The Importance of Research

This was originally published in Modern English Teacher (Oct 2013)

One of the most divisive myths in the TEFL world is the supposed irreconcilable distinction between teachers and researchers. In this narrative Real TEFL practitioners are in the classroom with students –at the chalkface, while those in academia spend their time in ivory towers, coming up with counter intuitive theories that any experienced teacher in the ‘real world’ would be able to tell them were nonsense. Thornbury, for example characterises researchers as “men in white coats” who he fears may “hijack” ELT (2001:403) and Widdowson notes that “there is a good deal of mistrust of theory among English language teachers…[who] see it as remote from their actual experience, an attempt to mystify common-sense practices by unnecessary abstraction”(2010:1). Simon Andrewes further reinforces this popular view in his article “About Theory and Practice” (Met 22:2)

Simon Andrewes draws a distinction between, “practitioners and theoreticians” or “the real world” and the world of academics. In this dichotomy practitioners are “pragmatists” looking for real ways to improve teaching while academics just want to get published. While there may be some truth in the different aims of these professions, it seems to me a rather simplistic and unkind portrait of academics, many of whom started life in the classroom and did their time at the ‘chalkface’. Often these experiences drive their research:

…gradually my career has moved me from direct language teaching to being more of a researcher, more of a teacher educator. I think that experience is very important because a lot of the things that I research and the way in which I interpret research is based very much on my experience as a language teacher. (Ellis 2012 Online)

The problem is more nuanced than Simon allows and it is not because “theory has become divorced from practice” as he suggests but rather because questions that teachers want answers to are not always easy to research:

when you ask students to try to plan a research study, they have a lot of problems writing their questions because they tend to write questions that are important to them, but are not very easily researchable…If you have a very broad question like, “What can I do to get my learners to avoid making this kind of mistake?” that’s probably not a very good question because it’s not easy to see how you can design a study to actually do that.(Ellis 2012: Online)

Despite the difficulties, research is carried and results are produced.  It seems rather unfair for those not engaged in research to write off the whole endeavour as being a way to climb the academic ladder.

Simon clearly feels passionately about this subject. In an earlier article he sets teachers in opposition to “methodologists” who unlike teachers “do not feel the constraints of everyday school life” and who spend their time trying to “attract their paymasters” by “constantly revolutionising teaching ideas” (2008:18). He also notes that “Teachers’ mistrust of and resentment towards methodology are clearly a consequence of this gulf between practice and theory” (2008:19). But his passion for defending the “‘ordinary’, ‘down-to-earth’ people against the elitism of academics”, (Widdowson 2010:2) has, it seems, led him to create straw man villains like ‘researchers’ (only in it for the ‘papers’) and ‘methodologists’ (only in it for the money) who are positioned in opposition to the noble pragmatic teacher. This is an attractive fantasy but still a fantasy.

The teacher/academic distinction is arguably quite convenient for experienced teachers who can simultaneously dismiss academic work without the bother of having to do it or read it and by placing ‘experience’ as the ‘ne plus ultra’ of TEFL professionalism, position themselves as the voice of authority. This is also a dangerous position as “teachers who insist they are simply practitioners, workers at the chalkface, not interested in theory, in effect conspire against their own authority, and against their own profession” (Widdowson 2012:2) Research can be flawed, often seriously yet good research can give us insights into best practice and while what is effective isn’t always easy to demonstrate and may depend on many factors,  we can often identify those things which have been shown to be ineffective. One such example as I argued previously is learning styles(LS).

Simon Andrewes is mistaken when he suggests the “facts and fictions” title refers to the sense that research can be quite removed from practice. The title is actually homage to an article by Amos Paran (1996) “reading in EFL: facts and fictions” which was an inspiration to me and pertinent to this article as Paran attacks the use of ‘the psycholinguistic (guessing game) model’ of reading popular in ELT. He criticises the approach, for lacking evidence and for having been rejected by reading researchers for years. He concludes:

As a final point, it is important to stand back and think how [this model] of reading, with all the reservations LI reading researchers expressed towards it, has been able to hold sway over L2 reading models for such a long time. (1995:33)

This is important to dwell on as the model he attacked then is still hugely popular today among EFL teachers and this has similarities with LS.

