Tales of the undead

We’re delighted to welcome Russ Mayne (@ebefl) from the brilliant Evidence Based EFL blog onto ELTjam for his debut post. Russ gave one of the standout talks at this year’s IATEFL conference, and below he reflects on what might happen next …

I have been told that my talk ruffled feathers, created waves and put noses out of joint, but the sad truth is that it did none of these things. Nothing will change because of it, and those people who should be listening will ignore it. How do I know this? Read on …

1. Zombies

In 2012, after writing a piece about learning styles,  I had a naïve notion that that would be the end of learning styles. That I, a lowly blogger, had put a stake through the heart of learning styles and killed the beast once and for all. Somehow, in my mind,  everyone would just stop using them; after all, the evidence says they don’t work. A year or so later I came across a blog post by Scott Thornbury saying the same thing and quoting some of the same research. It was dated 2010! His blog is viewed by way more people than my article and yet learning styles were still going strong. How could this be? I then came across Guardian articles talking about the lack of evidence  for learning styles, like this one in 2006 and this in 2004. The Guardian is viewed by way more people than Thornbury’s website. Do you see where I’m going with this?

In fact, if you can be bothered to look, you can find a consistent trickle of articles pointing out that learning styles don’t exist. Articles like Andrew Old’s in 2010, a video by Willingham in 2009 called ‘learning styles don’t exist’, Pashler et al in 2008. You can go right back to Ellis’ original conclusion about learning styles in EFL in 1994. Or you can check out Stahl’s 1999 criticisms and, if you do, don’t forget to check his equally critical references which date back to 1978. Nothing has changed since then; if anything, learning styles are more popular.

Since I wrote my learning styles piece, ETP and ELTJ published pieces on learning styles and a study showed that 93% of secondary school teachers in the UK bought into the concept. So why do learning styles stagger on like zombies despite being killed repeatedly? One reason is, like zombies, the rules of logic don’t apply. In the subsequent edition of MET there was refutation of my article based not on research, but on ‘feelings‘. The author, like Harmer and many others, describes learning styles/MI etc as ‘self-evident truths’, meaning that no evidence will ever be enough to discredit them. Feelings and great stories about how these things ‘really work’ beat smart-arse debunking every time.

2. ‘You can prove anything with facts, can’t you?’

In one of my favourite Stewart Lee routines (you can see it here), he talks about meeting a homophobic taxi driver who tells him gay people are ‘immoral’.
LeeI told him I didn’t know how useful hard and fast concepts of morality were in discussing this kind of issue. I then elaborated on societies, such as the ancient Greeks or the Zunis, where, far from being subhuman, homosexuality was actually viewed as a higher, more profound form of love, so all our ideas about its degeneracy may actually be bound-up in our own cultural context.
The cab driver then refutes Lee saying: ‘Well, you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?’
Image by Flickr user Alan Turkus. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Image by Flickr user Alan Turkus. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

I’m always reminded of the phrase you can prove anything with facts, can’t you? when I encounter comments at the bottom of articles critical of neuro-myths. The writers never try to actually engage with the research but instead insist the argument is plainly wrong because, well, because it is! For example at the end of this article on MI by Willingham a teachers writes:

Have you ever taught in an elementary school? I find your article (as I search for scholarly peer reviewed material for my paper) insulting to educators. Your review of others’ ‘100,000 studies’ doesn’t make you experienced in the ways children learn in classrooms.
Thornbury’s blog on learning styles got this response:
Worryingly, I think the only trend that will never go out of fashion in the world of ESL is the lynch-mob mentality towards ‘discredited’ theories. I don’t think we should abandon any of them – learning styles included.
An article on BrainGym prompted this response:
Are you a teacher? I cannot believe you are discouraging this sort of ‘activity’ and feel compelled to respond to your comment post.  Call it what you want but this sort of activity used in the right way, stimulates learners into understanding how they can use their minds to solve what ever is placed in front of them.

And on and on. The emotional response trumps any argument.

3. False balance

Image by Flickr user Hans Splinter. Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Image by Flickr user Hans Splinter. Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)

If you watch the BBC or any news channel recently, you’ll see the awful spectacle of false balance. Balance is considered important to avoid partiality and so stations try to get both sides of any story. This is a great idea except when there aren’t two sides to a story. An example of this is climate change, which 97% of the world’s climate scientists agree is likely caused by human activity. Watch a discussion on TV and the scientist will be pitted against some well-known celebrity or politician who just happens to think the idea is BS. You can see the same thing with vaccines; medical doctors on one side and ex-model Jenny McCarthy and  her ‘mommy instinct’ on the other.

Some folks have already started to say that Sugata Mitra’s talk was good because it provoked debate. Now I have no real opinion on Mitra either way because I haven’t had the time to read his research, but ‘provoking debate’ is only a good thing if there really is a debate. Creationists trying to undermine the theory of evolution and get Adam and Eve back in school science classes (nearly 100 years after the Scopes trial) talk of ‘teaching the controversy’. This means giving equal time to the theory that humans developed over millions of years and the theory that ‘God did it’ and letting kids make up their own minds. It sounds like a reasonable and fair position, but when one side has all the evidence and the other just really really really want it to be true then we gain nothing from debate. No doubt neuro-myths in education will be defended on the grounds that it’s healthy for us to hear both sides. It isn’t. If the supporters of learning styles bring new evidence to the table, I’ll be the first one listening, but allowing debate for the sake of false balance is a waste of everyone’s time.

4. Homeopathy

In case you missed it, this week has been world homeopathy awareness week and, really, that says it all. Homeopathy not only does not work; it cannot work. If it did work, the laws of physics would need to be rewritten. Homeopathy has been around since 1796, during which time medicine has saved millions of lives with vaccines, better medicines, and other advances in medical knowledge. Homeopathy has, in 200 odd years, never cured anyone of anything. It has lead to a few people’s deaths, however. One such case was in 2009 when a 9-month old baby died after her parents decided to treat her eczema with homeopathy instead of medicine.

Image by Flickr user Aimee Rivers. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image by Flickr user Aimee Rivers. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

TEFL isn’t medicine and learning styles aren’t homeopathy, but it’s a further reason that things won’t change. Homeopathy is flourishing. There is a ‘homeopaths without borders’and it is available on the NHS. If a practice which cannot work but can lead to people’s deaths continues on strong after 200 years what hope is there of getting rid of neuro-myths?

Of course, the comments section on recent homeopathy articles are full of people saying ‘you can prove anything with facts, can’t you?’

Utter rubbish. This article presupposes that only western drugs work. Tell that to the Chinese. All 2 billion of them.

Yet another callow opinion piece bashing homeopathy. Second-largest system of medicine in the world today. Growing at 30% a year worldwide. Hmm. Patients embracing it in larger numbers. Hmm. No complaints except from people who are more interested in propaganda than facts …

If you still think things will change, you haven’t been paying attention.

I have a dream …

In my fantasy world, when the 5th edition of The Practice of English Language Teaching comes out, NLP, MI and learning styles would be roundly denigrated, or, better yet, like the 2nd edition (Harmer 1991), would not even feature. After all, I don’t imagine medical textbooks still have sections on the benefits of blood-letting and humorism. Some people might balk at this and accuse me of censorshipbut that’s not what I’m advocating. Editors and publishers would merely say to authors, ‘I’m happy to publish this, once you provide evidence to counter all of these negative studies.’ That should do the trick.

Listening to the enthusiastic applause when ‘Hugh Dellar’ implored IATEFL to stop accepting talks on pseudoscience nearly caused my Grinch-like heart to grow three sizes. If things do change, I’ll be ecstatic but for the reasons listed above. But I’m not holding my breath.

74 Comments

  1. You’re missing one aspect here in terms of things changing and these theories being dropped out of sheer embarrassment – timing.

    It happens often enough that something that has been around for ages just simply “appears” out of “nowhere” and hits all the right notes at all the right times. The most obvious example (but sort of reversed since it’s a load of tosh) is Fifty Shades of Grey. That kind of book had been around forever, yet it was E L James who sold millions of books and changed naughty books forever.

    So, you might be the ELJ of ELT and must carry on. Pester the proponents and make a much bigger nuisance of yourself. You’re new. People are bored. You write and speak well and it’s about time there was a new voice, even if the message itself isn’t new.

    Reply
    • Much more is at stake now then ever before.

