Neuro-linguistic programming, learning and education – an introduction.

Picture: NLP for dummies by Paul Downey - reproduced here under a Creative Commons attribution 2 generic licence.Neuro-linguistic programming, learning and education – an introduction. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) has attracted considerable attention in recent years. Paul Tosey and Jane Mathison explore its origins and characteristics – and argue it is a field of practice and innovation with a wide range of tools and techniques that learners and professional educators can apply within both formal and informal educational settings.

Contents: introduction · the origins of neuro-linguistic programming · neuro-linguistic programming, learning and educating · characteristics · evaluation · summary · references · notes · how to cite this piece

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) – developed in the 1970’s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder – is an approach that aims to enhance the effectiveness of communication and facilitate learning and personal development. It is becoming increasingly familiar in formal education, professional development, and informal learning. A recent book called `NLP for Teachers’ (Churches & Terry 2007) has received a very favourable review from the distinguished Canadian scholar, Michael Fullan. NLP is also a popular approach to coaching (e.g. Henwood & Lister 2007) and is also a recognised mode of psychotherapy in the UK [i].

Evidence of the application of NLP to education can be found in practitioner magazines and journals [ii], websites [iii] and discussion groups, and at conferences. How widespread or popular NLP has become in practice is difficult to say with precision, though. As an indication the number of people to have been trained to `Practitioner’ level in the UK since NLP’s inception seems likely to number at least 50,000 [iv]. Trainings in NLP are found across the world, principally in countries where English is the first language, but including Norway, Spain and Brazil [v]. There is no unified structure to the NLP practitioner community. Probably in common with other emergent fields there is diversity in both practice and organisation, and there are resulting tensions.

Many publications give accounts of the nature and development of NLP. To complement our direct experience of the field, we have drawn from McLendon ( 1989), Dilts and DeLozier (2000), Walker (1996), and Bostic St. Clair and Grinder (2001). The latter includes a valuable retrospective commentary from one of the founders, though it is not widely available.

The origins of Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Neuro-Linguistic Programming was developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the early 1970’s. Bandler was studying at the University of Santa Cruz, where he met John Grinder, an assistant professor of linguistics [vi] (Bostic St.Clair & Grinder 2001 pp 142-3). They began to pursue a curiosity about what differentiated excellent therapists from others. Their initial study of the work of Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy, and Virginia Satir, the family therapist, resulted in a two volumes titled The Structure of Magic (Bandler & Grinder 1975b; Grinder & Bandler 1976), which describe language patterns that the authors identified as characteristic of excellent therapists.

The development of NLP was influenced in particular by conversations with Gregory Bateson, who was Bandler and Grinder’s neighbour in Santa Cruz in the 1970’s (Bostic St.Clair & Grinder 2001p.118). Bateson, an English epistemologist who made important contributions to many fields, including anthropology and family therapy (Bateson 2000), contributed a foreword to the first volume of The Structure of Magic and introduced Bandler and Grinder to Milton Erickson, the hypnotherapist (Bostic St.Clair & Grinder 2001pp. 175-8). That contact resulted in two books on Erickson’s approach, which analysed his use of language patterns (Bandler & Grinder 1975a; Grinder, DeLozier, & Bandler 1977).

Neuro-Linguistic Programming, learning and educating

The title, `Neuro-Linguistic Programming’, refers to the view that a person is a whole mind-body system, and that there are assumed to be systematic, patterned connections between neurological processes (`neuro’), language (`linguistic’) and learned behavioural strategies (`programming’) (Dilts, Bandler, & DeLozier 1980 p.2). The term ‘neuro-linguistics’ was first used, we believe, by Alfred Korzybski in 1941 (Dilts & DeLozier 2000 p. 849), who is an acknowledged influence on NLP (Bandler & Grinder 1975b p.7).

NLP has been defined in various ways, and agreement on a singular definition is likely to prove elusive. Its promotional literature often emphasises the notion of excellence in communication. A common alternative definition, as in the subtitle to Dilts et al ( 1980), is `the study of the structure of subjective experience’.

