Woo watch: Science / fiction

I wrote about Carol Black’s attempts to discredit opponents of learning styles as racists and sexists hereBlack’s piece troubled me not just for it’s unpleasant accusations but also because a number of sensible people told me they thought her argument was compelling. I think I understand why they think this. Black was a writer for The Ellen Show and ‘The Wonder Years‘, both very successful US TV shows. She is clearly a very talented writer. I think that some commentators are possible confusing ‘well written’ with ‘well argued’. These are very different things. 

There are at times some interesting observations in the piece but what there is is obscured by the poor reasoning Black employs to make her case. In fact Black’s piece can be used to illustrate a number of well-known cognitive fallacies and techniques which are commonly used to make persuasive looking arguments in lieu of evidence. I will examine these in detail below. 

Teach the controversy

A popular technique of creationists who want to force their views on school kids despite not having any empirical support is to demand that teachers ‘teach the controversy‘. Unreasonable demands to include religion in science class are presented as merely teaching kids the ‘full range of scientific views’ and who could argue with that? The problem is that presenting things like climate change or evolution as a two sided debate is to seriously misrepresent the weight of evidence on each side. 


to be clear, I don’t think what Black advocates is anything like creationism. The point is merely that the tactics are the same. Black wants us to teach the learning styles controversy. She accepts that there are “are extremely reputable scientists on both sides of this debate”. She’s just asking for a fair hearing -and who could object to that?

The problem is that Black has already made up her mind and no amount of evidence is going to convince her otherwise. So what we see in her post is the pulling on of any strand, no matter how unpleasant, in order to bolster her preconceived beliefs. In short, this is a masterclass in motivated reasoning

Despite claiming there are reputable scientists on both sides, she is happy to make the argument that ‘debunkers’ are mostly men talking down to women. She ignores the fact that her 1/3 of the panel of “respected scientists and education researchers” who agree with her, are also male. She also ignores female researchers, like Lethaby and Harris or Rogowsky, Calhoun and Tallalall women and all ‘debunkers’ of learning styles. This omission is particularity ironic in a section in which she is complaining about Willingham “failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views.”

So does the existence of researchers who still carry out research into learning styles mean it’s wrong to say to say LS shouldn’t be dismissed? There are two problems:


1) There are lots of researchers in education who continue to promote the idea of learning styles. In my field, for instance, some of the most famous in fact; Hyland, Oxford, Nunan, Brown, Richards and so on. There had been no articles in the ELT research literature which were critical of the idea of learning styles, until 2015 when researchers published a critical piece. since then pieces continue to be published promoting learning styles. The pro v anti count is, I would guess, about 100:1 at this point. This tells us exactly nothing about the veracity of the claims of these writers. 

2) Black implies that as some researchers have published on topic X then topic X is still up for debate. To try to show the problem with this idea, here are a few examples of recently published papers. 

  • Another paper suggesting graphology might help with depression. Again this was published in 2018 in a journal with an actual impact factor. Does this mean the debate about handwriting analysis is still ongoing? No, it does not. 

The homeopathy example is especially interesting in light of this tweet. 


Black bristles against the idea that LS should be considered on a par with  something like homeopathy yet the identical arguments she makes for LS could be made for homeopathy.  As noted above, legitimate researchers in good institutions continue to research homeopathy and publish their results in fairly reputable journals. 

So why is Black so dismissive? Why is she “failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views” about homeopathy? The answer is that Black has an ideological investment in the idea of learning styles that she does not have in homeopathy. Science and evidence only matter to her when they can be usefully marshalled to defend things that align with her worldview. 

This is a frequent feature of Black’s work. In another article she dismisses all the research evidence about phonics teaching because her home-schooled daughter didn’t seem to like the approach. It should go without saying that anecdotal evidence is not good evidence. Black writes:  

The “scientific consensus” about phonics, generated by a panel convened by the Bush administration and used to justify billions of dollars in government contracts awarded to Bush supporters in the textbook and testing industries…

Science is “science” when Black disagrees with it. When in produces results she agrees with it becomes plain old science again. Note too in this quote that Black attempts to poison the well by linking phonics to the educational boo words of ‘textbooks’ and ‘testing’. That Bush convened a panel and that billions of dollars were awarded to various companies tells us very little about whether the conclusions of the research were valid or not. I do not know very much about phonics research but if Black wanted to persuade me she was right, a few links to good research would do far more than innuendo and smear. Learning that Einstein was a racist does not mean E no longer equals Mc2. 

Argument from popularity 

Black claims that because a lot of people believe in learning styles there must be something to them. She writes that ‘Most people believe they exist, of course (including the vast majority of teachers)’ but does not provide any evidence for this claim. She is, as it turns out, correct as Dekker et al (2012) and others have shownBlack is not the first to make the claim that popularity indicates validity. Hatami and Stobart have both made that argument in ELT literature. 

The problem with this argument, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, is that believing something doesn’t make it true and increasing the number of people who believe in a thing does nothing to increase the possibility that it is true. A lot of (the same) people who believe in learning styles, believe in left brain and right brain learning. They also believe that humans only use 10% of their brains. A huge number of people believe in the Christian God and an equal amount believe in Allah. They cannot both be right. Should we look into penis theft or Korean fan death if enough people believe in these phenomena? 
The retort to this is usually to claim that those things ‘are different’ somehow and learning styles is more credible. Those wishing to make that argument should therefore tell us exactly which popular views should be taken serious and which ones should not and what criteria we are to use to know the difference. Black could start by telling us why, despite its popularity, she is so dismissive of homeopathy? 


