I always had something of a soft spot for Suggestopedia with it’s comfy chairs, baroque music and meditation. It always seemed to me like the cool kid of methods, taping straight into the brain and speeding up learning. I even continued to look at it affectionately after starting this blog because I remember reading in Richards and Rodgers that Lozanov accepted that his method was a placebo but tried to actually use the power of the placebo effect in his teaching. (it later turned out that was not true).
That said, Suggestopedia would clearly bring up lots of red flags on my education ‘baloney detection kit’. It makes extravagant claims of efficacy such as the claim that learning can be accelerated 5 – 50 times using suggestopedia or that “…1,000 words [can be] learned in a day” (Ostrander & Schroede 1979:15).
It makes claims about things which are vague or hard to test. “the method appeared to improve health and cure stress-related illnesses” (Ostrander & Schroeder 1979: 33). Also we can commonly see claims that “[suggestology] is a method of…making use of the unknown reserves, powers and abilities of the human mind” (Lozanov 1971:292), ah, those unknown reserves! Any guesses as to what percent of the mind Lozanov thinks people are currently using?
With its ‘double-planedness’, ‘elaboration’, ‘concert sessions’, ‘primary activation’ and ‘pseudo-passiveness’, jargon or sciency sounding words are liberally employed. Richards & Rodgers note that “The method has a somewhat mystical air about it…partially because of it’s arcane terminology and neologisms, which one critic has unkindly called… pseudoscientific gobbledygook’” (2014:317).
It also has little evidence to back up it’s claims. The few experiments done to tests its efficacy did not produce encouraging results. Wagner & Tilney tested it, finding “no significant improvement across the five-week experimental period” (1983:5). And even Bancroft, a supporter of the method admits that:
Very often the exact means by which [Lozanov’s] results were obtained remains obscure. Statistics, as has been pointed out by more than one reviewer, are often faulty or incomplete; the evidence from several experiments tends to be fused (or even confused).(1999:51)
All that said, it would be easy and rather pointless to pull apart and poke fun at suggestopedia here. What I’m more interested in looking at here is how much respect this approach received and why certain facts about the method were glossed over or ignored in the literature.
What Richards and Rodgers don’t tell you.
I wanted to know more about Suggestopedia so I got hold of a copy of another book that details Lozanov’s work called ‘psychic discoveries behind the iron curtain’. Unlike many EFL books, this actually features interviews with Lozanov, and he gets to explain directly his beliefs. Here are a few things I learnt:
1) Lozanov was a Pioneer of parapsychology and believed that “everyone is psychic” (1971:281)
2) he ran the suggestopedia and parapsychology research centre in Bulgaria and 20 years work on precognition
3) he believed that “Telepathy is an inexpensive and promising communication system” (1971:293)
4) he believed that he could render people unconscious with telepathy.
Now, none of this means that he was necessarily wrong about Suggestopedia, (as the TEFLology guys point out that would be the ‘genetic fallacy‘) but this information is nowhere to be found in any of the TEFL sources I’ve ever come across. The fact that someone claiming people can learn 1,000 words a day also claims that he put people to sleep with his mind seems to me, at least relevant.
And it’s not just Richards and Rodgers who don’t feel this is important information. in Byram’s encyclopedia of language learning (entry by Baur) Lozanov is credited as working in a state run centre of ‘suggestology’ when in fact he ran the “institute of suggestology and parapsychology“.
These omissions in the literature and the seeming way his slightly weirder beliefs are ignored interests me. Take Baur’s insistence that:
Lozanov discovered that certain yogic techniques of physical and mental relaxation could be used to produce a state of analgesia, or relief from pain, on the one hand, and a state of hypermnesia, or greatly improved memory and concentration, on the other…
Did Lozanov actually discover this? Or did he claim to discover it, -there is a whole world of difference. It just seems that Baur is happy to accept Lozanov’s claims without question. But don’t ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?‘
These are not isolated incidents, almost everywhere Lozanov appears there is no mention of any of this kind of thing and his claims are either taken on face value or just ignored. Hooper Hansen is equally generous. In Tomlinson’s 2011 book on materials development she writes:
The complexity of Lozanov’s method is due to a lifetime’s research into the hidden language and territory of the unconscious, in particular the nebulous area where it meets the conscious, which he calls the ‘para-conscious’
He then goes on to talk about ‘left brained and right brained learners‘. Another example is Diane Larsen-Freeman who in this video tells viewer to keep an open mind and don’t dismiss things ‘ask yourself instead, is there anything valuable here that I can adapt to my own circumstances.’
A very cursory examination of suggestopedia turns up things that would strain the credibility of even the most credulous. For example, Bancroft notes that “Dr. Lozanov…has performed painless surgical operations using suggestion and/or hypnosis instead of anesthetic” (2005:21) And yet suggestopedia still has some degree of currency in the ELT world. It still has exactly one more chapter in Richards and Rodgers latest edition than approaches like Dogme, crazy English or Demand High. It is still a choice for some DELTA experimental lessons and some teachers still use this approach. This study for example shows just how seriously some teachers can take it. Lozanov even made an appearance as a supporting reference in an ELTJ article recently.
‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins‘ -T.S. Eliot
That this happens isn’t perhaps surprising. As I noted with my final ‘red flag’ supporters are not moved by contrary evidence. I think I might revise this statement to ‘the method is promoted despite criticism‘ as this rule does not necessarily apply only to supporters. Everyone seems to do it. For example, Richards and Rodgers despite listing numerous issues with Suggestopedia describe a criticism (above) as ‘unkind’. They go on to write “Perhaps, then, it is not productive to further belabour the science/non-science, data/double-talk issues and instead…try to identify and validate those techniques…that appear effective” (Richards & Rodgers 2014:326).
The quote above about taking the best techniques and keeping them is particularly curious when we note that from the same publication, on the previous page the authors note that “Lozanov is unequivocally opposed to any eclectic use of the techniques outside of he full panoply of suggestopedic science” (a quote that appears verbatim in Byram). So are Richards and Rodgers suggesting we ignore the creator’s advice and try to find something among the creation? If so, wouldn’t that mean Lozanov didn’t really know what he was doing and had just hit upon something completely by accident?
My question then is ‘why?’ Why is it necessary for every method to be examined for some small saving grace? It almost seems as if there is a hoarding tendency among the TEFL community and we are reluctant to disregard methods wholly, no matter what problems we find with them. ‘Sure’ people say, ‘The Silent Way is not for me, but Cuisenaire Rods? Now that I can get on board with!’
We sit surrounded by odds and ends of grammar translation, trinkets of audiolingualism and some TPR stuffed under the mattress. Is it that we are such an impoverished field it seems risky to throw anything at all away? Or is this the elusive beast ‘principled eclecticism’ that I’ve heard so much about it. It certainly seems eclectic, but I’m struggling to see what the principles are.
afterword: A note on the name
there is some seeming confusion over what exactly the method was called. Part of this is caused by lozanov himself. Lozanov himself calls the ‘science’ suggestology and the education part of it suggestopedia. He then switches at some point to desuggestopedia because, in his words it sounded too manipulative and he wanted to remove the negative connotations and also because his approach rid people of there previous negative learning experiences (like dethorning a rose). This may seem clear but Lozanov also says:
Although it seems a little early to talk about reservopaedia before the science reservology has been entirely established, it will be right to gradually replace the word suggestopaedia by the word reservopaedia. And the science called reservology can be developed with the initial research of the laws of reservopaedia. These laws are very typical. All we need is highly qualified and respectable scientists. (2005:11)
so really it’s anyone’s guess what it’s called.