      Reply
      • Because “before” (when exactly do you mean, by the way?) it didn’t really matter because a new bit of theoretical terminology to bandy around shakes things up a bit? What do you mean?

        Reply
        • Nicola, thanks for the question. The exact timeline of “before” is not so important. The current threat to ELT (and the promise) is slowly coming into focus thanks in part to all of the great commentary we have seen recently (a huge thanks to ELTjam for the international- not just British- forum). I believe that teachers of all kinds are and will be increasing replaced by computing. Who will be doing this replacing and for what reasons? Will “we” invest in people plus computers when we have the chance or will we only invest in computing? Are semi-intelligent computing and Holes-in-the-wall really the panacea that some might like to claim? These I believe are some of the questions that we are struggling with. BTW, I claim no special expertise in this area. I am very glad however that younger people than I, like Russ, are taking up the gauntlet and making it their special concern.

          Like I think I said before, I don’t think technology is just responding to the market; I believe it is actually making the future…..our future.

          Reply
    • Russ Mayne

      Hmmmm…I’m not the pestering type. I’m more the pottering type.

      I’m hopeful things will change but we’ll see…

      P.S. I’ve never been compared to an erotic fiction writer before! :)

      Reply
  2. I’m converted, Russell, so I thank you sincerely. I’m not sure what I’ve been converted to, though.

    Here is an activity I’m just making up now, that I “feel” should/could work:

    Students silently read a short text. One student comes to the whiteboard and writes down 8 – 12 words/collocations from the text that others shout out, randomly scattering them around the whiteboard.
    Once done, one student shouts out a number of these words. Another now comes to the board and points to each in order, then licks them.

    You could say that this activity has visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and gustatory. Also, from MI, spatial, (and interpersonal).

    Are you saying that some such activity doesn’t work at all (i.e. no learning will take place), it doesn’t work any more than a “less LS activity” (equally good), it actually works less efficiently, or it even results in a loss of knowledge (!). Is it only the wild claims of self-actualisation etc. that are unsubstantiated?

    At the moment, I am someone that is going around saying “LS and MI don’t work”. What exactly is it that doesn’t work?

    David

    Reply
    • David, apart from the (cheeky) inclusion of ‘licking’ in your activity, it has all the hallmarks of a plausible awareness-raising activity, and does not need any theory of learning styles or multiple intelligences to justify it. There is an ample history of solid research into how memory works (see Baddeley 1997 for example) to suggest that the word retrieval process in your activity will have a positive effect on learning. And if the students were to touch (rather than lick the words) , learning might even be enhanced further, according to a study reported on the BBC website here: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-26643823

      I hasten to add that the positive benefits of touching are not validation of a kinaesthetic learning style (since the effects work equally well for all learners) but rather that they confirm the findings of a rapidly-growing research focus on ‘embodied cognition’, that is, the way the mind and the body are components of an intricately integrated system. This is not a style, nor even an intelligence. It is just cognition, and we all have it.

      Reply
      • Scott, I recently watched the plenary you gave in South Korea a few years ago (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTL6pgUbxyE , a great watch for others) , about the secret history of methods, where you described methods and teachers as choosing their own wiggly line between extremes of certain criteria. Would you think that a more inclusive method wouldn’t therefore be just a thin wiggly line, but rather a broader band that covers a greater area between each of the extremes? An example would be letting students draw their own conclusions about generative rules from input, but later on, the rule being explicitly stated. Or is that having you cake and eating it?

        Reply
      • Russ Mayne

        I once had an article about NLP rejected from a journal. The reviewer (I hope it’s not bad form to post reviewer’s comments) said:

        “A final point: while it’s clear – and reasonably convincingly argued in the paper in question – that the claims advanced for NLP are empirically unfounded, the writer is a little too dismissive of the relationship between perception and language, given recent work in embodied cognition (e.g Johnson, 1987; Clark 2011) and in neuroscience, including the discovery of mirror neurons (e.g. Iacoboni, 2009)…”

        It seems, I’ll really have to look into this embodied cognition business.

        Reply
        • Russ, I hope it’s not bad form to admit to being the reviewer, but it was I. :-(

          Reply
          • All getting so incestuous!

          • Russ Mayne

            haha! How very odd! Well, it’s not the first article I had rejected and it certainly won’t be the last. The other reviewer rejected it as well so….

            I think the comments were fair, there was little evidence for it’s “increased” use. I’ve made changes and resubmitted it to another place (who have had it for 10 months now and haven’t sent it off for review!) so it may get to see the light of day yet…

  3. Although your comment is a tad cynical, I can’t help agreeing with you. ELT has always been such a slave to new trends which sweep us all along!

    Reply
  4. David, apart from the (cheeky) inclusion of ‘licking’ in your activity, it has all the hallmarks of a plausible awareness-raising activity, and does not need any theory of learning styles or multiple intelligences to justify it. There is an ample history of solid research into how memory works (see Baddeley 1997 for example) to suggest that the word retrieval process in your activity will have a positive effect on learning. And if the students were to touch (rather than lick the words) , learning might even be enhanced further, according to a study reported on the BBC website here: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-26643823

    I hasten to add that the positive benefits of touching are not validation of a kinaesthetic learning style (since the effects work equally well for all learners) but rather that they confirm the findings of a rapidly-growing research focus on ‘embodied cognition’, that is, the way the mind and the body are components of an intricately integrated system. This is not a style, nor even an intelligence. It is just cognition, and we all have it.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Scott. You’ve opened up a whole new area for me, Embodied Cognition.

      Reply
    • Russ Mayne

      I once had an article about NLP rejected from a journal. The reviewer (I hope it’s not bad form to post reviewer’s comments) said:

      “A final point: while it’s clear – and reasonably convincingly argued in the paper in question – that the claims advanced for NLP are empirically unfounded, the writer is a little too dismissive of the relationship between perception and language, given recent work in embodied cognition (e.g Johnson, 1987; Clark 2011) and in neuroscience, including the discovery of mirror neurons (e.g. Iacoboni, 2009)…”

      It seems, I’ll really have to look into this embodied cognition business.

      Reply
  5. Well, it’s always a pleasure to be referenced, but it’s kind of mildly irritating to be quoted selectively to get your point across. My take on learning styles in The Practice of English Language teaching is highly sceptical, quotes extensively from the famous Coffield et al study and includes the following sentence (which you do NOT quote in full “As with descriptions of learner styles (see page 88) we might not want to view some of the results of NLP and MI test uncritically. This is partly because of the doubts expressed by Frank Coffield and his colleagues (see above), but it is also because neither MI theory nor NLP have been subjected to any kind of rigorous scientific evaluation. However it is clear that they both address self-evident truths – namely that students react differently to different stimuli and that different students have different kinds of mental abilities” (Harmer 2007:93). I have 3 questions for you: 1 do you believe that students have different kinds of mental abilities? 2 do you believe that students respond differently to different stimuli (think music for example)? and 3 if you were writing a general methodology book and NLP and MI had made inroads in professional practice would you ignore them completely or would you describe them and other stuff that had influenced the profession – because they are all over the literature – such as aptitude, good learner characteristics, learner styles etc and then subject them to critical comment? I actually agree with your basic comments about learner styles but take quite serious objection to being characterised as a flag-waver for them.

    Reply
    • Russ, in fairness to Jeremy, I also included entries on NLP and MI in my ‘An A-Z of ELT’ (which you kindly referenced), not because I hold them in any regard but because, as Jeremy argued, they are a part of the popular discourses of ELT – like it or not. And as you rightly point out, they are not going to go away in a hurry, however much we rant and rail!

      Reply
      • Russ Mayne

        It’s a fair point. I included your quote from a 2010 blog article because (unless I misread that) it seemed that you were saying you probably could have been a bit harder on LS in the A to Z.

        I also think your comment in 2001 was perhaps one of the only completely critical comments on NLP I’ve seen in the literature. I wonder if you’ve seen Millrood’s 2004 article on NLP in the ELTJ where he cites that article as support for NLP. I may just be very bad at reading but it seemed to me your peice didn’t lend any support for NLP at all.

        Reply
        • Agreed, Russ. I didn’t mean to imply that I am less skeptical than I come across, only that Jeremy might be more so. Either way, we are both motivated by wanting to engage a ‘broad church’, hence our (grudging?) nod towards these ‘new age’ methodologies. (I also remember being forcefully reprimanded for a review I wrote years back, in which I took NLP, among other things, to task: I was advised I should play ‘the believing game’, and not ‘the doubting game’ – a trope that Diane Larsen-Freeman recommends in her book on Techniques and Methods. I took the advice to heart – sort of).

