Guide to methods part 3: What Richards and Rodgers don’t tell you.

I always had something of a soft spot for Suggestopedia with it’s comfy chairs, baroque music and meditation. It always seemed to me like the cool kid of methods, taping straight into the brain and speeding up learning. I even continued to look at it affectionately after starting this blog because I remember reading in Richards and Rodgers that Lozanov accepted that his method was a placebo but tried to actually use the power of the placebo effect in his teaching. (it later turned out that was not true). 

That said, Suggestopedia would clearly bring up lots of red flags on my education ‘baloney detection kit’. It makes extravagant claims of efficacy such as the claim that learning can be accelerated 5 – 50 times using suggestopedia or that “…1,000 words [can be] learned in a day” (Ostrander & Schroede 1979:15). 

It makes claims about things which are vague or hard to test“the method appeared to improve health and cure stress-related illnesses” (Ostrander & Schroeder 1979: 33). Also we can commonly see claims that “[suggestology] is a method of…making use of the unknown reserves, powers and abilities of the human mind” (Lozanov 1971:292), ah, those unknown reserves! Any guesses as to what percent of the mind Lozanov thinks people are currently using

With its ‘double-planedness’, ‘elaboration’, ‘concert sessions’,  ‘primary activation’ and ‘pseudo-passiveness’, jargon or sciency sounding words are liberally employed. Richards & Rodgers note that “The method has a somewhat mystical air about it…partially because of it’s arcane terminology and neologisms, which one critic has unkindly called…  pseudoscientific gobbledygook’” (2014:317). 

It also has little evidence to back up it’s claims. The few experiments done to tests its efficacy did not produce encouraging results.  Wagner & Tilney tested it, finding “no significant improvement across the five-week experimental period” (1983:5). And even Bancroft, a supporter of the method admits that:

Very often the exact means by which [Lozanov’s] results were obtained remains obscure. Statistics, as has been pointed out by more than one reviewer, are often faulty or incomplete; the evidence from several experiments tends to be fused (or even confused).(1999:51)

All that said, it would be easy and rather pointless to pull apart and poke fun at suggestopedia here. What I’m more interested in looking at here is how much respect this approach received and why certain facts about the method were glossed over or ignored in the literature. 

What Richards and Rodgers don’t tell you. 
 
I wanted to know more about Suggestopedia so I got hold of a copy of another book that details Lozanov’s work called ‘psychic discoveries behind the iron curtain’. Unlike many EFL books, this actually features interviews with Lozanov, and he gets to explain directly his beliefs. Here are a few things I learnt:

1) Lozanov was a Pioneer of parapsychology and believed that “everyone is psychic” (1971:281)

2) he ran the suggestopedia and parapsychology research centre in Bulgaria and 20 years work on precognition  

3) he believed that Telepathy is an inexpensive and promising communication system” (1971:293) 

4) he believed that he could render people unconscious with telepathy. 

Now, none of this means that he was necessarily wrong about Suggestopedia, (as the TEFLology guys point out that would be the ‘genetic fallacy‘) but this information is nowhere to be found in any of the TEFL sources I’ve ever come across. The fact that someone claiming people can learn 1,000 words a day also claims that he put people to sleep with his mind seems to me, at least relevant.

And it’s not just Richards and Rodgers who don’t feel this is important information. in Byram’s encyclopedia of language learning (entry by Baur) Lozanov is credited as working in a state run centre of ‘suggestology’ when in fact he ran the “institute of suggestology and parapsychology“. 