Argument from authority 

Another technique that Black employs is the argument from authority. Authors who agree with her are “respected scientists and education researchers” with “legitimate competing views”. Whereas most of those who criticise learning styles are mentioned only by name, her favoured researchers are presented in their full academic pomp:

Li-Fang Zhang, editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Education Psychology
…And, as it happens, the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology chapter on “Cognitive Styles” by Harvard researcher Maria Kozhevnikov says the same thing. Researchers Carol Evans (University of Southampton), Elena Grigorenko (Yale), Stephen Kosslyn (Keck Graduate Institute), and Robert Sternberg (Cornell), agree.

No mention of  ‘Daniel Willingham (Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia). Instead his ilk are “male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational”, “patronising” and speaking with a “paternal [sic] tone”. The attempt to discredit learning style pundits by reference to their gender is of course also an ad hominem as their maleness (or whiteness or whatever) has no bearing on the truth of learning styles. 


Burden of proof 
Black attempts to dismiss Willingham and Pashler’s work as being too simplistic and thus not capable of showing the reality of complex creativity classrooms. The issue with this position is the following:

  • Person A claims that learning styles are real and can help with students learning. 
  • Person B tests this claim and finds it false 
  • Person A says the tests were not sensitive enough to find the results 
  • Person B tests again with more sensitive tests and still finds it false
  • Person A says the tests were STILL not sensitive enough to find the results

Can you prove there isn’t a teapot orbiting the sun? It’s too small to be seen by telescopes but I’m sure it’s there. Prove me wrong! This analogy is known as Russell’s teapot and Bertrand Russell proposed it to show that the burden of proof rests with the person making the claim. At what point should person A accept the responsibility to provide evidence for the claim they are making? If no tool is sensitive enough to measure the effects of learning styles in the classroom on what basis can they be said to be useful?


Conclusion 

Black claims she wants to DISMANTLE arguments that learning styles are a myth. If she really wanted to do this she could have simply done, or linked to, good experimental research showing the effectiveness of the approach. Instead she has marshalled arguments from authority, popularity, and has attempted to discredit opponents with accusations of racism and sexism. What’s clear is that research and academia are tools and props for Black to further promote her worldview. For her, citations are so much cargo cult academic decoration.  


When Black is building her case against ‘debunkers’ she writes that people like me argue that “cognitive biases, emotions, denial, irrationality, etc., are what prevent untrained people from accepting this conclusive body of scientific data.” Ironically, in this case, she’s absolutely right. 

Arguments by other means

A few weeks ago a post by Carol Black defending the use of learning styles was making the rounds on twitter. I say defending but in reality it was more of an attack on those criticising learning styles. People like me. 

I have a number of issues with Black’s post which I will get into another time, however the most problematic part of her essay is that she attempts to discredit critics of learning styles by tying criticism to unpopular social/political positions. This can be seen, for example in the title of her piece:
Science / Fiction
‘Evidence-based’ education, scientific racism, & how learning styles became a myth.

From the title onward, Black explicitly attempts to link critics of learning styles with racism. This is not an attempt to argue that the evidence itself is weak (a legitimate position) or that more researcher needs to be done. She is simply trying to make those who disagree with her seem unsavoury. Debunkers of learning styles, she writes, are “are finding their way, step by step, back to their institutional origins in scientific racism”. Now call me old fashioned but surely we should reserve the term ‘racist’ for, you know, actual racists? Of course, Black never explicitly calls critics, racist. She doesn’t need to, the accusation is enough. Arguing from the position of ‘this is why I’m not a racist’ is not a good look for anyone. 

And what if you think learning styles is bunk but don’t think you’re a racist? Well, no fear! Black has this angle covered too, noting:
We should all know by now that structural racism can operate unconsciously, through unquestioned assumptions that have a racist impact without the oppressor intending or even being aware of the oppression.

Sexism 

In the same article she also unsubtly suggests that those who are dubious about learning styles are, by and large, men bullying women. This is, as Ashman has shown, entirely untrue. It is also untrue for TEFL where the only article in the literature really critical about learning styles was written by two women (most male academics who have published on the topic are generally supportive). 
Considering the author claims, that learning styles critics are trying to ‘bully’, ‘shame’ and ‘intimidate’ others, it seems astonishing that she would choose these tactics to make her argument. Black is, I think, aware of how bad this looks and so when challenged on this point continually denies it. 

On twitter, in response to Ashman’s piece, she writes “Greg has misrepresented my views in his piece. There are reputable & rigorous scientists, both male and female, on both sides of this debate…” which seems a strange statement to make when her piece contains the claim that:
A disturbing feature of this discourse in education is the frequency with which it takes the form of male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational and should therefore be disregarded. 
Her earlier twitter comments also make this statement hard to believe. She previously dismissed Willingham’s work on learning styles as ‘mansplaining‘ and issuing ‘edicts to (mostly female) teachers’. 

Again, compare this stated opinion of Willingham with later backtracking when challenged by Ashman. 

Is it possible to be respectful and a ‘mansplainer’? 











The attempt to smear critics of learning styles continues when Black, through a series of convoluted arguments, arrives at the conclusion that:
when the debunkers double down on their claim that LEARNING STYLES DON’T EXIST, they are doubling down on the claim that the children who don’t perform well in traditional instructional settings are in fact just less intelligent.
The logic here is that if a child is not doing well in traditional settings and we discount learning styles then the only explanation must be that the child is less intelligent. Black presents no evidence for this conclusion. Could there be other factors which affect a student’s progress? teacher qualitypeersFamily? Not according to Black.  Any argument that will cast learning styles critics in a bad light is marshaled by Black regardless of how tenuously constructed it is. 