According to Dilts and DeLozier ( 2000 p.849) NLP can be seen as a technology, a methodology, and an epistemology. As a technology, NLP comprises a substantial collection of frameworks, tools and techniques, some specific to NLP and some borrowed or adapted from other fields. These are presented in numerous popular publications.

Learners and professional educators can apply these tools to virtually any aspect of learning and teaching; self-management, presentation skills, use of language for precise communication, study skills, classroom management, teaching design, and so on. Many practical applications to teaching are described by Churches and Terry ( 2007). One example is the use of space and locations in the classroom to manage learners’ states, called `spatial anchoring’:

By consistently adopting a particular behaviour or approach when you stand or sit in one place, your learners will begin to associate that space with what you are about to do and what will happen next. Your learners’ own internal state will change in anticipation for what they know from experience will come next. As their internal state changes so will their behaviour. This works for adult learners in a training environment just as well as it does with children in the classroom. (Churches & Terry 2007 p.110)

Note that NLP assumes that all educators necessarily influence learners’ responses through their use of space (and language, and so on), regardless of whether they are using NLP. Many will do so without being aware of it, and may unintentionally use space in ways that negate rather than support educational objectives. The intent of using NLP in this example is to enable the educator to align their behaviour more effectively with their purpose.

While NLP appears to comprise a plethora of techniques, it was originally portrayed as a method, which the authors called `modeling’ (Bandler & Grinder 1975b p.6). Stemming from Bandler and Grinder’s original interest in identifying what distinguished excellent therapists from others, and informed by Grinder’s knowledge of linguistics, NLP began as a means of studying how people process information, construct meaning schemas, and perform skills to achieve results. Bandler and Grinder also emphasised a pragmatic intent, saying ‘We have no idea about the “real” nature of things, and we’re not particularly interested in what’s “true”. The function of modeling is to arrive at descriptions which are useful’ (Bandler & Grinder 1979 p.7). In tune with this view, we regard NLP first and foremost as a praxis.

NLP modelling therefore aims to identify what is distinctive about the strategies of exemplars in a given skill, including internal cognitive as well as behavioural elements, such that other people can learn to perform the same skill. As described by Dilts, `The objective of the NLP modeling process is not to end up with the one `right’ or `true’ description of a particular person’s thinking process, but rather to make an instrumental map that allows us to apply the strategies that we have modelled in some useful way’ (Dilts 1998 p.30). Modelling has been used to identify the cognitive strategies that lie behind everyday capabilities such as motivating oneself, negotiating, spelling (Dilts, Bandler, & DeLozier 1980), and so on. Dilts ( 1994) has also modelled a number of `strategies of genius’, yielding for example the creative process that appears to have been used by Walt Disney [vii].

Modelling continues to be identified by the founders as the core of the field. Even so its nature is contested; for example Bostic St Clair & Grinder emphasise a non-verbal approach that eschews conscious reflection or analysis, which contrasts with Dilts’ more conceptual emphasis. NLP modelling has directly influenced a contemporary European academic approach to the study of consciousness and human experience, known as `Psychophenomenology’ (Vermersch 2004).

A question often asked of NLP is that of whether it has a theory. As noted above, authors in the field emphasise pragmatism, and have seldom shown interest in articulating NLP as a theory. Because NLP has always aimed to model `what works’, one can find evidence within its practices of an eclectic approach that draws from (among other things) cognitive-behavioural approaches, Gestalt therapy, hypnotherapy, family therapy, and brief therapy. For more extensive discussion of NLP’s theory in relation learning see Tosey and Mathison ( 2003; 2008). [viii]

According to Dilts and DeLozier, NLP does espouse underlying epistemological principles, concerning the processes through which people perceive, know and learn. Typically articulated for practitioners as a set of `presuppositions’ (Dilts & DeLozier 2000 pp 1000-4), these appear to be based substantially on Gregory Bateson’s interests in ecology and cybernetics systems. Accordingly, NLP is committed to a cybernetic view of how processes of perception and conceptualisation are structured and how they operate.

