Symbolic Modelling in Education

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First published in New Learning, Issue 8, Autumn 2000.

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) has been defined as ‘the study of the structure of subjective experience’. There is, however, one domain of subjective experience that has received little attention–the metaphoric and symbolic. This is the subject of our newly published book, Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. The following extract describes how Symbolic Modelling came into being and ways it is being applied in education.

Modelling David J. Grove

In the 1980s, psychotherapist David Grove realised that many of his clients naturally described their symptoms in metaphor. He discovered that when he enquired about these metaphors using the client’s exact words, their perception of their problems began to change. This led him to create Clean Language, a method of asking simple questions of clients’ metaphors which neither contaminated nor distorted them.

To figure out what David Grove was doing we used a process called modelling. This involved observing him work with clients (including ourselves) and spending hour after hour pouring over recordings and transcripts. We looked for patterns in what he was doing and the way clients responded that contributed to the changes they experienced. We combined these patterns into a generalised model which was tested and fine tuned – cycling through observation, pattern detection, model construction, testing and amending many times. We called the result Symbolic Modelling.

Symbolic Modelling in a Nutshell

Symbolic Modelling is a method for facilitating individuals to become familiar with the organisation of their metaphors so that they discover new ways of perceiving themselves and their world. It uses Clean Language to facilitate them to attend to their metaphoric expressions so that they create a model of their symbolic mindbody perceptions.

This model exists as a living, breathing, four-dimensional world within and around them. When they explore this world and its inherent logic, their metaphors and way of being are honoured. During this process their metaphors begin to evolve. As this happens their everyday thinking, feeling and behaviour correspondingly change as well.

While Symbolic Modelling is based on David Grove’s work and incorporates many of his ideas, he has a different way of describing his approach. Our model draws upon cognitive linguistics, self-organising systems theory and NLP. It was also shaped by our desire for others to learn the process easily and for it to apply to a range of contexts in addition to psychotherapy.

Applications in Education

Educators are applying Symbolic Modelling in a number of ways. The following five examples from a range of contexts show how, with a little creativity, the use of student-generated (autogenic) metaphor and Clean Language is making a contribution in the field of education.

Maths problem

A pupil who had great difficulty doing maths thought he was stupid if he could not give an immediate answer to a maths problem. He said, “I know I know the answers but I just can’t find them.” Caitlin Walker helped him symbolically model how he found the answers to easy maths problems: “It’s like the problem goes upstairs in a lift and when it comes back down I have the answer.” He discovered one of the differences between easy and hard problems was the length of time it took for the lift to come back down. He found, to his delight, that if the problem was hard and he waited long enough, the lift would return with an answer or with a clarifying question. He also realised that getting upset with himself prevented the lift returning, and that with some hard problems the lift doors became stuck. When he found ways to oil the doors and to wait, there was improvement in his maths&emdash;and also in his self-confidence.

Anger management

Caitlin Walker has also used Symbolic Modelling with a group of adolescents whose disruptive behaviour resulted in their exclusion from the mainstream school system. These youngsters had little idea how to manage their anger and would become violent at the slightest provocation. Within the group each was facilitated to identify a metaphorical sequence of events&emdash;starting with what happened just before they became angry, and how the process of becoming angry resulted in physical violence. Each metaphor gave its owner a language with which to describe their experience, a way of recognising early warning signals, and a means of intervening in their own behaviour to prevent the anger-violence pattern repeating.

One youngster had a “radar” that detected when someone was thinking of starting a fight, which led him to attack first. After he modelled his strategy, others in the group said that because they expected him to start fights, they “prepared for war” whenever he was around. He realised that his radar was detecting their fear of him attacking first. Over a number of months he discovered that by “turning down” his radar he could “defuse” many situations before he “started to explode.” Although he learned how to control his anger in the classroom, he chose to keep his radar turned up outside, “because it’s what keeps me alive on the streets.”

Classroom respect

One creative teacher, Susie Greenwood, used Clean Language as a way of responding to a class of 11-year olds when they objected to watching a religious education video.

One child shouted, “It’s not fair.” Susie wrote this exact phrase on the board and said to the class, “And it’s not fair. And when it’s not fair, is there anything else about it’s not fair?” She was bombarded with replies, including “You’re mean,” which she wrote on the board. When the class was asked, “And what kind of mean is that mean?” one child ventured, “You’re cross,” which was also written up. “And what happens just before I’m cross?” received several replies, including “You’re not cross, you’re upset.” As she wrote this on the board, Susie asked, “And what’s the difference between cross and upset?” The first answer was, “There’s respect.” “And when there’s respect, what happens next?” So many hands went up that she asked every child to say one sentence about respect. By the time each child had spoken, the class had settled down. Susie then said, “Now I’m going to show you the video, and afterwards I want to know what you thought about it, and what you got out of it.”

Susie told us she thought this approach worked well because she asked clean questions of the whole group rather than by singling out any individual. Collectively they could see that she accepted their opinions without trying to change them or defend herself, after which the general discussion and mood of the class could evolve in a mutually respectful way.


As a Speech and Language Therapist, Wendy Sullivan often works with students whose difficulty with their speech is compounded by difficulty in attending to what is being said. Their poor listening skills make it hard for them to understand or remember details, especially during school lessons or lectures. In the past she taught rules for good listening. Now she elicits their metaphors for what poor listening is like, and what good listening is like.

One student “went into a little world” when not listening, and “kept the ear and the eye on the teacher” when concentrating. She helped the student explore the structure of the metaphors–how they got into their little world, how they came out, and what needed to happen for them to keep the eye and the ear more on the teacher.

Wendy says that once the students have identified the way their metaphors for listening work, they can monitor and guide their own behaviour more easily than they could by consciously trying to follow set rules.

Moving sound

Christoffer de Graal runs Moving Sound workshops for people with severe physical or learning disabilities. Some participants are described by their support staff as autistic or as not having developed language comprehension. This does not inhibit Christoffer. “I’ve been told again and again that they don’t understand my questions, yet they still respond, and I utilise their response – whatever it is.” He and the participants play a variety of musical instruments “to enable them to get more of a sense of how they can express themselves and to create a conversation between moving and sound, and sound and moving.”

He begins the workshops by asking each participant “What movement or sound do you have today?” Then he utilises Clean Language to enable him to establish a connection with participant’s nonverbal behaviour. As a result the participants create new and enjoyable ways of expressing themselves nonverbally.

A sample of the staff’s comments from a post-workshop debriefing are “It really got people’s personalities coming out”; “I’ve seen development, people have been more willing to join in and make their own contribution”; and “You can place limitations on people and this blows that out of the water.” Christoffer says, “Clean Language creates a container that’s respectful and encourages me to have an attitude of curiosity, acceptance and wonder.”


Symbolic Modelling uses Clean Language to enable people to explore the symbolic domain of their experience. Although Metaphors in Mind mostly draws its examples from psychotherapy, it has a wider applicability because metaphor is a universal process by which we create meaning, expand knowledge and communicate with ourselves and others. Metaphor is so fundamental, pervasive and embedded in thought, word and deed that mostly it remains out of awareness. As we become aware of how metaphor defines our experience we open up the possibility of a significant shift the way we perceive ourselves and the world. Nowhere is this more important than in the field of education.

© 2000 James Lawley and Penny Tompkins

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