The more general point of this post is to say that I think this kind of ‘tactic’ in argument isn’t helpful. Black isn’t the only person who has attempted to discredit ideas based not on their merit but on some of factor, such as who said it or what accepting it might mean. 

We ought to be generous in our assumptions about intent or we risk creating a toxic environment. Accusations such as these can also be a double edged sword. Looking at her blog, how easy would it be to construct an argument that Black, with her frequent uncritical promotion of various tribal practises, actually fetishises minorities? From here it’s a hop, skip and a jump to ‘Orientalism‘, essentialising minorities, the ‘noble savage‘ and then, right back to racism. But to do this would be wrong. 


Black’s arguments about education, like all arguments, should be judged on their merits, not on assumptions about her intentions. Black would do better to start from the assumption that critics of learning styles actually just don’t think the evidence shows they work. That would be the charitable thing to do. 

boooooo! hurrah!

Penn and Teller‘s show ‘Bullshit was a favourite of mine. Every week they debunked commonly held beliefs from 12-step-programs to cryptozoology. In one particular episode they asked people to sign a petition to ban Dihydrogen monoxide -a substance found in ‘pesticides, baby food and the water supply’.

Hundreds of people signed up to demand the government ban H2O, more commonly known as water. So why would someone want to ban water? Probably because it was presented to them as a scary sounding chemical and ‘chemical’ is for many people a ‘boo’ word. 

‘Boo’ words, and their opposite ‘Hurrah’ words come from an old theory called Emotivism which holds that “ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes”. I’m not too concerned about the philosophical theory but I rather like the notion of boo and hurrah words. Put simply boo words are things that are just accepted as bad, and hurrah words, the opposite. When we hear ‘Chemical’ we mentally relegate it to the pantomime villain category and boo accordingly. 

So what are boo and hurrah words in education? Swan noted that:

the applied linguistic equivalents of democracy and motherhood – include ‘learner-centred’, ‘meaning based’, ‘holistic’, ‘discourse’, ‘discovery’, ‘process’, ‘interaction’, ‘negotiation’ and ‘strategy’. On the other side of the communicative fence, concepts related to ‘bad’ pedagogic attitudes felt to be discredited and undesirable include ‘teacher-dominated’, ‘form-based’, ‘discrete’, ‘sentence-level’, ‘transmission model’, ‘product’, memorization’, ‘repetition’, and ‘drill’. (2009:167). 

I would probably add ‘testing’ and ‘textbooks’ to this list. These words are often placed in ‘boo’ or ‘hurrah’ boxes and there they linger with little examination. And it’s not just ELT, as a comment on the now defunct ‘Web of Substance‘ blog wryly notes:

I am disappointed in you as well Harry. You should know by now that, in polite education society you label your OWN ideas as “authentic”, “innovative”, “Child-centred” and “21st Centruy” so that when anyone disagrees they are, essentially, arguing for a counterfeit, old-fashioned, child-hating, Victorian education. 

We often take our views ‘off-the-peg’, after all, none of us really have the time to go and read up on every single subject which may concern usWhat, for instance, is the link between wanting relaxed gun laws and thinking climate change is a hoax? Seemingly nothing, and yet (American) people with one of these views will often have the other. Have these people really reasoned out the pros and cons of each side, or have they adopted the views of the ‘tribe’ they most identify with? 

What this boils down to is ideology. Once we choose an ideology to follow, be it socialism, Islamism or environmentalism, we reshape reality to fit that frame. A petition to ban a chemical? Sure, where do I sign!


Is this a problem? As long as our chosen ideology is sound, the views that follow will also be sound, won’t they? Perhaps. But I’m uncomfortable, for two reasons. 

Firstly, our views are often unexamined. I can’t speak for other teachers, but I often find a lot of the TEFL discourse confusing because I can never sure the terms people are using mean the same thing to them as they do to me.  

Take for instance the discussion on PowerPoint on the Minimal Pair podcast. One of the presenters said something about trying to avoid using PowerPoint because they’re so ‘teacher centric’. Thassumption in this statement is that ‘teacher centric’ (whatever that means) is bad and should be avoided. I kept thinking, ‘are they teacher centric and if they are is that a problem?’ 

Secondly, we’ve seen this go wrong before. Learning styles rode an ideological wave to success. It is an appealing notion to imagine that every learner has their own special abilities and if we just teach them in the right way, tapping into their unique ‘intelligence’ they will flourish. It’s certainly more appealing than the notion that some people are just smarter than others and will do better than them no matter what we do. Learning styles is attractive, ideologically, but unfortunately its not true. 

Alan Waters, who passed away recently, wrote several articles examining ideology in applied linguistics noting that “a good deal of its discourse promotes or proscribes language teaching ideas on the basis of ideological belief rather than pedagogical value.” A view supported by 40 years of learning styles promotion. Dana Ferris, who is perhaps the leading scholar in written error correction notes that, on largely ideological grounds “composition theorists have for decades ignored, minimized, or even openly disparaged any issues related to error treatment in writing courses.” (2011:61) And Hyland suggests that although process approaches to writing may be appealing there is little hard evidence that they actually lead to significantly better writing in L2 contexts.” (2003:17-8)

These examples make me wonder, what teaching practices we are currently being ignoring because they don’t fit our ideology. And likewise, what teaching practices are popular because they appeal to our world view? Is a teacher-centric lesson bad because it limits learning, makes students unhappy and is boring, or is it because it’s ‘authoritarian’ and ‘traditional’ while we are modern, democratic, freedom loving sorts? Is there a difference between claiming you teach in a ‘a learner-centric, communicative way using only authentic materials’ and say claiming that you only eat ‘organic, gluten free, locally sourced, food?’

