore, from all sides.

        The word of mouth aspect intrigues me. It certainly chimes with personal experience – though that;s not a reason to back it as the main vector. I do find myself watching ideas, practices, philosophies and theories spread like a memetic wildfire through online communities of networked educators. And I do feel, at times, there is a lack of critical angagement or assessment. We tend to be an enthusiastic buch, perhaps…

        Hmm…apologies for all the questions. I’m more towards the beginning of a journey here…

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ll be reading Sharop et al when I have a little more time

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  10. Pingback: The worrying rise of soft-psychotherapy in schools | Evidence into practice

  11. Pingback: Pseudoscience has nested in schools | Evidence into practice

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