Teaching in Higher Education (HE): It's Not What You Think(1)


John Bartley(2)

My personal memories of being taught various subjects in secondary school are of prolonged boredom and an overwhelming desire to be anywhere but in the classroom.  Happily, though in the distant past, they linger complete with the faint stale smells of the dingy classrooms, uncomfortable chairs and, of course, the monotonous voice of the equally bored teacher.  Education for me then was something to be endured until a plan could be hatched that would provide escape from the hell of being educated.

Of course a master plan eventually exploded into my young mind and soon there was another type of experience to be had which offered more in the way of emotional satisfaction: truancy!  The last three years of my secondary education were laden with deep rich learning experiences that rarely included entering the old tower block style school building which imprisoned so many a youngsters’ soul.  Gone were the school assemblies and hymns to be replaced with adventures that never failed to keep the adrenaline pumping through my young wiry frame.

Of course a price was to be paid and that eventually meant unskilled manual work in the local factories which were strangely similar to the school I disliked so much; the only difference being that truancy here meant no wages.  No wages meant the rent wasn’t paid and that led to all sorts of adventures I would happily have not experienced.

My education proper was as an adult.  Now, as lecturer in higher education, I have time to reflect back on all my learning experiences which now, of course, included college, university and postgraduate study.  What was the difference that made the difference in my learning experience that caused such a dramatic turnaround for me?  For a start I was studying subjects I enjoyed, but that wasn’t the only ingredient that made for educational success.  In my own case there was another equally important one.  Fortunately as an adult occasionally I had been taught by teachers who had what appeared at first to be a gift for making a subject interesting even when I suspected it wasn’t.  They had a sort of magic that seemed to lift my spirit and excite me at the prospect of learning something new.

Many years later I found myself being trained for teaching in post-compulsory education and the same thing happened again: a few of the people teaching me had that magic ingredient and learning became once more an exciting experience.

When it came to my own teaching practice, I found it relatively easy to bore students into a coma-like state and yet, at other times, I could feel the atmosphere was completely the opposite, with entirely different results being attained.  After a while I became interested in NLP, as it was loosely related to my academic interests, and enrolled for a practitioner training with Richard Bandler, one of the originators of NLP.  It was during this training that the subtle but important information on human perception and communication became visible.  The start of a new, more conscious approach to teaching was born for me.  Gone was the guessing at what was the difference that made the difference, and in came a new knowledge of the structure of that magic.

How many of you reading the above descriptions were momentarily transported inwardly into your own recollections of dingy classrooms and the like?  It’s that easy.  In fact, the opposite is just as easy when teaching: you can transport students into a realm of excitement for the same amount of effort as putting them into a stupor of boredom.  I find now that NLP skills can be employed in the teaching environment to great effect and with some ease of operation.  It’s often not how the students think but how often they feel that’s important for learning to take place.

A relaxed and easy environment is essential in HE seminars if you are going to get the best out of students.  A fear of speaking can often hold back a whole room of people locked into all kinds of inner personal discomfort.  Creating a relaxed state in the room is essential before moving onto creating an atmosphere charged with curiosity.

In NLP terminology this is referred to as a ‘state’ and it is much more productive to induce a learning state in the students’ inner perception than the usual fear or boredom.  Often by making use of the student’s keen ability to imagine, as you did when you read the above description of my secondary education, you can quickly get them to induce useful emotional states for the purpose of learning.  Often just getting them to remember when they were doing something they enjoyed doing is enough to kick-start the emotional juices in the desired direction.  A pleasant learning experience can be reinforced by the surroundings in which learning takes place, and this can be invoked just by entering the room and faintly remembering previous experiences.  We all do it all the time.  We all have favourite places that are linked to pleasurable experiences.  Going to them induces faint traces of those previous times and a certain pleasure is experienced: a useful tool to use in a teaching environment.