Walters wrote several papers on this theme, taking quite an extreme position at times. He claimed, for instance that the EFL world engages in a kind of Orewelian ‘newspeak’ where unacceptable views are supressed  and only, “approved’ ways of thinking, such as in the use of the term ‘authentic’” are acceptable. (2015) He argued that getting rid of textbooks or advocating learner autonomy or ELF are not just pedagogical choices, but markers of right thinking people

And perhaps he has a point. Are textbooks disliked more because they present materials in pedagogically unsound ways or because they are written by large companies who make lots of money? Arguably it’s a bit of both. So how do we stop ideology slipping into our teaching? I think it’s important to carefully scrutinise our beliefs. The first step would be making sure we have a clear and accurate definition of what it is we’re talking about. Take autonomy for instance, most teachers would consider it a good thing but as Mike Swan noted at a recent talk, while autonomy can certainly be good, the logical end point of autonomy, is no teacher. 

Next, we need to examine our biases, -what would we like to be true. I correct my students mistakes in class. Therefore I hope that that helps them learn. If I found out it didn’t help them, -even hindered them, I’m likely to feel pretty bad about that. Therefore, I have a vested interest in trying to find data that back that view up. I’ll also fight harder against, and examine closer articles which contradict that view.

Lastly, we should ask ourselves what our beliefs about teaching are based on. Do you teach the way you do because it’s the way you were taught to teach, or because it’s how everyone else teaches? What reason do you have to believe the things you do and more importantly, what would it take to change your mind. If the answer to the former is ‘I just know’ or ‘common sense’ and the answer to the latter ‘nothing’ then what you are describing is dogma. 

A chemical like H2O may save your life or, like H2O2 it might be poisonous. Chemicals themselves are not inherently bad, and H2O2 is excellent for dying hair while water may drown you.  


Woo watch: the minimal pair

I’ve always wanted there to be a good TEFL podcast on itunes, then two appeared at once. TEFLology and The Minimal Pair. Initially I was excited by this but recent episodes of the minimal pair have left me rather disappointed.  

Their most recent show touched on ‘grammar snobs’, something I have a keen interest in. From two university educators, I expected,  an enjoyable and thorough debunking of silly prescriptivist rules. Alas the hosts seemed keener to stress that people ought to ‘know the rules before they break them’ and further stressed how important it was for people to ‘follow the rules’. There was never any discussion of why ‘the rules’ are rules or whether they should be rules at all. One of the hosts seemed a little distraught that Steven Pinker had recently suggested we don’t need to worry that much about ‘dangling modifiers‘ and said ‘there goes my lesson plan for next week’. -A lesson on dangling modifiers? (O_o)

Oddly ‘the pair’ defined prescriptive grammar as ‘the real technical rules’ and descriptive grammar as ‘just making yourself understood’. This to me showed something of a lack of understanding of these terms, particularly when one host spent much of the segment relating descriptive grammar to ‘textspeak‘ and saying of it ‘if you’re in some sort of emergency state and you need to make yourself understood, then whatever’. 

Descriptive grammar (or more properly descriptive linguistics) is just recording  the way people actually communicate. Prescriptive grammar is the way one particular group believes everyone should communicate. One sentence can be viewed differently by both groups. 

For example, with my family I, like many British people, say things like ‘where’s me coat gone‘. Descriptive linguistics would suggest that ‘me’ is used as a possessive by some people in some situations instead of the more standard ‘my’. Prescriptive grammarians would tell you that ‘me’ is just ‘wrong’ here and you should stop saying it. Obviously there is a place for both of these approaches, but prescriptivism tends to be the one people take to heart. Humans, for reasons I can’t work out, adore being told what ‘the rules‘ are and enjoy even more the delicious thrill of telling others that they’re ‘getting it wrong’. 

This prescriptivism love-in though, would not normally be enough to land them in the woo watch column. In a later section, when ‘the pair’ discuss the pros and cons of using PowerPoint to teach, one of them notes how good PowerPoints can be for…you guessed it…visual learners! Apparently, “some students just learn better when they have an image presented to them.” It was with great dismay that I heard the host refer listeners back to a special they’d done on visual learners so back I went, and listen I did 

Now I’ve heard podcast episodes on learning styles before, but this went one further. They presented a segment on both audio learners and visual learners and promised an future episode on kinesthetic learners. were these really the same people who were suggested the use of PowerPoint to teach was controversial? 

So there you have it; prescriptivism and learning styles all in one podcast. Oh ‘minimal pair’ why must you taunt me!  Later in the episode one of the hosts noted how important it was to teach critical thinking. I couldn’t agree more. 

Oh Beware the ladder of inference!

He didn’t reply to my email. It’s been over a week!

Maybe the tone was rude or perhaps I should have written ‘Dr.’ Perhaps now he thinks I’m a really rude person? He looked at that email and thought ‘Jesus, this guy is a real amateur’. The request was so stupid he was insulted by it. That’s probably it. I’ve probably insulted him. Why else wouldn’t he reply? I’m such an idiot! I need to write to him and apologise right away. 