          As for the Millrood article, yes, I remember reading that with a mixture of incredulity and irritation, but decided it was best to let it pass.

          Reply
          • Geoff, the reason I didn’t recommend Russ’s article for publication (as he will confirm) is nothing to do with the fact that he was critical of NLP: on the contrary, I welcomed his critique, bit it lacked rigour – of the kind that you yourself persistently urge.

          • Russ Mayne

            Hi Geoff,

            I honestly don’t know the first thing about embodied cognition.

            Hi Geoff,

            There are two points to remember 1. The article was rejected, without review from applied linguistics and 2. both reviewers rejected it in TESOL quarterly.

            I had more problems with the 2nd reviewer who wrote in a very short comment, “There is no mention of the general value of NLP in identifying and mirroring good practice or of literature supporting its use. I suggest that a more balanced view of the area is needed.” I thought this comment missed the point entirely (see point 3 above)

            In contrast, Scott’s review had three major criticisms 1. the style was too argumentative (I would agree with this) 2. the assertion that NLP is become more popular was not supported (I would agree with this) 3. That while I did a good job of showing NLP had no sound basis I may have strengthened my argument by looking at research on perception and language. (I was less comfortable with this argument as I didn’t really understand it and wondered if it was trying to give credit to NLP by the back door) .

            As I noted above it’s not the first nor the last time such articles have been rejected. Over the last 12 months I have had 3 articles about neuromyths rejected without review from the ELTJ. Each time I assume (and whether I am right to do this I cannot say) that the editor has ‘my’ best interests at heart. Each time I have been impressed by the quality of feedback I received from him. I suppose I haven’t quite cracked ‘writing for journals’ yet. It’s obviously disappointing, and looking at the 12 or so rejection emails over the last few years it’s hard not to get frustrated.

            That said, I think if I keep working at it eventually it’ll happen. Certainly the IATEFL talk did a lot to get the message out.

    • Russ Mayne

      Hi,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and reply to the article. It’s very odd to be talking to people whose books I’ve been reading for years –very odd.

      After the talk I got an email from a CELTA trainer called Martin McMorrow who wrote to say he thought I had mischaracterized the CELTA’s ‘support’ for learning styles. He pointed out that the relevant section in the criteria listed only “learning styles” but didn’t specify VAK, therefore it was a slight overstatement for me to claim that the CELTA ‘supported’ learning styles.

      Having a blog which harps on about ‘evidence’ means I have to be very careful about the claims I make. I’m keen to get the facts right and so I wrote back to him and told him he was absolutely right and that should I ever do the talk again I would better qualify that statement. I think the CELTA ‘could’ be used to justify VAK but that would be the trainer’s decision.

      It’s great to hear that you’re not so hot on these practices either. To be honest, until I read your comments here I really did think you were a ‘supporter’. Yes, you absolutely did include critical commentaries about the practices, as I noted in an earlier article, but you always seemed to follow these up by suggesting, despite the criticisms, they still had a part to play/could be useful. An example would be this quote which followed a discussion of Coffield et al’s criticisms:

      It may sound as if, therefore, there is no point in reading about different learner styles at all – or trying to incorporate them into our teaching. But that is not the case. We should do as much as we can to understand the individual differences within a group (2007:89)

      It seemed to me that here you were advocating teachers incorporate learner styles into their teaching. I’m sorry if this is not what you meant.

      The ‘selective quoting’ you mention in the talk was one example of how common this pattern seems be. Unfortunately, I planned to squeeze a lot into 20 minutes and so had to cut a lot slides. The slide in question had 3 quotes on (originally 4) and it was not only your quote that was reduced (to save time) but Steve Darn’s as well. The timing meant using the shortest quotes I could while trying to retain the original meaning. The point I was trying to make was that despite criticism, a fully damming verdict seems rare in the TEFL world. If you think this was a mischaracterisation then I’d have no problem making it clear that you’re in no way a supporter of these things.

      In answer to your questions

      1. Yes
      2. Yes
      3. You’re right that MI and NLP had made inroads particularly around 2001 (two NLP books came out in 1997 and 1999) when the third edition of your book came out. And it’ true the 4th edition is somewhat more critical. I’m not sure I can really answer your question because I would be answering it from a 2014 perspective with a huge amount of hindsight bias. No one in the TEFL world, I think, was ever 100% critical of these practices, which is one point I was trying to make.

      Learner differences and motivations are important but I don’t think that validates pseudoscience. Putting them together just muddies the issue.

      Reply
      • Hello Russ,

        I think that’s a very fair answer. And how strange about words and what we think they mean when we use them and what people think we mean!!!

        “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
        “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

        I think the quote you sent back to me (page 89) does sound more positive about styles (than I would now want to be) and if I were rewriting it – if I mentioned LS at all – I would say something like ‘we may not believe much about all this learning styles stuff, but it is at least an attempt to understand/it does at least remind us that any group is made up of individuals, each of whom have their own individual wants and needs’. In other words, you may be able to junk the ‘science’ of it, but the motivation is fine?

        But your central point (in another article) about learner study preferences being different from any conception of ‘styles’? I find that convincing.

        However this all turns out – and if I DO get a chance to rewrite The practice of ELT – you have made me look at my words & conclusions carefully and think about how they need to be amended. I couldn’t ask for more!

        Jeremy

        Reply
      • Hi Russ,
        I don’t know why, but there’s no “Reply” button under your reply to me, so I’ll post my reply here. You say “I honestly don’t know the first thing about embodied cognition”, but that’s not the point. You’ve won your chance to sniff out and inform people about bullshit. What Scott said about embodied cognition was bullshit and I rather hoped you’d say so.

        In general, you deal with Scott’s and Harmer’s apologetic “we were only trying to be fair” line far too reverently. You should appreciate that they’re establishment figures whose status protects them from the criticism which they need and that we need to keep making so as to fight against poor argument and crap materials. When Harmer or Thornbury speak at all these conferences, what you get is middle-of-the-road pap sprinkled with their idea of funny remarks, which draw tired laughter from the tethered sheep. To mix the metaphor, many of us are hoping that you’ll put a cat among the pigeons, and I personally hope that you won’t set sucked into the establishment and lose your mojo.

        Good luck.

        Geoff

        Reply
        • Hello Geoff,

          how nice to read your warm and amusing comments. Always the humorist.

          Speaking personally, I was not trying/do not try ‘to be fair’. However, in the kind of writing I do (which may indeed be ‘middle-of-the-road pap’ – you sure have a way with words), I feel a responsibility to tell the people – at the stage of their lives where they read the kind of thing I write – what their colleagues (some of them influential) are saying and doing, things which reflect the world they teach or will be teaching in.

          My status protects me from criticism? That’s news to me.

          An establishment figure? What establishment would that be? I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. Freelance writers, educators and teachers ( like you. like me) have to struggle every day to be heard and published.

          So, in answer to your strangely personal polemic, I very much enjoyed Russ’ reply to my comments on this page. He addressed the issues (not the people) and in that way is influencing my thinking or at least has made me think again. That is the kind of writing that makes reading intelligent blogs worth reading.

          Reply
    • Dear Jeremy Harmer,

      Your first 2 questions seek support for “beliefs” which amount to empty “motherhood” statements, and they in no way entail the “argument” contained in the third question. I.E.: there’s a whopping non-sequitur here.

      If I were writing a general methodology book, I would describe NLP and MI and then make the case as cogently as I could that they are incoherent, offensive, unscientific, irrational, pseudo-theories which blight the ELT landscape. You, as usual, pussyfoot around the issue in your imitation of Mr. Reasonable, partly because you seem to have problems grasping theoretical issues, but mostly because, like your friend Scott T., you don’t want to offend anybody.

      Geoff Jordan

      Reply
      • Laurie Harrison

        Geoff – can you keep to debating the issue (as strongly as you like) without resorting to just dishing out insults to other contributors? Ta.

        Reply
        • Hi Laurie,

          Insults? Moi? Seriously tho, I ‘m sure we agree that saying that you think what someone says is bullshit is OK, and that saying they’re an establishment figure unlikely to rock the boat is OK. I accept that saying they’re imitating “Mr. Reasonable” and implying that they’re stupid is not OK; I apologise for that to you, readers and to Mr. Harmer.

