Thinking frames 2: Logical Levels

In this series of articles I want to explore with you a number of different filters you can fix onto the lens of your thinking camera.

Thinking frames 2: Logical Levels - methodology article - guest writers

I have selected those "filters" that I have found most useful in my active reflection on my own teaching and training work.

This article is slightly different from the last one in that I want to present this filter, this thinking frame, via an exercise for you to do in class with your lower intermediate students.

  • An exercise in Logical Levels
  • Logical Levels rationale
  • An example of Logical Levels in practice
  • Logical Levels and teacher training
  • Conclusion


An exercise in Logical Levels
So here is the exercise:

  • Ask your students to notice how they are feeling right now and then to choose an animal/bird/fish/reptile/insect that symbolises or represents their mood. Ask them to think of themselves becoming this animal.
  • Now ask them, using the first person, to write three sentences that describe the place where they live, move, and sleep as their animal.
  • Next ask them to write three sentences detailing three things they often do, three behaviours that are typical of them.

    During these short writing phases you act as a walking dictionary, helping people with the animal vocabulary they may need. There is no better time to teach a person a word than the moment they need and want it.

    There are things, that as the animal of their choice, they are superbly good at. They write three sentences about these major abilities of theirs.
  • Tell them that now they are to think about their strongly held opinions, their convictions in role as the animal. Encourage students who feel this leap into the moral realm is too much for them. " What are your beliefs and values as the animal? "
    Ask each student, as their animal, to give three different answers to the question "Who are you?". In other words, what is the core identity of the animal?
  • Group the students in fours to read out what they have written to their classmates. They tell the others straight out which animal they are – to turn this activity into a guessing game is not useful. Why is the EFL culture so enamoured of guessing games? Information gap gone wild?


Logical Levels rationale
In the above exercise, using the metaphor of an animal, the students have been working with the thinking frame of Gregory Bateson's 'Logical Levels', a frame now well integrated into the area of Neuro-Linguistic-Programming. One way of portraying the logical levels is to see them as a hierarchical pyramid, thus:

Beyond/ higher
Convictions, beliefs
Abilities, talents, can-do
Behaviours, habits , frequent doings
Everything and everybody that is around, environment

Let me apply the Bateson model to you as a teacher by asking you the following questions that start at the bottom of the pyramid and work their way up to the top:

  • What sort of area/s do you teach in? And the school buildings?
  • What is the colleague group like? And the students?
  • What sort of classrooms do you have, and equipment?
  • Are you silent in your classes or do you talk a lot?
  • When do you do marking? How about tests?
  • What aspects of your teaching are really good and how do you achieve this excellence?
  • Your main talents as a teacher?
  • What is your implicit teaching philosophy? What are your beliefs about your subject/s and what sort of opinions do you have about students today?
  • Who are you as a teacher? In class what is your core identity?
  • As a teacher and as a human is there anything that you feel is higher than you, above you, beyond you?


In mentally answering the above questions you have created a pretty comprehensive picture of yourself as a teacher. It is evident that factors to do with your identity and your beliefs will govern what happens lower down the pyramid. Your behaviour is shaped by your belief system and not the other way around.

People with a knowledge of Marxism will perhaps object that the so-called bottom level, environment, will massively affect the "upper" levels. So thirty years in jail may well affect a person at the levels of belief and even identity. Perhaps Bateson would counter-argue that, in the case of a Nelson Mandela, the negative environment of prison was powerless against a powerful sense of identity and a socially supported web of beliefs.

An example of Logical Levels in practice
The Logical Levels are a powerful tool for analysing any human situation and I would like to offer you an example of how they have helped me professionally.

  • I had a French student, Robert. His language level in English was upper intermediate. He had a good command of grammar as well as a wide-ranging vocabulary. His obvious problem was his non-concessionary French accent. In the needs analysis on the first day he made clear that he wanted to improve his pronunciation.
  • All week, on this very intensive course, I took him at his word and spent quite a lot of class time attempting to help him improve his sound patterns in English. The audible practical results of this effort on his part and mine were zero.
  • He had presented his problem as a behavioural one and I had failed to apply Bateson thinking to the case. The question I had failed to ask was this: "Does Robert's problem with English sounds lie only at the level of linguistic behaviour or does he lack ability as a language learner?"
  • To check this out I talked to Robert privately in Italian. In this language he did have a faint French accent but on the whole he respected the throat, mouth, lips and tongue rules of Italian. So his problems did not reside at the level of capability. If he was able to push off mother tongue influenced pronunciation in one foreign language he could do it in another.
  • As we talked it became clear to me that Robert was unconsciously using his amazingly distorting pronunciation in English to protect his rather delicate personality from his rich Dutch, US and UK clients (he was a lawyer). He used his distortion of English phonology to keep these ego-threatening folk at a decent distance from him emotionally.


I had spent a week trying to deal with a language problem at behaviour level when, in reality, it lay at the level of Robert's identity. When I realised this I agreed with him that we should leave his pronunciation errors in peace because to deal with the problem at identity level is the job of a therapist and not of a language teacher.

Logical level thinking showed me where the limits of my competence were and allowed me, Robert and the rest of the class to abandon a wild goose chase and get on with some useful language work.

Logical Levels and teacher training
When I am training teachers I have the Bateson thinking filter firmly fixed onto my mental lens. If I get a group of primary school colleagues to experience a storytelling technique as if they were students, some of them may well be reluctant to use the technique in class. This could be because they feel safer playing stories to their classes because they have not yet developed the skill of oral telling. (The level of capability.)

  • Their reluctance to try the technique may be at belief level: "I believe my English is too weak to tell a story orally. I prefer the kids to listen to a native voice on the course book tape or CD-ROM."
    Their 'resistance' to using the technique may lie at identity level:
    "I am not an actor. I am a teacher not a performer"

If I want to train people effectively I need to be aware of the internal logical level they are speaking to me from. It is this realisation that has led me, as a trainer, to do an increasing amount of one-to-one work.

I have moved on as a teacher from the days when it took me a week to get round to applying the Logical Levels filter to Robert's case. I now think through any human problem carefully and check out the level at which the kernel of the problem really lies. This quick procedure saves me time, confusion and anguish. I like to have tools like this in my toolbox. Thank you, Gregory Bateson.

Further reading
Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Bateson, G. Balantine Books, New York, 1972

Mario Rinvolucri, Pilgrims, UK

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