My slightly crap rendering of the ladder of inference
This type of thinking is called climbing the ‘ladder of inference’ a concept developed by Chris Argylis which helps to explain why very small things can  often get blown out of all proportion. For instance, in the above example all that happened is that someone didn’t reply to an email. That is the only ‘fact’ here. Everything else is perception, assumptions and (probably) mistaken conclusions. The person in question might just be busy or on holiday, who knows? The ladder of inference is a product of our incredible brains which are designed to infer meaning where meaning is not always explicit (or doesn’t exist at all). 

For example, if someone in your family shouts ‘door’ at you, after the doorbell goes, they’re not just randomly shouting words, instead they’re informing you that they’d very much like for you to go and open the door. 

But this talent for spotting what’s ‘really’ going on, doesn’t always work well in online discussions. The ladder can at times work to colour our views before we have all the facts. For example, after watching my talk on pseudoscience, one commenter wrote:

You seem to support traditional teaching. Any new technique needs a licence. …Nowadays, you have to focus on the learner.

When climbing the ladder you start with real evidence, that is ‘He doesn’t supports learning styles’. From there you move to selected data and experience ‘old-fashioned teachers don’t use learning styles’. Next you affix meaning ‘he must be an old fashioned teacher’ and make an assumption ‘old fashioned teachers aren’t interested in students, they are teacher-centric and don’t value individuality’ and then act on these beliefs ‘I can disregard this opinion because the teacher is not progressive and doesn’t care about students.’

The talk mentions nothing whatsoever about my preferred teaching method or my view on ‘traditional teaching’ or ‘learner-centred’ approaches. Yet this commenter is already half-way up the ladder. The inference here is that my dismissal of neuromyths must mean that I basically want kids sitting in silence while I crush their individuality and stomp all over their creativity. This is a shame since my lessons are actually filled with rainbow-coloured unicorns.



Intelligence test

Reading the latest issue of ETP this week I came across and article describing how to use multiple intelligences in the classroom. As I read the article two things struck me. The first was the incredible regularity with which ETP runs articles featuring somewhat whacky approaches. There were articles on learning styles (for examples Rosenberg 2011, Rosenberg 2013) Multiple intelligences (Fletcher 1996, Puchta  2005, Puchta 2006, Hoogstad 2008, Berman 2010, Hamilton 2011)  a surprising number related to NLP (see, for example, Revell and Norman 1997, Revell and Norman 1998, Owen 1999, Owen 2000, Owen 2001, Rinvolucri 2002, Fahey 2004, Baker & Rinvolucri 2005, Rosenberg 2008, Zoeftig 2012) and even a four part series on something called “spiral dynamics” by NLP trainer and master practitioner Nick Owen. Now don’t get me wrong, ETP publishes some great stuff, like recent articles by Rachel Roberts but considering the, shall we say, credibility problems with many of these approaches, they do seem to be very interested in devoting a lot of space to them.

The second thing was that despite all the talk of catering to students individual needs and so forth the actual activities described so often amount to the relabelling of standard practice as something quite exotic and revolutionary. Take the article I just finished reading for example. It describes activities you can use to cater for your students different intelligences. One such activity is getting students to write an email to their friends or a family member about a trip they took around the US. This may seem like a pretty regular TEFL activity but in fact, as the author points out, this will help students who have strong ‘intrapersonal intelligence’. Another has students teaching each other how to dance, which in turn caters to ‘bodily kinaesthetic intelligence’.

All of this reminded me of reading Mario Rinvolucri’s book on NLP. In it the authors seem to  list altogether mundane teaching activities, like a dictation listening and then under PRS focus (the NLP version of VAK) it would say “auditory”. I was quite surprised to learn that quite commonplace TEFL activities were actually NLP techniques!  You can play this game at home if you want, simply think of an activity, any activity in the classroom and apply a woo-woo label to it. ‘Grammar auction’ -students listen, so it goes under ‘auditory’ right? Hangman? Well they’re looking at the board so, visual it is. ‘Find someone who…’? – intrapersonal/linguistic (if you’re a fan of MI) or kinesthetic if you’re more into learning styles.

Of course someone always has to spoil the fun. In the  ETP article, The author suggests getting students to teach each other dance steps to work on their ‘bodily-kinesthetic intelligence’. twenty years earlier, commenting on this kind of classroom application one educator noted that he was “leery of implementations such as … believing that going through certain motions activates or exercises specific intelligences” (1999:90). And who was this anti-educational party-pooper? Howard Gardner, inventor of MI theory.

For more about MI check the great Kerr article on the 6 things website and the ensuing discussion or check this excellent page.

THE LAMENTABLE GULF BETWEEN RESEARCH AND PRACTICE IN ELT AS ELSEWHERE

So this is my first ever guest blog. Simon Andrewes (@simonbandrewes), who wrote a response to my learning styles piece has now written a reponse to my previous response to his response(?). Simon has a huge amount of experience teaching and has written acrticles for MET, ETP and HLT. He has very kindly given me permission to post this here. It’s a good read -Enjoy (^_^)
 
 
[IN REPLY TO THE IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH, Russell Mayne. MET 22.4. Oct 2013. 53-55]
 
Russell Mayne wrote about research in MET22.2 and in particular about Learning Style (LS) theory, for which, he insisted, there was no evidential support. I replied in MET22.3 saying I found a “weak” version of LS theory to be useful for my teaching practice. In MET22.4 Russell criticised my position on various fronts, so I would like an opportunity to defend and clarify it.
 
