The least worst solution

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Scott Thornbury usually comes off quite well on EBEFL. He writes (somewhat) criticially about things like learning styles, reading skills and NLP. However there is one quote of his which bothers me. When writing about the image problem TEFL suffers from in “the unbearable lightness of EFL” he divides the world into the bare foot, ‘sandals and candles’ type of EFLer and the more academic type. He rejects both and offers us a “third way”.

When Clemente wrote to ELTJ to criticise his article he shot back with another article in which he wrote, “the fact is that ELT is at risk of being hi-jacked by men in white coats”. But who just who are these ‘men in white coats’?

Thornbury is propagating the “mad scientist” myth common to much pseudo-science writing. Rather than a person we have a uniformed symbol of something sinister. Shadowy, sinister  ‘experts’ are putting mind control drugs in vaccines. Fluoride will give you cancer (if you believe this kind of thing, this is probably the wrong blog for you.) but Thornbury doesn’t ever explain why EFL researchers would necessarily be male, nor why applied linguists would need white coats.  

Historically and unfortunately there has always been an odd artificial divide between the TEFL world and the applied linguistics world. There is a notion that researchers are off writing books and know nothing about the hard-realities of classroom life, the ‘chalk-face’, of ELT when they come out with their high-faulting theories on language acquisition. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

the vast majority of lecturers and researchers started life as teachers and most continue to teach. My dissertation tutor Julie Norton worked in France teaching business English and Japan. another of my tutors, Glenn Fulcher, taught in Greece for years. Sure these people went on to publish and become lecturers but PHDs don’t cause amnesia, -do they?
who are the white coat brigade?

but there is, it seems, not only antipathy towards researchers but also at times an  antipathy towards research. A large number of teachers not only seem to distrust research, but consider personal experience to be far superior. Now, in the absence of evidence then experience is perhaps our only guide, but is it right to spurn research in favour of experience?

Evidence comes in varying degrees of reliability and so it needs to be looked at carefully. a study of 5 students over 1 week is going to yield less useful results than a study of 400 students over years. However if we think “the only thing that matters is experience” then we find ourselves with a number of problems.
If you accept this argument then you basically give up the right to discuss anything. Or rather, discussing anything becomes pointless because the teacher with the most experience will de facto be the ‘rightest’, regardless of his/her opinion. If another person’s equally long experience differs to yours then who is right? . This isn’t education, or critical thinking, it’s just demanding acquiescence.

The “I have more experience than you” card, is basically a variant of the argument from authority. As such, all teachers would have to demur to older, more experienced teachers, regardless of how crap they might be. It is not an unfair position, in my opinion, that if someone has been teaching crap lessons for 30 years, this should count against, rather than in favour of them. Of course, we wouldn’t know the lessons were crap because the experienced teacher would say that “in their experience” the lessons were great, and that would be the end of that.
Experience absolutely should not be discounted and it is often a vital tool in checking the validity of an idea. For example, I learnt a foreign language pretty fluently, as an adult, without ever knowing what kind of learning style I had, and this experience made me sceptical of the claims being made about learning styles (though it doesn’t mean I was right, mind!) But this idea that experience is a reliable measure of something is a deeply flawed concept that can easily be shown to be wrong. At this moment in time we know there are teachers, good teachers, all over the world teaching using different and contradictory methods who are convinced, by what they see every day, that their chosen method really is working. Their ‘experience’ is telling them that their method is effective. Often though, these approaches contradict each other, textbook -no textbook, grammar -no grammar, correction, -no correction, simply put they can’t all be right. 

At this point we may be tempted to turn to relativistic platitudes. We often hear that “it all depends on context” and to an extent that’s true. Things we do in a kid’s classroom will differ to an EAP setting. But this also opens us up to an uncritical free-for-all and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all of our students are humans, using the same biological material (their ears, their eyes, their brains) to try to learn. Some things will work everywhere and others will work nowhere. Research can show us this and call me an old cynic but when I get sick and am admitted to hospital, I’ll take ‘tried and tested’ medicine from men (or women) in white coats, than something the local witch doctor knows, from his long-experience, is super effective.

Tim Harford, writing about Ben Goldacre’s recent push for evidence-based teaching, notes:

“Trust me, I’m a doctor” was never an excuse for not collecting evidence. And “trust me, I’m a teacher” is not an excuse today. But being a teacher is a superb vantage point for building an evidence-based education system. It is an opportunity that teachers need to seize

I would hate to think the antipathy towards research and the caricaturing of researchers is an attempt to retain authoritative power. Evidence, like democracy, might not be a panacea but it’s better than the other options.

6 thoughts on “The least worst solution

  1. How do you feel about thorough qualitative research? Is Thornbury in this case referring to white-coat quantitative research driving textbook production? If not, I'd have said is concern was more apt 15 years ago, before the emergence of Vygostskian, Exploratory Practice, and Narrative Inquiry as mainstream publishable paradigms.


  2. Good stuff as always… I come here for sanity checks 🙂 For some teachers, at least, the unexamined life is the only defence they have to preserve their unjustified self-importance. Experience tells me that, so no come-backs :PI suspect, though, that many disagreements over whether something is effective or not come down to different definitions of words, and what we are being effective at.For example, if I am considering an activity to help my students \”listen\”, I want to know whether the activity will reliably improve their future ability to extract meaning from the stream of speech. If it doesn't do this, it is probably not an \”effective\” technique by my lights.But another person may consider this a rather hard-nosed view. These people are likely to believe that Waypoints B and C are places that need to be visited in order to arrive at Ultimate Aim A. For instance, I've heard some teachers justify a listening activity to me on the grounds that it \”gives them confidence\” or some such thing. They see their students do it and get flushed with success. That seems important. For that reason, they will defend it as effective.As such, they are likely to be perplexed by my infuriation at not knowing whether this exercise is \”effective\” (at getting to A), when they know it is \”effective\” (at getting to B, and everybody knows that you can't get to A without going to B).But, I don't know that. So we're not disagreeing about the effectiveness as such, so much as about some hidden assumption.Not sure if that made any sense at all.. lol… but I think that to tackle the question of effectiveness (and I don't enjoy the idea of being ineffective) the first thing to look at are the unexamined assumptions behind all the 'waypoints'….


  3. Qualitative research can be good, if it's done well. Quantitative research can be awful, (crap in crap out) I think it depends.I have no idea what Thornbury meant exactly, but it seemed to be academics. Perhaps he'll read this blog. Scott, -what did you mean?


  4. You make a great point, and one of the most important (and frustrating) parts of good research is the definition of terms. If someone says something 'works', you have to be clear on what they mean by that.


  5. I have long thought that \”The Communicative Method\” – much praised and never defined – was just a way for teachers to justify their ignorance of grammar.The idea seems to be that if students hear enough native-speaker speech, they'll grasp the rules of utterance construction by osmosis.The distinction between grammatical error and usage error isn't made, so students are taught that unidiomatic expressions are, in some mysterious way, ungrammatical.I teach in the middle east, where there's the opposite problem. The traditional way of teaching, in schools and universities, is to present reams of assertions to be memorised. The distinction between skill and knowledge isn't part of the culture – so students tend to think they can study english without practicing it.I've had a hard time explaining to classes that (a) textbooks disagree with each other, (b) often they're just plain wrong and (c) sometimes I don't know why I say something a particular way.


  6. Thanks for the comment, -I only just spotted it! There's a great swan article which is kind of related to your point, I think it's called \”task based learning -legislation by hypothesis\” in Applied linguistics.


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