‘Oh God!’

It’s been a very odd week.

Since last Wednesday my talk has been tweeted and retweeted over 50 times. I’ve been sent compliments by people I look up to and have acquired about 100 new twitter followers. I’ve had emails, requests to speak, and I’ve even been interviewed by the nicest man on twitter. I think Mike, who is one of the main reason this blog exists (see here for example), was just as surprised as me:

I’ve been blogged about by, so far about four people. I was mentioned by Hugh Dellar (Squeal!). My academic.edu page view count and the one on this blog both suddenly shot up (which is unnerving). This has also been the week I discovered that 20 seems to be the maximum number of notifications twitter goes up to and then it lazily displays 20+ at the bottom.

However, nothing surpassed the surreality that occurred when a couple of people retweeted the talk not to @ebefl -my handle- but to @russellmayne – a clinical strategist in Dubai.I thought the poor guy might take offence at being randomly tweeted at but no, he replied saying, ‘wrong Russ’ and then added:

Not only had my Googleganger been dragged into the chaos, he was merrily joining in!
All of this has come as a surprise. This was my first IATEFL. I’ve been trying to go for three years now. You might remember this post from last year when I complained because I couldn’t go. If I’m honest, the only reason I put a talk in is because we have a rule that accepted speakers can always go to conferences. I didn’t think many people would be interested in the topic but at least I’d get to tick it off my ‘to do’ list. I’d also maybe get to meet some of the people I’d been chatting with over the last two years.

I’d been pretty nervous all day beforehand and hadn’t slept well all week. When I slipped out of Steve Brown’s talk to go and prepare I was surprised by what I found. There seemed to be quite a lot of people in the room and more were coming. Then, Adrian Underhill strolled in and asked me a question. I was worried at this point. Next the guy at the back told me it would be live streamed I started to panic. People started to add extra rows of chairs and then the cameraman gave me a thumbs up. 

The  mic picked up my feelings at that moment and preserved them for history.  

Later, someone asked me how come I got to be live streamed. I have absolutely no idea. It’s really odd and I didn’t realise how odd till I saw the list of names. Either side of me are people who are actually, you know, famous and have done stuff. I’m not very well known, have no published papers, haven’t written a book nor have ever even been to IATEFL. I’d really love to know how they came to the decision to pick me. I honestly haven’t a clue. Maybe it was a mistake?

I should take a minute here to say thanks, though. I’d been feeling a bit despondent about conferences lately. Having had about 5 and 7 people come to my last two BALEAP talks, I was beginning to wonder if it was worth the time and stress of writing and presenting. Perhaps no one was really interested? The incredible response has made me think again. I’ll have to delete my half-written “conferences are a waste of time’ blog post now. I’m genuinely very happy that so many TEFLer seem to agree with the sentiment of the talk.

The highlight of the day for me (aside from not being lynched, obviously) was meeting so many lovely twitter bods like Nicola Prentis, Mike Harrison and James Taylor (sorry if I missed anyone out, it’s all a bit of a blur) Best of all was when Hugh, Steve, Carol and Chris bought me beer and sat and chatted with me until I had to catch my train. (Side note: NO ONE looks anything like their twitter picture except for Hugh Dellar and Jonathen Sayers who look exactly like theirs)  I wish I could’ve been there all week. Maybe next year? That is assuming I haven’t been done in by a shadowy TEFL illuminati.

I’m going to try to put up some extra info about the talk but in the meantime, here are some links to old posts on the subject.
NLP claims, NLP, Council article on NLP (with response from the website in comments) and a weird misuse of Thornbury half way down here to support NLP. 

Sorry if this post was a bit self-indulgent. I’ll be back to my old cynical self soon.

merry xmas and happy new year

2012 is at an end and 2013 is nearly upon us and we still don’t really have a name for this  decade (the teens?). Lexical gaps aside it’s time for a run down of the year. But before that I’d like to post a few thank yous.

I’ve managed to meet loads of interesting people on twitter. This blog, which I started in March, has become more successful than I could have ever imagined so thank you for reading it, thank you for retweeting and thank you for commenting. The blog didn’t get off to a great start when one of the first people to read “is Korea the worst place to teach English” angrily ordered me to remove the post and then blocked me. Things slowly got better though and I had more views in the first week of October than I did for the whole of the first two months. Next, I had more views in the first week of November than the whole of October. A lot of these may have been bots (if the spam is anything to go by) but anyway, I’m grateful to anyone who bothered to read this stuff. The lovely things people have said have really made a difference to me and when I started I never thought it would get anywhere near as many hits as it has done. In this blog I’m going to tell you my dodgiest teaching practices, the most popular posts this year and then my own personal favourite posts. so here goes…

Maybe writing a thank you post like this is a bit premature for such a small blog but I want to take this opportunity to say thanks to a few people. If you don’t want to read this then skip to the next heading.

