Deep, man!

‘lightning never strikes twice.’

‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.’

These sentences both sound really profound while being nonsense, and nonsense that can very quickly be identified as nonsense. In both cases a few seconds of thought would be enough to show this. The word ‘lightning rod‘ and the existence of lightning rods is not a contested issue. Lightning rods exist and are placed on the side of tall buildings precisely because lightning often strikes the same spot (tall things) repeatedly. Similarly it’s not hard to think of things which while not killing a person would definitely not leave them any stronger. Ebola, spinal injury or brain damage are a few examples. And yet, like the bizarre ‘it’s the exception that proves the rule‘ despite making no sense and this fact being apparent to anyone with normal mental capabilities, these phrases continue to be used

One place they’re particularly prevalent is on any social media platform that teachers have discovered. Social media + education has led  to the rampant proliferation of what Carl Hendrick calls, ‘the scourge of motivational posters‘. Little nuggets of ‘wisdom‘ about teaching usually plastered over the top of an inspiring landscape or picture. Alternatively the quote appears next to a famous figure (Einstein is a popular choice) who probably didn’t actually say the quote in question. They’re so prevalent they’ve inspired a satirical section on Shaun Wilden and Lindsay Clandfield‘s TEFL commute podcast
The internet is awash with these edu quotes and they come In a few different flavours. There’s the ego-bolster: memes about how hard teaching is and what under appreciated heroes teachers are.On a side note, it’s interesting that such a large number of these memes exist. If you google, ‘doctors are heroes’ or ‘even ‘firefighters are heroes‘ you get far fewer memes than you do for teachers.  Next, there’s the heart warming type usually including the word ‘heart’ in the quote and a picture of a heart somewhere. And finally there are the deepities.

Deep deepities
The word Deepity was coined by Daniel Dennett. He explains it (see video) thus: 

The example he goes on to quote is ‘love is just a word’. He makes the point that saying love is just a word is either false (it is an emotion, a condition or  way of explaining a phenomenon) or it’s trivially true (yes its a just a word, like pain or joy or sadness, but why even say this?). Other deepities include ‘beauty is only skin deep‘, or there is no I in team‘. I am inclined to add the phrase ‘everyone learns in different ways‘ into this category. If it means ‘everyone has a preferred way of studying’ then *shrug* who cares? If however the implication is that learning, as in the process that occurs in the human brain differs among people, then that would be truly earth shattering as “the architecture of human brains varies very little among adults or among children” (Long 2011:375). 
It is perhaps not at all surprising that we find NLP cornering the market in these kinds of pseudo-profound edu memes, after all, reproducing form without bothering about the substance is kinda NLP’s thing. Here are a few examples that I’ve collected over the years:

‘[1]What you believe to be true either is true, or becomes true.’ 
‘[2]All behaviour has a positive intention’ 

‘[3]There is no failure in learners, only in the teacher’s intervention’ (Millrood 2004:29)

‘[4]There is no such thing as reluctant learners, only inflexible teachers’ (Winch 2005).

‘[5]there is no failure only feedback’ 

The fact that these statements have appeared (and continue to appear) in print in teacher training publications is hard for me to understand. Not only are these quotes, after a minute of consideration, obviously not true, in many cases they seem to absolve students of any responsibility and lay everything at the teacher’s feet. what kind of masochist believes that a [4] reluctant learner must be the fault of the teacher or that [3] any student failure is the teacher’s fault?  And the notion that ‘all behaviour has a positive intention’ seems indefensible until you notice that NLP experts helpfully redifne the word explaining that ‘positive here, does not mean good so much as goal driven.’ In other words, people do things for reasons. Behold! An earth-shattering truth reduced to banal triviality. 

Fish Trees

He didn’t say this 

My most hated of all ‘edu memes’ is the infamous fish tree meme. I hate it for many many reasons. Firstly, Einstein didn’t say it. Secondly if everyone is a genius then no one is a genius. 