          Reply
  6. Russ,

    Many thanks for this follow-up to the excellent – actually, stand-out in fact – talk at IATEFL, which I had been looking forward to as soon as I saw the title and abstract in the program and which I enjoyed immensely.

    I can’t help wondering whether the resilience of the Shamanic turn in ELT is actually the symptom of a much wider and equally damaging cultural malaise – one that reaches back to the (ir)rationalization by the Soixante-Huitards as they tried to explain why their revolution failed so dismally. As far-fetched a comparison as that seems – admittedly, the failure of Paris ’68 may at first glance seem to have absolutely nothing to do with ELT – please consider this:

    Michel Foucault has identified the major targets: “All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.” Such necessities must be swept aside as baggage from the past: “It is meaningless to speak in the name of – or against – Reason, Truth, or Knowledge” […] Having deconstructed reason, truth, and the idea of the correspondence of thought to reality, and then set them aside – “reason,” writes Foucault, “is the ultimate language of madness” – there is nothing to guide our thoughts and feelings. So we can do or say whatever we feel like. (Hicks, 2011: Loc 537 of 8437)

    That is, Foucault and the other ’68-ers explained their failure to dismantle society so as to build it anew on the failure of the ‘people’ to overcome their adherence to things like Reason and evidence – or facts, if you will.

    As Hicks (2011) argues at length in Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, they set about on a programme designed explicitly at deconstructing the foundation of Reason by attacking its epistemological basis.

    Why?

    Because Reason makes claims to be able to arbitrate on questions of judgment. For example: Situation: my daughter has appendicitis. Question: Should I take her to the hospital and have highly-trained medical professionals use keyhole surgery to resolve the problem or should I take her to Philomena’s front room to have her negative Chakras realigned by the medium of a purple quartz crystal?

    While I’m sure even the most ardent postmodernism would probably opt for the former rather than the latter, it is nevertheless the fact that Reason’s claim to set the record more or less straight on objective reality with extremely high probabilities and to a fine degree of tolerance that is inimical to the much more subjective and pluralistic worldview of the ’68-ere and their descendants; a worldview that argues for Reasons over Reason, Truths over Truth and Knowledges over Knowledge; one that also argues that everything is socially constructed and therefore ignores or even actually denies the idea that there are universal facts that cut across cultural differences.

    I’m not suggesting that those who leave comments such as Mr/Ms ‘lynch-mob mentality’ are activists consciously trying to deconstruct Reason – rather I’m saying that the seemingly endless iterations of anti-Reason that have filtered down from the Academy over almost five decades now have created an atmosphere which privileges and legitimizes the personal and the subjective over all other considerations – up to and including evidence and facts (e.g. the questioner ‘Have you ever taught in an elementary school?’ seems to be suggesting that his/her anecdotal evidence based on personal experience trumps all other considerations, which are thereby rendered superfluous).

    As the Academy seems to not only support but actively endorse anti-Reason approaches, what incentive or motivation does that leave to a teacher for the need to pay much – if any – attention to findings from evidence-based investigations? What is the motivation to take ‘your’ word over theirs in a climate where seemingly ‘everybody knows’ that there can be ‘no such thing as objective evidence’? Where is the incentive when – as you note – all around them people such as homeopaths are dismantling common sense and making what seem to be ever increasingly hysterical and absurd statements about the reality we live in and get taken seriously – by the NHS(!?!) – for doing so?

    I’m not saying evidence-based approaches are beyond reproach. In fact I persnally think that there is often too great a willingness in ELT as a whole for practitioners to latch onto the conclusions of published research in Applied Linguistics without having first subjected the research design and methodology to rigorous scrutiny. Though that kind of skepticism is a fundamental part of evidence-based approaches (I think).

    Certainly, it is better than rejecting or dismantling the very basis of Reason for no other reason than a dislike of what the evidence is saying.

    Reply
    • Russ Mayne

      Hi Nikw211,

      Thanks for writing. And thanks for your comments. There is a lot to reply to here.

      I think you’re right that the culture reflects/ influences teaching practice. I think (and this is just opinion) a lot of what informs teaching practice is ideology rather than evidence. For example, when we want learner autonomy, group work, discussions, learner centric teaching etc etc, do we want those things because they are good for students (ie. we know this) or is it because they feel right with notions of independence, anti-authority, democracy etc etc. I don’t know but it’s just something I was thinking about recently.

      as regard to anti-reason or postmodernism, I ‘think’ I agree with you. I wrote something related to that point here:
      http://malingual.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/thought-terminating-cliches.html

      You write:
      As the Academy seems to not only support but actively endorse anti-Reason approaches, what incentive or motivation does that leave to a teacher for the need to pay much – if any – attention to findings from evidence-based investigations

      The answer is “none” and it’s not just TEFL it’s all education. Hattie (2009:1) writes:
      ‘WE acknowledge that teachers teach differently from each other; we respect this difference and even enshrine it in terms like “teaching style”…This often translates as “I’ll leave you alone, if you leave me alone to teach my way.”
      …short of unethical behaviour…there is much support for the “everything goes” approach.’

      Reply
  7. And as for your last paragraph (about a possible 5th edition of The practice of English Language Teaching), well everything would be up for grab if such a thing DID come to pass and the whole learning styles section would change quite dramatically I suspect because, like you, my feelings about MI & NLP (for example) have shifted considerably – i.e. from considerable scepticism to heavy-duty scepticism. Would I mention them? Now that’s a very good question (but see my question 3 above). Your answer?

    Reply
  8. Russell,

    I have to say that your talk was one of the best things we had in IATEFL this year. Not because what you said was new, because it wasn’t, and you provided us with the proper references to support that. Literature that the ordinary teacher might be interested, but has 15 groups around the city and has to commute every day. The kind of teacher that is not necessarily taking an MA or PhD, therefore wouldn’t normally have access to this literature. And there you were at IATEFL, expecting an audience of maybe 10, 15 people. The oh-my-God moment at the beginning of the talk, when you realize that each of those 15 people you were expecting brought 2 or 3 friends with them is priceless. As I said, the ordinary teacher may not have access to the literature behind your talk, but they have IATEFL and they can watch that at home. I thank you for that, for bringing the scientific and making it sound ordinary with a pinch of humor.

    Having said that, I think some ‘ pseudo-science’, specially concerning learning styles, feels right. After all, teaching is also about what feels right, using your intuition and realizing when where to change, adapt. What I advocate is that we should try to provide students with activities that ‘cater to different learning styles’ (the mantra, there we go again…) because we need variety and variety brings fun and fun helps learning (or acquisition, if you prefer) take place. Being in a classroom where only one type of activity is recurrent (or a certain learning style is favored over others) feels like traveling to hell and being stuck there.

    Some might ask, ‘Ok, then what’s the difference? You just acknowledged that trying to manage different learning styles is good!’. In fact, in a group of 15, 20 people, I think it’s virtually impossible. There’s so much in a lesson to worry about, so many details, that I don’t need to get crazy about the kinesthetic student if there’s nothing in that lesson that caters to his learning style.

    We do need to be more critical, but on the other hand there’s gotta be room for what is not scientific.

    Reply
    • Spectacularly missing the point there! Or proving Russ’s zombie analogy.
      There is NO SUCH THING as a visual learner. There are visual activities and a range of ACTIVITIES in class is a good thing so that’s why you need the lessons you describe. Because it’s more fun, more engaging, possibly because, as Scott says, learning by doing something is more effective. You don’t need to label the learners for this to be true.
      Example, I used to revise for exams by memorizing pages of notes and visualizing those notes in the exam. Oh! Visual learner alert! Except no, because if I want to copy a sentence word for word from a book, I have to go back and look at it about every four or five words because I surprisingly make so many mistakes.
      I struggle to retain directions when someone is telling me them. Aha, so I’m not an auditory learner! Except no, because I learn song lyrics easily by listening.
      I could go on, but it’s pointless, isn’t it?

      Reply
      • Hi Nicola!

        Well, maybe I didn’t make myself clear enough the first time.
        I am definitely not in favor of the so-called learning styles. I agree with you that we don’t need to label learners . What you said about yourself is a very good example of how the learning styles theory wouldn’t account for a learner like you.

