Is TEFL too nice?

Criticism can be hard to take. In the book “kindly Inquisitors” the author relays the story of Georg Cantor a mathematician who “lost his mind because of the hatred and animosity against him and his ideas by his teacher Leopold Kronecker: He was confined to a mental hospital for many years at the end of his life” (2014: 296) Kubota suggests that “The field of L2 education by nature attracts professionals who are willing to work with people across racial boundaries, and thus it is considered to be a ‘nice’ field”. But is TEFL too nice?

It might seem an odd question to ask, after all, how can people be too nice? For me, sometimes the desire to protect relations and be kind tips over into a kind of censorship. This happens when criticism is withheld or watered down to protect people’s feelings. Here are some personal anecdotes:

  • Before I gave a talk once, the organisers asked me to remove references to certain people in a talk they had invited me to give.
  • While writing an piece I was asked if I could remove references to authors who held the views I was criticising.

Maybe I was wrong in these situations, after all, it is entirely possible to criticise a position without saying who holds it. That said, when discussing the prevalence of neuromyths in ELT, for instance, might it not be important to note that prominent figures are promoting these things? Or is being discreet more important?

Personally I find it a little frustrating when reading an article that says something to the effect of “many believe that correction is not useful” or “some people disagree with this idea” and not seeing a link to who it is who is making these points. I would like to go away and read their work and see exactly what they say, but instead I just have to take the writer’s word for it.

Should we avoid giving this useful information for fear of offending? I tend to agree with Rauch who notes, “people who are hurt by words are morally entitled to nothing whatsoever by way of compensation. What is the right answer to the person who demands something because he is offended? Just this: ‘Too bad but you’ll live'”(80)

So am I for people saying whatever they want? Well, not quite…

Anything goes?

One of my ELT heroes is Mike Swan. His articles seem to cut through nonsense and provide a clear and fair examination of authors. At the same time he didn’t pull his punches and wasn’t afraid of frank criticism. However, if you’ve seen his collected works you’ll notice that the articles are prefaced with his current reflections on them. Before one of his most scathing articles he writes the following:

‘The tone of the articles was consequently excessively polemic, anti-academic, and at times downright rude. I now offer my belated apologies to the several distinguished scholars for whom I showed less respect for me certainly deserved.’ (2013:1)

Reading the essay that Swan is apologising for, I was struck by how mild it is compared to blog posts and tweets we can see daily. Swan, I suppose, belated recognised that criticism is hard enough to take without adding unnecessary venom. 

Another negative side effect of overly unpleasant criticism is that your critics can dismiss you very easily. “I don’t object to what you said, just the way you said it. Let’s discuss that instead.” This kind of tone policing has been examined by Andrew Old, who notes that the subjective nature of ‘tone’ means that “almost any style of disagreement can be objected to on this basis”. Notably though, he draws the line at insults, threats and rudeness and is quick to block those he feels crosses the that line.

An academic issue

Academic writing is often impenetrable, vague and dull. Language seem to be used at times with the purpose of confusing rather than elucidating. However, this dullness and cold objectivity can perhaps be used to temper the anger we might feel when reading a piece criticising something we have written.

Writing that someone’s view “does not seem to be supported by the evidence” might be easier to take than describing someone’s views as ‘crap’. Saying someone’s opinions are ‘moronic prattling’, while technically not insulting the person, is unlikely to lead to a productive debate. In fact, it is probably much more likely the other party will entrench their position rather than come round to your way of thinking. Sure, it’s great to get patted on the back after DESTROYING someone with FACTS and LOGIC but how much does this kind of rhetoric effect any actual change?

It can also create a rather toxic environment. If the discussion becomes increasingly extreme, only the extremeophiles thrive. Others will choose not to engage. We thus lose all but one type of voice and it becomes an intellectual cul-de-sac of sorts. 