This quotes is wheeled out usually in opposition to standardised testing or in calls to rethink education. Climbing a tree is unfair for a fish because a fish can’t climb a tree. It follows, supposedly that this is just like how maths tests are bad for those who are not mathematically gifted. Yhe ‘take-away’ is supposedly that a fish doesn’t have the ability to climb a tree and some kids don’t do well at maths, and so tests are evil, right? This poster seems superficially deep, but why would  teachers ask students to do things that they were physically incapable of?I could rant on about this quote for a whole blog post but I’ll direct you to this one by Todd Pettigrew instead


Credit: Carl Hendrick

It seems odd that actual discussions about teaching and learning have, in some parts of the education world been replaced with pithy saccharin soundbites tweeted and retweeted ad nauseam. As Carl Hendrick notes. these kind of posters show “a culture that privileges the media-soundbite over critical reflection” Ironically, the same teachers who insist on the importance of critical thinking and creativity as the very pinnacle of a good 21st century education are often the ones thoughtlessly reproducing these edu memes. 

My 100th Blog post. For this occasion I wanted to write something clever, deep and satirical. I couldn’t do that so I just wrote this instead. Thanks for reading. 

woo watch: ELGazette

ELGazette is a great little publication. It exposes dodgy goings-on in the ELT world, commissions interesting articles and most importantly pays a really decent rate to its writers. I know this because they asked me to write an article last year which appeared in print a few months ago. So it’s a shame to see them featured in ‘woo watch’. What have they done to end up here? Well, this month they printed a response to my piece on pseudoscience by a writer called Janet Denyer and it’s really this article that has landed them here. 

Denyer’s article is called ‘making the case for NLP’ (here). In it she writes that she was ‘intrigued’ by my article’s findings but ‘dismayed’ by its ‘lack of depth’. This is an odd criticism since as Denyer, who is also writing for the Gazette must know, the publication commissions articles of around 700 words. It’s pretty hard to get depth with 700 words. If depth is what you’re after, you can perhaps wait for the publication of my 5,000 word piece on NLP. I wouldn’t hold your breath though as it has been ‘under review’ with the TESOL journal for over two years (no joke). 

Denyer goes on to encourage me to do some research on NLP. She notes ‘as an expert in linguistics Russ may be in an excellent position to address the distinct lack of empirical research evidence…’ Let me stop you there. Firstly, I’m not an expert in linguistics, -in fact I’d say I’m not an expert in anything at all (except, perhaps, procrastination). Just to be absolutely clear to anyone reading, I’m a teacher, with no title, no research grants and no PhD. I largely spend my days teaching.  

And secondly, I couldn’t possibly address the lack of empirical research on NLP even if I was an expert in linguistics. This is not only because NLP is unrelated to the field of linguistics but also because there isn’t in any way a lack of empirical research evidence about NLP. There’s tons of it. NLP has been researched to death. There are even meta-analyses about it. It could be though that Denyer means here is ‘address the distinct lack of empirical research evidence’ which supports NLP. In which case she would be correct. But why this lack needs addressing isn’t clear to me. That would be like saying ‘we hope you can address the distinct lack of empirical research evidence against man-made climate change‘. It can’t be address because it isn’t true. 

Denyer goes on to explain that she is a 35 year veteran of lecturing though it wasn’t clear to me what that had to do with her following point that although some ‘facts’ about these practices may have been misrepresented she has personally seen the benefits of some of the things I disparage. For example, she has seen great benefits for students ‘who actively use both sides of their brain‘. I tried to think of something witty to say here about students only using one half of their brains but I just don’t have the energy anymore. 

Denyer defends NLP noting that ‘NLP is not something that you do to people’ which is odd because I got the distinct impression it was explicitly promoted as a tool for doing things to people; things like persuading and influencingclosing sales, making someone love youcuring allergies, curing asthma and anxiety and on and on. 

Denyer then moves on to a defence of BrainGym which she claims has been abused by ‘marketeers’ in the UK and its current incarnation isn’t true to ‘Dr. Dennison’s‘ original vision and his research. She may well be right. I have no idea. The problem however is that even if we’re true to Paul Dennison’s original vision, that wouldn’t be saying much. Watch the cringe-inducing interview with Dennison below. There are some real gems in here like his stating that ‘[human beings] are electrical’. Is this the ‘original vision’ we’re supposed to adhere to?

