The council of woo

The Council’ likes to promote itself as a rigorous and serious organisation, doing very serious testing and accreditation, but it can be quite partial to the odd bit of ‘woo’.  For example in order to get a CELTA trainees have to be well versed in “learning styles”. This predilection for a bit of magical thinking is most evident on its web page. 

Their article on NLP is littered with embarrassing factoids about my favourite TEFL pseudo-science. The article starts by telling us that NLP has “its roots in psychology and neurology” which is slightly misleading as its creators were studying maths and linguistics at the time. It has nothing to do with neurology and has been soundly rejected by psychology which classes it as a pseudo-science. Not to fear though, ever the great shape-shifter NLP has found a good home in management and education –two rich breeding grounds for ‘woo’.

Writer Steve Darn goes on to tell us that NLP is “about the way the brain works” (which it most certainly isn’t) and that it can help to train the brain (which it can’t because it doesn’t work). Next he tells us it “is related to ‘left / right brain’ functions” (also known as the “left brain right brain myth) and that it shares something with….yes you guessed it “learning styles, multiple intelligence and other areas of research”! BINGO!

Hang on a sec though; let’s look at that last sentence again. “Learning styles, multiple intelligence and other areas of research”…one of these three is not the same; one of these three is different. Ah yes, research. Because research is where you have a theory and then you test it, which is the opposite of what learning styles and multiple intelligences do. They tend to subscribe to the “have a theory and then sell loads of books” method.

Darn then notes “NLP and related subjects have their sceptics, particularly in terms of general classroom applicability and how NLP is commercially marketed as a method of self-improvement.” and as a creepy method of mind control?
“NLP has been labelled a ‘quasi science’ and criticised on the grounds of lack of empirical studies” That’s the spirit Steve, -don’t spoil it now…

“but there are sound reasons why NLP is compatible with current classroom practice”

This is what I like to call the ‘nod to scepticism’. You list as load of criticism and details as to why something has been rejected by science and then with a wave of your hand you dismiss all those problems. Fantastic! Perhaps we can try this when we teach?

“Well this essay has numerous grammar problems, it’s half plagiarised, it’s not related to the topic and is 100 words too short. –but don’t worry about that stuff, this essay is compatible with an A grade.”


I could go on and on about NLP but to be honest I can’t be bothered. The true believers will just retire to their familiar “well I know it works, I saw it with my eyes.” If you’re at all curious, don’t believe me, I advise you to go and check the literature. See if you can find any credible sources recommending NLP be taken seriously for anything.

If you can then you’ve done more than I managed in months of research. In short NLP either works and our knowledge of how the human brain works and how human languages evolved is wrong, or (and the safe money is here) teachers are signing up for expensive courses and wasting students’ (valuable) time with something which has the same credibility as Ouija boards and tarot cards.

3 thoughts on “The council of woo

  1. Hi @ebfl,I've read your blog post with interest and there are many things I can agree with. I too personally prefer theories that come up with evidence to support what they claim to prove. However, I don't think you appreciate that the TeachingEnglish web page, Facebook page , Twitter account and YouTube channel are all about promoting discussion amongst teachers about different approaches to teaching English. Instead of imposing one viewpoint, our aim is to provide different platforms where teachers from all over the world can air their views and decide for themselves which methods, materials and resources they consider suit their teaching needs and context best. I'd like to extend an invite to you to post about your ideas on our TeachingEnglish Facebook page and join in the discussion that we've been having about different approaches to teaching English, not only NLP but also the Communicative approach, Multiple intelligences, the Lexical approach, dogme etc. Best,Ann ForemanBritish Council TeachingEnglish team


  2. Thanks for your reply Ann, I understand what you're saying about giving people a platform to discuss things, -but there is a danger here. The website has \”British council\” at the top and there so the articles tend to have the air of legitimacy about them -even if the council do not explicitly support them. A teacher lookig for info on say \”NLP\” would find this page and assume that the council supports the use of NLP. I can see valid reasons for discussion of Dogme Versus CLL, as no one really knows how effective these methods are, NLP on the other hand can clearly be shown to not be effective, -there is an importnat difference here. Recently Brian Cox wrote something to the effect of \”you cannot have an opinion on the age of the universe, it's like having an opinion on the distance between Manchester and London.\” Some things (and they are rare in TEFL) can be settled and the council, as the most well known and respected authority for English teacher has an ethical obligation not to peddle pseudo science, even if it is by proxy. Again, the web site might not represent the views of the council but as i noted, the council does promote learning styles in it's CELTA training. So it is not as if it has no position on this kind of thing. I would hate to impose 1 style of teaching on anyone, but I would also hate teachers to impose their fantastical and demonstrably false beliefs on students, -which is what's happening now. I am hopeful the Council will take a stand against these kinds of things. I would love to write something for the TeachingEnglish facebook page. Please let me know how I can do that?


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