The role of NLP in learning and education

December 13, 2013

The role of NLP in learning and education

The education system never ceases to evolve, with new methods, techniques and practices being adopted by teachers up and down the country as research becomes available.

Education is no longer delivered in the rigid formula used many decades ago, but is seen as an interactive experience with both the teacher and the student taking an active role. Additionally of course, there are many different styles of learning so teachers need to be flexible in order to meet the needs of each individual member of the class.

The student-centric approach is one of the reasons why NLP fits in so well to modern methods of learning and why so many teachers are using it to great effect in their classrooms. We take a closer look at NLP, including what it is and how it can be used in learning and education.

Defining NLP

NLP – the accepted abbreviation for neuro linguistic programming – is not a new concept although it is only in the last decade that it has started to become more widely accepted. NLP was originally devised in the 1970s and was the joint brainchild of a mathematician and computer scientist, Richard Bandler, and a professor in linguistics, John Grinder.

Combining their expertise, Bandler and Grinder came up with a system that would revolutionise the way in which the way in which communication and personal development was approached. Since this initial creation of what was dubbed NLP, it has moved on even further and is now used in a great range of fields including not just education but also marketing, management, counselling, medical, legal, sales and training. NLP is also a formally recognised type of psychotherapy.

The easiest way to explain NLP at its very core is to break down each word:

Neuro: the interaction between body and mind

Linguistic: the clues which can be gained to the way an individual thinks by their chosen use of language

Programming: the study of the ‘programming’ aka patterns of speaking and behaviour that are adopted in everyday life

From the above, it’s therefore clear to see that NLP is very much a holistic approach which uses ‘tells’ as a way of helping to understand how an individual is thinking, which in turn allows them to break free from destructive patterns or blocks which could prevent them from reaching their full potential.

Breaking down NLP further

Having understood that NLP is the study of patterns of behaviour and thinking and how language can be used to both communicate with other as well as altering your own thoughts, it’s worth taking a moment to look at exactly how NLP works.

Very broadly speaking, NLP methodology can be broken down into four main areas:

  1. Flexibility: techniques designed to enhance and improve the flexibility of your own thinking as well as awareness of others.
  2. Language: Using language models borrowed from various others types of therapy and hypnosis
  3. Outcomes: Strategies which can be employed in order to improve both self-motivation and the motivation of others
  4. Rapport: How to more easily build rapport and influence others.

NLP is not a science distinct from any other; rather it includes snippets from many other bodies of research, combining the best of each to create a holistic approach which is effective thanks to its all-encompassing philosophy.

Some examples of NLP in practice

In many ways, NLP simply takes what an effective communicator or an influential individual does and breaks down their secrets of success. This means the ability to draw upon essential core skills to deal with difficulty situations is available when needed, with the understanding of what works and why.

In the classroom setting, there are many teachers who use the very basics of NLP without even realising what they are doing. However, with a more structured understanding of NLP it’s possible to use these same skills to a greater degree and to more selectively pick and choose the right approach.

nlp learning and education

The Teacher is the “chief learner”

Some very simple examples of NLP include the techniques used to great effect in hypnosis, where the body language, pacing and signals of the individual are matched by the practitioner. This is done very subtly and when effective, is a method which allows the practitioner to lead the individual’s thinking and make suggestions which are more readily accepted.

It is important to emphasise that matching is not merely mimicry; this is far more obvious and is likely to cause irritation. Matching is instead designed to create a deep rapport, the feeling of mutual trust, a state which cannot be attained by simply copying behaviour.

Moving on from this, the way in which language is used can result in better co-operation and less challenges. For example, one of the techniques used by NLP is the presupposition. This refers to the unspoken meaning of a phrase or sentence which is communicated to another party.

For example, you may say to someone’ “Either now or in a minute you can think of a pink elephant.”. The person is very likely to follow the suggestion because the sentence contains the presupposition that you will do it; there is no room to allow the possibility that it will not happen. This type of presupposition is known as a double bind as it provides two possibility but both lead to the same conclusion.