 

‘healthy scepticism”

 It’s clear from reading Simon Andrewes article that the use of ‘learning styles’ to mean two things causes confusion. Therefore for the purpose of this article I will refer to what I had advanced as the ‘weak’ variant, namely the idea that ‘everyone learns differently’ as ‘study preferences’. I think this probably sums up what teachers mean when they say ‘everyone learns in different ways’.  I will distinguish these from the ‘hard’ version of LS, which is the notion that human beings have fixed physiological differences in the way they best retain and acquire new information.

The former is true, the latter is false. The former is merely expressing the quite obvious idea that people prefer to study things in different ways. I may like to listen to music while studying and another person may love checking words in a dictionary or listening to podcasts. Some people like the colour red and others prefer blue. There is nothing controversial here but also nothing particularly note-worthy. The latter, has repeatedly been shown to be unsupported by evidence. Just to be clear about this point, there is no evidence, despite much research, that people learn better if they get information through a preferred sensory channel.

This is where the problems associated with relying entirely on a teacher’s experience can be clearly seen. A teacher may believe that it is useful to know a student’s LS and they may believe it sincerely but research suggests otherwise. It is not good enough for teachers to accept only those findings that they already agree with and dismiss research that contradicts their preferred way of working. Thus, when Simon writes “nobody is better placed than the teacher to determine what will work in practice” (2013:56) what he is arguing for is essentially an anything goes attitude to ELT where what is good, bad, fun, useful or valid are all decided entirely at the discretion of the teacher.

When research findings contradict teachers, Simon suggests that the problem is with the research, after all “if theory is honestly valid, then classroom practice will vindicate it” (2012:56). He Later adds, “the division between theory and practice, then, is what leads to a healthy scepticism among practitioners towards the claims of theoreticians”. In actuality healthy scepticism is entirely what’s missing from our profession and thus the proliferation of faddish theories continues. Master NLP practitioner claim to determine student LS from watching their eye movements while tapping into their left-brained multiple intelligences with the latest BrainGymTM activity. Pseudo-science is heaped on pseudo-science with scant regard for facts. This is hardly surprising when they are told to ignore research and decide the value of things for themselves.

The ELT world has proved a fertile breeding ground for pseudo-science and at times mutually exclusive theories are even thrown together with seeming reckless abandon. For example, Simon explicitly relates LS with the theory of multiple intelligences (MI) at one point talking about students’ “intrapersonal learning style” but LS theory and MI theory are completely different things. LS theory (or at least the VARK model) is the idea that people can improve their learning if information is delivered via their dominant modality (visual, auditory etc). Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory is merely an attempt to redefine the concept of aptitudes as ‘intelligences’. This is not my opinion but Gardner’s who describes the idea that “[a]n Intelligence is the same as a learning style” as a “myth” (1999:80). The only common ground that the two share is that they are both adored by teachers and lack any scientific credibility. Even Gardner himself is not keen on certain classroom applications of MI theory: 

 I am leery of implementations such as […] believing that going through certain motions activates or exercises specific intelligences. I have seen classes in which children were encouraged to move their arms or run around, on the assumption that such exercise enhances bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. It does not, any more than babbling enhances linguistic or musical intelligence.(1999:90)

And:

I once watched a series of videos about multiple intelligences in the schools. In one video after another I saw youngsters crawling across the floor, with the superimposed legend ‘Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence’. I said, ‘That is not bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, that is kids crawling across the floor. And I feel like crawling up the wall.’(1999:142)

Simon suggests teachers should be aware that students learn in different ways and adds that we should know about their “particular kinaesthetic or right brain or interpersonal needs or whatever”. So as well as LS and MI he also promotes the idea of there being left-brained/right brained learners, an idea long rejected by neuroscientists.

In the article, Simon claims my argument fails because we cannot engage students if we are “oblivious to their particular learning style” (2013:58). Does he, I wonder, also think we should find out our students’ star signs, or endeavour to find out what colour their auras are, as these have, at present, as much credibility as the theories he is defending.  This isn’t “healthy scepticism” it’s a free for all.

