evidence based resources

So you want to be evidence based but don’t know where to start! Here are a list of sites and resources which promote evidence in education for free! 

Summaries of research

Research bites is an excellent site which offers summaries of ELT and SLA research. THe site offers summaries of single papers in clear and accessible terms. There are a range of author and I believe the summary writers write to the article authors to check that they are happy with the summary. Anthony Schmidt runs the site and his own blog is worth a look too. 


The OASIS summaries page offers something very similar to research bites but is run by academics rather than teachers. They also offer advice about how to cite the summaries in your research. The summaries are in pdf form and can be download. The IRIS database also includes summaries of research and in addition to that offers research tools . The NCELP is another site which offers resources but for modern language teachers. 

Free access journals 

Should you want to read academic articles directly there are a few things you can do. There is increasingly a move towards open access in all kinds of publications and ELT is no different. This article on open access in ELT, is open access. It’s written by Emma Marsden who is a big advocate for transparency in research. 

ELTjam featured a really nice article showing you which journals have free access and limited free access and these days most journals have something you can view for free. The article has a lot of great tips on getting hold of articles (legally) for free. Another thing you can try is writing to the author. With academics I’ve had a pretty good success rate when just emailing them and asking for a copy of papers. I think most of them are just overjoyed that someone wants to read their stuff. Disclaimer: I wouldn’t try this with someone who makes their living selling reference books and the like. I very much doubt Scott Thornbury will email you a copy of ‘the A-Z of ELT’. 

The British council and Cambridge (CUP) both offer some of their own research for free. You can get hold of quite a lo of good quality stuff just by browsing their sites. It should be noted that nothing in this post represents an endorsement of any of the research you find on these sites. For instance, the British Council site has a section on the dubious ‘21st century skills‘ 


Websites 

The education endowment Foundation also offers some summaries of research (though it is general education not ELT). The site also has reports on various areas of teaching. The site is very accessible and lays out information in a very accessible way

A couple more useful sites are 3 star learning and the learning scientist (the latter of which has an accompanying podcast). They both offer interesting articles on research in Education however the former seems to have no way of navigating the site. The learning scientist has some nice, clear downloadable resources. (Thanks to Anthony Schmidt for directing me to these two websites.)

blogs

There are a number of blogs which seek to present evidence in education. This blog, for instance has a ‘try this it works‘ section which attempts to summarise research. Philip Kerr has some good stuff on translation and adaptive learningIn addition to this Greg Ashman’s blog on teaching is usually well researched as is David Didau’s ‘learning spy‘ site. These last two are general education though. 


If I missed anything out please let me know and I’ll update this page. 

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A list of papers by topic for educational research
Simon Borg’s website
Reading in a Foreign Language Journal


Duy Van Vu’s list of open-access journals on ELT
Paul Nation’s articles


MISAPPLIED LINGUISTICS


It’s been a while but I’m very pleased to announce a guest post from a man who requires no introduction, none other than Leo Selivan (also know as lexicalLeo.) Leo is one of the people I’ve known online for years but haven’t yet had the chance to meet. His posts are always informative and well-referenced, -something I always appreciate (and he shares my scepticism for all things Chomsky). Leo blogs at leoxicon
Leo is writing here about one of my  personal favourite topics, the oft discussed gap between theory and practice in ELT.
Nicola Prentis once described her first experience of attending IATEFL as being in ELT groupie heaven.  Last year I had a similar experience while attending for the first time the AAAL (American Association of Applied Linguistics) convention – I felt like an Applied Linguistics groupie. Where else would you get to sit in the same row with both Ellises (Nick and Rod) and with Patsy Lightbown one row behind you? All the names a diligent MA TESOL student would know from their readings were there in the flesh.
Unfortunately, my attendance of AAAL also confirmed my belief that the gap between ELT theory and practice is growing wider and becoming more difficult to bridge. For the past few years, AAAL, which started as an offshoot of TESOL, and TESOL’s own convention have been conveniently held back to back in the same location (in Toronto last year). This geographical and temporary proximity presumably gives professionals travelling from all over the world an opportunity to attend both events.
It seems that very few actually do so. Out of 10 or so attendees from my home town Tel Aviv that I ran into at AAAL – all college and university lecturers (involved in undergraduate TEFL education) – none were staying on for TESOL, which may be regarded as “too practical” and lowbrow by the academia. “Looking down on us, ‘commoners’, from the Ivory tower”, I remarked ironically to one academic acquaintance I bumped into at AAAL, a former high school teacher, to which she replied, “The climb was too steep to look back down now”.
But this is, of course, anecdotal evidence, and since this blog is dedicated to questioning accepted views and practices using solid, substantial evidence, I will now turn to such.