This type of technique can be very effective within a classroom setting as it appears to be providing the individual student with a choice, but ultimately they will be working to the same goal. For example, a teacher might say, “Would you like to draw the graph now or complete the maths questions first?”. This conveys without question that both tasks need to be completed and that the individual will be starting straight away. However, by using language in this way, the suggestion is more likely to be accepted without a challenge from the student who will instead focus on making the decision about which to do first.

Another particular method is known as the ‘yes set’. This is a way of securing agreement from another person or group in a way which leaves them very little choice other than to accept the suggestion. We’ve looked at NLP and its background and moved on to specific techniques, so now would be the perfect time to include some practical examples wouldn’t it? This last sentence includes a ‘yes tag’; a suggestion which is almost impossible to disagree with.

Yes tags are a great way of reinforcing classroom rules, explaining certain points and securing agreement from either an individual on a one-to-one basis or as part of a group discussion.

Using NLP in learning and education

Obviously NLP offers a great deal more than just a few simple rules about how to structure a sentence the most effectively, but the examples given above help to provide a flavour for its core approach.

This belief means that teachers are able to deal with challenging behaviour and difficult situations more effectively as they are equipped with more the ability to assess problems more accurately, and the tools to address them.

Bullying for example is a type of challenging behaviour which often arises in schools and can be difficult to tackle effectively. Perceptual positioning is an approach which can help with both bullying and other kinds of behaviour where the individual needs to quite literally step into the other person’s shoes. In NLP, perceptual positioning means assessing the situation through first your own eyes, then the other person’s and then finally a disassociated bystander.

It can be difficult sometimes for individuals to truly put themselves in another person’s position so a teacher can set up three chairs, each tagged with a certain ‘position’. The student can then move between these chairs and in doing so, adopts a different view of the situation. The physical movement can help to trigger a shift in thinking patterns which is difficult to access when static. A very simple technique but one which is dynamic and can have very profound effects. By getting students actively involved and helping them to quite literally shift their thinking, the outcome can be very different than more traditional approaches.

nlp learning and education white board

But NLP isn’t just useful for difficult students or problems which arise, it can be used effectively to help develop rapport and also adapt lessons to help individuals get the most out of them.

Having a lesson plan is usually an essential but this doesn’t mean a rigid approach needs to be taken. Having NLP skills provides teachers with the ability to change the delivery depending on the reaction of students, to help them reach their goals in the most effective way. This ability doesn’t change the desired outcome of the lesson, nor the end goal, but makes the route to achieve it more enjoyable and in the vast majority of cases more successful too.

Other pedagogical studies have identified a variety of different learning types within each classroom; this diversity can make it difficult to create and devise a truly effective lesson. But by utilising NLP techniques, it’s entirely possible to design strategies for different tasks and skills and be able to respond to the needs of students on an individual basis.

As every teacher knows, half of the battle can be creating enthusiasm and interest in a subject; NLP helps to overcome these problems by simple techniques such as the use of the voice, and learning how to create the right pacing within each lesson.

It can also be used to overcome a wide range of learning problems including students who are struggling with confidence, those who are unable to express their difficulties and also individuals who can’t communicate exactly what their thought processes are. By adopting different types of language, including embedded commands and positive reinforcement, as well as non-verbal cues and communication, it’s possible to reach out to students and create deep levels of rapport without detracting from the main focus of the lesson.


NLP is a set of techniques which should never be considered in isolation; part of their appeal is the fact that they can be laid over any existing structure or lesson plans and seamlessly integrated. A teacher who is trained in NLP has the ability to identify what a student needs in order to overcome their individual challenges and has the right tools to help them reach their own solution.

A complex subject, it is surprisingly easy to pick up, yet the results when employed are nothing short of astounding. In addition to helping to improve rapport and personal issues such as confidence, motivation and behaviour, the techniques have also been shown to have a rapid effect on academic results, by allowing the students to access the information in a different way.

Suitable for teachers from nursery classes right up to those delivering adult education, NLP is a set of tools which enables individuals to not only achieve their potential but also to enjoy the experience, and develop patterns of thinking and behaviour which will be useful not just inside, but also outside of the classroom too.


Image Credits: Cantabrigensis, Wikipedia, mrsdkrebs and Dell Official Flickr Page

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