The need for research

That Simon calls things like LS “self-evident truth[s]” when there is so little supporting evidence is exactly why research is so crucial. At one point in our history it seemed self-evident that some women were witches or that star signs could tell us about our personalities or that tarot cards could help us know our destinies. It once seemed self-evident that canning students was an appropriate method of classroom management and that blood-letting was a good medical treatment. As Widdowson notes:

 The first thing to do with common sense is to question it; the last thing to do is accept it as valid. It may be valid, but, then the validity has to be argued for and demonstrated. It cannot be taken as self-evident. (2010:3)

Experience is a crucial tool for teachers. It can give us insights into what is effective and indicate what isn’t, and in the absence of evidence it’s arguably a good bet. However, experience has its limits and can cause us to see evidence supporting our ideas that perhaps isn’t there. As Jeremy Harmer tweeted recently “I don’t 100% trust what I think I see! I also want the results of better brains than mine = research”.

 References

 Paran, A. (1996). Reading in EFL: Facts and fictions. ELT Journal, 50(1), 25-34

Andrewes, S. (2013) About theory and practice in ELT.   MET 22:2 56-58

Andrewes, S. (2008) Teachers Against Methodology. English Teaching Professional, May 2008. 56. 17-19.

Gardner, H. (1991) Intelligence Reframed. New York: Basic Books

Thornbury, S. (2001) Lighten up: A reply to Angles Clemente ELT Journal, 55(4), 403-4

Widdowson, H.G (2010) Defining issues in English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Language Mazazine (2012). Interview with Rod Ellis. In The journal of communication and education. Retrieved 3rd August 2013, from http://languagemagazine.com/?page_id=3843

 

 

 

 

Why we need evidence part 3: expert opinion

What do Rod Ellis, Michael Swan, Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury and Jim Scrivener all have in common?  Yes, they’re all white, native speakers and they’re all men in a profession which is largely female, non-white and non-native speaker. But that’s not what I was aiming for, no they are all TEFL “authorities”, and probably for whatever reason, the most recognisable names in TEFL/applied linguistics.

This isn’t a post attacking them. I happen to like all of them (though Swan is my fav!) but it’s more to question the authority that is afforded to them. Harmer for example is a teacher and a teacher trainer. Is he better or more capable than any other teacher trainer? -I have no idea and I have no idea how you would even work that out. Like Thornbury, Harmer has written a very influential book which means he’s certainly dedicated and driven, but is what he says any more reliable than a teacher who hasn’t written a book?

I have taken a lot of useful advice from Harmer’s practice of English teaching, as I’m sure many people reading this have. But I’ve also seen him recommend teachers test students to find out their learner styles in spite of the evidence he himself quotes against it. I’ve also seen him promote NLP, without a single word of criticism. though in this regard he’s no different from the British Council which seems to have no problem promoting either of these things.

Thornbury scores more highly in both these areas. He’s also refreshingly honest about some of ELT’s more entrenched practices which have dubious credibility. But one has to wonder about Dogme, criticised, -somewhat ironically perhaps, -by Harmer here.

I like both Harmer and Thornbury’s books, but neither men, as far as I can tell, are researchers. Their words should have just as much (or just as little) weight as anyone else’s. Even if they were researchers and leading researchers in their field, like Rod Ellis for example, it wouldn’t mean that their opinion on a given issue is necessarily the right one. For example Swan takes issue with Ellis’ whole approach to language teaching, -so which expert are we to believe?


