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 literature showed 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.