The importance of criticism

“Controversy is good, it makes us think” Scott Thornbury,  IATEFL 2016 Plenary

Is it really a kindness to not criticise idea because you want to ‘nice’? Is it a good situation if everyone disagrees with you but is cowed into silence or should we encourage people to say what they think? What if what they think will effectively silence others? It’s not an easy question to answer.  I don’t know where the lines should be drawn and I don’t think people should have to put up with people being abusive to them. What I can say is that I think I’ve learnt far more from criticism than praise, no matter how hard it is to hear. To quote Kindly Inquisitors again “a no offence society is a no-knowledge society” (2014: 297).

Woo Watch: The rise of Neuro

There are those in ELT who aren’t fans of  science and research. ‘It’s an art‘ they protest, ‘stop trying to measure everything!’ On the other side are those who grab science and embrace it wholeheartedly. Sometimes these hugs can be a little too hard, leaving science with broken bones and internal bleeding. The intention is good but the result is a squishy, science shaped mess. 

One example of this is the rise of “Neuro” in teaching. The Neuro crowd are not doubt well-intentioned but can sometimes seem to stray dangerously close to the “woo” side of the forceSatel and Lilienfeld note that neuroscience “is vulnerable to being oversold by the media, some overzealous scientists, and neuroentrepreneurs who tout facile conclusions that reach far beyond what the current evidence warrants”. 

Neuroscience is a legitimate science which offers many promising insights but as Dorothy Bishop, Professor of developmental neuropsychology notes, the attempts to link it to education are often misjudged. And she is not the only one. Daniel Willingham has written that Neuroscience applied to education is “mostly unimpressive“, stating that there is “definitely a lot of neuro-garbage in the education market.” As the authors of “Brainwashed” note, there are many educational enterprises that seem to “merely dress up or repackage good advice with neuroscientific findings that add nothing to the overall program.

“Neuro” is popping up increasingly in ELT. For instance, in a recently published piece by Cambridge University Press on “neurolearning” the author argues that “neurolearning” is useful for creating a “brain-compatible environment”. The article goes on to use language like “Homeostasis” and “Hypothalamus” in order to suggest rather ordinary things like keeping the classroom at a good temperature. The author published another article saying that “no matter the target language, try to think about activities that will appeal to the different learning styles – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic.” and “a brain-compatible environment can only be created by a passionate teacher”. Unfortunately, after some online criticism, the page seems to have been removed. Exactly what the word “neuro” adds to any of the approaches suggested in article, is not clear. 


Another example of the rise of “neuro” is “neurolanguage coaching®“, which is a mix of coaching and neuroscience. It’s creator claims that:

Neurolanguage Coaches are trained in the practical application of neuroscientific principles, relating to how the brain learns, functions and reacts, in particular in relation to emotional triggers when learning a language, drawing Krashen´s affective filter into the scientific evidence arena.

Similarly, in Japan, ‘neuro’ has taken off! The Japanese Language Teaching association (JALT) has a special interest group know as the “mind brain and Education” sig. The sig promotes something called NeuroELT. The group began as a charity project after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and went on to hold a series of conferences called the FAB11


I don’t know much about these approaches and don’t particularly have any bones to pick with either, but in both cases, as with neurolearning, it’s a little unclear as to what precisely the role of “neuro” plays, other than to provide a slightly scientific veneer to otherwise ordinary educational practices. Is there that much to be gained by knowing that the prefrontal context “lights up” when students play Hangman? 

Bloblolgy 

Another curious side-effect of the rise of Neuro are the endless pictures of colourful brains accompanied by effusive explanations that this proves that X or Y is the case:

Here’s a spot that lights up when subjects think of God (“Religion center found!”), or researchers find a region for love (“Love found in the brain”). Neuroscientists sometimes refer disparagingly to these studies as “blobology,” their tongue-in-cheek label for studies that show which brain areas become activated as subjects experience X or perform task Y. (link)

These images can be surprisingly effective. It has been shown that brain images of the type neuroscience produces, actually helps to make research seem more believable. However, when even a dead salmon in an FMRI scanner can produce exciting looking blobs, we should proceed with caution. 