I tried to find Dr. Dennison’s published output on google scholar. I found a manual for BrainGym and a couple of articles all published in the journal of ‘edu-kinesthetics’ I wanted to check out the journal but it’s not available online…not a good sign. (ND: He does appear to have one article in a now defunct journal). 

Denyer closes this section by suggesting that ‘Russ must acknowledge the positive learning environment in many classrooms today, compared with half a century ago’. I find this sentence difficult to understand and in fairness it may be editorial rather than the author but is Denyer saying that BrainGym is responsible for the changes in educational practices in the last 50 years? That’s quite a claim. (And speaking of editing there is an section where she claims eye accessing cues were first identified in 1890 (sic?) by someone called ‘James’ (first name or last name?))

Denyer’s next strategy is to make NLP seem credible through the use of adjectives. Argument adjectivium? She writes that NLP is underpinned by the work of ‘esteemed family therapist Virginia Satir’ and ‘acclaimed author’ Robert Dilts. If she had managed to find an honourable and a holy I fear I would’ve had to concede. This seems to be some kind of reverse ad hom. Does it really matter if the author is esteemed or not? They can still be wrong.

In the final section she appeals to me to not be so sure of my assumed facts reminding me that ‘we once knew the earth was flat’. Sadly, while this fact is truthy it isn’t true. She then sets up what is know as a ‘false dilemma‘ quoting Howard Gardner (of MI fame) and saying ‘Surely you would not wish to return to the days when intelligence was measured by the intelligence quotient‘. In short, if I don’t accept MI, then I’m promoting IQ testing for all. These are the only two choices. (on a side note, when did we stop measuring intelligence with IQ tests? -I’m pretty sure that’s still what’s used.)

For the coup de gras she ‘recommend[s] Russ open his mind to our potential for learning‘. It always tickles me when someone suggests you ‘open your mind’ because you can bet what they’re actually saying is ‘you should agree with me.’ So I’ll close with the esteemed words of (not) Carl Sagan “Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out”. 

Short Book Review: Approaches and Methods 2014 update!

Just got the 2014 version of approaches and methods. Some good news folks, NLP has been given the boot (Yeah!!) The reason given is that NLP is ‘not a language teaching method’ but a ‘humanistic philosophy based on popular psychology and as such does not meet the criteria for inclusion.’ (2014:x)
The bad news is that ‘multiple intelligences’ is still in there. I find this a bit odd since the authors actually describe it not as a language teaching method but as ‘a learner based philosophy’ (2014:230). This is apparently OK because ‘applications of MI in language teaching have been more recent, so it is not surprising that MI theory lacks some of the basic elements that might link it more directly to language education.'(2014:232)

In short, we can give MI a bit of slack because it hasn’t been around in the EFL world long. 
This is somewhat confusing as both NLP and MI had language teaching advocates as early as the late nineties (well before the 2nd edition of A&M) who wrote articles championing their use in publications like,  you guessed it, ETP. The very first edition of ETP had a Jim Wingate article on MI I believe. The MI chapter also explicitly quotes from an article by Reid (who, I believe, brought learning styles to the EFL world) written in 1997 exactly the same time the first ELT NLP book came out.

So in short, NLP is out because it’s a philosophy and isn’t really a language teaching method and MI which is a philosophy and not really a language teaching method is in. Got it?

But what about approaches which are not philosophies but, y’know, language teaching methods? How did they fare. well since the last edition in 2001 little has changed on the EFL method scene. Except of course for Dogme. Starting in roughly 2000 with Thornbury’s call to arms, (and actually a little earlier if you ask me) it’s not surprising it didn’t feature in the 2001 edition of A&M. But since then Dogme has been talked about and argued over constantly and seems to be the default choice for DELTA experimental lessons. So how did it fare in 2014?

Well, put aside your personal opinions of Dogme for a second (I’m looking at you Mr. Dellar) and ask yourself, in a book which attempts to catalogue the state of methodology in EFL in 2014, and which includes full chapters on TPR, The silent way, CLL and Suggestopedia (all left in for ‘historical perspective’ (2014:x)) should there be a chapter on Dogme? There is an issue of consistency.