        When I said that we should try to provide students with activities that cater to different learning styles, what I meant was the we should try to provide them with a variety of activities that are commonly associated to this theory, that’s why I used the quotation marks when I referred to ‘learning styles’.

        It seems we are on the same page. :)

        Reply
        • Russ Mayne

          Thanks for writing Thiago. I agree that we should try to provide students with activities reach them in many different ways. Perhaps not through noiceptive channels though. I think Willingham suggests that there is more chance for encoding and retrevial the more sensory channels you use. Like when you hear and old song and remember something about your life or smell a nostalgic smell. Oh-er, sounds like I’m advocating incense-based lessons…

          Reply
  9. Thanks, good article – sad I missed the talk at IATEFL. And nice work on shoehorning some Stewart Lee into eltjam!

    Will do what I can to rid my small TEFL corner of pseudo-science

    Reply
    • Russ Mayne

      Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it :)

      Reply
  10. I’d agree with Nicola Prentis that there needs to be a new voice (or new voices) in ELT. But it’s not easy in such a conservative field as ELT .

    In terms of killing off ideas such as learning styles and MI, why not start by removing them from the syllabuses of training courses such as the TKT?!

    Reply
    • Yes. Please, yes.

      Reply
    • TKT = the Teaching Knowledge Test – see http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams-and-qualifications/tkt/

      I don’t know whether the TKT syllabus specifically mentions ‘learning styles’ by name, but the book that was published in 2005 as preparation for the test (Spratt, Pulverness and Williams, CUP) includes an uncritical section on Learning Styles (‘Experts have suggested several different ways of classifying learning styles… etc’). So Thomas has a point.

      Reply
      • I would be very wary about ‘striking things off ‘ syllabuses. Just because conclusive evidence for a theory hasn’t been produced, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed. I think ELT methodology over the years has suffered in some respects from exactly that i.e. the baby being thrown out with the bathwater – Chomsky’s universal grammar being a case in point.

        Surely the place for training courses such as TKT, CELTA, Delta, etc. is to encourage teachers to be critical thinkers and make their own decisions, also factoring in their own experience. Why not present the theory, present the actual research, and have teachers make up their own minds?

        I think some courses (the Delta in particular) gets a lot of unfair stick for presenting things as facts, when often what we’re doing is presenting what we know and encouraging teachers to find out for themselves.

        Reply
        • Damian, the point Russ made in his talk is that not only is there no evidence for learning styles, NLP etc, but that these ideas have already been convincingly rebutted in the academic literature.

          It would be interesting to find out more about exactly how learning styles and MI are presented on the syllabuses of a few of the major ELT training courses and to then at least think about how that presentation could be improved.

          Reply
        • ‘Damian, the point Russ made in his talk is that not only is there no evidence for learning styles, NLP etc, but that these ideas have already been convincingly rebutted in the academic literature.’

          I fully understand that, Thomas, and completely agree – it’s what I’ve been saying on Delta courses for years (Daniel Willingham, and now Russell have made it a lot easier).

          I just don’t see how not including any discussion of ‘Brain-based learning’ at all on training courses will help – in fact I could see it doing more harm than good. Let me explain what I mean – methods such as Grammar-translation, The Direct Method and Audiolingualism have also largely been disproved as effective ways to learn languages in all contexts (though they may be useful in some contexts), but we still introduce and discuss them on training courses like the Delta. Why? Because it’s not the place of courses like this to dictate what’s wrong and right in language teaching.

          As trainers, our job is to develop the skills teachers need in order to do their own research and experimentation (in fact the Delta even has a specific research assignment for this), and draw their own conclusions through experience.

          In much the same way, a lot of what we do as language teachers is about encouraging learners to become more autonomous by noticing patterns, etc., and drawing their own conclusions about language.

          Discussions about ‘brain-based learning’ therefore could actually be used as a useful case study in defence of the need for evidence. My worry about striking it off training courses altogether would be that teachers then come across the theory elsewhere, being presented as ‘fact’ and take it as a given – much as has happened in the past.

          Reply
        • Russ Mayne

          Hi damian, I’m interested in two comments you made. firstly you said “methods such as Grammar-translation, The Direct Method and Audiolingualism have also largely been disproved as effective ways to learn languages in all contexts”

          could you perhaps provide me links/references for this? I’d really like to look at the evidence.

          Secondly

          “Why? Because it’s not the place of courses like this to dictate what’s wrong and right in language teaching.”

          You don’t think that the DELTA is a place to tell teachers what is effective in language teaching? If I can ask, without sounding too flippant, 1) what is the purpose of it and 2) How is it possible to fail module 2 external if the DELTA is not making decisions about what is wrong and right in teaching?

          Cheers,

          Russ

          Reply
        • Hi Russell, thanks for your comment. I was at your talk at IATEFL and thoroughly enjoyed it – best talk I’ve been to in a long time, in fact.

          Anyway, in answer to your comments, firstly, sources abound disproving the methods I mentioned, but to name a few:

          For disproof of the effectiveness of Grammar-Translation, Richards and Rogers is a good start, or you could just look at any example of a person speaking in a foreign or second language as proof that language consists of more than just written sentences.

          For disproof of the effectiveness of The Direct Method, the late Harvard psychologist Roger Brown documented it’s many failures, as did the 1929 Coleman Report: http://mailer.fsu.edu/~ldsmith/garnet-ldsmith/Coleman%20Report.pdf

          The Audiolingual Method has been criticised countless times by Chomsky, though the most comprehensive and conclusive study disprooving its effectiveness was the Pennsylvania Project: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1944-9720.1969.tb01279.x/abstract

          But whether there is evidence for how effective these methods are wasn’t really my point. What I actually meant (and apologies, I’m not often very good at making myself clear) was that none of these methods (or any one method) is ever going to be a panacea, effective in all situations. That’s why it’s up to teachers to try out different aspects, and with a critical cap on, analyse and judge which combination is best for the specific situation they find themselves in.

          And so, in response to your two questions – 1) I definitely don’t think it’s the place of training courses like the Delta to dictate what’s effective – who’s to say what’s most effective in any given situation? Learners are different, learning contexts are different, group dynamics are different, so it’s not the place for any one trainer to say what’s best. In fact, this was reiterated in the most recent Principal Moderator’s Report from Cambridge:

          ‘However, there is a small but discernible tendency for centres and assessors to bring their own prejudices into the assessment process. Comments such as a Presentation-Practice-Production approach to lesson planning is ‘old fashioned’ (i.e., ‘wrong’ in some way) or that candidates need to adopt an Engage-Study-Activate approach to their lessons, or that ‘grammaring’ is a good / bad thing are not appropriate. There is some evidence of this affecting how candidates perceive competing methodologies with sweeping statements about the ‘wrongness’ or otherwise of approaches.
          Centres, assessors and candidates need to consider what is appropriate and effective given the exigencies of the teaching and learning setting without a priori judgements concerning the ‘rightness’ or otherwise of methodological choices.
          There are, of course many ways of getting things wrong in a classroom and failing to address learner needs or be effective in doing so but it is equally true that there is more than one way of being effective and appropriate.’

          I’m not sure I fully understand your second question, as this is exactly what candidates are assessed on (and trained to do with the internal assignments), and the point I was making i.e. making decisions about what’s best during the lesson, given the students’ emerging needs, as reflected by the following module 2 assessment criteria:

          ‘6c) Successful candidates demonstrate that they can effectively vary their role in relation to the emerging learning and affective needs of learners during the lesson.

          9a) Successful candidates demonstrate that they can effectively implement the lesson plan and where necessary adapt it to emerging learner needs.’

          Apologies if I’ve misunderstood your second question, but my point was that it’s up to training providers to present what’s there and how to use it, and up to the teacher to make intelligent judgements as to how to use it according to the situation at hand. This, for me, is the ‘art’ part of teaching, as an accompaniment to the ‘science’ part in research – to say teaching is only one and not the other seems at odds with common sense to me.

          Reply
        • Russ Mayne

          Thanks for the long reply. There’s a lot for me to chew over here and there’s also the ‘embodied cognition’ stuff as well. Good job it’s Easter.