Case in Point No. 1:

MISLEADING TERMINOLOGY

One thing that contributes to the divide between academia and practice is the abstruse language and incomprehensible jargon used in academic writing. Have you ever seen an article in an applied linguistics journal dealing with “lexical chunks”? Probably not, because scholars opt for “formulaic language”, a term little known to EFL teachers. Grammar teaching is referred to by applied linguistics as “focus on form” with both form(how a structure is formed) and function (and how it is used) subsumed under the unhelpful term. “Teaching” is disguised as “instruction”, which always confuses my non-native speaking teacher trainees, and “classroom” is referred to as an “instructional setting”. No wonder much published academic research makes little sense to practitioners.
Take, for example, the unclear definition of incidental vocabulary learning.  I am sure, to the reader “incidental” means encountering words in context while reading or listening and not as part of a vocabulary exercise.  Yet, in second language acquisition (SLA) research literature, “incidental learning” is a different construct, often contrasted with “intentional” with the latter defined as an activity geared towards committing lexical information to memory (Hulstijn 2001). In L2 vocabulary studies, in particular, learning is considered intentional when the subjects of an experiment are warned of the upcoming test, i.e. told to go home and memorise the items. 
This effectively renders most vocabulary practice, such as gap fills, matching exercises and other activities you might do in class or find in coursebooks incidental, because they merely provide exposure but do not require the learner to commit new vocabulary to memory. The dubious incidental-intentional dichotomy has been addressed by Anthony Bruton in an article in TESOL Journal (Bruton et al, 2011), where he called on researchers to use more transparent terms. For example, “deliberate / not deliberate” or “intentional / not intentional” would be a better choice of terms to distinguish the different kinds of learning.

Case in Point No. 2:

MISINTERPRETED FINDINGS

One of the researchers I was really looking forward to meeting at AAAL was Stuart Webb, who is known for his rigorously designed studies on L2 vocabulary learning, and often getting his subjects to take a battery of 10 (!) different tests in one sitting to measure various aspects of acquisition of new words. Imagine giving your students 10 different exercises with the same words – in a row!
In one of his studies (Webb 2007), a group of learners was presented with new words in contextualised sentences and the other group the same words with their L1 equivalents or, as SLA researchers prefer to call it, “word pairs” (please refer to Section 1 for discussion on misleading terminology). The results showed that presenting new words in context is ineffective because learners can easily, and more efficiently, learn words with their L1 equivalents.
However, given the nature of the target words in the study, the finding is not surprising. After all, do you need much context to learn the word “locomotive”?  But, say, the word “train” had been chosen instead, and, more importantly, learners had been asked to use the target items (i.e. write sentences with new words), I am sure, the findings would have been quite different. The linguistic context might have come in handy then because learners would have needed to know: 

get on/off the train, catch the train, go by train etc

to be able to use the word “train” appropriately.  

When I asked Stuart Webb about his diminishing the role of context, he seemed a bit baffled at first and could not understand what study I was referring to. When it finally dawned on him, he clarified that the study in question was one in a series of papers published in various journals (as it is often the case with PhD dissertations) and, being just one piece of the puzzle, may not give the full picture.
I re-read the article and found this acknowledgement hidden in the Limitations section:

Richer contexts may show that context has a greater effect on vocabulary knowledge than was found in this study.

Not only does the study support the use of context, it actually claims that more or better context might be necessary to learn new words. But if taken at face value, the study can be misinterpreted as a claim that context is not important for vocabulary learning. Indeed, I have seen a conference presentation claiming just that and citing Webb’s study. This is what I would like to turn to in the next section.

