Seeking Nirvana

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” – Edmund Burke


How do you know that smoking causes cancer?

Easy, right? scientists said so and they did lots of research to prove it. But what research did they actually do and how did they do it? If you’re anything like me, you probably have absolutely no idea.

In the 1950s two British doctors carried out a cohort study. This is when you look at a large group of people (40,000+ doctors in this case) over a period of time and study which conditions they suffer from and then try to match those conditions with other factors. For example those in the group getting lung cancer seemed to also overwhelmingly be the ones who smoked. Bingo, we have a correlation. 

I often wonder what would have happened if this were education research posted on twitter nowadays? My feeling is that as soon as it had been tweeted out countless blogs would have popped up to discredit it. 

Firstly someone would point out that correlation doesn’t always mean causation. Next we would read that doctors shouldn’t be trusted because ‘remember what happened with Thalidomide‘. Then, someone else would casually note that there must be hundreds of other factors which could influence these people, like diet and lifestyle. They would then pull out the classic educational trump card that ‘every smoker is different’ and that what affects one wouldn’t necessarily affect another. Next someone would ask for the authors to define exactly what they meant by ‘smoking’ are we talking pipes or roll ups? And just how many cigarettes makes one a smoker? Finally the coup-de-grace would be delivered with the comment that ‘my grandfather smoked 40 a day and lived till he was 100’.

Once the cloud of doubt was thick enough, everyone could go back smoking, safe in the knowledge that the imperfections in this research would protect them from cancer. 

The reasons used to dismiss research in education also exist in medical research and psychological research and somehow they seem to manage. 

Take a human beings for example. Each has their own unique genetic code. The differences are so extreme that some people can drink a little alcohol and suffer quite high levels of liver damage while others drink lots and are fine. Other can smoke their whole lives without getting lung cancer. Other people can die if given penicillin.  

Yes despite these differences when I buy a packet of painkillers it says “take one per day for adults” with no warnings about “unless you’re a middle-aged woman weighing between X and Y”. Somehow we can all just take one a day and ‘it works!’ But in education context is king and attempts to move the field forward can often be dismissed out of hand by this kind of low level niggling. 

The Nirvana fallacy is where ‘good’ is rejected because it isn’t ‘perfect’. It’s the enemy of ‘good enough’ or just ‘better than before’. And in education these kinds of improvements are exactly what we should be aiming for. There will never be a perfect method, but we should be asking are there ways of doing things that are a little better than how we’re doing them now. 

The Nirvana fallacy is not only apparent in criticisms of research, it also makes an appearance in two other areas of TEFL; textbooks and testing. Textbooks often don’t represent real language use, have contrived levels and use ‘old fashioned’ teaching methodology. They are often bland and designed by companies seeking to make a profit

None of this is controversial and there is plenty of research to back this up. But new textbooks come out all the time and are often better than the ones that precede them. Yet here again ‘better than before’ is not seen as good enough and instead there are many who seem to feel they should be thrown out altogether unless they are perfect. Of course ‘perfect’ here means applicable to every individual student’s needs regardless of the context, first language, learning preferences and cultural beliefs. They would also use the teaching methodology preferred by whichever teacher was using them and contain language appropriate and authentic for every knowable context. 

Tests too fall victim to the nirvana fallacy. In all areas of education it seems anti-test sentiment is high. Certainly tests can be powerful and life changing and bad tests are disastrous but again is that a reason to stop testing students or is it an argument for better tests? 

Testing is one of the most well-researched and evidence driven fields in education. The test ‘form‘ a person sits is the very tip of a complex and expensive test writing process which has been refined for decades. Tests also give us information on what a students is capable of, how well they’ve progressed and what they need to work on. Test writers and theorists go to incredible lengths to ensure tests are fair for students and yet I know of hardly any teachers who have positive views about testing. 

Bad research, bad textbooks and bad tests are all arguments for better research, better textbooks and better tests. It’s absolutely right that teachers should be critical of things that don’t work, and I will be there with them, pointing out sloppy research, crappy textbooks and poorly written tests. But should we dismiss the whole endeavour because it’s not perfect? Would we make similar arguments about other fields? charity for instance; ‘sure this well may supply clean drinking water but the hospitals are still in a terrible state and the government is unstable so why bother?’


We can still aim for improvements while admitting that things are not perfect. As Michael Long notes

The responsibility of professionals in any field is not to know the right answer, but to be able to defend recommendations in light of what is thought to be the right answer or the likeliest right answer (best practice), given what is known or thought to be known at the time. What is irresponsible is to throw up one’s hands and declare that no proposals should be made and defended until everything is known for sure (which will never happen). 




Book review: Bad education & teacher proof

Both Tom Bennett’s “Teacher proof” and “Bad education” share something with this website. As I noted before, one of the biggest influences on this site was Ben Goldacre. These two books owe a debt to Goldacre as well; Bad Education opening with a quote from “Bad Science” and Bennett notes of Goldacre “it was [his] book that started me thinking about science in education.”(2013:74).
They also, perhaps unsurprisingly, tackle similar topics to this blog, so we have debunkings of learning styles and (in Bennett) NLP and BrainGym. Both books also talk about two topics I haven’t touched on yet Emotional intelligence (because I’ve never seen it mentioned in regard to EFL) and Multiple intelligences (It’s been sitting in my “drafts” for months!). But this is where the similarities end.