Ok,Firstly Dan, who followed me first and told me to “keep writing”, Louise, Susie and Emma for the nice things you’ve said about various posts. Rich and the Ophelia for putting up with being forced to read almost every post before I publish them. Also some people who have given me feedback or ideas about what to write, including (in no order) Steve King, Alistar Logan, Jo (thanks for the mail), Glynis, Amos Paran, Michael Swan, among many others.  

I also really want to thank a few people on Twitter who have either encouraged me or given me some interesting things to think about. Specifically Michael Griffin who I think has contributed more to the success of this page than anyone and who seems lovely and is a very welcome  presence on twitter. Others include leo, Alex, laura, sophia,  kevchan, TysonJames, Patrick, Adam, Marisa, Anne (who seems lovely),  Dan, Rachel, John and others too numerous to mention (sorry if I missed you!) all of who have supported this blog in one way or another.

Dodgiest practice award

There have been so many great contenders this year but there can only be one winner.

In at number 3 is BrainGym. Yes exercise is good. No rubbing your temple won’t stimulate your brain buttons. It’s probably the wackiest of them all but only seems to have very limited usage among EFL teachers. also, should teachers actually use it, it probably won’t do kids any harm, as long as they don’t teach the bizarre science that goes with it.

At Number 2 is learning styles. Yes it’s true we all learn in different ways and yes teachers should probably try to get a good mix of activities into lessons, but with no practical application, unproven and contradictory claims about what learning styles are and no proven value for students even if they are taught using their favourite method, -this one’s a real stinker.

But the number 1 spot goes to the method that literally left me with my mouth hanging open. Yes, the 2012 winner is neuro linguistic programming! Practitioners are often a little coy about what NLP entails but when you dig down and find some of the incredible claims it makes, combined with the cost of courses and more importantly the prevalence of NLP in EFL literature (even getting it’s own, sightly dodgy ELTJ article) there can be no doubt about its selection for the top spot.

This year’s “worth a second look” prize goes to “mindfulness“. Despite it’s Buddhist background and the therapy upbringing there might be something to this. I’m not rushing out to buy the incense yet but having students think carefully about things or just having humans in general be more thoughtful is probably a good thing. More importantly for this blog, there seems to be evidence to support it’s efficacy.
Top posts

The most read posts on this blog are not necessarily my favourites but here they are at number three is the piece I wrote on Learning styles (300 hits). Number two is the first in the three part “why we need evidence” (450 hits). However, the clear winner with 1,400 hits is a non evidence-based look at the difference between the DELTA and MA. I guess this topic probably has pretty wide appeal unlike a lot of the other stuff.

As to the posts I enjoyed writing the most well, the look at who Vs whom inspired by grammargirl was really enjoyable and I like to think it’s quite a good read. I have a soft spot for the first post on the misuse(?) of the word “literally“. There were others which were a lot of fun, like Dr. Fox, the impostor syndrome and the Pygmalion effect but the one I enjoyed the most was Teacher beliefs in EFL. It’s a bit silly perhaps and doesn’t say all that much but linking penis theft and fan death with EFL is something of an achievement, right?


It’s been a great year for EBEFL but it’s time to start thinking about next year. I’ve been dealing with a lot of low-hanging fruit this year, like NLP, brain gym and learner styles. I’m hoping to write about guessing from context, stress timing, dogme, over-teaching, skimming and scanning, paraphrasing and academic dishonesty among others. What would you like to see featured in the 2013 posts of Evidence based EFL? Post your ideas below.
Thanks for reading!


Why we need Evidence: part.1 ‘it works!’

Teaching isn’t the most rigorous of professions.  It’s not glamorous and usually not very well paid. Most of the teachers I meet do it because they love the job, and they love the students.  It’s often said that teaching is “an art not a science”.  There might be some truth in this. But is evidence unimportant?  I’m going to try to argue ‘no’ in a series of posts. 
It’s difficult to prove much of anything in TEFL and there is very little for which  there is solid evidence. However, new techniques and approaches appear all the time and are taken up with vigour by teachers who become convinced that this time they have hit upon the holy grail of teaching -the method to rule them all!  They are sure that this time….this time…they have discovered the method that will turn their barely communicative disinterested students into fluent autonomous learners. Said teacher is convinced of the efficacy of the approach due to the stunning results it produces and the expressions of sheer joy on student faces. This position could be called the “It works- just look at their faces!” position. A few examples are the following:

“Of course we all know Genki English works great because we see it every time on the kids’ faces” (2009 online) Richard Graham, founder of GenkiEnglish, presenting the ‘evidence’ that his method “really, really works”

“both kids and teachers told us it really works” Video extolling the virtues of Mindfulness training in classrooms.

Teachers using BrainGym continue to this day, despite all the evidence against it, continue to insist that it works.