The significant divide between English language theorists and teachers that Russell says I “further reinforce” – whereas in fact all I do is observe it – is hardly a controversial issue and indeed Russell himself provides quotes from two highly respected theoretician-practitioners, Scott Thornbury and Henry Widdowson, that back me up. I feel flattered and partially vindicated by the good company I find myself in.
Russell takes me to task on several fronts:
1.       I do not recognise the complexity of the research-practice problem;
2.       My argument is based on a fantasy in which I set up straw man villains against noble teachers;
3.       I dismiss research without the bother of having to do it or read it;
4.       I use my lengthy classroom experience to position myself as the voice of authority, which is tantamount to an “anything goes”  attitude to teaching;
5.       I make too much of the weak version of LS which may be true but is at the same time obvious, uncontroversial and un-noteworthy;
6.       I mix up LS and MI (Multiple Intelligences) theory.  
 1.       I confess I was writing entirely from a teacher’s point of view. I was not trying to view the problem objectively from all sides but was giving voice to a disillusion with theory that I have observed among colleagues, theory that is often perceived as imposed and lacking a comprehensive understanding of our practice. I also confess to sharing their disillusion for much the same reasons that they expressed.
 2.       I identify myself first and foremost as a teacher, not a noble one, more of a run-of-the-mill dogged practitioner. I do not see my “villains” as straw men as their influence is only too real. I might categorise the villains into two types: those who are in the pay of publishers and promoting their materials in a way that often comes across as facile, a sort of panacea for difficult classroom situations; and those who advance classroom methodologies that are remote and clearly not based on a study and analysis of actual classroom practice.
3.       So Russell is right in saying I dismiss research but he is rather unkind in saying I do so without the bother of having to do it or read it myself. In fact, I enjoy research and think it can be useful in its own right, without any direct reference to classroom practice. Indeed, this kind of research may be the most valuable in its disinterest in proving or disproving practical considerations. I would challenge Russell’s implication that it is a bother to carry out research and think it can be a privilege, or a pleasure. Just as teaching can be.
4.       In dismissing research, I use my experience to position myself as the voice of authority, says Russell, backing up his argument with a quote from Widdowson’s Defining issues in English language teaching: “Teachers who claim to be simply practitioners with no interest in theory “conspire against their own authority, and against their own profession”.  Now, throw me a quote by Widdowson and I am likely to catch it in midair and swallow it down like a trained seal. I agree 100% with Widdowson’s argument, as I often do.
 When I write “nobody is better placed than the teacher to determine what will work in practice” I do not mean “anything goes”; I mean that that the teacher is in a position to apply critical and reflective thinking to teaching practice in order to evaluate it. As a teacher I am conscious of the limited and in many ways limiting vision of the classroom. What happens in the classroom may indeed provide me with a too subjective and non-scientific view of the variety and diversity of practice in classrooms across the world. Evidence from the classroom is too restricted by the confines of its four walls to make too many generalisations from.
5.       Moving on to the essence of the LS debate, Russell says the weak version amounts to nothing more than saying different students have different study preferences but there is no evidence that people learn better if they get information through a preferred sensory channel.
Here Russell is talking about research evidence and seems to take it for granted that evidence from classroom practice doesn’t count. Yet, with Penny Ur (ETP issue 21 Oct2001Check It Out 5 – 8), I would insist that a or the primary and certainly a valid source of meaningful theory is that drawn from our own experience. Secondary (research/theoretical) sources can and should be drawn on to confirm or contradict conclusions for our teaching convictions that we reached via our primary source. As such, I find that the weak version of LS theory provides me with a check, a reminder that not everybody learns in the same way as I do and it makes me more sensitive to other learning paradigms. In fact, I am convinced I have built up evidence of this in classroom observations of the way learners learn.
As for the hard version of LS theory, I can happily agree with Russell when he says there is no research evidence to support it.
6.       Not only do I simplistically confuse LS with “study preferences”, to return to Russell’s critique, I mix up LS and MI theory, in which Howard Gardner – Russell tells us – redefines the concept of aptitudes as “intelligences”, and which also, apparently, lacks any scientific credibility.
I do not want to speak of scientific credibility, but I can see there are things in MI that serve a purpose. If different students have different aptitudes, then it seems reasonable to suppose those varying aptitudes will have some bearing on how they learn things. To follow up an example cited by Russell, I confess to crawling across the floor with the youngest learners I have taught and whether I was fostering “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” in doing so I cannot say. But did it work? Well, I think it might have, and we all enjoyed it and I certainly don’t think it got in the way of learning. I felt at that moment the child needed that crawling activity and would not have learnt so well without it. I would probably do it again, thinking I was furthering learning.
So, asks Russell finally, do I think we should teach according to our students’ star signs or the colour of their aura, as these have, in his words, as much credibility as the theories I am defending? Well, no, I don’t actually, because I have no primary evidence that these things work in practice. But I would not be loath to give them a go, if I saw a positive effect in it.
In conclusion, “experience is a good bet in the absence of evidence”, Russell concedes. But here, he shows he does not really value the primary evidence of the classroom. He is talking about the secondary evidence of the university, the ivory tower. And thus the gulf between classroom practice and theory is maintained by Russell’s reluctance to accept the classroom teacher’s ability to draw a directly meaningful theory from her own experience. And the two communities continue to talk past each other.

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

 

 

 

 

Thought terminating cliches

A: I think gay people should have the same rights to marry as straight people!

B: You say that but I’m a Christian and as such I believe that God created humans beings with the intention of them procreating. A good example of His wishes can be seen in the fact that the first two people he created, according to The Bible were a man and a woman. 

 

  Compare that with this:

A: I think gay people should have the same rights to marry as straight people!

