So this is my first ever guest blog. Simon Andrewes (@simonbandrewes), who wrote a response to my learning styles piece has now written a reponse to my previous response to his response(?). Simon has a huge amount of experience teaching and has written acrticles for MET, ETP and HLT. He has very kindly given me permission to post this here. It’s a good read -Enjoy (^_^)
[IN REPLY TO THE IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH, Russell Mayne. MET 22.4. Oct 2013. 53-55]
Russell Mayne wrote about research in MET22.2 and in particular about Learning Style (LS) theory, for which, he insisted, there was no evidential support. I replied in MET22.3 saying I found a “weak” version of LS theory to be useful for my teaching practice. In MET22.4 Russell criticised my position on various fronts, so I would like an opportunity to defend and clarify it.
The significant divide between English language theorists and teachers that Russell says I “further reinforce” – whereas in fact all I do is observe it – is hardly a controversial issue and indeed Russell himself provides quotes from two highly respected theoretician-practitioners, Scott Thornbury and Henry Widdowson, that back me up. I feel flattered and partially vindicated by the good company I find myself in.
Russell takes me to task on several fronts:
1. I do not recognise the complexity of the research-practice problem;
2. My argument is based on a fantasy in which I set up straw man villains against noble teachers;
3. I dismiss research without the bother of having to do it or read it;
4. I use my lengthy classroom experience to position myself as the voice of authority, which is tantamount to an “anything goes” attitude to teaching;
5. I make too much of the weak version of LS which may be true but is at the same time obvious, uncontroversial and un-noteworthy;
6. I mix up LS and MI (Multiple Intelligences) theory.
1. I confess I was writing entirely from a teacher’s point of view. I was not trying to view the problem objectively from all sides but was giving voice to a disillusion with theory that I have observed among colleagues, theory that is often perceived as imposed and lacking a comprehensive understanding of our practice. I also confess to sharing their disillusion for much the same reasons that they expressed.
2. I identify myself first and foremost as a teacher, not a noble one, more of a run-of-the-mill dogged practitioner. I do not see my “villains” as straw men as their influence is only too real. I might categorise the villains into two types: those who are in the pay of publishers and promoting their materials in a way that often comes across as facile, a sort of panacea for difficult classroom situations; and those who advance classroom methodologies that are remote and clearly not based on a study and analysis of actual classroom practice.
3. So Russell is right in saying I dismiss research but he is rather unkind in saying I do so without the bother of having to do it or read it myself. In fact, I enjoy research and think it can be useful in its own right, without any direct reference to classroom practice. Indeed, this kind of research may be the most valuable in its disinterest in proving or disproving practical considerations. I would challenge Russell’s implication that it is a bother to carry out research and think it can be a privilege, or a pleasure. Just as teaching can be.
4. In dismissing research, I use my experience to position myself as the voice of authority, says Russell, backing up his argument with a quote from Widdowson’s Defining issues in English language teaching: “Teachers who claim to be simply practitioners with no interest in theory “conspire against their own authority, and against their own profession”. Now, throw me a quote by Widdowson and I am likely to catch it in midair and swallow it down like a trained seal. I agree 100% with Widdowson’s argument, as I often do.
When I write “nobody is better placed than the teacher to determine what will work in practice” I do not mean “anything goes”; I mean that that the teacher is in a position to apply critical and reflective thinking to teaching practice in order to evaluate it. As a teacher I am conscious of the limited and in many ways limiting vision of the classroom. What happens in the classroom may indeed provide me with a too subjective and non-scientific view of the variety and diversity of practice in classrooms across the world. Evidence from the classroom is too restricted by the confines of its four walls to make too many generalisations from.
5. Moving on to the essence of the LS debate, Russell says the weak version amounts to nothing more than saying different students have different study preferences but there is no evidence that people learn better if they get information through a preferred sensory channel.
Here Russell is talking about research evidence and seems to take it for granted that evidence from classroom practice doesn’t count. Yet, with Penny Ur (ETP issue 21 Oct2001Check It Out 5 – 8), I would insist that a or the primary and certainly a valid source of meaningful theory is that drawn from our own experience. Secondary (research/theoretical) sources can and should be drawn on to confirm or contradict conclusions for our teaching convictions that we reached via our primary source. As such, I find that the weak version of LS theory provides me with a check, a reminder that not everybody learns in the same way as I do and it makes me more sensitive to other learning paradigms. In fact, I am convinced I have built up evidence of this in classroom observations of the way learners learn.
As for the hard version of LS theory, I can happily agree with Russell when he says there is no research evidence to support it.
6. Not only do I simplistically confuse LS with “study preferences”, to return to Russell’s critique, I mix up LS and MI theory, in which Howard Gardner – Russell tells us – redefines the concept of aptitudes as “intelligences”, and which also, apparently, lacks any scientific credibility.
I do not want to speak of scientific credibility, but I can see there are things in MI that serve a purpose. If different students have different aptitudes, then it seems reasonable to suppose those varying aptitudes will have some bearing on how they learn things. To follow up an example cited by Russell, I confess to crawling across the floor with the youngest learners I have taught and whether I was fostering “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” in doing so I cannot say. But did it work? Well, I think it might have, and we all enjoyed it and I certainly don’t think it got in the way of learning. I felt at that moment the child needed that crawling activity and would not have learnt so well without it. I would probably do it again, thinking I was furthering learning.
So, asks Russell finally, do I think we should teach according to our students’ star signs or the colour of their aura, as these have, in his words, as much credibility as the theories I am defending? Well, no, I don’t actually, because I have no primary evidence that these things work in practice. But I would not be loath to give them a go, if I saw a positive effect in it.
In conclusion, “experience is a good bet in the absence of evidence”, Russell concedes. But here, he shows he does not really value the primary evidence of the classroom. He is talking about the secondary evidence of the university, the ivory tower. And thus the gulf between classroom practice and theory is maintained by Russell’s reluctance to accept the classroom teacher’s ability to draw a directly meaningful theory from her own experience. And the two communities continue to talk past each other.