          I’ll have to look into Richards and Rogers. I know they mention it but do they show that it’s ineffective? Looking at Ellis’s (2012 language teaching research and pedagogy) chapter on comparative methodology the research seems thin and inconsistent. The studies comparing GT and other methods had mixed results. Ellis suggests that Smith 1970 saw little difference when he compared GT with audio-lingual except the GT group were better at reading. Scherer and Wertheimer (1964) found the audio-lingual group better in everything except (amazingly) grammar translation. Hammond (1988) found no difference between GT and ‘natural approach’.

          I’m not sure any useful information can be gleaned from these studies. I wouldn’t advocate GT particularly but I’m not sure that we can say it has been proved not to work, can we? Perhaps I’m being too cautious here.

          I haven’t yet had the chance to look through all your links but I was very interested in the one about Chomsky. I’m currently looking into this because it seems we may have a ‘convenient view’ of the history of methods. Chomsky came along and destroyed behavioralism seems to be the standard line, but I came across this the other day…
          http://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+long+good-bye%3a+why+B.F.+Skinner's+Verbal+Behavior+is+alive+and…-a0184267111
          and
          http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2223153/

          I’m still looking around for information and I’m in no way saying that this is definitely the case but my interest is piqued.

          One other note about the MLA paper, I just read the abstract, it seems to be making the case that teacher qualifications are no indicator of student achievement, doesn’t it? I’ll download it later and give it more time. But have similar studies been carried out on say people with the DELTA and CELTA to see if those qualifications have an effect on student attainment. Not perhaps related but I’m am curious.

          You write:
          But whether there is evidence for how effective these methods are wasn’t really my point. What I actually meant (and apologies, I’m not often very good at making myself clear) was that none of these methods (or any one method) is ever going to be a panacea, effective in all situations. That’s why it’s up to teachers to try out different aspects, and with a critical cap on, analyse and judge which combination is best for the specific situation they find themselves in.

          And I agree. Still, I think the misunderstanding has lead us down quite an interesting side road though  :)

          I guess my point my point about the DELTA and please excuse me if I’m being a bit thick is, the DELTA doesn’t tell people what good teaching is, but you can still fail it. This confuses me because I see a tension between “I definitely don’t think it’s the place of training courses like the Delta to dictate what’s effective” and “Successful candidates demonstrate that they can effectively vary their role in relation to the emerging learning and affective needs of learners during the lesson.”
          What I mean here is that the DELTA seems to suggest effectively varying roles to cope with learner needs is ‘good teaching’ yet there is also the claim that “it’s not the place for any one trainer to say what’s best”. So, and this may just be me but this is confusing. If the DELTA doesn’t advocate anything as being good teaching then anything is permissible, but that can’t be the case because people do fail.

          Sorry if this is massively missing the point. I’m not very good at getting my head round things like this.

          Very interesting talking to you and I hope I can come and see you talk soon.
          Russ

          Reply
        • Stern (Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching, 1983), although writing over 30 years ago, sums up the problems of ‘methods comparison research’ quite well:

          ‘Most of the studies have operated with teaching method as the main category of comparison. Neither from a theoretical nor a practical point of view are such contrasting pairs of concepts as audiolingual versus grammar-translation, language laboratory versus non-laboratory, immersion versus non-immersion, as clearly distinct from each other as the labels suggest. In experimental research it is not sufficient to accept these labels at their face value. For an investigation on teaching methods to be convincing, it is crucial that the theoretical distinctions between the methods are clearly defined, and can be empirically backed by classroom observation or by some other technique of documenting the instructional variables. It is in this respect that several investigations of the last two decades have left much to be desired.’

          So much to be desired, in fact, that comparative methods research ground to a halt, and the experimental focus shifted on to the relative effectiveness of more discrete, and more observable variables, such as the quality and quantity of teachers’ interventions (e.g. overt correction vs. recasts), or of task conditions (planning vs no planning, etc), or of explicit vs. implicit grammar instruction, or of incidental vs intentional vocabulary learning. Such studies are not as ‘sexy’ as comparative methods research, nor, necessarily, any more conclusive, but they offer our ‘profession’ a corrective to the nebulous, fanciful and seriously under-investigated claims of the purveyors of new age methodologies.

          Reply
  11. At the risk of an appalling pun, isn’t all of this rather ‘academic’? Wouldn’t all teachers agree that:
    1 A rich mix of activities that draw on a variety of skills / areas / intelligences (e.g. auditory, kinaesthetic, logical problem-solving, visual awareness, etc.) is better than always banging the same drum?
    2 Variety (within reason) is the spice of good teaching.
    3 Activities which most of class likes doing are by definition ‘good’, and the reverse is true as well.

    Reply
    • Philip,

      It’s a good question and in the context of this thread at least I have been one of the worst offenders.

      But I would say that in my own experience as a teacher and someone who has previously been involved in in-service teacher training and development the better teachers are usually those who have a clear-eyed understanding of what they are doing in the class and perhaps more importantly, why.

      For instance, as a teacher (and for that matter as a learner of Czech, Russian and Spanish) I have used Horoscopes from newspapers or their graded equivalents as the basis for a variety of purposes (e.g. scanning for specific info., language development, etc.); and by and large it’s been accepted by the students in the spirit it was intended.

      However, at no point did I entertain the idea that I would have learned anything of value about the aptitudes of my students by discovering what their particular star signs were during those classes.

      Yet arguably, teachers who are committed to the ELT interpretation and application of MI theory have made claims along the lines that they somehow understand their learners better by addressing visual, kinaesthetic ‘intelligence’ – but it’s nonsense.

      By a happy accident, the teachers have introduced changes in pace and also variety into the classroom, both of which can contribute to an enjoyable and motivating lesson – but the point here is that it is an entirely unintended consequence to a bogus belief.

      Wouldn’t you agree that a teacher who better understood what they were actually doing and why (varying pace and stimuli in the class), would be one who could fruitfully explore other ways of doing that, knowing that that is what they were actually doing?

      No student is ever likely to come to harm by answering questions such as ‘Do you remember melodies easily?’ or ‘Do you find it easy to ‘see’ the action described in a novel?’ on a 5-point scale – they may even quite enjoy it, in the way some people take questionnaires for a bit of fun – but the evidence strongly suggests that it is highly unlikely anything more than this is happening.

      Reply
      • Thanks for the detailed reply. To be brief:

        ‘Wouldn’t you agree that a teacher who better understood what they were actually doing and why (varying pace and stimuli in the class), would be one who could fruitfully explore other ways of doing that, knowing that that is what they were actually doing?’ YES

        ‘arguably, teachers who are committed to the ELT interpretation and application of MI theory have made claims along the lines that they somehow understand their learners better by addressing visual, kinaesthetic ‘intelligence’ – but it’s nonsense.’
        HMM.. but if they think they understand their students better and it makes them happier as teachers, why knock it? As long as they don’t get all proselytizing about it.

        Reply
        • Understanding your students if it is genuine understanding is going to be good for them and you. Thinking you understand them based on completely false ideas means you have understood nothing.
          I might think Jonny learns better when the moon is in the third quarter and skew my timetable to that effect, stopping all lessons in the “bad” second quarter, and going for easier lessons in the other two, noting only the positive results. Jonny will still learn as well as he was learning anyway and I have done nothing to understand why and maybe help him be better.
          I’d do better to see maybe how his mood/health/diet etc helped him if I really wanted to understand him instead of congratulate myself on the complete non-understanding I have “gained”.

          Reply
        • … and it makes them happier as teachers, why knock it?

          Heh.

          Anything that boosts morale in a profession that is not infrequently demoralizing has something to be said for it – you’re not wrong there.

          But at the end of the day, it is about the students and not the teacher – and a strong belief in a nonsensical theory will at some point result in dead time in the classroom.

          True story – I attended a workshop in 2009 which described the practice of having students do yoga breathing exercises for at least 10 minutes in every class while listening to classical music.

          A modicum of down time can be beneficial given the right circumstances, but that yoga-music-breathing combo – however happy it made the teacher – would have been a near total waste of the students’ time and money.

          Self-indulgence in teachers is to best kept on a short leash.

          … but if they think they understand …

          I do take your point, however …

          I sometimes think a History of Education could be written as a history of teachers closing the gap between what they think is happening and what is actually happening.

          When asking the teachers (or ‘teachers’) of probably the most dismal lessons (or ‘lessons’) I’ve ever observed how they thought their classes had gone, they breezily replied that “It was great!” or even “I was absolutely great!” on one occasion.