Perhaps I’m straying out of the ‘evidence-based’ zone here but I find it hard to understand why MI gets an entirely uncritical 13 pages (they do stick a reference to a critical Kerr (2009) article in at the end) while Dogme gets, unless I’ve missed something, two paragraphs.

I haven’t had a chance to read it all yet so there may be more to come…

Guide to methods part 2: NLP in ELT

Would you like to have it all? Be the person you’ve always known you could be? Unleash the real power of your mind? Even have the ability to influence other people’s decisions? All of this is possible through the power of Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). 
NLP is a therapy type of self-help program which was invented in the 1970s by two undergraduates, a linguist, John Grinder and a mathematician, Richard Bandler (though he later studied psychology). It was based on the idea that everyone views the world through one of their senses (PRS) and that if you know which sense is dominant in an individual then you can subtly influence their behaviour. NLP trainees are taught that a person’s ‘PRS’ can be detected by listening to the language they use.  For example a person who says “I see” a lot is visually orientated and someone saying “I get your meaning” is more of a kinesthetic person.  If this doesn’t work you can always watch their eye movements and this will also tell you what PRS a person has. 

Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of NLP you can become a “master practitioner” in around 12 days for the bargain basement price of £2,000. It’s so easy that the BBC’s Chris Jackson managed to have his cat George registered with the British board of Neuro Linguistic Programming; an impressively short amount of time for something claims to give users so much power and promises so much.

And promise it does; NLP practitioners can apparently cure allergies, phobias, depression, among (many) other things. It is also claimed that NLP is useful for business people, teachers, writers, athletes and even parents.  There is certainly no shortage of ways to find out about NLP, as well as the training courses there are over 400 NLP books listed on amazon

To devotees NLP is incredibly effective and its creators are geniuses. Devotees fill conference halls and pay thousands to watch the likes of Bandler speak. It is also vague enough to avoid really close scrutiny. Claiming to offer “more success” or “greater happiness” are not things which can be easily measured or falsified. Some of the more concrete claims however can, and have been subjected to scientific evaluation and the results are not pretty. 

Two large reviews of NLP literatureshowed it to be ineffective; it is all but ignored in the field of psychology where it is regarded as pseudoscience. More specifically, research has shown flaws with the basic tenets of NLP, that eye movements neither indicate honesty nor show that PRS is a useful concept. None of this, of course, fazes supporters of NLP, who, like fans of homoeopathy or horoscopes “know it works”. 

NLP is also something of a shape-shifter. It started in the field of psychology but moved to self-help where it currently resides. It has also moved into business and teaching and from there it started making inroads through both business English and through the more touchy-feely humanistic side of ELT. 

In the field of TEFL, NLP has continued to have support among a small but dedicated group. There have been books and numerous positive articles in TEFL magazines like English teaching professional, and there has even been an uncritical paper about NLP in the hallowed pages of The English language teaching journal

And while NLP is not a major approach (some teachers have no doubt never heard of it) it does have a hard-core of committed enthusiast headed up by Mario Rinvolucri. These teachers spend time trying to work out their students’ PRS by watching their eyes or listening to which words they use. All this means we have the rather ironic situation where educators and education journals promote ineffective pseudo-science in the name of education. Perhaps though, as Ben Goldacre has shown with BrainGym’s widespread use in schools this shouldn’t be all that surprising.  

On a final note, there is also a potentially sinister side to NLP. The idea of ‘programming’ students, -changing their way of thinking- potentially against their will and without them even knowing you did it, is at best creepy, and at worst unethical. Luckily, by all accounts, NLP doesn’t work, so we don’t need to worry about that. It does however cost a lot of money and goes against what teachers really should be doing in class. More worryingly though is how easily our educators can be fooled into buying into this kind of magical thinking. I wonder anxiously if our classrooms will soon be full of teachers touting the benefits of tarot cards for vocabulary retention and Ouija boards for improving reading skills.

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”. 


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.

The council of woo

The Council’ likes to promote itself as a rigorous and serious organisation, doing very serious testing and accreditation, but it can be quite partial to the odd bit of ‘woo’.  For example in order to get a CELTA trainees have to be well versed in “learning styles”. This predilection for a bit of magical thinking is most evident on its web page. 