In the world of evidence based research, opinion albeit “expert” opinion ranks dead last, (and sometimes doesn’t appear at all) -and for good reason. The whole purpose of research and the power behind the scientific method derives from the fact that people are often wrong, and often wrong about being wrong. The Nobel Prize winning Scientist Linus Pauling serves as an important cautionary tale:
After becoming convinced of its worth, Pauling took 3 grams of vitamin C every day to prevent colds. Excited by his own perceived results, he researched the clinical literature and published Vitamin C and the Common Cold in 1970. He began a long clinical collaboration with the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron in 1971 on the use of intravenous and oral vitamin C as cancer therapy for terminal patients (wikipedia)

I’ve highlighted a very important sentence in bold here. Pauling believed that vitamin C really really worked and thus ignored his scientific training. Other people may take this idea seriously because such a famous researcher said it. They may even use an authority figure’s opinion as evidence of a point they are making, -and I have documented cases of that here. This is often called the “argument from authority” for obvious reasons.

But how does someone become an authority? Well, you need to get people to listen to you. Imagine tomorrow I announced that I would be starting a new teaching method called “langology”. I laid out all the precepts and techniques and wrote a passionate call for teachers to use it. How many people would? I’m guessing the number would be zero. Yet there are others who could affect the way thousands of teachers teach, just by doing this, get books published off the back of it and even stir up controversy in the TEFL world. Yet the people who suggest new theories or give advice about best practice are really only giving you their opinions.

Of course, opinions may come in a range of probabilities depending on the claims being made, but we should never forget that they are, no matter how accurate they sound, just opinions. And as such, the opinion of say Dr. James Ascher (the Dr. appears on all the TPR stuff) that TPR is good for kinesthetic students, is exactly and entirely as valid as my saying that “langology” will not only make you fluent in any language in a matter of weeks but it will also make you more successful, handsome and probably slightly taller. And importantly should be given exactly that much weight. This is unlikely to happen though, but why?

I can’t really answer that question but I would guess that it has something to do with the Halo effect.  This is what makes us think a celebrity giving us insurance advice is worth listening to or what leads to better looking students getting higher marks for an essay. Also perhaps it relates to how easily we are convinced by authority figures. Either way, it’s something we should be on our guard against. The next time someone at work, round the water cooler, mentions that “Harmer is big on drilling!” or that Ellis doesn’t think contrastive analysis is useful,  remember that in the absence of evidence, this is just an opinion.

Learning styles: facts and fictions

This article originally appeared in Modern English Teacher, volume 21 No.4.  Thanks to Dave Francis for allowing me to reproduce it here.  
 
 Learning styles (sometimes ‘learner styles’ hereafter LS) are pervasive in education and there are far too many articles examining the learning styles of various groups of students to reproduce here. However a quick search of Google scholar will bring up numerous articles examining the various LS of various groups, from Iranian freshmen to Taiwanese and Kuwaiti students. However, for the amount of attention they receive there is very little evidence of their efficacy:
The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated (Pasler et al 2008:117).
 This essay will examine LS in the EFL literature and question whether they actually provide a useful tool for aiding students language learning or whether they are merely a pseudo-scientific distraction. Firstly, This essay will examine the theory of learning styles, focusing on the VAK model in particular. It will then examine references to LS in a small sample of EFL literature. Finally some of the problems with the theories of LS will be outlined.
 
What are learning styles?
The basic premise of LS is that ‘individuals learn in different ways'(Nel 2008:51).  There is a large body of literature related to the various types, whether they be visual, audio or, kinesthetic, (VAK) left brained or right brained, concrete or communicative, levelers or sharpners, plungers or non-committers, convergers or divergers, the list, while not endless is certainly long!  The thrust of the various theories is that if a teacher caters to a student’s particular LS then said student’s learning will be enhanced. (Thornbury 2006)  Therefore a teacher should prepare a variety of approaches when introducing material in order to cater for these disparate needs.  
There does appear to be some conceptual confusion (Nel 2008) with regard to this term. Whereas for some, LS simply indicates the things different students prefer to do in order to learn,  For example, student A may use flash cards and student B may like writing lots of notes. For others LS indicates a scientific theory relating to ‘the biologically and developmentally imposed set of characteristics that make the same teaching method wonderful for some and terrible for others’ (Dunn & Griggs, 1988:3). There is quite a difference here between that which is preferential and that which is biologically constrained. This paper will specifically deal with latter of these two notions, though it is possible that the vagueness of the concept has actually aided its popularity, as a wide range of activities can be grouped under one catch-all term.   