Characteristics of Neuro-Linguistic Programming

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a growth-orientated rather than pathology-orientated approach. It emphasises learning as the key to personal change and development and assumes that people are inherently creative and capable. It adopts a constructivist position in that people act according to the way they understand and represent the world, not according to the way the world ‘is’. Korzybski’s dictum, `the map is not the territory’, is often cited to emphasise that NLP works with people’s `maps of the world’, or constructions.

There is a strong emphasis on understanding the structure and process of, rather than the content of, experience. In other words NLP is interested in how people construct their experiences through cognitive processes, rather than in seeking causal explanations in the past for why they experience the world as they do, or in the contents of a particular experience.

For example, in their original study Bandler and Grinder suggested that effective therapists appeared to match certain language patterns used by their clients. For instance they matched a client’s use of visual predicates (e.g. `this is how I see the problem…’,  `I don’t have enough clarity about my situation’) in their responses (e.g. `so this is how you’re viewing the world…’, `what are you looking for?’), whereas ineffective therapists used auditory or kinaesthetic predicates in response to the same client statements (`what I’m hearing you saying is…’; `that feels like a hard place to be’.). This principle of matching or mismatching predicates can be applied in any context of human interaction, and is not peculiar to therapy. Bandler and Grinder concluded that, `One of the systematic things that Erickson and Satir and a lot of other effective therapists do is to notice unconsciously how the person they are talking to thinks, and make use of that information in lots of different ways’ (Bandler & Grinder 1979 p.10).

NLP also espouses the potential for self-determination (e.g. Bandler & Andreas 1985) through overcoming learnt limitations, and shares with the more recent field of positive psychology an emphasis on well-being and healthy functioning. Bandler and Grinder expressed their original motives as `sharing the resources of all those who are involved in finding ways to help people have better, fuller and richer lives’ [ix]. In this way NLP embodies a discourse of democracy and self-improvement congruent with its origins in 1970’s California, and in tune with the ideals of the human potential movement. This stands alongside a frequent, more contemporary emphasis on the potential for NLP to enable individuals to achieve success, with an attendant array of consumer products in the form of training courses, books, video and audio materials, and related services.

Evaluation of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)

The pragmatic, atheoretical stance espoused by the founders appears to have left a legacy of little engagement between practitioner and academic communities. The academic literature on NLP is sporadic, scattered across several fields. Research into NLP is also thin so far, dominated by a number of experimental studies from the 1980’s and 1990’s that focused on two particular NLP frameworks [x]. Heap (1988) concluded that those studies failed to support the two frameworks in question, though the status and validity of the studies that Heap reviewed is disputed (Einspruch & Forman 1985). There is growing contemporary interest in research among NLP practitioners, and in identifying the relevance of recent work in disciplines such as cognitive linguistics (e.g. Lakoff & Johnson 1999) and neuroscience (e.g. Rizzolatti, Fogassi, & Gallese 2006). In our view there is a need for research through a variety of methodological approaches to help sift the innovations and effective methods from claims that cannot be supported by evidence. Issues of ethics in the field are also important to address.


NLP has endured for more than thirty years. It is a field of practice and innovation with a wide range of tools and techniques that learners and professional educators can apply within both formal and informal educational settings. The distinctive contribution of NLP may lie in its applied methodology, known as modelling. While NLP is eclectic, its world view is fundamentally systemic and constructivist. It is a contested field, and there is a need for contemporary research to evaluate its claims and practices.


Bandler, R. & Andreas, S. 1985, Using your Brain for a Change. Real People Press, Moab, Utah.

Bandler, R. & Grinder, J. 1979, Frogs into Princes. Real People Press, Moab, Utah.

Bandler, R. & Grinder, J. 1975a, Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H.Erickson, M.D. Vol. 1. Meta Publications, Cupertino, California.

Bandler, R. & Grinder, J. 1975b, The Structure of Magic: a book about language and therapy. Palo Alto: Science and Behavioural Books.

