The application of metaprograms in the classroom

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Published in Rapport, 37, Autumn 1997

The article which follows was presented to the Teacher Development Special Interest Group Conference of the International Association for Teaching English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) in November 1995. While the focus of the article is teaching it should be fairly easy to adapt the information for other contexts such as business, therapy, etc.

Imagine a teacher is introducing a lesson to a new class by saying:

“Learning a second language is rather like learning anything else – you need to be given lots of feedback as to how well you are doing”

A student comments:

“I’ve learned lots of different things from algebra to zoology to riding a bike and each one of them required its own unique way of learning. And what’s more, it is obvious when I’ve learned a language, I don’t need anyone to tell me”

The teacher thinks “Oh! This is one to watch.” She smiles and responds with:

“My students tell me they like lots of comments on their homework and learning is about acquiring new skills, the basic principles are much the same.”

Silence fills the classroom. The student stares blankly into space — the ‘lights are on but no one’s home’ — and he says to himself, “What have I let myself in for?”.

Not the best way to start a course. The teacher and the student might as well be speaking a different language. The words are in the same tongue but the structure of their communication is worlds apart. How might those worlds begin to come together?

In the early 1970’s Richard Bandler and John Grinder wanted to find out what effect the structure of language has on our internal processes (our subjective experience). The result of their research has been a new way of thinking about thinking: Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

Bandler and Grinder discovered that individuals seem to communicate using consistent structures of language which over time can be recognised through repeating patterns.1 One of the structural elements they identified became known as metaprograms, the subject of this article. In a moment of insight, they realised people who used similar language patterns quickly developed a deep rapport. They also noticed that when these language patterns were not aligned, people got confused, or they argued, or they found it difficult to understand each other.

What is more, when these patterns were brought to the attention of the individual, they were unaware of them. So this aspect of language production obviously takes place at an unconscious level.

An overview

This article will give you an overview of how to apply the idea of metaprograms in the classroom and so improve the effectiveness of your teaching. I will explain three metaprograms in detail which I believe are fundamental to learning: Sameness-Difference, Chunk Size, and Frame of Reference.

Those of you who are familiar with Myers-Briggs profiles and Carl Jung’s Psychological Types may notice similarities with metaprograms. There is, however, a significant distinction: metaprograms are not personality types. They are ways of processing information and communicating in the moment.

Linguistic indicators are being presented in every sentence, spoken or written. They are instantly recognisable – when you know what to look for!

Research has shown that the conscious mind can usually attend to only “seven, plus or minus two, chunks (ie. pieces) of information” at one time.2 Meanwhile, the unconscious mind is able to process millions of bits of data received from our external and internal senses every second. However, that data needs to be sorted for what is important at the time and within the context in which we find ourselves.

This sorting process can be regarded as perceptual filtering. It is usually out of our awareness and has a major effect on how we behave in the world. Using the analogy of computer software, this level of processing can be thought of as ‘programmes’ which control the ‘behavioural and linguistic programmes’. They are therefore referred to as meta-programs.

Our natural approach is to explain ourselves in ways that correspond to our perceptions of how best to understand. This will work well enough for the majority of students. However, there are likely to be a proportion whose way of thinking is sufficiently different from our own that we make it difficult for them to learn. In these circumstances, communication can often be dramatically improved by noticing the metaprogram preferences used by the other person and modifying our language to match.

It has been said that teaching is only the transfer of information until either you or your students hit a problem. It is at these times that utilising metaprogram can be so powerful.

Since people exhibit an habitual tendency to organise their experience using certain combinations of metaprograms, they become useful predictors of behaviour. Keep in mind they are guides to behaviour and no one exclusively or permanently operates from a specific metaprogram. More accurately there is a continuum with each end representing a behavioural extreme. Depending on the context, each of us tend to gravitate towards one end or the other. Interestingly, the greater the level of stress we experience the more likely we are to revert to our old behavioural patterns and hence reduce our adaptability – just when we need it the most.

Researchers have identified a large number of metaprogram distinctions, many of which have specialised applications. However, there are about 10 which seem to operate in almost all contexts. What follows is a selection of three of the metaprograms I have found to be most useful in a teaching environment.


When you are teaching, have you noticed how some students seem to learn best by relating the information to what they already know; while others prefer to look for how it is different from what they have experienced before? These two approaches to learning are aspects of a more fundamental way of perceiving the world.

Some people have a tendency to notice what is similar, what is common, how things are much like they have always been. In NLP-speak they are said to be exhibiting ‘matching’ behaviour. Teachers who are strong matchers prefer to use tried and tested methods, they easily empathise with their students and they like continuity. They might say:

  • “The art of teaching applies to all subjects”
  • “Modal operators of necessity are just like parents, they tell you what you should or shouldn’t, must or mustn’t do”
  • “I am already using this NLP stuff and never knew it.”
  • “You got almost 80% right.”

