Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Kangaroos are dangerous animals.  You can, however, avoid danger if you know  the signs. Joe Nichter, a frequent traveller, writes about discovering this in a trip to Australia:


While I was there, the local aborigines taught me a lot about the magic of the Kangaroo, and most importantly, how to tell when they’re going to attack you. Surprisingly enough they are actually VERY dangerous, but fortunately for us they go through a checklist before they attack.

The first thing they do is smile. Well no, not really but that’s what it looks like. Actually they’re baring their teeth just like a dog, but because of their facial structure it appears as though they’re smiling.

The second thing they do is double-check their pouch for baby Joey’s. As it turns out they’re very responsible parents whether they have children or not, they check anyways. There’s something to be said about that.

And third, they look over both shoulders, checking behind them as they lay their very large tail down on the ground. It acts as a “kick stand” (which I believe is where the term came from) as they lean back and lay into you with a battery of high speed Kangaroo Karate kicks.

They average about five to seven solid kicks before you’re knocked out of range. I spoke to a local man who holds the distance record: an adult Kangaroo kicked him fourteen feet. He’s a bit of a celebrity who’s very popular with the ladies. He has a shirt and everything.

None of this is true. Our critical thinking faculties are often disarmed by good stories. In fact, they only really come into effect when we’re suspicious of something or when it disagrees with our world view. The danger is when we ‘want to believe.’

Narratives are far more important to humans than facts. We are a consciousness inhabiting a body from moment to moment and what makes us seem like a unified self, unlike a series of Doctor Who-esque reincarnations over time, is the narratives we tell ourselves. We hold our ‘selves’ together with stories. The unreliability of our memories is well documented, and we generally edit  narratives to make them fit better with our beliefs about what should have happened, not what did happen.  

When I find myself watching shows like the X factor (usually if I visit my parents) I’m always amazed by the way personal history is edited to fit the present. Contestants say things like ‘I’ve been singing since I was little’, as if this was in someway unusual among children. But this temptation to repurpose our histories to make a better narrative about our lives, one in which everything we’ve done has lead to this unique moment, is powerful. How many people have you met who have ‘ended up’ as EFL teachers (like myself) but who then mine their history for moments which make their present situation seem somehow predestined. For example, the creator of Genki English, Richard Graham tells us: 

I first started teaching when I was 16. I was the first student in the UK to take the Advanced Level examination (the exams English students take at 18) in Music with my instrument as being [sic] the synthesiser…Anyway I had to teach myself how to play and being an enterprising 16 year old I figured that loads of kids were wanting to play synths instead of the “boring” (ok, it depends on your point of view!) piano. So if there were no other teachers out there then why not start teaching it myself!

always wonder what this story would look like had the 1980s never finished and Graham had made it as a star synth keyboard player instead being an EFL teacher. I imagine the ‘synth’ part would be turned up high and the teaching part turned way down low.

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This overly long preamble brings me to today’s topic. Did you know how many common English phrases have sinister histories?

Did you know, for example that the nursery rhyme ‘Ring of roses/ a pocket full of posies/ Atishoo Atishoo/ we all fall down’ was created during the plague of London? The roses relate to the red ring of infectious sores which signalled the beginning of the infection. The posies were, at the time, considered a treatment. The sneezing indicated a worsening of the symptoms and I don’t need to explain the falling down.
And how about that “rule of thumb” actually refers to an old English law which permitted a man to beat his wife with a stick ‘no thicker than his thumb’.
Did you also know that ‘one for the road’ has a similar macabre history? Condemned prisoners would be taken through the streets of London to be hanged. The prisoners ‘on the wagon’ would not be allowed to drink but occasionally guards, feeling pity, would let the men stop at a pub, for a final drink (one for the road) before their execution.
When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that’s where the saying “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a “thresh hold”.

Read more at http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp#BObWjPQO399ZZ30C.99

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that’s where the saying “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a “thresh hold”.

Read more at http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp#BObWjPQO399ZZ30C.99

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that’s where the saying “dirt poor” came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a “thresh hold”.

Read more at http://www.snopes.com/language/phrases/1500.asp#BObWjPQO399ZZ30C.99

All of these are great stories and yet none of them are true. They are false etymologies but they survive because they are really good stories (more here) and good stories are always more interesting than boring old facts. If you’re not convinced ask yourself why politicians always back up numbers with tales of ‘a family man from Kansas told me…’ and so on. Our brains react to stories not abstract numbers, which is why the anecdote “it worked for me” is so powerful.