This method, known as ‘anchoring’, is natural but is usually unconscious, or only a vague awareness to people experiencing it.  NLP helps make you more aware of these processes of the mind.  If you can induce a positive state, and even the most miserable of us have had positive experiences we can recall swiftly, and then reinforce it by association with a particular setting, much can be achieved in teaching.

Another NLP skill is to be more aware of your tonality when talking.  Tonality is an important aspect of communication; more important, indeed, than the words being spoken.  For instance, ‘no’ is a word that can have several meanings depending on the tonality that is uttered.  Imagine the difference in meaning when sharply spoken by a mother to a pleading child or by one lover to another in a soft drawn-out tone.  As a professional communicator, and to differing extents everybody is one, it is useful to be able to manipulate your tonality to help induce certain states in the recipients of your communications.  If you can create an atmosphere of disinterest and apathy with relative ease, why not create an atmosphere of excitement and interest?  All good communicators hold your interest, and all bad communicators don’t; you literally switch off and mentally go and do something else while pretending to be there.  Just how many lecturers in HE automatically cause switching off is anyone’s guess.  The best lecturers I ever heard were able to hold the attention of the student body, part of the magic being the tonality they used when expressing themselves.  Interestingly enough, when I was being taught different approaches to educational techniques during my formal training for teaching, not once was tonality ever mentioned!

Being more consciously aware of your own tonality and being able to manipulate it beyond the normal “programmed since childhood” patterns is quite useful in many other situations besides teaching.  However it is equally important to be ‘congruent’ if others are not to perceive insincerity and begin to feel uncomfortable.

Congruency is a powerful communication state that simply means that all of the person is behind what is being said.  There needs to be no doubt or inner conflict “back stage” that communicates itself despite what’s being spoken “up front”.  How often have you been told something that you knew just wasn’t going to happen or be true?  How did you know this?  Was it the way their eyes dropped, or their head tilted?  Probably it was such a subtle signal that you no longer recall what made you feel that way.  But feel it you did!  The communicator was not being congruent.  In other words, you were getting a mixed message.  In some way the lack of congruency showed through and you picked it up below the level of your conscious awareness.  In teaching, you can imagine the effect of a lack of congruency, particularly when trying to teach a subject you loathe, and the ramifications this will have no matter what tonality you employ. 

People receive information through all five senses, but basically they favour one, be it auditory (A), visual (V) or kinaesthetic (K).  If you are trying to teach someone who favours one channel of perception and you are mainly using another, there is a mismatch.  Auditory people tend to enjoy books and listening; visual people like to see something; kinaesthetic people tend to like the feel of things.  They all learn best in different ways.  It is important to use a variety of teaching aids to get your message across to all the students.  So how do you spot who’s who in the AVK departments?

It’s quite simple, really.  You listen to how they speak to you.  Visual people tend to use statements like “I see what you mean”, or “it appears very distant to me”.  Auditory people may say “I hear what you’re saying”, or “back in a tick”.  Kinaesthetic people will favour “that’s too concrete a position”, or “that feels hard to me”.  A professional communicator has a better chance of reaching a wider audience if their communication is spiced with several different perceptual statements.

NLP generally is being packaged by many training programs as a set of techniques that must be followed rigidly to achieve success.  In fact this is not how it was designed by its originators or intended to be deployed.  NLP is about creativity and freedom, that is as an aid to the human spirit in achieving freedom from the rigid patterns of the mind.

I hope the spirit of NLP which is that of freedom will continue to flourish and move beyond a select few to mainstream acceptance because it has much to offer, but if the practitioners themselves become rigid and fanatic, all will be lost before we begin.  As with the artist Turner, technique became less important as he became a master!

(1) Original article published in  New Learning, the Journal of the NLP Education Network, Issue 6, Winter 1999/200

(2) John Bartley was described in the original publication as "a Lecturer in Sociology at The School of Socology of Greenwich University".  We have been unable to locate Mr Bartley via the publishers of New Learning or the University of Greenwich in order to update his biodata.