“In the final analysis, like any other methodology, [neuro-linguistic programming]NLP will work or not for an individual teacher because it is right for them and not because it is scientifically proven or not.” (Harris 2002:37)
I cannot really say that these doubts have completely disappeared but I can say that ,little by little, I BELIEVE that the magic of NLP can actually come true. I am really conscious that the changes I am experiencing with myself and with my students in class…How do I know is it working? Because I can see it in my students´faces, gestures and attitudes (Esteve online)


Now some teacher might take me to task here saying “well how can we prove whether a method works or not in any scientific sense?”  This is a fair point and I agree but I have two caveats to add to it.  Firstly, if a method can’t be proved to work, then we should resist saying that “it works”.  Certainly we should not suggest that students’ reactions or the way we feel about it constitute any kind of reliable evidence.  Secondly, though it may be difficult to prove that something works, it’s relatively easy to prove that something doesn’t work, -or can’t work.  for example, NLP claims that you can tell a persons “learner style” by watching their eyes move and listening to the pitch of their voice.  BrainGym claims that children can children can massage their bodies to increase the oxygen supply to their brains.  Both of these claims are demonstrably false

Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit, is a good place for teachers to start.  In this case, the following principle might be useful:

wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts

This is because people believe what they want to believe.  A teacher who likes a a particular activity/method/approach will find it easy to convince themselves that their students like it, or benefit from it.  Confirmation bias (i.e. recording the hits and forgetting the misses) will do the rest to convince a teacher that their method “really works”.

But what does “work” mean here anyway?  If you want to test something then it’s a good idea to have a clear idea of what it is you want to test.  Does “work” mean “make the students happy” or “allow me to skive off the lesson” or “make me, the teacher, feel good about myself” or “increases the chances the group of students will become more proficient”?  If you don’t know what “works” means then it’s meaningless to say that something works. 

no one is impervious to this kind of thinking, which is why we do need evidence that our practices work, or at least, the ability to weed-out those which really do not.  Fifty years ago teachers were making their students listen and repeat and declaring that “it really works!” and 20 years ago communicative language teaching came and that “really worked” too and now Dogme “really works!”  If all these methods work, why do we keep changing them?


part 2 is here
for more about GenkiEnglish read this.

NB:  If you want to read a blog which basically says everything I do, except funnier and before me, then check out this one.


Harris, T. 2002. ‘NLP: If it Works, use it … or is there Censorship Around?’ in HLT magazine retrieved September 23 2012 www.hltmag.co.uk/sep02/martsep023.rtf

Graham. R, (2009) Academic Research: Genki English really, really works. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/teaching/academic-research-genki-english-really-really-works

Brain bullshit

I’ve written about Learning styles and more recently Neuro-linguistic programming, and with the latter, felt that I had really reached the limit of silliness in ELT.  But low and behold, just as a I stagger, punch drunk away from my computer a new contender arrives.
If you’re a fan of Ben Goldacre, then you’ll have heard of BrainGym.  To recap, BrainGym is a series of exercises that kids do in schools around the UK and the US.  You might do these exercises in the middle of a class or at the start and it would look at bit like this.  The UK sense about science has criticised BrainGym claiming it “undermines science“.  The exercises on their own would be fine, but they are wrapped up in bizarre pseudo scientific explanations such as that humans have “brain buttons” and rubbing them (micro-interventions) will supply the brain with oxygenated blood.  Or that BrainGym can help with connecting the electrical circuits in the body.  They also make all manner of specious claims, from the sublime (Working with computers will lead to dehydration) to the ridiculous (processed food contains no water). 
I thought having been debunked thoroughly, the EFL world was safe, but no, it seems that no idea is too ludicrous for us.  As I searched for articles on the very odd NLP, I came across a teacher talking abut how he uses BrainGym in his TEFL classes.  And he is not alone, Phillip Kerr talks about his DOS having used BrainGym in the classroom.   I’m sure these are very nice, well-meaning people, -but it does matter what we expose our students to. 
Let’s be clear about this BrainGym, doesn’t “work”, it can’t work unless we can substantially alter human physiology.  Doing the BrainGym exercises in class may have benefits for students, but they are not for the reasons BrainGym suggests. In fact, having students stand and and move their bodies would probably improve their ability to concentrate, after all, there is evidence that sitting for long periods might not be very good for us,  but standing up and moving is not BrainGym.  BrainGym is an expensive program built on nonsense. Rubbing your “brain buttons” does not increase blood flow to the brain and if you tell your students this you are lying to them.  Now, while I think teachers often get a lot of undeserved flack, shouldn’t they be…erm…telling students the truth?
Unsurprisingly BrainGym seems inexorably linked to that other great lark, multiple intelligences and it’s not surprising to see people promoting it are also “master practitioners of NLP”.  I’m all for teachers trying new things and heavens knows EFL is a broad church but surely we have to demand a minimum level of accountability and ask that teachers have a little bit of healthy scepticism when it comes to choosing what to bring into the classroom.  By all means, do exercises in the classroom, it’ll probably be good for students, but don’t call it BrainGym.