weak and strong forms

It is useful to divide LS into two versions, for the sake of criticism. The first can be termed the ‘weak’ version in which it is posited that all students learn in different ways and while one student can find a activity enjoyable or an explanation clear, another student can find the same activity dull and the same explanation confusing (Pashler et al 2008:116). Also, as noted earlier, students have their own favourite ways of learning. All of this is relatively uncontroversial and probably quite familiar to most teachers. The ‘strong’ version however moves from this position to suggesting that not only do students learn differently, but that that difference is attributable to a certain biological difference within each student. Furthermore this difference can be reliably discovered through testing (often in the form of self-report questionnaires)  and that a teacher can then target lessons to suit the students particular LS which will in turn accelerate a student’s ability to learn. In this version, LS is presented as a complete and well defined theory. This view of learning is as problematic as it is popular.  
 

References to LS

The weak form can sometimes be used as a wedge to introduce the strong form. Alternatively, criticism can be deflected by appealing to the more general and ‘common sense’ ideas of the weak form while the strong form is pushed as being a legitimate technique. An example of this can be seen in ‘the practice of English language teaching’ in which Harmer, despite noting that the claims of this theory have not ‘been subjected to any kind of rigorous scientific evaluation'(2007:93)  suggests carrying out computer based tests of students’ multiple intelligences. Harmer notes that the Coffield study has severely criticised learning styles including the following quote ‘[we] advise against pedagogical intervention based solely on any of the learning style instruments’ (Coffield et al 2004:140) Yet continues to promote learning styles claiming that they are useful for making teachers aware  of  ‘self-evident truths, – namely that different students react differently to different stimulus’ (2007:93). While it may be the case that learners learn differently, it does not follow that therefore LS are the answer to this. nor is it at all clear why teachers need to be made aware of things which are ‘self evident’. The same tact is employed elsewhere in the section:
         It may sound as if, therefore, there is no point in reading about different learner styles at all – or trying to incorporate them into our teaching. But that is not the case. We should do as much as we can to understand the individual differences within a group (2007:89)
 Understanding that students are individuals is quite a different thing from employing specific LS tests and classroom practices. In the above quote Harmer refers to evidence based criticisms of LS and yet dismisses these criticism, without evidence, merely by asserting that ‘this is not the case’.  
 
Thornbury is more damning of LS noting that there is little evidence ‘that any of these dispositions correlates with specific learning behaviours. Nor has it been shown that preference in one area predicts success in language learning.’ (2006:116-7) Yet despite Thornbury’s  caution LS are presented uncritically in a large amount of EFL literature, or criticisms are brushed away, as with  Nel (2008) who after acknowledging the conceptual confusion in LS and listing criticism of LS, then goes on to suggest, similarly to Harmer, that teachers should still test their students to find out their LS in order to ‘maximise the learning opportunities of their students'(2008:57). However, as the next section will show, even if we accept LS as a legitimate theory, it is hard to see how it’s implementation would actually aid students learning in any way. Ellis is equally critical of the research noting that his original conclusion of their limited worth did not require updating for the second edition, published 14 years later. He also apologies for the lengthy treatment of LS noting that this merely reflected the huge amount of “attention it has received from researchers”(2008:671-2).
 The evidence problem
There is very little credible research to support LS (Coffield et al 2004:140). Specifically in the field of L2 acquisition Ellis notes that there is uncertainty over whether “any useful generalisations can be based on the research undertaken to date”(2008:669 ) Pashler et al. (2008:116)  in relation to research on the subject which reaches an acceptable level of credibility note that :
 
only a few fragmentary and unconvincing pieces of evidence that meet this standard, and we therefore conclude that the literature fails to provide adequate support for applying learning-style assessments in school settings… several studies that used appropriate research designs found evidence that contradicted the learning-styles hypothesis
 
Despite this there is a very lucrative industry built around testing and providing materials for different learner types. Another unfortunate trend as noted is, when faced with disappointing results, or criticism of LS,  some in the EFL world seem reluctant to accept them, possibly noting that there is not enough research yet or that the ideas are still, on some level, useful.
 