These omissions in the literature and the seeming way his slightly weirder beliefs are ignored  interests me. Take Baur’s insistence that

Lozanov discovered that certain yogic techniques of physical and mental relaxation could be used to produce a state of analgesia, or relief from pain, on the one hand, and a state of hypermnesia, or greatly improved memory and concentration, on the other…

Did Lozanov actually discover this? Or did he claim to discover it, -there is a whole world of difference. It just seems that Baur is happy to accept Lozanov’s claims without question. But don’t ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?‘ 
  
These are not isolated incidents, almost everywhere Lozanov appears there is no mention of any of this kind of thing and his claims are either taken on face value or just ignored. Hooper Hansen is equally generous. In Tomlinson’s 2011 book on materials development she writes:

The complexity of Lozanov’s method is due to a lifetime’s research into the hidden language and territory of the unconscious, in particular the nebulous area where it meets the conscious, which he calls the ‘para-conscious’    

He then goes on to talk about ‘left brained and right brained learnersAnother example is Diane Larsen-Freeman who in this video tells viewer to keep an open mind and don’t dismiss things ‘ask yourself instead, is there anything valuable here that I can adapt to my own circumstances.’ 

Legacy 


A very cursory examination of suggestopedia turns up things that would strain the credibility of even the most credulous. For example, Bancroft notes that “Dr. Lozanov…has performed painless surgical operations using suggestion and/or hypnosis instead of anesthetic” (2005:21) And yet suggestopedia still has some degree of currency in the ELT world. It still has exactly one more chapter in Richards and Rodgers latest edition than approaches like Dogme, crazy English or Demand High. It is still a choice for some DELTA experimental lessons and some teachers still use this approach. This study for example shows just how seriously some teachers can take it. Lozanov even made an appearance as a supporting reference in an ELTJ article recently.


TEFL hoarders?

‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins‘ -T.S. Eliot 

That this happens isn’t perhaps surprising. As I noted with my final ‘red flag’ supporters are not moved by contrary evidence. I think I might revise this statement to ‘the method is promoted despite criticism‘ as this rule does not necessarily apply only to supporters. Everyone seems to do it. For example, Richards and Rodgers despite listing numerous issues with Suggestopedia describe a criticism (above) as ‘unkind’. They go on to write “Perhaps, then, it is not productive to further belabour the science/non-science, data/double-talk issues and instead…try to identify and validate those techniques…that appear effective” (Richards & Rodgers 2014:326). 

The quote above about taking the best techniques and keeping them is particularly curious when we note that from the same publication, on the previous page the authors note that “Lozanov is unequivocally opposed to any eclectic use of the techniques outside of he full panoply of suggestopedic science” (a quote that appears verbatim in Byram). So are Richards and Rodgers suggesting we ignore the creator’s advice and try to find something among the creation? If so, wouldn’t that mean Lozanov didn’t really know what he was doing and had just hit upon something completely by accident?

 My question then is ‘why?’ Why is it necessary for every method to be examined for some small saving grace? It almost seems as if there is a hoarding tendency among the TEFL community and we are reluctant to disregard methods wholly, no matter what problems we find with them. ‘Sure’ people say, ‘The Silent Way is not for me, but Cuisenaire Rods? Now that I can get on board with!’ 

We sit surrounded by odds and ends of grammar translation, trinkets of audiolingualism and some TPR stuffed under the mattress. Is it that we are such an impoverished field it seems risky to throw anything at all away? Or is this the elusive beast ‘principled eclecticism’ that I’ve heard so much about it. It certainly seems eclectic, but I’m struggling to see what the principles are.

 

afterword: A note on the name

there is some seeming confusion over what exactly the method was called. Part of this is caused by lozanov himself. Lozanov himself calls the ‘science’ suggestology and the education part of it suggestopedia. He then switches at some point to desuggestopedia because, in his words it sounded too manipulative and he wanted to remove the negative connotations and also because his approach rid people of there previous negative learning experiences (like dethorning a rose). This may seem clear but Lozanov also says:

Although it seems a little early to talk about reservopaedia before the science reservology has been entirely established, it will be right to gradually replace the word suggestopaedia by the word reservopaedia. And the science called reservology can be developed with the initial research of the laws of reservopaedia. These laws are very typical. All we need is highly qualified and respectable scientists. (2005:11)

so really it’s anyone’s guess what it’s called. 


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”. 










