Effective Instruction Through Reverse Engineering: 2 Kinds of NLP and the 49 Teaching Techniques of Lemov’s Taxonomy

Two Ways to Practice NLP, aka “How to Get People To Do What You Ask”

There are two kinds of NLP in the world:  There’s the simple brand of NLP that makes so much sense that it seems “d’uh news” obvious.  Then there’s other brand of NLP, the hyped-up crazy-talking brain-washing mentalist-trickery that erodes a person’s credibility faster than you can say “late-night-television-infomercial-charlatan.”

The first brand of NLP, aka the “obvious” kind:  Make a series of careful observations of successful, world-renowned psychotherapists. Distill your observations down into a specific set behaviors — the “winning” behaviors that these therapists seem to use to help their patients.  That’s it.    Don’t build elaborate models or unified theories of human behavior. Don’t create fancy-sounding jargon, or try to sell lots of books with magical language. Don’t offer $1000 business seminars promising to unleash our unlimited potential, or wear a leather vest that is too small for you, do cocaine, or get acquitted on charges resulting from having your .357 Magnum kill one of your students/service providers in her boyfriend’s apartment.  No, don’t do any of those things.   What you’ve done is enough:  You’ve reverse-engineered the techniques used by high performers in a challenging field.    If you want, go and test out these techniques in other contexts to see how the methods work in isolation, validate your observations with a series of controlled studies, and train other therapists to use these techniques appropriately.  If you can do just  that, you’re already light years ahead of everyone else.  Remember: As you’ve demonstrated to us, effective psychotherapy is not about manipulating or “pushing” people towards a desired outcome… it’s about giving people the tools to enable them a wider range of responses to events.  NLP is just “being a good therapist,”  a good “facilitator” or “instructor” of sorts, and that is quite an accomplishment all by itself.

Even the firm I work for, rogenSi, incorporates practical NLP techniques into the methodology used for instructor-led training sessions… though some of our people don’t call it “NLP,” but rather, “common sense best practices.”   If an idea is so powerful that people consider it obvious after learning it, that’s a good thing.

Ok fine, that’s the first kind of NLP… but then, there’s the second kind of NLP…

The “second kind” of NLP is just like what happened in the classic 80’s movie, Gremlins, when Billy fed those cuddly teddy bears some food after midnight and they turned into horrible, psychotic little monsters.   Once NLP started getting applied outside of the therapist’s office, once all the books and seminars started popping up, once the fancy models and terminology started expanding, once the money/fame/cash/clothes/etc. started flowing…. well, what was once simply “effective communication technique” for a particular purpose became a big, horrible circus… a big bubbling gremlin-filled-pool of chaos and misinformation.

Nowadays, thanks to the magical powers of NLP, you can be like Derren Brown and buy a person’s soul/sole for a blank piece of paper,  woo customers with your products, meet your sales quota, make yourself irresistible to women (or men, presumably),  and convince Imperial Stormtroopers that these are not the droids they’re looking for.

The point here isn’t to dismiss NLP as science fiction… it’s just become so mixed up with other stuff that it’s hard to make heads or tails of what “it” is.

According to my understanding of what constitutes NLP  — or at least, the “Type 2” NLP — the infomercial pitchman Vince Offer (of Slap Chop and Sham Wow fame) qualifies as a  NLP Master Practitioner.  Bonus: He also ended up embroiled in a bloody situation in a hotel room with a female companion… but that’s “neither here nor there,” as they say (whoever “they” are).  Here’s the original Slap Chop joint (because you’ve already seen the countless remixes)… note Vince’s masterful usage of embedded commands:  

Who needs a therapist when we’ve got Vince telling us we’re gonna be in a great mood all day and that we’re going to watch him and we’re going to change our eating habits?    (To say nothing of the “Love-My-Nuts” pattern interrupt… no, I said nothing… you heard nothing… keep reading, pay attention…)

These two “brands” of NLP — the obvious, commonsense kind and the overhyped, manipulative kind — probably explain why NLP is universally scoffed at by serious, killjoy academics, who have no need for anything obvious… and certainly not anything that is overhyped.  On the other hand, it’s a real shame that NLP has been marketed so badly, because the art and craft of — well whatever it is that “Neurolinguistic Programming” really is doing — seems to have some immediate practical value and  utility for instructors…. yes… even outside the therapist’s office.