Our narrative drive is so strong that we ignore statistical likelihoods in favour of anecdotes. Many people are more scared of shark bites than Louis Suarez bites though the latter is more statistically probable. (This example isn’t, in retrospect, a very good one. See comments section for a discussion of this point). 

So ‘debunkers’ beware, recent research shows that not only are people unlikely to be swayed be facts, the ‘backfire effect‘ often means a person’s views will be reinforced by a evidence which contradicts their personal narrative. 

The sceptics job is a thankless one. as Dave Wilton writes in ‘Word myths’:

Anyone who has any experience debunking legends or pseudoscience knows that the task is often an unappreciated one. People do not like to have their beliefs questioned or to have good stories spoiled.





Genki!

I wrote this at the start of the year and after many chats on twitter (including this one with Mike) I don’t think I would stand by everything written here. particularly the idea of “proving” a method, which is perhaps something we can’t do very easily, if at all. I do think though, that particular sword cuts both ways and so making claims about how effective a method is must be viewed as equally dubious.

I really hoped to get this article published somewhere but it wasn’t to be. I still think its important to examine a method which is so widely used. Even if you disagree with what I’ve written, I think the debate itself is important. So here is my (slightly edited) take on GenkiEnglish.

This article will introduce and examine Genki English (hereafter GE), a materials supplier, and teaching methodology which is currently being used to teach English to large numbers of children in public schools throughout Asia, including Japan, China and India.  Thailand’s government, together with the British Council, has introduced GE into “every primary school in the country” (Graham a). There are now several million students around the world learning from this method.  

Genki English is both a materials supplier and  method of teaching. The site itself claims to be “a collection of games, songs and ideas for use by teachers of languages to children”(Graham b). It contains teaching materials but it also contains sample lessons, a curriculum and more importantly a specific approach to teaching.  This approach might be termed the “Genki Method” and owner and creator Richard Graham can be seen presenting his ideas on teaching on a variety of YouTube videos.

The GE Method

 None of the materials or techniques used by GE are particularly new or original.  Graham notes “Although I’ve given [GE] a funky name, there’s nothing too new or ground breaking theory wise, it’s just a collection of useful, helpful ideas and resources that work very, very well” (Graham c).   Speaking and listening, seem to be the major focus with much of the actual teaching method involving “old fashioned drilling”(Graham d) in the form of songs and games. 

The lesson plans are relatively fixed, every lesson following the same pattern and the same timing.  The pattern involves students repeating the target language in song form: 

Warm up/Review (3-5 minutes)

2. Introduction of new English (15-20 minutes), including teaching of the song. Use this 3 step approach to keep kids interest and energy levels high.

a) introduce new vocab

b) teach song a cappella with the “Mini Lesson”

c) sing together with the music,

3. Practice of new material (15-20 minutes) (Graham e)

There is also a step two, which involves projects, such as students talking about pets or food and contacting foreign students (Graham e) but this is only available to students who have completed the first step of the curriculum.

Material

The GE material is targeted at Japanese elementary school children and as such there is very little material for writing and reading practice, (MEXT prohibited the teaching of reading and writing) though there is a phonics book available. There are also songs and games included as well as cultural events like lessons about Christmas and Halloween all of which follows MEXT guidelines. (MEXT online) The ordering of items is described as purposefully “non-linear”.  Some lessons are purely about learning related vocabulary, such as “fruit market” and “colours” while others are  largely grammatical such as the three lessons dealing with “where is the…” structure.  The language targets are fairly basic and do not tend to develop much beyond the present tense. However, the stated aim of the curriculum is to allow the students to say “anything they want”(e),  an ambitious claim and as past tense, future aspect and even plural nouns (among other items) are excluded, a seemingly unlikely one. 