Crystal Balls

About 2 years ago, before I first started this blog I was feeling a little disillusioned with EFL. I remember coming across an article by Michael Swan called “we do need methods”. No article I’ve read before or since has had such an effect on me. I downloaded every article I could find and read them all. Finally I wrote to him and was amazed and grateful to receive a lengthy thoughtful reply. The article is featured in his most recent work, ‘thinking about language teaching’ which is, by far, my favourite book on language teaching.

In my recent talk I made reference to an article in IATEFL issues (158) written by Swan back in 2002 which was in response to another article extolling the virtues of using ‘crystals’ for teaching. When I read the article, I was again excited to find someone who had described my feelings in such a concise and powerful way. Unfortunately, that article hasn’t been available online until now. I’m very pleased that the author has allowed me to reproduce it here. I hope you get as much pleasure from reading it as I did.

Crystal Balls

On first looking at the article ‘Crystals in the Classroom’, I thought it must be a very skilfully-written spoof. On a second reading, I realised that it was serious. At which point I began to feel very disturbed. Why (I asked myself) is a responsible language teachers’ journal giving space to a New Age disquisition about using moonlight to cleanse crystals, placing pieces of quartz on one’s solar plexus to gain relief from stress, generating ‘happy stones’, overcoming shyness with sodalite, and using jade to inspire wisdom? Has this got anything to do with language teaching?

Well (you might reply) who am I to say it hasn’t? Teachers are creative individuals, and what doesn’t work for me may well work for someone else. We can only be the richer for listening carefully to each other. What right have I to dismiss an approach espoused by another practitioner, simply because it is remote from my own practice? Not everything in the world is a reducible to scientific method. Don’t professional journals have a duty to allow space for unorthodox opinions as well as mainstream views?

Yes, of course they do – provided the claims are properly backed up in the normal way by persuasive argument and/or reasonably convincing evidence. I’m not suggesting we should aim at the same standards of proof in our work as apply, say, to physics or history – rigorous proof is generally too much to ask for in the behavioural sciences. And what counts as good evidence varies from one situation to another, because language-teaching has one foot in science and the other in art. But this does not absolve our discipline from the normal professional requirement to provide adequate support for its claims. Assertions – in both science and art – always need justification: you don’t make things true just by saying they are.

If, say, I read a flat statement that definite articles are always learnt before indefinite articles, I need to know more so that I can evaluate the claim and make an informed judgement about it. How was the investigation carried out? How many learners were studied, from what language backgrounds? Has the study been replicated? Similarly, if you tell me that a colleague has obtained good results from getting her students to teach each other card tricks in English, I’m not unwilling to believe you, but I still need to be convinced. It would be unreasonable in this case to ask for research-based statistics, but other kinds of question are apposite. How was the card-trick activity organised, and what language did it generate? What is your colleague’s basis for claiming ‘good results’? Is she experienced enough to be able to compare reliably the results she gets from different kinds of activity? What confidence do you have in her judgement?

The more implausible an assertion, the more support is needed for it to be taken seriously. Keeping an open mind does not mean accepting uncritically whatever somebody says. If a writer tells us that conscious ‘noticing’ of grammatical structures is a necessary prerequisite for learning them, we have a right to demand very good evidence indeed for this remarkable claim. Equally, if Jones announces in the staff room that he has speeded up learning by a factor of seven by getting students to put their feet in buckets of water and balance birdcages on their heads, we will be unwise just to take his word for it, however popular his classes may be. We cannot prove that the buckets and birdcages method doesn’t work – it is almost impossible to prove a negative. But it is not our job to prove that it doesn’t work; the onus is firmly on Jones to come up with convincing evidence that it does.

Despite the many difficulties, we have an obligation to ourselves and to our students to ensure, as far as possible, that what we are doing in the classroom is genuinely appropriate to our aims and reasonably cost-effective. If we experiment with new techniques (as of course we should), then we need to keep a very critical eye on what we are doing. Have we really found a valid new approach; or does it just appear to work with our students because we have persuaded ourselves and them that it does?