It is also worth noting that what I have mainly described (VAK) is just one version of the LS theory. Coffield et al note that ‘learning style researchers do not speak with one voice’ (2004:140) For example is a pragmatist the opposite of a theorist or a reflector?  It depends on which theory you choose. The proliferation of theories, all lacking direct comparability and each with their own technical terms, ‘is both bewildering and off-putting to practitioners and to other academics who do not specialise in this field.’ (Coffield 2004:136)
 Another issue is, as Pashler et al (2008) point out, the subject being taught may well define which approach to the content is best. Whereas they give geometry as an example, for EFL perhaps the idea of a listening lesson for non-audio learners would be sufficient to highlight the absurdness of LS. Or perhaps trying to think of ways to teach reading to non-visual learners.  But if moving around the classroom with bits of text or reading out loud comes to mind, I have to admit I despair for our profession.
 
The feasibility problem
Another problem with LS is that even if it were a viable theory, it is doubtful that it would be of any use to use in the EFL field. As Harmer notes (2001:90) different intelligences mean some learning tasks might ‘not be appropriate for all of our students.’  He then suggests activities which might appeal to different types. There is something of a catch 22 here though which seems to remove all the supposed benefits of the approach. If we imagine a class with three learners, with LS X,Y and Z doing an activity targeted at style X will perhaps be less than optimal for Y and Z. so any benefit of supposed accelerated learning is instantly lost when we are inclusive. Any benefit gleaned from knowing the student’s LS would be lost. We could divide the students up by their individual LS as we divide students up by ability now but the cost of ‘interventions built around learning styles’ would be huge as students would need to be tested, customized materials made and teacher’s retrained. (Pashler et.al 2008 116) And how would we know which version of LS to use in the first place?   Can we ethical test students for their optimum VAK LS while ignoring their right-brain/left brain potential?  But that’s not all, some students may, according to the theory, have two LS or a mix of all 3 (in the VAK model). You maybe for example be 30% visual and 70% kinaesthetic.  If the purpose of this knowledge is to inform a teachers about the method of delivery it is hard to see how it is anything but general to the point of useless. Even if LS could be proved to be effective, the benefits would have considerable to make up for these costs. Is it not infinitely more sensible to spend this time teaching all these students language in as engaging a way as is possible? 

Conclusion

Students have a limited amount of time in the classroom. We um and ah over whether to schedule practice tests in class time, whether to use a whole hour for review and whether the students are getting enough practice time. Despite this we seem perfectly happy to throw away lesson time on something which is untested and probably completely useless. Pashler et al (2000:117) recommend (as Coffield et al cited earlier) due to the problems citing in this essay, use of LS at present is an ‘unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.’
 There is also the question of the massive amounts of research time that is wasted on this kind of thing. Not only the researchers’ and their subjects time, but the time of the trainee teacher, keenly devouring article after article on ‘getting the best out of kinaesthetic learners.’ Then there are the hours wasted by the likes of Coffield et al and Pashler et al debunking these ideas only to leave us back where we started knowing no more about teaching than we did before.  This time could have been spent teaching students more language, researching better ways for students to retain language or reading articles which actually tell us something of use. Not only are we wasting our student’s time but we’re also making ourselves look foolish. Worse, we risk the students, who may well also be teachers, uncritically adopting these ideas and spreading them in their home nations.

References

Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K., (2004) ‘Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning : a systematic and critical review’ London; Learning and Skills Network.

 Dunn, R. and Griggs, S. 1988. Learning Styles: Quiet Revolution in American Schools. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals


Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd ed.). Oxford:Oxford University Press.

 Harmer J.2007 The Practice of English language Teaching Essex: Pearson Education Limited

 Nel, C. 2008. ‘Learning styles’. In Griffiths, C. 2008 (Ed.). The good language learner: A tribute to Joan Rubin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

 Pashler, H.,  McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. 2008 ‘Learning Styles: Concepts and evidence’ Psychological Science in the Public Interest9/3, 105-119

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A to Z of ELT Oxford: Macmillan