Case in Point No. 3:

MISGUIDED MEDIATORS

It’s all very well blaming the academia for the theory-practice chasm but criticism can equally be directed at practitioners themselves. Many reasons can be given to explain why teachers do not consult the research literature which could inform their classroom decisions. Apart from inaccessible language discussed above, the reasons can include a lack of time or lack of incentive (see this articleby Penny Ur).
But is it really the role of teachers to read research? After all, there are teacher trainers, coursebook writers, authors of teacher’s handbooks, conference, all of whom are probably in a better position to translate research into clear methodological guidelines?  In other words, those who act as mediators between SLA research and ELT pedagogy. Unfortunately, mediators do not always take on board pertinent research findings (see for example my post on teaching words in semantic sets) or, more disconcertingly, misinterpret or misapply them.
At one of the recent IATEFL conferences, a well-known presenter, in fact, one of the leading figures in the ELT world, questioned the validity of highlighting and underlining as useful learning strategies. The evidence that was cited in support of the claim comes from Dunlosky et al.’s study (2013) which, as it turns out, was conducted on native English speakers who were not even foreign language learners – they were learning content subjects, such as biology or history. 
Clearly, there is a difference between the underlining and highlighting of portions of a history textbook to be learned and marking lexical chunks which are worth remembering or grammatical structures which merit attention. If anything, SLA research considers underlining or highlighting, alongside other attention-catching techniques, as one of the ways of making linguistic input more salient. Such input enhancement has been shown to induce noticing and arguably aid acquisition of new linguistic forms. (Jourdenais et al 1995, Simard 2009)

CONCLUSION

In addition to researchers and practitioners attending and presenting at each others’ conferences, how can each party contribute to bridging the divide between academia and the classroom? I would like to see more research conducted on pedagogical issues that practitioners seek answers to and not on what is easy to research (in other words, more on “catching the trains” rather than “locomotives”). I think it is the role of ELT methodologists, teacher educators and coursebook writers to evaluate relevant research and its applicability, and translate it into pedagogical principles.
At the same time, teachers would do well to read blogs that connect practice with theory in an accessible way, such as Scott Thornbury’s A to Z of ELT, Rachael Roberts’s ELT-resourcefulor this very blog you’re reading now. Thank you, Russell, for inviting me to contribute to it!
The full and slightly modified version of this article will be published in Modern English Teacher 25(3)

References

Bruton, A., Lopez, M. and Mesa, R. (2011) Incidental L2 vocabulary learning: an impracticable term? TESOL Quarterly, 45(4), 759–768
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., and Willingham, D.T. (2013) Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58
available from 
http://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full.pdf+html
Hulstijn, J.H. (2001). Intentional and incidental second language vocabulary Learning: a Reappraisal of Elaboration, Rehearsal and Automaticity. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and Second Language Instruction (pp 258-286). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Jourdenais, R., Ota, M., Stauffer, S., Boyson, B., & Doughty, C. (1995). Does textual enhancement promote noticing?: A think aloud protocol analysis. In R. Schmidt (Ed.), Attention and awareness in foreign language learning (pp 183-216). Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii, Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center.
Simard, D. (2009). Differential effects of textual enhancement formats on intake. System, 37, 124-35
Ur, P. (2012, October 16). How useful is TESOL research? Guardian Weekly. (Learning English). http://gu.com/p/3bvee
Webb, S. (2007). Learning word pairs and glossed sentences: The effects of a single context on vocabulary knowledge. Language Teaching Research, 11, 63-81

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). 




Teaching is an art, not a science!


One of the phrases that annoys me no end is the TTC stating that ‘teaching is an art, not a science’. It annoys me for principally three reasons. The first is that it forces a false dichotomy. ‘Do you think teaching can be a science like physics? No? then it’s an art’. Fortunately we’re not actually required to choose one or the other, after all, as Willingham notes, medicine isn’t a science in the way physics is, but science can help to inform it. Likewise, science can help to inform education. 


The second is the overwhelming asymmetry in the number of claimants. that is, hardly anyone, anywhere, is claiming the opposite. Search online and you’ll find It’s really quite hard to find supporters of the ‘actually, teaching is a science’ position. 