And if we go public, and talk or write about our experiments, we have an equally important duty to our colleagues and to the profession at large to justify, as rigorously as we can, whatever claims we are making. The article in question, however, provides neither evidence nor supporting argument for the assertions about the alleged pedagogic and therapeutic value of using certain mineral crystals in the classroom. We cannot evaluate what the author says, because he has given us no basis for doing so. And so, regardless of the truth or otherwise of his beliefs, it seems to me that his paper is out of place in a professional language teachers’ journal.

 

This article has been slightly abridged at the request of the author.

‘Oh God!’

It’s been a very odd week.

Since last Wednesday my talk has been tweeted and retweeted over 50 times. I’ve been sent compliments by people I look up to and have acquired about 100 new twitter followers. I’ve had emails, requests to speak, and I’ve even been interviewed by the nicest man on twitter. I think Mike, who is one of the main reason this blog exists (see here for example), was just as surprised as me:




I’ve been blogged about by, so far about four people. I was mentioned by Hugh Dellar (Squeal!). My academic.edu page view count and the one on this blog both suddenly shot up (which is unnerving). This has also been the week I discovered that 20 seems to be the maximum number of notifications twitter goes up to and then it lazily displays 20+ at the bottom.


However, nothing surpassed the surreality that occurred when a couple of people retweeted the talk not to @ebefl -my handle- but to @russellmayne – a clinical strategist in Dubai.I thought the poor guy might take offence at being randomly tweeted at but no, he replied saying, ‘wrong Russ’ and then added:

Not only had my Googleganger been dragged into the chaos, he was merrily joining in!
All of this has come as a surprise. This was my first IATEFL. I’ve been trying to go for three years now. You might remember this post from last year when I complained because I couldn’t go. If I’m honest, the only reason I put a talk in is because we have a rule that accepted speakers can always go to conferences. I didn’t think many people would be interested in the topic but at least I’d get to tick it off my ‘to do’ list. I’d also maybe get to meet some of the people I’d been chatting with over the last two years.

I’d been pretty nervous all day beforehand and hadn’t slept well all week. When I slipped out of Steve Brown’s talk to go and prepare I was surprised by what I found. There seemed to be quite a lot of people in the room and more were coming. Then, Adrian Underhill strolled in and asked me a question. I was worried at this point. Next the guy at the back told me it would be live streamed I started to panic. People started to add extra rows of chairs and then the cameraman gave me a thumbs up. 

The  mic picked up my feelings at that moment and preserved them for history.  


Later, someone asked me how come I got to be live streamed. I have absolutely no idea. It’s really odd and I didn’t realise how odd till I saw the list of names. Either side of me are people who are actually, you know, famous and have done stuff. I’m not very well known, have no published papers, haven’t written a book nor have ever even been to IATEFL. I’d really love to know how they came to the decision to pick me. I honestly haven’t a clue. Maybe it was a mistake?

I should take a minute here to say thanks, though. I’d been feeling a bit despondent about conferences lately. Having had about 5 and 7 people come to my last two BALEAP talks, I was beginning to wonder if it was worth the time and stress of writing and presenting. Perhaps no one was really interested? The incredible response has made me think again. I’ll have to delete my half-written “conferences are a waste of time’ blog post now. I’m genuinely very happy that so many TEFLer seem to agree with the sentiment of the talk.

The highlight of the day for me (aside from not being lynched, obviously) was meeting so many lovely twitter bods like Nicola Prentis, Mike Harrison and James Taylor (sorry if I missed anyone out, it’s all a bit of a blur) Best of all was when Hugh, Steve, Carol and Chris bought me beer and sat and chatted with me until I had to catch my train. (Side note: NO ONE looks anything like their twitter picture except for Hugh Dellar and Jonathen Sayers who look exactly like theirs)  I wish I could’ve been there all week. Maybe next year? That is assuming I haven’t been done in by a shadowy TEFL illuminati.

I’m going to try to put up some extra info about the talk but in the meantime, here are some links to old posts on the subject.
NLP claims, NLP, Council article on NLP (with response from the website in comments) and a weird misuse of Thornbury half way down here to support NLP. 
BrainGym

Sorry if this post was a bit self-indulgent. I’ll be back to my old cynical self soon.

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.