Other people will emphasise how things are different. They will notice what is missing, what does not fit. They understand by ‘mismatching’. Teachers who are great at mismatching like new and radical methods, will spot mistakes easily and get enthused when things change. They will say things like:

  • “I’m teaching in a completely different way to last year”
  • “English is not like any other language”
  • “What you haven’t noticed is the change in verb tense”
  • “You got 22% wrong.”

You may already have noticed the above applies to how we learn just as much to how we teach. You may think students who agree with what you teach, follow your instructions, copy the way you do things, are perfect students; especially if you use similarity thinking yourself. More likely they just prefer to learn by matching.

On the other hand, students who point out the inconsistencies in your explanation, your mistakes, and keep telling you why things are different to what you say, have not been sent to this planet just to make your life a misery. These students are actually making sense of the world in the best way they know how – they are learning by mismatching.

The way to get the attention of a person who tends to mismatch is to explain how what they are learning is new, unique, different. Give them exercises to spot what is wrong, what is missing and how things have changed.

With a matcher you need to show how things are similar to what they already know, how each idea builds on the last, and emphasise areas of agreement and continuity.

As an experiment to see how this metaprogram operates, show 3 coins to a group of people and ask each one “What do you notice about these?”. Then listen to whether they tend to notice similarity or difference. Most people, if they think for long enough, will notice both. However, what they pay attention to first tends to be consistent.

GENERAL - Specific (BIG CHUNK - small chunk)

This metaprogram is one of the most important for learning. When students receive information in ‘chunks’ that match their unconscious preferences they learn easily and comfortably. If the information presented is too general or too detailed for their liking they lose interest, get confused and often start feeling uncomfortable. This can lead to self-doubt or anxiety and learning diminishes rapidly.

So ‘big chunk’ people like an overview first, they talk in generalities and get overwhelmed by very detailed information. Once they see the whole picture, they make connections easily and jump from idea to idea . They can be vague about giving, or following, instructions. This way of behaving can be thought of as seeing the world through a wide-angle lens.

Teachers can appeal to the generalists amongst us by beginning with large-scope statements like:

  • “This term we’re going to learn about grammar.”
  • “Use the next exercise to practice what we have covered today.”
  • “What have you learned so far?”

‘Small chunk’ people get excited by details, lists of information, and specific steps. They get bored with vagueness, generalities or what they call ‘fluff’. They draw conclusions based on small pieces of information or examples. It is like looking at the world through a microscope.

It is worth noting that students who have to have Specifics are in the minority. Teachers can appeal to these students by using lots of prepositional phrases and extra modifiers and giving precise instructions in a ordered fashion, such as:

  • “This term we’re going to learn about 4 aspects of grammar. First we will cover syntax, then morphology, phonology and finally semantics.”

  • “How did your opinions change, in that last exercise, while you were in the role of a policeman, before and after the suspect had given his explanation?”

Preferring an overview first or wanting to get down to the nitty gritty is neither good nor bad. It is how different people process the same information to make sense of it. I have seen big chunk students withdraw from a class feeling physically ill because the trainer was delivering too much detailed information for them to process.

What an aware teacher does is make sure they know their own metaprogram preferences and learn to ‘translate’ to ensure that the other end of the spectrum is well represented. When I explained this metaprogram to a (big chunk) teacher he replied:

“There are a couple of students in my class who are always asking me for more information about the topic I am teaching. I give them what they ask for but it has been with a slightly resentful attitude. Now I realise they need the details in order to learn their way, I shall give them the information with a glad heart”.

Can you imagine how his relationship with those students might improve and how the whole class will notice the changes?

Internal - External (Frame of Reference)

How do you know when you have done a good job?

Do you think to yourself: “It feels like it’s gone well” or “something inside tells me so” or “I don’t know how I know, I just know”.

Or maybe you are thinking: “When the students tell me they’ve learned something” or “The exam results are the real test” or “When I see their smiling faces”.

If you have more affinity with the first examples, you make your decisions and judgments based on an internal source of information, ie. within yourself. In the latter case, the decision is primarily based on information outside yourself: ie. other people, books, research.