It is also quite limited for a 6 year language course.  If the material can be mixed and matched as the website claims then it seems that students are not expected to move much beyond acquiring a very basic grasp of the language. The example six year plan by Joel Bacha, featured on the site seems to bear this out.  Graham notes that while others may see this as a weakness, he sees it as “a Challenge!  You can go anywhere you and your kids interests lie and teach things exactly to their level”(Graham g.)  This also seems in line with MEXT who suggests “Easy English conversation” as one of the aims of Elementary English (MEXT online)

As a young learner material supplier, comparison with Oxford’s six level “let’s go” series is interesting, as these feature much of the entire GE syllabus in the first book.  They also include plural nouns very early on (arguably useful for languages which lack these) and go on to more complex structures in the later books.  Let’s goincludes reading and writing, has numerous authors, with a great deal of experience teaching children, such as Ritsuko Nakata, president of the IIEEC.  It also has a reader series which complements the textbooks, flashcards and picture dictionaries. Therefore it is apparent that Japan is not lacking resources or experience regarding the teaching of children.

 Does GE Work?

Although it is perhaps unfair to criticise what is essentially a publicity website it is unavoidable as there is no other published material relating to GE.  There are quite a number of questionable claims made on the site, for example:

Simply by deciding to do the song gives you a huge advantage as it sets a goal, something the kids can work towards. A goal properly set is one half reached. It means whereas usually you could teach 3 or 4 answers to a question in one lesson, you can now do 7 or 8 (Graham d).

First is the rather odd claim that setting a goal is half way to reaching it.  Second is the claim that people usually teach three or four answers to questions in a lesson.  It is difficult to be entirely sure what this means or if Graham actually has some data pertaining to “number of answers usually taught in English lessons”.  Regardless, according to Graham  a teacher can now do nearly twice as much!

A further problem with this approach is although Graham admits GE is not original, he seems to be suggesting here that introducing songs into a children’s English class is innovative.  With the huge number of children’s English textbooks, games, flash cards and CDs available it seems quite improbable that this really could be the key to GE’s success, or even something that English teachers are not already aware of.  Moreover, the GE materials themselves are largely produced by Graham and are arguably less ‘polished’ than most published materials. The songs are also written and performed by Graham whereas the “let’s go” series, for example includes material performed and written by Jazz Chants series author Carolyn Graham.  It is of course possible that the rough-and-ready nature of the materials are attractive to young children. I have personally used some of the CDs, with very young children, and they enjoyed them at lot.

The most serious problem though is with claims relating to the effectiveness of the method.  Graham claims the materials work “very, very well” (c) but it is not at all clear what “work” means in this sentence.  Do they, for example, work in creating an enjoyable learning environment? Or do they work in helping inexperienced teachers navigate the perils of Elementary school classes or do they actually lead to students learning English?  It is impossible to know as there is no published material relating to their effectiveness. 

Graham does address this issue on his web page noting “Of course we all know Genki English works great because we see it every time on the kids’ faces” (2009).  He continues by noting that this level of evidence is not sufficient for some, such as BOEs and head teachers (what misers!).  He then claims research has been carried out by the University of Newcastle, into the effectiveness of the approach and that the results appeared positive. Though the research is not available yet and so I can’t comment on it here. More recently the GE web page carries the logo Researched by Harvard University Graduate School of Education though what this is supposed to signify, I’m not entirely sure.   

Graham also suggests that “although the ideas on these pages are all fun and exciting they do correlate very well with current practise and language theory” (c) but fails to indicate what language theory and practices these are. There are also no sources of research or theory quoted on the site, an admission he explains by stating “there are three basic reasons why I don’t quote direct sources on the site” (c).  These are (1) that there is, according to Graham, little credible research in the field of applied linguistics but that what does exist supports GE (2), that the techniques were “tested on students”, with unsuccessful ideas being abandoned  and (3) that:

A lot of the methodology behind Genki English is taken from my own experience and research of many years into various different fields, from science teaching to advertising. Much of this consisted of reading articles and books that I cannot now trace or in discussions with a great many people, most of which were never recorded (Graham c).

There may well be little solid research in language teaching. Regardless, that is not a good reason for notdoing research.  It would have been useful to have links to the material referred to which supports GE, however the third point perhaps explains why these are missing. The second claim makes rather liberal use of the word test.  It also underlines a fundamental problem with  the GE approach, namely the idea that, since  it seems to work (whatever “work” means here) it works.  The reasonresearch exists is precisely because humans are notoriously good at reachingconclusions beneficial to themselves. 