B:  God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve

What’s great about this phrase (and there isn’t much) is that it neatly encapsulates a whole position in a short pithy phrase. It conveys a lot of information in a small space and solidifies thinking on a position. It can also be a good conversation stopper, -unless you have an equally neat retort. These phrase are an excellent way to avoid cognitive dissonance a good example would be the religious person who thanks god for surviving a serious disease, but when questioned why God allowed them to get the disease in the first place will say “God works in mysterious ways”. Job done. end of.

And don’t think I’m singling out the religious, everyone does this. For example, I’ve talked before about the nonsensical phrase “the exception that proves the rule“. It neatly ends a conversation (despite not making any sense). Other examples are the phrases “it’s political correctness gone mad!”, “I’m entitled to my opinion” and “Gun’s don’t kill people, people kill people!”. Recently I’ve discovered that these phrases are called ‘thought terminating cliches a phrase invented by Robert Jay Lifton who wrote:
The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis…for instance, the phrase “bourgeois mentality” is used to encompass and critically dismiss ordinarily troublesome concerns like the quest for individual expression, the exploration of alternative ideas, and the search for perspective and balance in political judgments.

Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China,

I’m glad I know the name because I’ve seen a lot of these phrases used when I talk to teachers about evidence in education. For example when I suggest that research might be useful I often hear “teaching is an art, not a science“. I’m not going to tackle this one in particularly because Daniel Willingham has already done so in this video.
One that I do want to look at is the idea that ‘context is king’ (also know as ‘think of the variables!’) in teaching. This is something I hear regularly expressed in sentiments like those expressed by Simon Andrewes in a recent comment on this blog. He mentions Kumaravadivelu and his idea of the “unique classroom” and notes that this means it is “practically impossible for teaching theory to apply to all cases.” He’s not the only one. I’ve heard many teachers claim that the most important thing is context and so research is a waste of time because the number of possible variables a context can bring will render any research invalid. It can’t be generalised to other classrooms because there are too many factors which relate to one classroom and one group of students in particular.  For this post, I will call this position ‘the argument from relativism‘.
 
Relativism is a very fashionable position in all kinds of fields, not just teaching. You’ll hear people tell you that ‘truth is relative’ and your truth is different from my truth, that there’s not objective truth and ‘everything’s relative.’ We also have moral relativism, which is equated by many with progressive thought, so different cultural practices are not objectively ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than things we do in the west, they are just ‘different’ but equally valid.
 
All of this generally comes from a good place and can be seen as a reaction to things like colonialism and racism where everything was seen through a lense of hierarchy with (usually) rich white straight Christian men at the top. The problem is, for all its good intentions, relativism is just plain wrong. As Nagel notes:
 

Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity — self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe. (the last word 1997:6)

That is, the statement that “everything is relative” must include itself. So either the statement itself is relative (and is therefore meaningless) or is an ‘objective’ fact, true about ‘everything’ in which case in contradicts itself. Nagel goes on to note the danger that relativism brings:
The worst of it is that subjectivism is not just an inconsequential intellectual flourish or badge of theoretical chic. It is used to deflect argument, or to belittle the pretensions of the arguments of others. Claims that something is without relativistic qualifications true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, risk being derided as expressions of a parochial perspective or form of life – not as a preliminary to showing that they are mistaken whereas something else is right, but as a way of showing that nothing is right and that instead we are all expressing our personal or cultural points of view. The actual result has been a growth in the already extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture and the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and social sciences, together with a refusal to take seriously, as anything other than first-person avowals, the objective arguments of others.(1997:5)
What I think Nagel gets at here, is the “thought terminating” nature of this phrase and the detrimental effect this has on arguments. Under the tyranny of relativism it becomes impossible to say that belief systems espousing hatred for gay people or promoting child brides are objectively ‘wrong’, that’s just your Western version of reality -don’t try to force it on other people.
 

Relativism has the same chilling effect on discussions of language teaching. Whenever the topic of research comes up, hands are quickly thrown into the air and the words “context” and “variables” appear and that’s that; everyone nods and the conversation moves on. Context absolutely must play a part in a teacher’s decision making process -but it’s not the only part. There is also truth. There are things we can learn which can apply to many, if not most contexts. despite the protestations of relativists all of our students have the same hardware in their heads -they all have brains and they all learn in exactly the same way.

 
The last sentence may have caused consternation about some teachers aware of another ‘thought terminating cliché’ namely that ‘every student learns in different ways’ but this is not quite the case. While all students like to study in different ways learning happens in the brain, in exactly the same way for everyone. A good analogy for this is Nuthall‘s statement that “We all have different food preferences…[but this] does not mean that the metabolic processes by which we digest and use food are different” (Nuthall, 2007:34) Since learners all possess a human brain, why would we not think there were some things we could generalise from one classroom to the next?
 
There is also another problem with the argument from relativism, which is to what extent do we apply it? Now sure, Japanese school kids may have slightly different needs from Spanish school kids but not all Japanese school kids need the same thing. A busy Tokyo high school may have different needs from a small rural high school. And when you really think about it, wouldn’t the male students, in both cases, have different needs to the female students? And all students have different levels of English and different aptitudes.  When you get right down to it, isn’t each individual student their own ‘unique classroom’ with its own needs, -and those needs may change from day to day, or hour to hour?