Their article on NLP is littered with embarrassing factoids about my favourite TEFL pseudo-science. The article starts by telling us that NLP has “its roots in psychology and neurology” which is slightly misleading as its creators were studying maths and linguistics at the time. It has nothing to do with neurology and has been soundly rejected by psychology which classes it as a pseudo-science. Not to fear though, ever the great shape-shifter NLP has found a good home in management and education –two rich breeding grounds for ‘woo’.

Writer Steve Darn goes on to tell us that NLP is “about the way the brain works” (which it most certainly isn’t) and that it can help to train the brain (which it can’t because it doesn’t work). Next he tells us it “is related to ‘left / right brain’ functions” (also known as the “left brain right brain myth) and that it shares something with….yes you guessed it “learning styles, multiple intelligence and other areas of research”! BINGO!

Hang on a sec though; let’s look at that last sentence again. “Learning styles, multiple intelligence and other areas of research”…one of these three is not the same; one of these three is different. Ah yes, research. Because research is where you have a theory and then you test it, which is the opposite of what learning styles and multiple intelligences do. They tend to subscribe to the “have a theory and then sell loads of books” method.

Darn then notes “NLP and related subjects have their sceptics, particularly in terms of general classroom applicability and how NLP is commercially marketed as a method of self-improvement.” and as a creepy method of mind control?
“NLP has been labelled a ‘quasi science’ and criticised on the grounds of lack of empirical studies” That’s the spirit Steve, -don’t spoil it now…

“but there are sound reasons why NLP is compatible with current classroom practice”

This is what I like to call the ‘nod to scepticism’. You list as load of criticism and details as to why something has been rejected by science and then with a wave of your hand you dismiss all those problems. Fantastic! Perhaps we can try this when we teach?

“Well this essay has numerous grammar problems, it’s half plagiarised, it’s not related to the topic and is 100 words too short. –but don’t worry about that stuff, this essay is compatible with an A grade.”


I could go on and on about NLP but to be honest I can’t be bothered. The true believers will just retire to their familiar “well I know it works, I saw it with my eyes.” If you’re at all curious, don’t believe me, I advise you to go and check the literature. See if you can find any credible sources recommending NLP be taken seriously for anything.

If you can then you’ve done more than I managed in months of research. In short NLP either works and our knowledge of how the human brain works and how human languages evolved is wrong, or (and the safe money is here) teachers are signing up for expensive courses and wasting students’ (valuable) time with something which has the same credibility as Ouija boards and tarot cards.

merry xmas and happy new year

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

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

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

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

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

Dodgiest practice award

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Fantastic Dr. Fox

In mathematical terms, Derrida’s observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation tex2html_wrap_inline1393 under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group “acts transitively”: this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the tex2html_wrap_inline1395 of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone

What you just read is complete and utter unadulterated nonsense.

But it’s important nonsense.


The quote is from a published paper called “transgressing the boundaries” by a physics professor at New York University called Alan Sokal. Sokal had a theory that much of what was published in literature journals at the time as post-modernism was nothing more than meaningless pseudo-babble and he decided to test that theory. The essay was submitted to the journal “social text” and was published. Later Sokal admitted that the whole thing was a parody. This became known as the Sokal affair. The fact that what was essentially meaningless rubbish was published in a prestigious journal is the central theme of this post.
So ask yourself this question; would you be able to see through complex sounding hogwash if you saw it?
The answer is most likely “no”.
As Ben Goldacre notes here, the use of complex terms and irrelevant but scientific sounding information tends to make it harder for non-experts to spot poppycock. This is a worrying finding for the field of TEFL in which teachers with very little training may have trouble distinguishing legitimate but complex descriptions of linguistic and mental phenomena (inverted pseudo-cleft sentences, lexical priming and voiced alveolar fricatives) from equally impressive sounding balderdash.
Jargon can often mislead people and  “blinding with science” really is a thing. In the same way that putting on a white coat, a suit or a uniform gives someone an air of authority, big words and fancy terms can cow critics and help to convince others of the legitimacy of an idea. So can “dressing up” daft ideas in TEFL help to give them more credibility?  Here’s a quote from the Neuro-linguistic programing TEFL representatives Revell and Norman:

