“I’m so glad to be home in Sausalito. Did you talk with the woman who lives in Brooklyn and teaches in Paris and Morocco, when we were in SoHo last night?”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about. How are you feeling? I know you had a long day. Hey, was she the one who looked so distracted, then ask me if I was feeling confident about my presentation?”
“I have no idea.”
That’s an example of my parents referencing a woman they both met at the same cocktail party. My Mom thinks primarily in terms of places and my Dad thinks in terms of people.
Most educators are familiar with the concept that students have different learning styles, absorbing and retaining knowledge best through one primary channel – for example, visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), the discipline that pioneered these kinds of distinctions, offers another category of knowledge parsing, called Sorting, that can provide educators a new layer through which to impart knowledge – and to decode how much knowledge has been absorbed! I spoke with Lynne Conwell, an early developer of NLP, to learn how Sorting functions and how it might be useful in the classroom or the guidance office.
We can think of the more familiar Learning Styles as referring to Channels – the ways through which we receive information best, by eye, by ear or by touch/movement. We can think of Sorting as what aspect of the information holds the highest prominence or priority (called “criteria” in NLP) for the individual.
Lynne explained that a person will typically have one Category as the main way they sort, reference, think and talk about their experience. And, people are mostly, if not completely, unconscious of using that Category. Many people will comfortably use a second or a third, but rarely does an individual use four or five Sorting Categories. The five Categories by which people generally Sort are: People, Activity, Information, Place and Things.
With the different Learning Styles, educators (and Advertisers!) often make it a point to incorporate all three channels so that all students will receive information, at least partially, via their strongest channel. Incorporating all five Sorting Categories in a teaching context is far more difficult since Sorting is primarily an unconscious process. But, with an awareness of the Sorting Categories, educators can begin to recognize how a student sorts, and therefore detect how much a student has learned and understand what kind of framing (or phrasing or context) will motivate that student. So let’s jump into the head of each kind of Sorter to see how this unconscious process works. Here’s what each might think about getting to class…
People. The People category also includes oneself. A People-Sorter might think first about how they feel: “I am really feeling good today. I am up for this class. It’s my favorite. The teacher seems totally into this topic and I like the way she keeps calling on everybody to talk about how they feel about it.” Here, the People-Sorter talks about self – physically, emotionally, intellectually – and talks about the instructor, not about what she’s teaching but how she seems to feel about it and how she treats other people in the context of the lesson. Motivation for a People-Sorter could be an activity designed to help others because it feels right or good.
Activity. An Activity-Sorter might think: “OK, I’ve got to get up, take a shower, get to class on time, be prepared for the lecture. I am sure we’re going to read our essays out loud. I reread it three times last night. I think I’ll do a good job.” One activity after another. An Activity-Sorter will be more socially inclined in the group system (a People-Sorter may or may not be). An Activity-Sorter is a person who gets involved – activity is who they are. They will mention people but only as a consequence of the activity. For example, if playing a soccer game, it’s necessary to have people there to be the other players, but the focus is on playing soccer: “I scored, even though both full backs and the goalie were all over me.” A People-Sorter would flip the priority and say something like: “My dorm mates and I love to hang out with each other. We play soccer in the quad.”
Sorting by Activity is highly-prized today. People we describe as “go-getters” are often Activity-Sorters and self-define by the things they do. We’ve all heard someone say admiringly, “They’re involved in so many activities!” I primarily sort by Activity and I was in heaven at Boarding School. But with kids who are not excited about activity for activity’s sake, awareness of Sorting can clue us in to what might be motivating. For example, People-Sorters often have a focus on self-development and orient themselves to activities from that perspective. A motivating statement about playing sports might sound like: “You’re going to be surprised at how much you learn about yourself playing hockey this season.”
Information. An Information-Sorter on the way to class might think: “What time is it? How is the weather? What’s the best way to get there?” They deliver facts like a list of information and may be somewhat dissociated from their emotions. I once asked an Information-Sorter about her new car and got a complete comparison between the 2015 and 2016 models. I just wanted to know how it drives (Activity), but for an Information-Sorter, the acquisition, organization and delivery of information is what’s important – paramount – and is also held to be categorically correct. If you negate the information, saying something like, “that’s not important,” you may negate the person. In school, an Information-Sorter is generally going to take excellent notes, do the homework plus extra research, and place great importance on being able to present the information accurately.
Place. Place-Sorters identify themselves and others by place. They also store information by where they were. They have strong opinions about places and may or may not like to travel. On the way to class, a Place-Sorter might think, “I like living in California. I’m so comfortable here and I like the layout of our classroom. But I wish our study hall was in a different room. I don’t have enough space.” Place-Sorter students might be homesick, literally, for the place itself: “I know my home. I know where everything is. I like the change of seasons and I know the people there.” Getting to know the ins and outs of the new place – of campus – would be much more comforting to this student than joining in more activities.
Things. On the way to class, a Things-Sorter might think about how they are dressed, how the room should look, how other people should dress, whether there are windows, curtains, seats, whatever the details are. This person evaluates by how something looks. For people who don’t Sort by Things, it takes something really dramatic to notice details in the Things Category – like the teacher would need to walk in with a very unusual outfit or hairdo. On the way to class, a Things-Sorter might think, “I want to look my best and have all the best and most updated equipment so I can succeed in this class. What tools do I have available?” Many techies or gear-heads Sort both for Things and Information. A teacher who Sorts by Things but gets an underwhelming response introducing a new microscope to a Place-Sorter might re-categorize and say: “This will allow you to see what’s inside the house of the cell!”
What’s really important to a person will lead you to identify their Sorting Category. And vice versa. Educators who identify a student’s primary Sorting Category have identified what is really important to that student – on an unconscious level. It’s no use trying to motivate a Place-Sorter with Activity. Or to describe an unnamed woman by Place alone to a People Sorter, as with the example of my parents. An awareness of Sorting can therefore add another layer of generating rapport and providing effective guidance in the counseling office and the classroom.
How do you Sort? Ask yourself – what are the first couple of things you say to yourself when you wake up? What are the first couple of things you like to know about somebody? What do you naturally ask them?