If this sounds ridiculous then remember that this is, in a sense, what humanistic ‘learner centred’ approaches already promote. Not only should you know each student’s individual level but also whether they are visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners, whether they are ‘power planners, expert investigators, radical reformers or flexible friends’ (Rosenberg 2012) Whether they are left brained or right brained thinkers, and which is their dominant intelligence. You might also consider what their preferred representational system is and just how emotionally intelligent they are. This presents (not including first language, age, sex, level and aptitude) around around 1080 (3x4x2x9x5) different possible combinations. 

This doesn’t seem to faze teachers though who manage somehow, to produce material for the ‘whole class’. And if learning can be generalised from the individual to the class with all the differences it purportedly contains, why can’t it be generalised to other classes, in other contexts?
 
Despite protestations, research is possible and will help to improve teaching. And why would teachers object to their job becoming more professional, with a more reliable skill set and deeper professional knowledge? The awful alternative is the idea that nothing is ever really knowable in teaching and knowledge only lasts as long as the class is together and is then gone. This is the logical conclusion of relativism, where best practice is only ever something that can exist for one class, or one student at one point in time. If this is the case, scrap journals, scrap teaching qualifications, scrap blogs and scrap conferences, because none of them matter.



 

KKCL ELT podcast or why LS is so popular

Trying to explain something is never as effective as seeing the actual thing you’re trying to explain. With that in mind I recommend everyone rush over and listen to  KKCL’s new TEFL podcast in particular their latest episode in which they decided to tackle, -yes you guessed it, –learning styles. I recommend it not for the high production quality, friendly style and soothing tone of host Phil Keegan, but rather as a fantastic insight into why learning styles are so popular.

Me me me!

One reason for its popularity  is that it’s about our favourite topic,  namely us. Everyone likes to think they are unique and special, when the truth is, we share a lot of characteristics. However, subjective validation means it’s possible to see something personally meaningful and accurate in statements which are neither. Nowhere is this clearer than in episode 5 of KKCL’s podcast.
Guest Marjorie Rosenberg starts off with an anecdote about her learning experiences and how teachers in high school French class destroyed her motivation by not letting her visualise vocab. she then talks about how learning German was aided by carrying a dictionary around and looking at the words.
Next host Phil jumps in to let us know he’s a auditory learner and is very excited to learn it’s the minority ‘style’. He then tell us about how his students used to complain because he didn’t write vocab on the board, as he was an auditory learner and so didn’t need to see the words.
When Marjorie tells us about a further four styles of learner (in total she lists 2x4x4 possible types), and describes one of them as being someone who hates reading instruction manuals, to which Phil excitedly notes “that’s like me!”
Later the hosts of the podcast talk about what kind of learner they are and one recounts his experience learning Japanese with a book which showed the characters being related to pictures.
Finally although not strictly in the podcast, commentator Anna perfectly exemplifies how learning styles can have an attractive personal significance. After thanking Phil and his crew for the podcast she notes “I’m personally visual, analytic and definitely paying lots of attention to emotions and raport in the classroom”. 

Confirmation

Subjective validation goes hand in hand with confirmation bias which leads us to look for evidence that backs up our beliefs and dismiss evidence which contradicts them. Every single human being instinctively does this and it’s why the scientific method, which seeks to falsify things, is so valuable. In the examples above we can see Phil and Marjorie finding confirmation of their beliefs in learning styles, but then they’re not looking to disprove them.
One example of confirmation bias is that Phil believes not writing words on the board is evidence he’s not a visual learner, but many teachers don’t write words up on the board either and this has nothing to do with learning styles -it might just be inexperience or plain laziness. He also thinks not reading instruction manuals makes him a certain type of learner but could it not just be that manuals are dull? After all, research suggests no one reads them.

Phil also manages to find confimation of learning styles in his messy office. He’s not visual so he doesn’t see the mess. Oddly he later claims he’s a bit kinaesthetic as walking around “helps [him] to think”.

Similarly Marjorie ascribe her failure to learn French to the teacher not allowing her to visualise words, and similarly her success in learning German to carrying a dictionary around and being able to look at the words. Now call me a dirty old cynic but is living and working in a foreign country really comparable to taking a language class in high school? If I were looking at the possible factors that made a difference, “the right learning style” would be pretty low on my list.
Another example of confirmation bias at work is demonstrated by the commentator Anna. The total lack of evidence supporting learning styles is characterised by her as “supposedly limited scientific evidence of their efficacy”. She found the podcast very enjoyable presumably because it reinforced her opinion. If you believe in learning styles, then you can find anecdotal evidence for them everywhere.

Excuses excuses 

Finally Learning styles can be a great way to excuse failure. As with the example above, it wasn’t the fact that hardly anyone masters a language in high school that caused the problem but not being allowed to learn in the right way. It would be nice if there was a secret method that could ‘unlock’ learning and make our students better at languages, but sadly life doesn’t work like that.
If someone wants to believe in something they will believe in it, damn the evidence. This was brought home to me again this week by the story of a woman who (it seems) sincerely believes she can live off sunlight. As long as there is Breatharianism the battle against learning styles will be a tough one.

It’s clear from the get go that the host Phil and guest Marjorie are friends, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there are no tough questions, (like how kinaethetic and audio style teachers are supposed to deal with Marjorie’s book which is clearly visual-centric with its words and pictures and stuff, tsk tsk!) . The only time any criticism are broached at all is when Marjorie defends learning styles against the claim that they pigeon-hole students. It’s really interesting to me that proponents of learning styles seem so worried by this claim, but not at all worried by their being no research support for LS theory 
The EFL world needs a good podcast so I hope Phil and his crew will deal a bit more critically with topics like this in the future. If you would like to listen a podcast which makes a good job of dealing with learning styles, then try this one.