The Meta Model in NLP defines and challenges linguistic imprecision. It consists of a list of different kinds of distortions, deletions and generalisations (often called Meta Model violations) and a parallel list of suggestions for challenging them (= Challenges) The Meta Model is too large to be described here in its entirety…but we can start with prt of it known as the precision model. (English teaching professional)

NLP writers are not the only ones guilty of this. Swan in a piece criticising the directions of EFL, notes that at IATEFL the array of complex sounding presentations is a worrying phenomena which might be discouraging for new teachers and notes here that the balance between language teaching and those things which are peripheral to it seems somewhat off. In another article he charts the rise of this kind of terminology, which he describes as “impenetrable”, during his days as a young teacher and adds that after grappling with these ideas he came to the conclusion that “If I couldn’t understand a professional book, perhaps it wasn’t my fault after all.” 


Dr Fox

And it’s not just laypeople who can be fooled. In the 1970s an actor was paid to pretend to be an academic; the impressive sounding Dr. Fox. He gave a completely meaningless lecture on the made-up subject of “mathematical game theory as applied to physician education” to a group of psychologists, therapists and educators. He practised the speech the night before and despite this, comes across as sounding very authoritative and crammed his speech full of intellectual sounding nonsense. The experiment was carried out three times and each time he was rated as being stimulating and those in the audience felt that they had learnt something from the lecture. I think that this is a cautionary piece of research for those of us in the TEFL world especially when watching conference speeches

Pluralistic ignorance.

One more factor which might stop you pointing out how awfully nude the king looks is pluralistic ignorance. Basically this is the situation whereby everyone secretly knows something is fishy, but they think everyone else is a believer and so are reluctant to stick their neck out and be the one to invite derision. Last year I was going to give a short presentation skeptically tackling reading skills and learning styles at a small EAP conference in the East Midlands. I ended up getting cold feet the day before and backing out. I had a horrible feeling that the room would fill with an embarrassed silence, my peers whispering “how did this guy ever get a job teaching EAP!?” I do regret that now because as the people who follow this website have shown me, I’m not the only one who thinks there are some dodgy ideas floating around out there.

I think we need to be less afraid to criticise sacred cows, common sense and received wisdom of EFL and education in general, it’s very healthy for the industry as a whole. Science uses complex terminology because it talks about very complex ideas. Calling a negative thought a “meta model violation” doesn’t, to my mind, move us any further forward and is just so much cargo cult science. We have no reason to try to outdo scientists or throw around impressive sounding words, -as English language teachers surely we should be skilled at, and proud of making things as accessible as possible. We need to be on guard against this kind of language, as “Tom” at Englishdroid writes:

superficially impressive jargon, when it’s not obscuring the bloody obvious is all too often obscuring the bloody ridiculous or at best highly questionable. Against such a background, is it any wonder that so many dangerously irrational and anti-scientific ideas flourish




NLP notes

I just saw this post get retweet. I had to quickly knock out a reply to it here. It deals with one of my pet hates, Neurolinguistic Programming which has become more popular over recent years in the EFL world but which makes some quite remarkable claims. I’m currently trying to a get an article on NLP published and I don’t want to repeat too much of that here, but  since it was retweeted by someone quite influential I thought I would dash off this response. I wrote this in about 20 mins so sorry about typos etc.
NLP is a weird therapy type of system which was dreamt up in the 1970s and makes spectacular claims about both the human body and what NLP itself is capable of. Similar in genre to books promise to help you get rich in 7 easy steps or to eat yourself thin, NLP makes some quite spectacular claims. One book (Agnes 2008:3) for example claims that using NLP can help you to:
Be what you want to be
Have what you want to have
Do what you want to do
Have the personal success you want now
Be more aware of your thoughts
And who wouldn’t want all that. Yet there is actually no research that supports any of the claims that NLP makes. This is hardly surprising when you realise just how odd those claims are. NLP practitioners, like the author of the blog that was retweet claim that watching a person’s eye movements can tell you what kind of learner they are. That is, in the dubious VAKOG sense of learner styles
You can also listen to the pitch of someone’s voice or check the way they walk to find out what kind of learner they are. If this doesn’t work then check out the words they use. A person who says “I see what you mean” is visual and and someone who tends to say “I get your drift” is probably kinaesthetic. These are called predicates in the NLP world and no, I’m not kidding, -this is really what they teach.
If you check the blog you see this quote: 