This current “neurophilia” is not completely without precedent in ELT. The 90s saw a rise in popularity of Neuro-linguistic programming. NLP, which has very strong pseudoscientific elements became so popular that it made appearances in a number of respectable people’s work. And what concerns me is that people who might have previously been previously swept up in various “brain-based” approaches might now be getting swept up in the “neuro” craze. 

For example, I recently discovered that the “language teacher“Journal had had an NLP special edition (volume 21, no. 2) and one of the contributors to this special edition, an advocate of educational hypnosis and a proponent of NLP, is also a founder of the JALT Brain, Mind and Education sig. Other founders have also published articles on, for example, the Kolb model of learning styles, the learning pyramid (a theory which must surely be on life support at this point) and a study into the VAK learning styles of over 30,000 dental students. 

These articles are fairly old and it is possible that the authors no longer buy into these kinds of practices. Evidence for this can be seen in that the group has a handy neuro myths website and the NeuroELT website explicitly warns readers to watch out for neuromythsThe creator of “neurolanguage coaching®” has, likewise, explicitly distanced herself from NLP (her upcoming conference, however, does feature one speaker who is an NLP practitioner.)  All of this is reassuring, but  I am still left with a linger sense of unease about the prospects for “neuro” in ELT. 

One area where ‘Neuro’ has already ‘contributed’ to education is in the proliferation and acceptance of many neuromyths. Lethaby and Harries have shown that, as in other areas of education, many ELT teachers believe that people only use 10% of their brains or that there are left brained and right brained learners. But the prevalence of neuromyths and experts warning about giving too much attention to the “neuro” prefix seem to falling on deaf ears. No doubt neuroscience can bring interesting and useful findings to education, but the rush to embrace this new toy could also end badly. 

Is the end of Erasmus Nigh?

While working in Leicester University I had a few classes teaching Erasmus students.These were always an interesting change from a lot of the other EAP classes we used to teach and although the students could be a bit challenging at times, they were a memorable bunch of students. I was a shocked earlier this year to see “Erasmus” trending on twitter and a large number of accounts mourning the (imminent) loss of the program. But are Eramsus’ days really numbered? Here is Dan Jones from the University of Leicester to try to explain what’s going on.

For the last two years I’ve had a Google Alert set up for the combined key words of Brexit and Erasmus. Every so often, but not too often, I get a ping telling me about a Brexit/Erasmus news story. I’ve learnt that either the Google Alert algorithm or the UK government isn’t working. I get surprisingly few pings. 


If you’re not familiar with Erasmus, here’s the quickest of summaries. Firstly, as an acronym it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s the EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students. Students can select up to 4 modules a semester, basically the same ones as the undergraduate students but they can choose from across departments. Some come for just a semester and some for the whole academic year (yes all seven months of it). We currently have students from Spain, France, Germany and Italy. The outbound British students get all the attention in the UK press (as we’ll see a lot of them grow up to be journalists), but the other half of the story is the students from other EU countries who come to study in the UK. 

It’s centrally funded through the EU and runs in 7-year blocks. The current one ends this year and therefore the UK can’t keep putting off signing up for 2021-2027 much longer. Each 7 years has seen the budget and remit expand. The current programme’s budget is 14.7 billion euros. The new programme is notable for its budget of 30 billion euros.


The UK’s involvement may now come to an end. What follows is a short Brexit story where nothing very much happens.

From 24th June 2016 until December 2018 nothing very much happened. In universities, the plan was ‘wait and see’. The government offered to underwrite the current programme, which was nice, but nobody believed them, so universities had to give their own separate guarantees (e.g and e.g.).

The government advice on Erasmus up until 8th December 2018 started with “A scenario in which the UK leaves the EU without agreement (a ‘no deal’ scenario) remains unlikely given the mutual interests of the UK and the EU in securing a negotiated outcome.” By December, it became clear that the May strategy of running down the clock and calling everyone’s bluff was a long shot and wasn’t going to work. Without making a fuss, on the 23rd December 2018, a civil servant updated the advice to “Delivering the deal negotiated with the EU remains the government’s top priority. This has not changed. However, the government must prepare for every eventuality, including a no deal scenario.”

