A lot of what I write about involves logical fallacies, biases or heuristics. This is a guide with more detail about each one and how they relate to language and language teaching. I’ll expand on it as and when…
1. Argument from popularity (Argumentum ad populum)
Basically put, “everyone is doing it so it must be good/effective. Thus everyone does learning styles and it’s in all the books, so there must be something to it.
2. Cognitive dissonance
The unpleasant feeling we get when our beliefs and reality collide. For example we may think we are wonderful teachers, loved by our students, only to get crappy feedback at the end of the course.Cognitive dissonance must be resolved and this is usually through some kind of excuse ‘well, these students wouldn’t know good teaching if it jumped up and bit them’. etc
3. The Halo Effect
The tendency to attribute positive characteristics to someone with a positive attribute. An example in teaching might be assuming an attractive student would be more honest and thus less likely to cheat on a paper. Another example (of the reverse halo effect) would judging a less attractive students work more harshly. The Halo effect has been demonstrated in sentence lengths of convicts and is a compelling reason for blind marking and assessment where possible.
4. Argument from authority
Famous TEFLer ‘so and so said this is good so I’d better do it. Regardless of who said it you should always ask “is it true” and “how do they know?” more info here.
5. Ad Hominem (to the man)
Attacking a person rather than an idea. For example, ‘EBEFL is an idiot so I wouldn’t take his views on pseudo-science seriously.’ EBEFL may indeed be an idiot but that doesn’t mean his ideas are wrong in this case. Attack ideas, not people.
6. Confirmation Bias
The tendency humans have to take more notice of information which agrees with their beliefs and forget about that which doesn’t. Also how most EFL methods become successful, “how do I know NLP works, I can see it on my student’s faces” More info here.
7. The genetic fallacy
The idea that something isn’t true because of where it comes from. For example, drilling is from audiolingualism so drilling must be useless. It doesn’t matter where an idea comes from but only whether it is true or not.
The idea that a word’s meaning should never change. For instance ‘decimate’ originally meant ‘kill one in 10’ and so people who use it to mean ‘destroy’ are wrong. Words can change their meaning and oddly people who argue in this way are very selective about which words they want to retain their original meanings.
9. Pluralistic ignorance
The best known example of this is the emperor’s new clothes story. In basic terms it means, everyone knows something is nonsense, but thinks everyone else believes in it. This leads to a majority accepting something none of them believe in for fear of speaking out of turn.
10. The courtier’s reply
An informal fallacy created by Pz Myers in which the criticism is dismissed on the grounds that the critic doesn’t fully understand the subject and thus can’t criticise it. This may sound like a valid criticism (and could be) but is not valid in instances where the validity of the subject cannot be established. Thus learning more about it will make no difference. For instance:
A: NLP is total pseudoscience.
B: Well, you’re not a master practitioner so how could you possibly make that claim?
Learning more about NLP would in this case not change the fact that NLP is pseudoscience. In short, you don’t need a fashion degree to know the king is naked.
11. Motte and Bailey
Deceptively using a stronger position to defend a weaker one. The (Motte) is an uncontroversial and easy to defend position and the bailey is a more controversial one. For example:
Motte: Everyone learns in a different way
Bailey: We each have unique learning styles which should be catered to.
Motte: everything is political
Bailey: therefore all education is political and we are all indoctrinating students unless we adopt a critical approach.
12. The Nirvana fallacy
13. The curse of knowledge
Simply put, teachers often forget how little their students know. Once we know something it becomes more difficult to imagine not understanding it. Anyone who has played the game ‘Codenames‘ will understand this bias.
14. Social Desirability Bias
The fact that people will lie, even on anonymous surveys, if the answers are more socially acceptable. Voter turnout is a good example where the number of people who say they will vote always exceeds the number who do. In ELT SDB might be seen in research which says teachers would read more research if they had the time, or it was available to them when actually they perhaps have no interest in reading research.
Some people think learning styles are an effective way to get the best out of students. Others believe they don’t work at all and have no evidence to support them. ‘Reasonable’ people think maybe both sides have a point. Yes, sure, the evidence doesn’t support them but we should still use them as they will probably make classes more interactive and fun. The truth is somewhere in the middle, right? Now try this with climate change.