For me, one of the most important core concepts of NLP is the recognition of differences in cognitive style – or what NLP calls “representational systems”. There are five of these systems (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Olfactory and Gustatory) of which the first three are most commonly used

Isn’t it funny how the olfactory and gustatory learners are always left out? No one wants to deal with learners who learn through smelling and tasting? too silly even for NLP perhaps? Also, if we’re going to use this old-fashioned five sense model then what happened to touch? No one fancy teaching touchy learners?
The blog mentions Revell and Norman’s book on NLP in EFL which I would advise you to take a look at. There are some quite impressive claims in there, even “live longer with this 3 minute exercise” -worth the price of the book alone I would have thought. The blog also quotes some NLP sayings such as: 


but there is no failure in NLP, only feedback 

This sounds great and appeals to me as a teacher but isn’t it just word play? The Chinese girl who paid out £2,500 for a pre-sessional course, not making the grade and being sent home probably wouldn’t see that as ‘feedback’. Some other claims that NLPers make are these:
There is no failure in learners only in the teacher’s intervention (Millrood 2004:29)

There is no such thing as reluctant learners only inflexible teachers (winch 2005:np)

All behaviour has positive intentions (Revell and norman 1997: 106) 

Now it might just be me but these claims are seriously questionable. Learners can fail, they can be forced to study English and they can almost certainly act with negative intentions.

The author of the blog also claims “I’m no NLP expert but…”. Well, don’t worry, that can soon be remedied. It’s easy to become a “master practitioner” of NLP in one short 10 day course. It will only set you back a few thousand pounds and it’s so simple that even a cat could do it

The fact that so many teachers have bought into this dubious and expensive practice doesn’t really bother me, that’s up to them. However the fact that they are wasting students’ time (and money) by staring into their eyes, or listening to which words they use does. You can find examples of teachers doing this kind of things here, here and here. Of course these teachers think these things “work” and that’s great, -but just remember, the students didn’t sign up for pseudoscience, they signed up to learn English.

Agness, L. 2008. Change your Life with NLP Edinburgh: Pearson education LTD
BBC. 2009. Cat Registered as Hypnotherapist. In BBC news. Retrieved September 20 2012,
Millrood, R. 2004. ‘The role of NLP in teachers’ classroom discourse.’ ELT Journal. 58(1): 28-37
Revell, J. and Norman, S. 1997a.  In Your Hands – NLP in ELT. London: Saffire Press.
Winch, S. 2005. ‘From Frustration to Satisfaction: Using NLP to Improve Self-Expression.’ in EA Education Conference, English Australia, Mercure Hotel, Brisbane, QLD.

Cargo Cult Science

One of my favourite stories about human beliefs is the story of Cargo Cults described here by Richard Fenyman:

 In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land. (1974)

The whole piece can be heard here and is well worth a listen. He goes on to talk about cargo cult sciences and includes education among them. A cargo cult science is one which emulates science, but only superficially. So is applied linguistics guilty of being a cargo cult science? Well at times it doesn’t cover itself in glory. One thing I’d like to look at here is the use of supporting quotations in EFL writing. 

Citations are obviously necessary and useful for identifying sources and avoiding plagiarism but I’m a bit suspicious of some of the ways in which they are used at times. There follows a couple of examples of what I’m talking about. Recently writing a piece on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) I came across this odd discovery:
NLP claims to help achieve excellence of performance in language teaching and learning, improve classroom communication, optimise learner attitudes and motivation, raise self esteem, facilitate personal growth in students and even change their attitude to life (Thornbury 2001:394)

This quote is from a paper by Millrood (2004)  promoting the use of NLP among EFL teachers that appeared in the ELTJ.  What I would like you to think about is, what function does a quote like this serve? If you’re anything like me then you probably innocently assumed that page 394 of Thornbury’s article contains some glowing recommendation of NLP or at least, a description of NLP that mirrors the one above. Here is the reference in question:
More often, the discourse of therapy is interwoven into quai-humanaistic and anodyne concern for personal growth and social hygiene….Personal growth in this kind of discourse [NLP] is often associated with improved self-esteem, but it often seems that it is as much the teacher’s self esteem that is being targeted as that of the students. Unsurprisingly, NLP literature can only be found in the self-help section of book stores…a strong health warning should be attached to therapeutic practices when applied to non-therapeutic situations.