The troops are massing, but the enemy is nowhere to be found. In fact I was only able to find one supporter. Daniel Lindley Jr wrote a paper in 1970 titled ‘teaching is a science not an art’. Interestingly there are quite a few papers and blogs on this subject where the author will say ‘some people claim teaching is a science’ but almost never any citation or link to where I might find the people allegedly saying this. Sure, there are people who say teaching is both an art and a science, but no one fighting for a ‘science only’ vision of teaching.

The second interesting thing about this statement is exactly when it’s used. As there is seemingly no one promoting the idea that ‘teaching is a science’ the phrase tends to appear to support a whole raft of unconnected propositions. For example, you can use it when attacking the ‘broken’ education system:


When criticising teacher grading:


When railing against common core

When railing against tests in general. 



When promoting the value of student placement. 


When warning against the deindividualization of students

when promoting…erm…’vital infusing core values'(?)


and of course when arguing that students ‘are not fish’


It doesn’t really seem to matter how disparate the ideas may be, you can, it seems, use this phrase as an all-purpose battle-cry. The notion that someone, somewhere is trying to ‘sciencify’ education seems to terrify some even though it’s not entirely clear who is trying to do that. 

Among my reading of researchers and educators I have yet to come across anyone claiming that education should be, or can be an entirely scientific endeavour.  John Hattie (2009:2) calls teaching an ‘art’. Tom Bennett, the director of researchED calls it a ‘craft‘, as does Daniel Willingham. And Ben Goldacre in his paper on education notes that “being a good doctor, or teacher, or manager, isn’t about robotically following the numerical output of randomised trials.” In the EFL world, Rod Ellis writes that while research is important it is ‘not capable of providing teachers with recipes for successful practice’ (2008:xxiv). 


When so many people are railing against an imaginary foe, we have to wonder why? Science attempts to be objective and exact, art is a bit more subjective. Hattie (2009) notes that teachers operate on an ‘anything goes’ model of best-practice and insulate themselves against criticism with the unspoken law that “I’ll leave you alone, if you leave me alone to teach my way”(2009:1). In other words, classrooms can be personal fiefdoms where a teacher the power to teach any way they like. Could it be that the notion of someone, somewhere trying to systematize some aspect of teaching, and make teachers’ more accountable, threatens the convenient status quo?

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.

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.



 

Researcher or teacher?

Dear blog,

Sorry I haven’t written much recently, I’ve been busy getting married.

Around this time last year I had a piece in Modern English Teacher. About six months later Simon Andrewes wrote a critical response to my piece (I don’t think it’s online though you can see another of his articles here.) I’m pleased to announce that my response to his response is out in MET today. I’ll probably put it up on the site later this year but this is just a short post with a couple of points.
First is a big thank you to Dave Francis who published the original article and the follow up. I don’t know if I would have continued with this blog if it hadn’t been for him. He recently told me he’s resigning as the editor of MET and that October 2013 was his final issue. Thanks for all your hard work Dave!
Second is a quick point relating to the article. One of the themes is whether it’s true in education that ‘researchers are researchers and teachers are teachers and never the twain will meet.’ It’s an issue I touched on earlier in the year.
Anyway, I’m currently writing a piece on student feedback for BALEAP in Oxford Brookes this year and during the research I came across this rather interesting paper. The authors attempted to find out if being a good researcher was in any way linked to being a good teacher. What’s interesting is that they come at the research from a different angle, -namely, they were trying to discover if the myth of “good researcher = good teacher”. I personally didn’t know this a myth and always tended to hear the opposite in TEFL circles (including Andrewes article) namely researchers are clueless about teaching.
As it turns out the researchers managed to find no relationship between being a good teacher and being a good researcher. some excellent teachers sucked at research and some poor researchers were also poor teachers and vice-versa. This result really shouldn’t surprise us. A thoughtful and intelligent teacher can make a thoughtful and intelligent researcher or they may just be awful.
Some musicians can also write songs, -some can’t and some folks can neither play an instrument nor write songs. Surely no one would be surprised by this so why does the odd myth of the teachers and researchers being different species persist?