THE LAMENTABLE GULF BETWEEN RESEARCH AND PRACTICE IN ELT AS ELSEWHERE

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

The Importance of Research

This was originally published in Modern English Teacher (Oct 2013)

One of the most divisive myths in the TEFL world is the supposed irreconcilable distinction between teachers and researchers. In this narrative Real TEFL practitioners are in the classroom with students –at the chalkface, while those in academia spend their time in ivory towers, coming up with counter intuitive theories that any experienced teacher in the ‘real world’ would be able to tell them were nonsense. Thornbury, for example characterises researchers as “men in white coats” who he fears may “hijack” ELT (2001:403) and Widdowson notes that “there is a good deal of mistrust of theory among English language teachers…[who] see it as remote from their actual experience, an attempt to mystify common-sense practices by unnecessary abstraction”(2010:1). Simon Andrewes further reinforces this popular view in his article “About Theory and Practice” (Met 22:2)

Simon Andrewes draws a distinction between, “practitioners and theoreticians” or “the real world” and the world of academics. In this dichotomy practitioners are “pragmatists” looking for real ways to improve teaching while academics just want to get published. While there may be some truth in the different aims of these professions, it seems to me a rather simplistic and unkind portrait of academics, many of whom started life in the classroom and did their time at the ‘chalkface’. Often these experiences drive their research:

…gradually my career has moved me from direct language teaching to being more of a researcher, more of a teacher educator. I think that experience is very important because a lot of the things that I research and the way in which I interpret research is based very much on my experience as a language teacher. (Ellis 2012 Online)

The problem is more nuanced than Simon allows and it is not because “theory has become divorced from practice” as he suggests but rather because questions that teachers want answers to are not always easy to research:

when you ask students to try to plan a research study, they have a lot of problems writing their questions because they tend to write questions that are important to them, but are not very easily researchable…If you have a very broad question like, “What can I do to get my learners to avoid making this kind of mistake?” that’s probably not a very good question because it’s not easy to see how you can design a study to actually do that.(Ellis 2012: Online)

Despite the difficulties, research is carried and results are produced.  It seems rather unfair for those not engaged in research to write off the whole endeavour as being a way to climb the academic ladder.

Simon clearly feels passionately about this subject. In an earlier article he sets teachers in opposition to “methodologists” who unlike teachers “do not feel the constraints of everyday school life” and who spend their time trying to “attract their paymasters” by “constantly revolutionising teaching ideas” (2008:18). He also notes that “Teachers’ mistrust of and resentment towards methodology are clearly a consequence of this gulf between practice and theory” (2008:19). But his passion for defending the “‘ordinary’, ‘down-to-earth’ people against the elitism of academics”, (Widdowson 2010:2) has, it seems, led him to create straw man villains like ‘researchers’ (only in it for the ‘papers’) and ‘methodologists’ (only in it for the money) who are positioned in opposition to the noble pragmatic teacher. This is an attractive fantasy but still a fantasy.

The teacher/academic distinction is arguably quite convenient for experienced teachers who can simultaneously dismiss academic work without the bother of having to do it or read it and by placing ‘experience’ as the ‘ne plus ultra’ of TEFL professionalism, position themselves as the voice of authority. This is also a dangerous position as “teachers who insist they are simply practitioners, workers at the chalkface, not interested in theory, in effect conspire against their own authority, and against their own profession” (Widdowson 2012:2) Research can be flawed, often seriously yet good research can give us insights into best practice and while what is effective isn’t always easy to demonstrate and may depend on many factors,  we can often identify those things which have been shown to be ineffective. One such example as I argued previously is learning styles(LS).

Simon Andrewes is mistaken when he suggests the “facts and fictions” title refers to the sense that research can be quite removed from practice. The title is actually homage to an article by Amos Paran (1996) “reading in EFL: facts and fictions” which was an inspiration to me and pertinent to this article as Paran attacks the use of ‘the psycholinguistic (guessing game) model’ of reading popular in ELT. He criticises the approach, for lacking evidence and for having been rejected by reading researchers for years. He concludes:

As a final point, it is important to stand back and think how [this model] of reading, with all the reservations LI reading researchers expressed towards it, has been able to hold sway over L2 reading models for such a long time. (1995:33)

This is important to dwell on as the model he attacked then is still hugely popular today among EFL teachers and this has similarities with LS.

 

‘healthy scepticism”

 It’s clear from reading Simon Andrewes article that the use of ‘learning styles’ to mean two things causes confusion. Therefore for the purpose of this article I will refer to what I had advanced as the ‘weak’ variant, namely the idea that ‘everyone learns differently’ as ‘study preferences’. I think this probably sums up what teachers mean when they say ‘everyone learns in different ways’.  I will distinguish these from the ‘hard’ version of LS, which is the notion that human beings have fixed physiological differences in the way they best retain and acquire new information.