Now I’ve edited this a bit, for example Thornbury doesn’t think this is a reason not to use these kind of techniques, but the tone of the section could be fairly summarised as cautious and critical. There is also a reference to NLP, which does mention some of these factors but it is Thornbury quoting another author, and so should probably appear as  secondary citation. So then what exactly is the function of Millrood’s citation? The first problem is that it only tangentially resembles what Thonbury wrote. Secondly, anyone reading the first article would assume that Thornbury was quite upbeat about NLP which seems quite far from the truth. We could argue that the word “claims” exculpates Millrood, but why include the Thornbury reference in a piece which promotes NLP and is not in any way critical of the practice? The only reason I can think of, is that the name of Thornbury adds a certain weight to the quote. But I’m ready to be corrected.

Another slightly different use of quotation which worries me is when the “authority” has been discredited or is somewhat dubious. Takeo Doi was a Japanese writer who wrote about a ‘uniquely Japanese’ phenomena/emotion called “amae” Doi’s work is highly influential though it’s not at all clear why. He didn’t test his theories nor did he produce any evidence for this unique Japanese behaviour.  Critics suggest that Doi’s ideas are unsubstantiated nihonjinron (theories of Japaneseness): 


[Nakae and Doi] rarely supported their arguments with objective information. Instead their claims of Japanese uniqueness are mostly supported by stories episodes personal anecdotes Japanese specific language expressions and other kinds of examples. (Mouer & Sugimoto 1986; Sugimoto & Mouer 1982 quoted in Kubota 1999: 754)

Dale (1986) is even more critical of Doi noting that numerous sections failed to appear in the English translation because ‘the logic is so circuitous that, were it included, Doi’s whole programme, with its semantic juggling, would have been exposed to withering ridicule.’ (1986: 132)   The notion at the centre of Doi’s work that since the term amae does not exist in Western languages it must be a uniquely Japanese concept is harshly criticised by Dale who notes that Doi only knew two European languages.

Yet Doi appears unquestioned in TEFL literature. For example, in an article on the ‘the acquisition of communicative style in Japanese’ (1992) Clancey examines conversations between Japanese mothers and children in order to highlight the Japanese communicative style which she characterises as ‘intuitive and indirect especially compared with that of Americans’ (1992:213) Clancey then cites Doi to orientate her theory noting that ‘The Japanese view of communication arises from and contributes to amae.’ (217) Somehow calling upon an authority figure gives this spurious claim more weight and once published, in turn, further retrenches Doi’s position as an authority figure. 

If you only read Clancey or Millrood, you would not have the slightest inkling that there was any contention about the theories of amae or NLP. Putting quotation marks, the name of an expert and a page number in an article like this is the same as wearing coconut headphones, sitting in a bamboo air control tower and waiting for planes.  You might look the part, but you’re missing something crucial.


Clancy, P.M (1992) The acquisition of communicative style in Japanese in schieffelin, BB & -Ochs, E. (Eds) Language Socialization Across Culture Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dale, P. (1986) The Myth of Japanese Uniqueness. Oxford: London. Nissan Institute, Croom Helm.

Doi, T. (1981). The Anatomy of Dependence English Tokyo: Kodansha

Kubota, R. (1999) Japanese Culture Constructed by Discourses: Implications for Applied Linguistics Research and ELT TESOL quarterly 33(1), 9-25.

Millrood, R. (2004). The role of NLP in teachers’ classroom discourse. ELT Journal. doi:10.1093/elt/58.1.28-37

Thornbury, S. 2001The unbearable lightness of EFL.’ ELT Journal 55/4: 391-402