Just to repeat: NOTHING HAS CHANGED 


At a government level it wasn’t clear what preparing for every eventuality actually meant. But by January 2019 it meant hanging the universities out to dry “UK organisations may wish to consider bilateral arrangements with partner organisations that would enable their projects to continue.”


At a university level, all they could do was publish a reassuring strategy statement (e.g), but as everyone was fond of saying you can’t start doing new deals until you’ve left the old one. At a course planning level, how exactly do you prepare for every eventuality? Do you both plan and not plan all the modules, allocate and not allocate hours to teachers, book and not book rooms? So we decided to wait and see. 

This period of limbo gave journalists the opportunity to reflect on what the UK might lose. This and this being the most recent. Essential elements are 1) Facebook just reminded me I was an Erasmus student. 2) I had a lot of fun, 3) That was the year I found myself, 4) It wasn’t all about the drinking. 



From my experience of hungover and sleep-deprived students, there’s some truth to the partying aspect. I can’t say about the finding yourself. But as all these articles quite rightly go on to say, Erasmus students get to experience living somewhere else, and from an academic point of view, they get to study modules at degree level outside of their specialisation. Our Shakespeare and literature modules are taken by students from all academic backgrounds. We have students doing a TESOL module who had previously not given a thought to teaching, let alone teaching English (though admittedly, that doesn’t sound too different to the usual route into teaching English). 


If you were in the UK in 2019 you won’t need reminding that, politically, it went a bit mad. In the run up to the original Brexit deadline of 29th March, El Pais was reporting that Spanish universities were discouraging their students from applying to the UK. At my university, 20% of our Erasmus students are from Spain. But otherwise it was more ‘wait and see’. 

A survey published in April 2019 of prospective students painted a more complex picture. When asked about whether they were more or less likely to study in the UK due to Brexit, 36% of EU students were less interested, 6% more interested. For non-EU international students it’s 10% less interested and 14% more interested. The proportion of ‘more interested’ might seem surprising, but it seems that some students see that a weakened UK pound will give them more spending power and a weakened UK HE will give students more leverage in getting into a higher ranked programme and university. 

Of course it’s the majority in the middle that are neither more nor less interested and fortunately they just carried on as usual, and when we got to the start of term, the numbers held up quite well. We even have Spanish students. The El Pais article was either inaccurate or the students ignored the advice. For most students, the only thing that will stop them applying is taking down the application form. 

In November 2019 Universities UK published “A ‘NO DEAL’ BREXIT: IMPLICATIONS FOR UNIVERSITIES AND MINIMISING RISK” They left the caps lock on as it’s directed at the government and it’s full of specific advice on what should be done. After years of vague technical notices, this is refreshingly readable (for a report on education policy). 

Over the last week, there’s been a bit more pinging from my Google Alert than usual. Firstly, the Liberal Democrats tabled an Erasmus amendment to the withdrawal agreement bill. And when it was inevitably voted down, it was reported in the most pessimistic terms: U.K. Parliament Vote Casts Doubt On Future Of Erasmus Study Abroad Scheme and Fears over future for Erasmus international student exchange scheme after Brexit. (This second of these has this great celeb filler: “Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James was among those taking to social media to denounce the outcome, which she branded disgraceful”. Well if EL James says it’s disgraceful…). But as each of these reports goes on to concede, this doesn’t actually mean anything. With the exception of last year’s madness, opposition amendments don’t get voted for by the government.

In fact, there are some reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, saying we’ll probably stay in but if we don’t then we’ll make our own, at least suggests an engagement with the issue. It does raise the question, why would you make your own when there’s a perfectly good one that we’re already using? But it’s not unprecedented, Switzerland withdrew from Erasmus in 2015 as part of a move to limit immigration. The result was the Swiss-European Mobility programme.