The former is true, the latter is false. The former is merely expressing the quite obvious idea that people prefer to study things in different ways. I may like to listen to music while studying and another person may love checking words in a dictionary or listening to podcasts. Some people like the colour red and others prefer blue. There is nothing controversial here but also nothing particularly note-worthy. The latter, has repeatedly been shown to be unsupported by evidence. Just to be clear about this point, there is no evidence, despite much research, that people learn better if they get information through a preferred sensory channel.

This is where the problems associated with relying entirely on a teacher’s experience can be clearly seen. A teacher may believe that it is useful to know a student’s LS and they may believe it sincerely but research suggests otherwise. It is not good enough for teachers to accept only those findings that they already agree with and dismiss research that contradicts their preferred way of working. Thus, when Simon writes “nobody is better placed than the teacher to determine what will work in practice” (2013:56) what he is arguing for is essentially an anything goes attitude to ELT where what is good, bad, fun, useful or valid are all decided entirely at the discretion of the teacher.

When research findings contradict teachers, Simon suggests that the problem is with the research, after all “if theory is honestly valid, then classroom practice will vindicate it” (2012:56). He Later adds, “the division between theory and practice, then, is what leads to a healthy scepticism among practitioners towards the claims of theoreticians”. In actuality healthy scepticism is entirely what’s missing from our profession and thus the proliferation of faddish theories continues. Master NLP practitioner claim to determine student LS from watching their eye movements while tapping into their left-brained multiple intelligences with the latest BrainGymTM activity. Pseudo-science is heaped on pseudo-science with scant regard for facts. This is hardly surprising when they are told to ignore research and decide the value of things for themselves.

The ELT world has proved a fertile breeding ground for pseudo-science and at times mutually exclusive theories are even thrown together with seeming reckless abandon. For example, Simon explicitly relates LS with the theory of multiple intelligences (MI) at one point talking about students’ “intrapersonal learning style” but LS theory and MI theory are completely different things. LS theory (or at least the VARK model) is the idea that people can improve their learning if information is delivered via their dominant modality (visual, auditory etc). Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory is merely an attempt to redefine the concept of aptitudes as ‘intelligences’. This is not my opinion but Gardner’s who describes the idea that “[a]n Intelligence is the same as a learning style” as a “myth” (1999:80). The only common ground that the two share is that they are both adored by teachers and lack any scientific credibility. Even Gardner himself is not keen on certain classroom applications of MI theory: 

 I am leery of implementations such as […] believing that going through certain motions activates or exercises specific intelligences. I have seen classes in which children were encouraged to move their arms or run around, on the assumption that such exercise enhances bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. It does not, any more than babbling enhances linguistic or musical intelligence.(1999:90)

And:

I once watched a series of videos about multiple intelligences in the schools. In one video after another I saw youngsters crawling across the floor, with the superimposed legend ‘Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence’. I said, ‘That is not bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, that is kids crawling across the floor. And I feel like crawling up the wall.’(1999:142)

Simon suggests teachers should be aware that students learn in different ways and adds that we should know about their “particular kinaesthetic or right brain or interpersonal needs or whatever”. So as well as LS and MI he also promotes the idea of there being left-brained/right brained learners, an idea long rejected by neuroscientists.

In the article, Simon claims my argument fails because we cannot engage students if we are “oblivious to their particular learning style” (2013:58). Does he, I wonder, also think we should find out our students’ star signs, or endeavour to find out what colour their auras are, as these have, at present, as much credibility as the theories he is defending.  This isn’t “healthy scepticism” it’s a free for all.

The need for research

That Simon calls things like LS “self-evident truth[s]” when there is so little supporting evidence is exactly why research is so crucial. At one point in our history it seemed self-evident that some women were witches or that star signs could tell us about our personalities or that tarot cards could help us know our destinies. It once seemed self-evident that canning students was an appropriate method of classroom management and that blood-letting was a good medical treatment. As Widdowson notes:

 The first thing to do with common sense is to question it; the last thing to do is accept it as valid. It may be valid, but, then the validity has to be argued for and demonstrated. It cannot be taken as self-evident. (2010:3)

Experience is a crucial tool for teachers. It can give us insights into what is effective and indicate what isn’t, and in the absence of evidence it’s arguably a good bet. However, experience has its limits and can cause us to see evidence supporting our ideas that perhaps isn’t there. As Jeremy Harmer tweeted recently “I don’t 100% trust what I think I see! I also want the results of better brains than mine = research”.

 References

 Paran, A. (1996). Reading in EFL: Facts and fictions. ELT Journal, 50(1), 25-34

Andrewes, S. (2013) About theory and practice in ELT.   MET 22:2 56-58

Andrewes, S. (2008) Teachers Against Methodology. English Teaching Professional, May 2008. 56. 17-19.

Gardner, H. (1991) Intelligence Reframed. New York: Basic Books

Thornbury, S. (2001) Lighten up: A reply to Angles Clemente ELT Journal, 55(4), 403-4

Widdowson, H.G (2010) Defining issues in English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Language Mazazine (2012). Interview with Rod Ellis. In The journal of communication and education. Retrieved 3rd August 2013, from http://languagemagazine.com/?page_id=3843