Seeking Nirvana

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


How do you know that smoking causes cancer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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