tooth fairy expertise

The topic of experts vs “gurus” came up at this year’s IATEFL and I’m not really sure I really know the difference. I think “Guru” has come to mean someone well-known who I don’t very much agree with. Perhaps ‘experts’ are the people we do? Is Thornbury an expert or a guru? How about Penny Ur? Was Vygtosky an expert? And how about Howard GardnerWho falls into which category and who gets to decide? 


Expert presumably means someone with expertise. But does expertise necessarily means someone should be listened to? In an article on the Science Based Medicine website the author notes that a person could easily become an expert in ‘Tooth Fairy science’: 

You could measure how much money the Tooth Fairy leaves under the pillow, whether she leaves more cash for the first or last tooth, whether the payoff is greater if you leave the tooth in a plastic baggie versus wrapped in Kleenex. You can get all kinds of good data that is reproducible and statistically significant. Yes, you have learned something. But you haven’t learned what you think you’ve learned, because you haven’t bothered to establish whether the Tooth Fairy really exists. (source)

Being a tooth fairy expert would thus mean that you actually don’t have any expertise. There are, after all expert mystics, like Baba Vanga, experts in NLP, and experts in classroom uses of telepathy


I got to thinking about all of this since I noticed people saying we shouldn’t listen to gurus and others tweeting out quotes from experts. The one that stuck in my mind was:

Brian Tomlinson says PPP is the worst way to learn a language. It’s an illusion.

I couldn’t resists asking, somewhat cheekily if Tomlinson was an ‘expert’ or a ‘guru’. I was told he was an expert. But how does one become an expert? I put this question to the original poster and met, I think, the end of her patience and was told to ‘Google it’. I did and indeed, according to his bio he is “one of the world’s leading experts on materials development“. 

As I have written before, I actually do think we should listen to experts, when they have something to back up their expertise. But just listening to them because of who they are is probably not wise. For instance, Tomlinson is a firm believer in the false notion of left brained and right brained learners and frequently tells materials writers to plan materials with those types of learners in mind. For example: 

1.4.14 Materials should maximise learning potential by encouraging intellectual, aesthetic and emotional involvement which stimulates both right- and left-brain activities (source)

this method is successful because it caters for the majority of learners who seem to be kinaesthetic in their preferred perceptual learning styles as well as global and experiential in their general styles. These are what are known as right brain learning processes (2014) 

He also repeatedly promotes writing materials which cater to students’ perceptual learning style, a concept which has no evidence to support it

[consider if] the materials help individual learners discover their learning styles (2014)

perceptual learning style research overwhelmingly suggests that most learners prefer kinaesthetic input over auditory and visual forms of language input. None of the beginners’ coursebooks I have seen accommodate this type of learner, however (2014)

He also seems to accept the idea that the brain is somehow underused and we can unlock it’s full potential through good teaching. This is not true

The maximisation of the brain’s learning potential is a fundamental principle of Lozanov’s Suggestopedia (source

most researchers seem to agree on the value of maximising the brain’s capacity during language learning and the best textbooks already do contain within each unit a variety of different left- and right-brain activities. (2014)

None of this means that the advice Tomlinson gives in general on materials should be disregarded. There are no doubt a lot which can be gleaned from his writing. The question though remains, what is the advice based on. I can’t help but think we tend to listen to experts when they tell us things we want to hear. If we don’t like PPP then an expert saying it’s ‘the worst’ will sound very convincing to us. 

So is Tomlinson right that PPP is ‘the worst way to learn a language?’ Worse than say Suggestopedia? I ask because Tomlinson’s 2011 book on materials writing includes a chapter advocating ‘The Lozanov method’ by author Grethe Hooper-HansenHansen has written on subjects like Organic Learning: Crossing the Threshold from Conscious and Unconscious“, and “Turning the tide of hemispheric shift: the case of non-conscious learning“. She is a major proponent of Suggestopedia and believes that some kind of educational ‘quantum revolution’  in education is under way: 

There have been many wake-up calls: from Carl Rogers, Ivan Ilich, Paolo Freire; more recently from Howard Gardner, Herbert Benson, Daniel Golemen, Parker Palmer, Tobin Hart, and Alan Block, to name just a few. The quantum revolution, now nearly a century old, spelled out in great detail the changes that needed to be made to balance yang with yin (source)

In her chapter on materials development she tells us that these days (2011) it’s easier to understand where Lozanov was coming from since “quantum science has become more familiar” meaning we can perceive in “multidimensional” ways

She goes on to say that “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'”. I won’t go on, you get the picture. As Steve Novella notes  “today one of the most popular legitimate scientific ideas used to justify nonsense is quantum mechanics” (source). In fact it’s misused so much by people like Deepak Chopra that there is even a wiki entry for Quantum Mysticism

So according to Tomlinson PPP ‘booo’, quantum kinaesthetic left-brained teaching ‘hurrah!’ Forgive me if I’m skeptical. Jason Anderson has done some interesting work on PPP (see here and here for examples) and he doesn’t seem to think it’s the worst way to teach English. For all it’s flaws, I’d put my money on PPP producing better results than Suggestopedia. I’m no expert though. 

4 thoughts on “tooth fairy expertise

  1. I own a couple of Tomlinson's books and have dipped into them as needed over the last couple years to help me design materials without really noticing, or at least without getting hung up on, references to learning styles. They are obviously there, as you you indicate, but personally, I wouldn't say that he's a major proponent of neuro myths or that his books are primarily based around such ideas. There's a lot more to Tomlinson's work than that. He certainly argues for having students process new language in deeper cognitive and affective ways to make it more memorable but these arguments are similar to the ones in well-known books on vocabulary teaching (i.e. Thornbury, Gairns and Redman). I have no vested interest in defending Brian Tomlinson but I think for anybody lookiing for help with materials design, he's a great place to start. And as for the point about PPP, I don't have time to read up on Suggestopedia right now, but arguing against PPP in favor of approaches that recognise that factors such as developmental sequences, input processing etc impact on the ability to 'learn' grammatical structures is not that radical or unreasonable, is it?

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  2. Hi Mark, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting. I'm sure Tomlinson is very useful for a lot of things which is why i wrote \”None of this means that the advice Tomlinson gives in general on materials should be disregarded. There are no doubt a lot which can be gleaned from his writing\”I don't think he is a 'major proponent' of Neuro myths, though, as a leading voice in materials writing, a lot of people might listen to him when he says that materials should be planned with students learning style in mind.Your final point is to suggest that any method that 'recognise[s] that factors such as developmental sequences, input processing etc impact on the ability to 'learn' grammatical structures' is better than PPP. Does Suggestopedia do those things though? I would argue it doesn't.

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  3. HiJust read up a bit on Suggestopedia and you are totally right! For some reason I thought (or perhaps optimistically and naively assumed) that it some sort of CI-like rationale behind it. That makes my previous comment look slightly ridiculous but at least I learned something! Also, glad that Tomlinson is not being condemned to neuro myths dustbin as that would be a travesty.Cheers!

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