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.
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.