As to the third, if current research is not credible it seems unlikely reading it would have helped to inform a theory.Though it seems that perhaps what was read was more eclectic and unfortunately unavailable. Graham also claims that “English stands up to any educational scrutiny”(Graham f) though again it is tempting to wonder, with the supposed paucity of research, what exactly this is supposed to mean. It is also questionable as to whether a claim like this, made by the creator of a method and with no empirical peer reviewed studies to back it up, can be taken seriously.

In a different section Graham claims that speaking and listening are focused on because “There’s no point starting reading or writing till the kids can actually talk in English” and that “I’m sure you’ve all seen what happens when things are done the opposite way round”(Graham e).  This is a point made with some conviction and it would be interesting to know how this conclusions was reached and what the dire consequences of starting the wrong way round are.  Could a teacher not start all of the skills at the same time?  In the same section Graham suggests that speaking is the “biggest challenge” for almost “every country in the world” which again, seems like a rather definitive claim to make in the absence of any supporting evidence. Speaking from personal experience, certainly among Arab students the reverse is quite often true.

The Reason GE Exists

GE can perhaps be seen as a product of poor language policy at the governmental level. Routinely ALTs with no teaching experience have been and continue to be instructed to teach English in Japanese Elementary schools with little guidance as to what to teach and how to teach it.  On the GE website Graham notes, in the “what are we supposed to be teaching in Japanese elementary schools” section, that “Nobody has really decided” (Graham g) and adds that the website was originally set up precisely because he had encountered this problem. It should be noted that Graham was not a language specialist tasked with creating a syllabus for the whole of Japan but rather a young ALT with no language teaching experience. It is somewhat depressing to realise that this was over 10 years ago and the situation in Japan has not improved since then. 

The lack of a clear syllabus in GE as noted above is reflected in the complete lack of a syllabus in the MEXT guidelines. Therefore any criticism of GE should be seen in the light of this fact.  However, despite the usefulness of GE for ALTs who find themselves in the situation described above, the appropriateness of the introduction of this approach into different contexts, such as state run schools in Thailand in conjunction with the British Council has to be wondered about.   

The Thai Connection

To his credit, Graham donated materials to the Thai MOE, through the British Council. The British council in Thailand chose to approach him on the basis that there was a “strong positive response from learners and teachers”, not because they had any evidence that these methods worked or were suitable to the particular context  (Budsaprapat, T personal communication 13 August 2009 and 27 August 2009).The British Council has gone on to license the use of GE in 15 of its teaching centres worldwide, giving an untested and limited method considerable legitimacy.

Conclusion

There is arguably a gap between what committed EFL professionals would like the EFL world to be like and what it actually is like. It seems counterintuitive that a method, like GE, created by one young teacher trying to survive elementary school English classes, supported by little evidence of efficacy, and employing largely homemade materials should become the choice teaching method of millions of teachers around the world even being adopted by governments and institutions such as the British Council.  This is perhaps a reflection on the EFL world as a whole. Is a method that suggests children’s English lessons be energetic and enjoyable really a revolutionary concept for English teachers?

I personally believe that GE is, at its core well intention and enjoyable for teachers and students.  However, I would like to think that methods exist and are used because of their merits and not merely because children seem to enjoy doing them. Language education should absolutely be enjoyable for students but that is not enough.  Students pay to learn and so should be taught with the best methods and materials available.I congratulate the entrepreneurial spirit of GE but am somewhat alarmed by its growth and acceptance. GE may make children and teachers feel good but is that enough?

references

Graham. R, (n.d.a). British Council press release: Genki English now part of Thailands official teaching materials . In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/teaching/british-council-press-release-genki-english-now-part-of-thailands-official-teaching-materials.

Graham. R, (n.d.b). What is “Genki English.com”?  In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/about.htm

Graham. R, (n.d.c). The History of the Genki English methodology. part 1 . In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/theory.htm

Graham. R, (n.d.d). How to teach Genki English Songs -> Games -> Projects. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/songsgamesprojects.htm

Graham. R, (n.d.e). GenkiEnglish.com Curriculum /Lesson Plans. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/curriculum.htm

Graham. R, (n.d.f). PHDs. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/teaching/phds

Graham. R, (n.d.g). what are we supposed to be teaching in Japanese elementary schools In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/whatteach.htm

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

MEXT(n.d.) 小学校における英語教育についてin文部科学省 Retrieved May 7 2012, from
http://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/shingi/chukyo/chukyo3/004/siryo/05080401/004_2.htm