Each book has strengths and weaknesses. “Teacher Proof” is accessible and funny, whereas Bad education is more thorough. While Bennett’s book is a more populist work, Bad Education veers more towards the strictly academic. So while in Bennett’s book there are jokes, Bad Education tends more towards academia ‘light’, -but even this isn’t really a fair characterisation of style as Bad Education, in contrast to “teacher proof” is a collection of essays with no single author. The advantage with this is that each author is an expert in the field they discuss. Thus the Chapter on Learning styles is written by Frank Coffield (he of that report) and the chapter on Multiple intelligence is written by Phillip Adey (who sadly died after the book was published).

Reading “teacher proof” was a bit of a roller coaster for me. Firstly, I was excited it finally came out. Next I got it home and read “Tom Bennett has been a full time teacher since 2003 and is the resident behaviour Guru for the Times educational supplement since 2009” Wow! I thought, teaching for less time than me and this guy writes for The Times?! (I had a similar feeling when I first discovered Anne Merritt “language expert” in the telegraph who has been teaching for all of 6 years.-how do you get gigs like this!?)  Next I thought, -What’s a behaviour Guru anyway? I pushed these (envious/bitter?) thoughts aside, and decided to judge the book by its content.
Basically “teacher proof” is a book of two halves. One half is good and the other is, well…not as good. The first section is a long treaties on the philosophy of knowledge. Bennett studied philosophy and so it’s tempting to think he probably felt quite comfortable writing this part, but it’s not at all clear the book benefits from it. At the start of this section he says it will be a “brief – I promise” so perhaps he’s aware that this isn’t the strongest part of the book. Goldacre manages to explain the ‘science’ as he introduces topics, which makes it far more engaging as concepts are explained to you “just in time” to understand why some particular fad is bogus. In short, the primer on epistemology doesn’t really work.  

The biggest problem in this section is when Bennett claims “Experience trumps theory every time”. At this point I was  almost ready to stop reading, as my feelings on experience differ greatly. In this section, as Willingham writes, it almost seems as if Bennett is disagreeing with himself though, I think, as another reviewer put it, Bennett is probably just a bit clumsy here. I’m guessing what Bennett means is “unproven theories” can be trumped be evidence, -not “experience is better than solid research”, -or at least, that’s what I hope he’s saying.

The second section on “voodoo teaching” is the meat and here he really strikes a chord, laying into group work, three part lessons and ‘gamification’ among many others in short sharp chapters. Bennett is often funny, and I’m grateful for that, as anyone who has to read a lot of papers will know, educational papers can be terribly dull . The only problem here is that  the style often seems to become a bit too ‘bloke-down-the-pub’ for example:

This is another thing that always gets me in education; there is a lot of this stuff, particularly the twenty-first century gas

It’s at these moments that the humour feels a bit too forced and the style a bit too loose. Perhaps this is Bennett and perhaps this is what appeals to teachers and makes it accessible but it wore thin at times. And this  highlights what was the biggest problem for me, the seeming lack of a good editor. I think Routledge let Bennett down somewhat, in this regard. A better editor would have cautioned against the first half and tidied the book. For example on p146 we have ‘incidentally’ twice in  quick succession and on p 71. he writes “I’m not making that up” twice. This might be nit-picking, but these kind of things add to the, at times, disordered feel of the book. And this is a shame as Bennett can write very well such as when talking about group work he argues that “In a group, lazy-kids get a chance to really spread their lazy-ass wings and reach heights of doing absolutely nothing”(77)  

Bennett’s writing was particularly good when he tackled “techno” love in schools. This is something I’ve thought about but haven’t really had a good chance to look into yet, so teacher proof gave some good insights. I found myself nodding when I read “I’ve noticed on social network sites I lurk around, especially twitter [that] many teachers put in their biographies that they are “passionate about integrating technology in the classroom”‘. (124) before pointing out how little evidence there is that technology helps enhance learning at all. He also points out how much of the push for ‘digital classrooms’ emanates not from teachers or researchers but from “commercially interested parties”.

All in all I enjoyed “teacher proof” especially as it helped me feel A) I’m not the only one who feels they are going insane where education is concerned and B) He taught me about some wacky teaching theories I’d not yet heard of. One example of this is “thinking hats” which is mind bendingly odd. I headed straight for Google after reading about it and sure enough, never one to miss a trick, someone in the TEFL world has managed to co-opt this nonsense.

Bad education was a very thought provoking read, challenging some assumptions I had, like, for example, the idea that smaller classes are better, for instance or the notion that progressive education trumps traditional education. There is even a section which (carefully) unpicks myths related to dyslexia. Bad education is probably more the kind of resource I can use, but whereas I read “teacher proof” from cover to cover, there are sections of bad education which don’t have any relevance to me and remain unread, like a chapter on “computers Vs calculators” and perhaps this is telling.