An understanding of this metaprogram is of paramount importance when delivering feedback. An externally referenced student must have feedback from the teacher in order to evaluate their progress. If you ask a strongly external individual how they think they are doing they will probably respond “Well … how do you think I’m doing?” Talking to external students in the following way is honouring their way of thinking:

  • “I am very impressed with your progress”
  • “Your parents will be so pleased when you have done well in the exam”
  • “Rudyard Kipling said words are the most powerful drug used by mankind”

An internally referenced person who is asked how they think they are doing will likely give a direct answer. Strongly internally referenced students can resent feedback, especially if it contradicts their opinion. They are motivated by their own evaluation of how much progress they have made, and may think “Who are you to tell me?” So the way to be in harmony with an individual displaying this kind of behaviour is to say things like:

  • “I’d like to hear how you think you are doing so we can have a chat about your progress”
  • “What will let you know you’ve learned this?”
  • “It is up to you to decide whether getting this homework in on time is in your best interest”

One way to find out about how this metaprogram operates is to ask your colleagues: “If you think you have given a good lesson and you overhear the students saying it was terrible, what is you immediate response?” If they respond with “What do they know” or “They were probably only joking,” you are getting internally referenced responses. Answers like “I’d feel terrible” or “I wonder how I could have got it so wrong” are externally referenced responses.

Of course, nobody is totally externally or internally referenced. However, when somebody has a preference you can very quickly lose respect and rapport by not communicating with them in their preferred style.

Combining metaprograms

When you have gained a little skill in recognising metaprogram distinctions, you will notice that we do not use just one pattern, rather we unconsciously cluster a number of patterns in each sentence.

In the example at the beginning of this article, the teacher was strongly matching for sameness, using generalities and operating out of an external frame of reference. The student was sorting for difference, being specific and displaying a strong internal reference. Hence the lack of communication. The teacher could have said:

“So each type of learning is a new experience for you and I look forward to finding out how the way I teach is different from what you have had before. For one thing, I think it is important for students to monitor their own progress in addition to traditional methods of evaluation. And there will be specific times when I would really appreciate you giving me a detailed update on the progress you’ve made”

If this is said with a pure intention, the effect will be to acknowledge the student’s natural approach to learning. The teacher would demonstrate her desire to work with this student to achieve his learning goals and would have begun to establish a deep rapport – Not just with the student but with the whole class.


Metaprograms are a way of understanding behaviour. People don’t have Metaprograms, they use language and behaviour which indicate particular ways of sorting information and making sense of the world. There are no right or wrong, good or bad Metaprograms. The question we ask in NLP is: are they useful, in this context?

In the classroom, matching the structure of your students language patterns will build rapport, facilitate learning and create the required safety for them to receive feedback. I recommend concentrating on learning to identify and utilise one Metaprogramme at a time. Once you are proficient at that, you can start using them in combination.

A prerequisite for increasing your own behavioural and linguistic flexibility with metaprograms is to know your own preferences. Then as you stretch to the opposite end of each continuum you can notice how your students respond differently.

Although there are many more applications of metaprograms than can be covered in this article, I hope I have achieved three things:

  • You find you can relate this article to your own teaching experience and realise how you have been using some of the concepts already [Match]; although in a different form. And that you have also been stimulated to think of new ways of communicating with your students [Mismatch].

  • You have enough of an overview to have a general idea [Big Chunk] how to specifically identify and use the three metaprograms of Match-Mismatch, Big Chunk-Small Chunk and Internal-External as detailed [Small Chunk].

  • Finally, you find out for yourself how metaprograms operate and how you can notice the improvements in your effectiveness as a teacher [Internal Referenced].

You can now understand that, as a natural Internally Referenced-Small Chunk-Mismatcher just how beneficial the use of metaprograms has been to me personally – just ask my Externally Referenced-Big Chunk- Matching wife! [External Reference].


Leslie Cameron-Bandler conducted much of the early research into what became known as metaprograms although I have not found any publication by her on the topic.

Roger Bailey spent many years refining and expanding the original research with particular emphasis on business and in a work context. He produced a very detailed self-study manual and audio-tape set called The Language and Behavior Profile (Language and Behavior Institute,1991).

Shelle Rose Charvet has taken Bailey’s ideas and popularised them as audio-tapes, Understanding and Triggering Motivation (Success Strategies, 1993) and in book form: Words That Change Minds (Kendall/Hunt, 1995). In my opinion, these are the best instructions to the subject.

Anthony Robbins’ book Unlimited Power (Simon and Schuster, 1988) has a clear if brief introduction to metaprograms in chapter 14.

While Joseph O’Connor and John Seymour have a short overview in Chapter 17 of Training with NLP (Thorsons, 1994).

Tad James and Wyatt Woodsmall’s book Time Line Therapy (Meta Publications, 1988) has a lot of detailed information in Chapters 12-15 but little on how to apply metaprograms. This is the first publication I know which mentions metaprograms and although it seems a little dated, it does show the connection with Carl Jung’s psychological typing.

The only other reference I have used is a training manual produced by Christina Hall, The Art of Neuro-Logical Leverage (The NLP Connection, 1988).


1 Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic Volumes I and II. Science and behaviour Books Inc. (1975)

2 G A Miller “The Magic Number 7 Plus or Minus 2”, American Psychologist (1956)

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