Forty-Nine Ways To Practice Teaching, aka “How to Get Students To Do What You Ask”

The New York Times Magazine recently published an article about a taxonomy of forty-nine teaching techniques developed by Doug Lemov, (hat tip to RF for this) being used to help teachers communicate more effectively and persuasively with students. In addition to the NYTM article, there are some video demonstrations of taxonomy techniques on the Uncommon Schools website, which is a non-profit network of charter schools founded by Lemov and others.  In a nice way, Lemov’s Taxonomy reminded me of NLP — both because it was developed as a series of careful observations of high-performers, as well as because it has to do with effective communication techniques used by certain specialists (in this case not therapists, but classroom teachers… yes, there is a difference… sometimes…),  in order to make their students more amenable to their directions and take in their lessons.

My personal favorite is the “Cold Calling” strategy… be warned future training program participants, I will be using this one:

Lemov’s Taxonomy serves as a way for teachers to more effectively enable their students to make connections in their brains — to learn stuff, to change their patterns of thinking and behavior — the same wonderful promises of “accelerated learning” offered by various flavors of NLP.  Also, within the video examples of Lemov’s taxonomy, I noticed the usage of some NLP-esque techniques such as positive framing, pacing  and anchoring compliance behaviors through language patterns and physical gestures.

The biggest difference between Lemov and NLP?  Well there are several big differences, but one of them is the anti-hype, back-to-basics type marketing that the representatives of Lemov’s Taxonomy use, to sell us their idea.  They are telling us,  “Yeah, this stuff ain’t rocket science… but meanwhile, we need to educate our next generation of rocket scientists!!  High school math scores are down, we’re falling behind China, and our kids can’t spell their way out of a paper bag… even our elementary schools kind of suck… so our teachers really need to improve their game. Here’s how we can help them do this .”  In a way, Lemov and his crew are packaging good (and in some cases, sophisticated)  instructional techniques under the unglamorous banner of Classroom Management.

This no-nonsense, strictly observation-based toolkit, with minimal layers of abstraction or mental models, is sure to minimize the ire drawn by the scientific-evidence-obsessed learning community which loves to shoot down every latest educational “fad” in the name of  Lack of Empirical Evidence.  In fact, the videos of Lemov’s Taxonomy are so anti-hyperbolic that at times they are painfully understated.  In an example of the “Mixing Joy and Structure” technique, a teacher uses song and dance to help move the children from one area of the classroom to another, while maintaining focus and order. That’s a neat trick. The narrator takes this opportunity to tell us that the children are getting cheerier as they sing a song.

Yet, this is the state of educational science, and the science of interpersonal behavior in general:  If it’s provable and measurable, it’s probably obvious.  For all the less-obvious but mission-critical stuff, we don’t have perfect empirical evidence. Those who scoff at all new ideas in teaching (or related professions, such as selling cars and leading corporations or countries) and insist on impossibly high standards of empirical evidence — they are wasting valuable conversational bandwidth that could be used toward doing the kind of good observational work that Doug Lemov has recently done, and that Richard Bandler did back in the 1970’s.

Just as our ancient ancestors didn’t wait for Sir Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion before developing the first bows and arrows, so too with the developing of effective interpersonal skills we can’t wait for experimentally-valid theories of teaching, instructing, selling and leading. We will just have to do with these “tricks of the trade” as observed in the work of the Master Practitioners.

Instruction is a craft that is grounded in science still being discovered… so for those of us in the teaching and training professions, let’s stop pretending to be scientists and just be better instructors in the meantime… and give the real scientists the time they need (and the next generation of thinkers they’ll work with) to really figure it out.


About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on March 10, 2010, in Communication Skills, Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. That last video is unbelievable, hard math questions on the spot and the kids are getting them right.

  2. sometime i get lucky and stumble on a weblog on a subject that takes my notice. Not always but this is one of those blogs. carry on the good work and i have bookmarked this site to find out whats new later on

  1. Pingback: NLPrep: Keep Your Eyes on the Map and Your Feet on the Ground « Meme Menagerie

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