          Perhaps this response comes out of an unwillingness to lose face, but I don’t think so and even if it were that it would still speak volumes about the ‘teachers’ lack of suitability to the job.

          Even a more effective class I once observed given by an NNS teacher may have shed a light on the surprising distance between what teachers think is happening and what might actually be going on:

          “My method is very communicative, I’m a communicative language teacher” she said proudly.

          As the observed lesson had consisted entirely of her playing an audio dialogue sentence-by-sentence, translating each line during the pauses, and also giving a sometimes quite lengthy and detailed commentary – all in L1 – on the grammar and pronunciation of each line, I was some what curious to hear this description of the class.

          “In what way did you feel the class demonstrated communicative language teaching?”* I asked.

          “Well, I was communicating with my students, of course!”

          True story.

          Again, perhaps she felt obliged to say the lesson was CLT in the context of being observed by an NS DoS who she knew in principle could have had her taken off the freelance teacher list (I didn’t by the way), but even so it still demonstrates the importance of the gap between belief and practice.

          By agreeing with one of my other points (i.e. teachers teach better when they know what they are doing and why), you also seem to be possibly contradicting yourself with the second one …

          *PS This was some time ago – I have since become very suspicious of the post-obs. feedback session as a form of therapy/counselling

          Reply
          • Nicola / Nik,

            This is an interesting discussion. In general, I am in favour of anyone feeling good about what they are doing providing the results are net positive. So in this particular case, is the net effect of the teacher feeling positive and more motivated (and therefore being in a better frame of mind to teach) completely outweighed by the deleterious effects of teaching under the effects of a learning-style dominated mentality? I simply don’t know. Do you?
            Regarding the yoga and the 10 minutes’ dead time, my honest reaction is a shrug of the shoulders. It may be a sub-optimal use of time, but I don’t think the students’ learning will be significantly impaired by it.
            I also think that sometimes this notion of teachers knowing what they are doing can be overrated. We never know what students have learnt, however ‘expertly crafted’ the lesson. I’m not saying that the methodology of teaching is irrelevant, but the outcome /in-take is never predictable. Furthermore, intangibles like attitude and enthusiasm often count for more than tangibles such as formal methodology … which brings me back to my first point.

        • Russ Mayne

          Your argument is therefore, it doesn’t matter if something is effective or not, it only matters if teachers ‘believe’ it’s effective?

          I think there are still reasons to knock it. For example does it not strike you as bad practice for educators to be using/believing in something which has been shown not to be effective?

          you note that they “think” they understand their students better,-but they actually don’t. Is that something we want to be promoting? False ideas about what is best for students?

          Would you argue the same way for teachers who wanted to teach according to Chinese zodiac signs or blood types? This does happen BTW. (see link)
          http://www.amazon.co.jp/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?__mk_ja_JP=%E3%82%AB%E3%82%BF%E3%82%AB%E3%83%8A&url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=%E8%A1%80%E6%B6%B2%E5%9E%8B%E5%88%A5%E8%8B%B1%E8%AA%9E%E5%AD%A6%E7%BF%92%E3%82%B7%E3%83%AA%E3%83%BC%E3%82%BA+

          Reply
          • ‘Your argument is therefore, it doesn’t matter if something is effective or not, it only matters if teachers ‘believe’ it’s effective?’

            Neither one nor the other. It depends on the overall effect of believing what you think is true even when it isn’t. For example, if I believe I can jump off a building and fly, the effects of this belief will be calamitous. If I believe that things in my life will only get better, the net effect of this belief may be positive even though it may not be true.
            In the case which concerns us, I am just wondering how negative, in reality, the effects on students learning are when teachers employ a MI approach — if the teachers are motivated by doing this and think it works. I think that in this particular case the effects may well be positive as the approach could lead to richly varied types of input and enthusiastic teaching.

            ‘ For example does it not strike you as bad practice for educators to be using/believing in something which has been shown not to be effective?’

            Yes it does. Having said this but I think there is a huge range in suboptimal approaches and outcomes depending on the degree of ineffectiveness of the approach. I wonder where MI comes on the spectrum.

            ‘you note that they “think” they understand their students better,-but they actually don’t. Is that something we want to be promoting? False ideas about what is best for students? ‘

            No- obviously not.

  12. Russ Mayne

    It’s a fair point. I included your quote from a 2010 blog article because (unless I misread that) it seemed that you were saying you probably could have been a bit harder on LS in the A to Z.

    I also think your comment in 2001 was perhaps one of the only completely critical comments on NLP I’ve seen in the literature. I wonder if you’ve seen Millrood’s 2004 article on NLP in the ELTJ where he cites that article as support for NLP. I may just be very bad at reading but it seemed to me your peice didn’t lend any support for NLP at all.

    Reply
    • Some very slick footwork shown in these comments Scott, as befits you. The desire for a “broad church” and taking to heart the advice from Larsen-Freeman to “play ‘the believing game’, and not ‘the doubting game’” explains why you recommended that Russ’ article on NLP not be published, why you’ve nodded a few times in the direction of things which Russ has so rightly and roundly condemned, and why we should not count on you to take the lid off the ELT publishing world, or to come out with anything likely to rock the boat which you have such a privileged seat in. I’m disappointed that Russ is too polite to scrutinise your smooth replies properly.

      And I note that Russ just purrs when you make the daft remark that the positive benefits of touching confirm the findings of a research focus on embodied cognition. “This”, you add, “is not a style, nor even an intelligence. It is just cognition, and we all have it”. Wow, Scott! Really?

      Reply
  13. Philip,

    Yes, I seem to be enjoying this (and besides, I’ve clearly long since abandoned any attempt to get on with any actual work for the afternoon ; – )).

    [I]s the net effect of the teacher feeling positive and more motivated (and therefore being in a better frame of mind to teach) completely outweighed by the deleterious effects of teaching under the effects of a learning-style dominated mentality? I simply don’t know. Do you?

    As I mentioned in my previous reply, teaching is quite a demanding job and burn-out is a real issue so from that perspective you could say that anything that makes the teacher happy to go to work could be said to have already proved its value – in the absence of fewer contact hours for the same or higher rates of pay anyway(!)

    But the fact that I/we personally don’t know doesn’t make it unknowable.

    Neither am I arguing that teachers using the ELT version of MI theory (or NLP etc.) should be forbidden from doing so – that would be both ridiculous and unenforceable.

    However, as Russ pointed out in his IATEFL talk, I think there is something of an issue when the ELT-version of MI theory is incorporated into the syllabus of teacher training and development programmes – as in fact it is – as it implies strongly that a) this is something that ‘real’ teachers believe and do and b) that the practice is based on sound evidence – which it isn’t.

    The ability to self-reflect critically and effectively is essential (I think) and at some stage that ought (in my view) to include finding out what the evidence says. I may not know but some form of effectively worked out action research could help a great deal.

    … this notion of teachers knowing what they are doing can be overrated … We never know what students have learnt, … the outcome /in-take is never predictable.

    I think I’ve addressed this in the first part of this message, but in short I don’t think teachers knowing what is happening in the classroom is overrated.

    And I’d like to stress what is happening over what they are doing because – as you point out – what the learners are doing is of at least equal importance to what the teacher is doing.

    I’m slightly surprised that you feel that teachers never know what students have learnt, although I may be reading too much into what you meant by that. I would say that there are all manner of ways in which teachers find out what students have learned and also how they have gone about learning it.

    As to predictability, again I’m inclined to disagree – there is a wealth of research devoted entirely to doing just that.

    Reply
    • ‘However, as Russ pointed out in his IATEFL talk, I think there is something of an issue when the ELT-version of MI theory is incorporated into the syllabus of teacher training and development programmes – as in fact it is – as it implies strongly that a) this is something that ‘real’ teachers believe and do and b) that the practice is based on sound evidence – which it isn’t.’

      Good point.

      ‘I’m slightly surprised that you feel that teachers never know what students have learnt, although I may be reading too much into what you meant by that. I would say that there are all manner of ways in which teachers find out what students have learned and also how they have gone about learning it.’