Bateson, G. 2000, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology, Revised edn. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Bostic St.Clair, C. & Grinder, J. 2001, Whispering in the Wind. J & C Enterprises, Scotts Valley, CA.

Churches, R. & Terry, R. 2007, NLP for Teachers. Crown House, Carmarthen.

Dilts, R., Bandler, R., & DeLozier, J. 1980, Neuro-linguistic programming: volume 1, the study of the structure of subjective experience. Meta Publications, California.

Dilts, R. & DeLozier, J. 2000, Encyclopedia of Systemic NLP and NLP New Coding. Meta Publications, Capitola, California.

Dilts, R. B. 1994, Strategies of genius. Meta Publications, Cupertino, California.

Dilts, R. B. 1998, Modeling with NLP. Meta Publications, Capitola, CA.

Einspruch, E. L. & Forman, B. D. 1985, “Observations concerning research literature on neuro-linguistic programming”, Journal of Counseling Psychology, vol. 32, no. 4, pp. 589-596.

Grinder, J. & Bandler, R. 1976, The Structure of Magic 2: a book about communication and change. Science and Behaviour Books, Palo alto.

Grinder, J., DeLozier, J., & Bandler, R. 1977, Patterns of the hypnotic techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. vol II. Meta Publications, Capitola, CA.

Heap, M. 1988, “Neurolinguistic programming – an interim verdict,” in Hypnosis: current clinical, experimental and forensic practices, M. Heap, ed., Croom Helm, London, pp. 268-280.

Henwood, S. & Lister, J. 2007, NLP and Coaching for Healthcare Professionals. John Wiley & Sons, Chichester.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. 1999, Philosophy in the Flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.Basic Books, New York.

McLendon, T. L. 1989, The Wild Days: NLP 1972 – 1981. Meta Publications, Cupertino, CA.

Rizzolatti, G., Fogassi, L., & Gallese, V. 2006, “Mirrors in the Mind”, Scientific American no. November, pp. 30-37.

Tosey, P. & Mathison, J. 2003, “Neuro-linguistic Programming and Learning Theory: a response”, The Curriculum Journal, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 361-378.

Tosey, P. & Mathison, J. 2008, “Neuro-Linguistic Programming as an Innovation in Education and Teaching”, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, vol. to be confirmed.

Vermersch, P. 2004, “Prendre en compte la phénomenalité: propositions pour une psychophenomenologie”, Expliciter no. 57 (December), pp. 35-46.

Walker, W. 1996, Abenteuer Kommunikation: Bateson, Perls, Satir, Erickson und die Anfange des Neurolinguistischen Programmierens (NLP). Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart.



[i] Accredited by the UK Council for Psychotherapy, assigned to the Experiential Constructivist Therapies section:, accessed 6th February 2008

[ii] For example, `Rapport’, published by the Association for NLP, accessed 6th February 2008

[iii] For example, Robert Dilts’ website accessed 6th February 2008

[iv] Based on an informal survey of estimates on UK NLP training providers’ websites, and endorsed by personal communication with the UK Association for NLP.

[v] For example, see trainings listed at;;  Accessed 6th February 2008

[vi] Grinder gained his doctorate, titled `On Deletion Phenomena in English’, from the University of San Diego, California, in 1971

[vii] Dilts relied on documentary and video sources, as Disney died in 1966.

[viii] IETI; see also our project website,

[ix] From the book jacket of Bandler and Grinder ( 1975b).

[x] These are `eye accessing cues’; and the notion that a person uses a primary representational system.

Author details: Dr Paul Tosey & Dr Jane Mathison,Centre for Management Learning, School of Management, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey GU2 7XH, UK

Tel. +44 1483 689763. e-mail

Picture: NLP for dummies by Paul Downey – reproduced here under a Creative Commons attribution 2 generic licence.

How to cite this article: Tosey, Paul and Mathison, Jane (2008) ‘Neuro-Linguistic Programming, learning and education. An introduction’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retreived: insert date].

© Paul Tosey & Jane Mathison 2008