      What I mean is that, on a micro level, you may think you know at the end of a class that something has been ‘learnt’, only to see that by the next class it appears to be completely forgotten. Also, on a macro level, as learning a language is a very gradual groping towards fluency and accuracy, and beginning to make the new language your own, you can only calibrate this over the long haul. It can be assessed, but only after a prolonged period of instruction. However, we’re / I’m rather wandering off the point of the post here…

      Reply
  14. Hi Russ and others,
    I’d like to bring in another perspective that might help explain the appeal of pseudo-scientific bandwagons in ELT. I think that in order to try to understand why so many teachers, trainers and educational managers are slow or reluctant to move away from those pseudo-theories of learning that have little or no evidence-base we should look at what research has to say about the nature of teacher beliefs.

    For example, in his study of teachers’ beliefs Pajares (1992: 324-26) in Borg (2006: 26) concludes that ‘beliefs tend to self-perpetuate even against contradictions caused by reason, time, schooling or experience’ and that the ‘potent, affective, evaluative nature of beliefs makes them a filter through which new phenomena are interpreted.’ Munby also shares this view: ‘Once established, beliefs may be resistant to change even in the face of strong evidence.’ (1982:206) in Borg (2006:13).
    I’d also like to quote Mario Rinvolucri’s views on teachers’ reactions to the new, based on his own experiences as a teacher of teachers rather than on systematic research, but echoing nevertheless what studies on beliefs have found. Rinvolucri (2007: 6) observes that professional beliefs can be ‘stronger than technical rationality’ and laments that there is a gulf between the majority of EFL teachers and the methodologists who try to persuade teachers to be innovative in their practice. He attributes this gap to the EFL teacher, ‘a person of […] conservatism for whom the prospect of change is neither exciting, sensible nor needful.’ (Ibid.). In order to explain the role of beliefs in interpreting new learning, Rinvolucri identifies filters that teachers use to percolate new techniques, one of which, ‘the personal likes and dislikes filter’ he describes eloquently:
    A methodologist presents an in-service teacher-training group with a simple exercise […]. Some people in the room romp through the task efficiently and happily. Others stumble and falter through the exercise, reliving a childhood dislike […]. Their verdict (‘Why would I want to inflict on my students an activity as painful and boring as this one? No way!’) will mostly be thought, rather than said out loud […]. Trainees will not always speak openly about their likes and dislikes filter as there is a kind of naivety in boldly stating ‘I don’t like this activity. Therefore it is a bad activity. Therefore my students would dislike it and gain no benefit from it.’ […]. Despite the flawed reasoning, the executive decision has been taken. (Rinvolucri, 2007:5) In my experience, many teachers tend to apply this vary same filter to learning theories, or any odd theory that is presented in the training room.
    Regards,
    Silvana

    Reply
    • ‘Once established, beliefs may be resistant to change even in the face of strong evidence.’

      So basically teachers are like the rest of humanity:)

      Reply
    • Russ Mayne

      Hi Silvana,

      It’s really nice to hear from you after all this time. You were so patient with me during my DELTA. :) I must have been quite a nuisance.

      I think research into beliefs confirms that in every realm (not just teaching) people tend to make decisions based on emotions and seek to rationalise those decisions afterwards.

      I’m not quite I understand your point though? do you mean that learning styles etc, though ‘disliked’ by teachers, may still be enjoyed by students?

      Russ

      Reply
  15. I think the main reason that changes can be slow in ELT (and also why they can be incredibly fast) is that there aren’t any official policy makers. There’s no Ministry of ELT, no real interface between research and practice, few chances to bring people to account. The role of policy making, bringing about change and so on I suppose is played by institutions like the British Council, Cambridge ESOL (in that the syllabus for the CELTA/DELTA is likely to influence teaching practices and also the washback effect of exams may mean that teachers change what they do in the classroom), writers of training manuals and also the ELT publishing industry in general. But publishers are more in the business of responding to market needs rather than trying to bring about change.

    Think about the discussion taking place on this page. It’s great but shouldn’t it be happening elsewhere? Shouldn’t there be a forum where these unofficial policy makers of ELT can be held to account for their choices? That’s happened a bit here, for example Jeremy Harmer having to defend himself a little over coverage of learning styles theory in PELT, but how many people will read this page? I would have thought we’re quite a niche group here. When do we get the chance to ask Cambridge ESOL difficult questions about what’s covered in the CELTA/DELTA? To question publishers about the assumptions behind the design of coursebooks? And all this in a public way, accessible to teachers around the world and also to academics and researchers? That’s what’s needed – an interface between research and practice, that would simultaneously influence the people and institutions that effectively make ELT policy.

    Reply
    • Russ Mayne

      I think you make a really good point but I wonder if having a ministry of ELT would be the answer? I think quite a lot of state school teachers are sick of having the government interfere in their teaching. Better informed teachers who were able to evaluate claims made about methods/teaching practices would probably be the best situation. At the moment, on things like the DELTA for example, teacher may learn to answer questions about what the silent way is and who invented it, but they don’t learn about whether it’s any good.

      Reply
    • I wouldn’t like to see a ‘Ministry of ELT’ – the very though makes me shiver. I like the fact that policy-making is distributed and influenced by a large number of different people and bodies globally, with different people’s influences rising and falling depending on (I hope) how their ideas/research is valued/evaluated.

      btw: an excellent follow-up to the IATEFL talk, Russell and the discussion in the comments is illuminating.

      Reply
      • Russ Mayne

        Thanks Graham, glad you liked it :)

        Reply
      • Don’t get me wrong – I’m not actually advocating a Ministry for ELT. In any case ministries are normally national bodies so it wouldn’t function too well, given the global nature of ELT. But my point is that decision making bodies – i.e. institutions or even individuals who make decisions that directly or indirectly affect how EFL is actually taught around the world – already do exist. But in the main, they don’t seem very accountable. There are countless examples but to list a few: Is there a forum where Cambridge ESOL justifies the content of its teacher training courses and engages in debate on this? Where do authors of methodology books respond to questions on their decisions of what to include (apart from on this page, now)? When do publishers engage with the ‘ELT profession’ (whatever that is, exactly) about the content – and methodological underpinnings – of their titles?
        This is not really to criticise – I’m just trying to show that a lot of decision making takes place that affects EFL teaching practices but any discussion of the decisions made takes place in a rather haphazard way (in a blog here, a conference session there), and in a way that means the majority of people involved in the profession around the world probably have limited access to it. And this in turn may explain why i) change is often slow (since there are few opportunities for pressure to be applied on the decision makers to bring about change) and ii) change can also sometimes be fast and faddish (in that there are few checks and balances anywhere to stop the wrong decisions being made).

        Reply
        • Graham,

          I am willing to be critical.

          I am really disappointed in ELT that the people at the top of this field have non-critically acquiesced while for-profit companies dictated the content of these mini-courses for years. Why this cannot be an ongoing matter of critical discussion by the several national bodies on a continuing basis is beyond me. Now that the publishers are unfortunately beginning to back away from financial hand-in-glove relationships with established writers and striking out in the direction of computers replacing teachers I think it is about time to think about taking professional accreditation back from vested financial interests. Seemingly, their interests no longer coincide with ours as a group.

          Admittedly this is a radical program but I think it is at least worth considering.

          Reply
  16. Russ Mayne

    Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for your encouragement.

    You wrote “You say “I honestly don’t know the first thing about embodied cognition”, but that’s not the point….What Scott said about embodied cognition was bullshit and I rather hoped you’d say so”

    I don’t really see how I could dismiss something as ‘bullshit’ without first finding out if it was ‘bullshit’ or not. Or am I missing something?

    Secondly, you wrote that “When Harmer or Thornbury speak at all these conferences, what you get is middle-of-the-road pap sprinkled with their idea of funny remarks, which draw tired laughter from the tethered sheep.”

    These comments confused me somewhat because I remember reading on your blog a while ago that you think “Scott is a great teacher trainer, presenter, blogger, and that most of his books are of the very highest quality. He’s a scholar and a gent”(July 2013)
    http://canlloparot.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/crap-books/

    Has he really deteriorated so much in the last 9 months?

    Reply
  17. Russ,

    You said,
    “I guess my point my point about the DELTA and please excuse me if I’m being a bit thick is, the DELTA doesn’t tell people what good teaching is, but you can still fail it.”

    Further to this point. Does DELTA teach people what bad teaching is and in so doing tell teachers what to stay away from? I guess that it is possible that you could take a test and fail at identifying what bad teaching is.

    But for DELTA to be useful in my mind and have any reason to continue (and test people) it would fairly need to do one or both of these things:
    1. Tell people what to do to enhance teaching.
    2. Tell people what to avoid.

    Reply

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