At this point I’m as miserable as the next person on this rain sodden island, but I seem to be a bit more optimistic about Erasmus. Once we get past 31st January I think there will be a flurry of mini deals and Erasmus will be one of them. And anyway my most recent Google Alert tells me that Boris Johnson has just said flat out, we’re staying in Erasmus. Now, if we can’t trust the Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s Government then who can we trust?

Taboo 2

Much to my surprise the taboo ELT post took off! 

It was really just for my curiosity and I hadn’t intended on publishing at all. There are now 83 responses so I have put the new ones in this post. 

I would say some people out there seem to think views which are pretty mainstream are a bit taboo. I have, where I think it’s useful, linked to blogs or academic papers which make a similar point. Perhaps if you, dear reader, know of any other links you can post them in the comments. 


(note) 

For various reasons, I’m not sure I will continue to update this. That said, I think this could be an interesting research project if someone wanted to go about it in a more systematic way. Anyway here are the latest results. 


Approaches and methods 

Teaching the IPA is a waste of time and energy for all concerned.
Tired of endless arguments about methods. Grammar translation works for some students. TBLT seems hopelessly confusing and unsystematic to some students. Some students hate group work.
‘Listen and repeat’ is no good for practising pron. You have to get physical.
I wish you’d recognise the severe limitations of correction codes for writing.
“Everyone learns differently,” I’m not sure they do. People may have different learning habits and different strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve seen no evidence that the process of learning isn’t basically the same for everyone. I think it’s often just lip service to seeing students as individuals……before giving them all the same task to do anyway.
While communication is key, treating mistakes that don’t impede communication as silly and acceptable accidents so nobody’s feelings get hurt is lazy teaching and in the long run is far worse for students regardless of how or where they will use their English 
Process writing is a complete waste of our time. The teacher spends hours commenting and suggesting corrections, and students completely ignore them in their final version.


Qualifications 

A CELTA does not make you a qualified teacher.
I understand the rationale behind the insistence of having a degree to be a TEFL teacher. I have found that some folks who don’t have a degree to be better teachers and are more professional in their approach. This requirement is a big barrier preventing people with potential but have no degree from entering the profession.

Native vs non native 

Too much emphasis on grammar based on native English. Books for teens written by adults who don’t appear to have any connection with their readers.
There is a self- fulfilling prophecy to a lot of discrimination issues by which students expecting different styles from NS and NNS teachers can lead those teachers to be more effective when they adhere to their prescribed styles. Or at least being an effective teacher while breaking from a prescribed style for one’s teacher demographic would require a lot more training and experience.
Non-natives overestimate themselves and tend to be prescriptive (and proscriptive) and this ‘World English’ nonsense just sets the bar lower for them
While native teachers are often worse teachers, the bitterness of knowing that makes non-natives ignore any possible value or advantages that natives can bring to the table. 
Many Non native teachers make mistakes with their collocation and collogation. I have read a number of articles written by non native teachers complaining of their treatment that use unnatural expressions and contain mistakes

Other teachers 

Most of my colleagues don’t know what they’re doing in class and shouldn’t be teaching.
The “subject knowledge” that English teachers are supposed to be experts in is LANGUAGE. So many teachers know jack shit about language as a system, linguistics, phonology/phonetics and it’s embarrassing. If I hear another teacher respond “Oh, it’s an exception! That’s just the way it is! Isn’t English wild and wacky?!!!” in response to a question about some aspect of language that is completely systematic, rule-governed and explainable, I will go crazy! It’s not an “exception”! You just don’t know enough about the subject area you’re supposed to be an “expert” in.
There are teachers/trainees that will never be effective classroom practitioners because they don’t have the people skills (and such skills can’t be learnt/take too long to develop).
Many teachers are delusional, especially those involved in Teacher training. They really see themselves as big celebrities and sometimes act as annoying divas, asking people questions like “You DON’T KNOW who I am???”. Ridiculous to say the least.
We don’t all teach EFL as a means of living in the Far East while we decide what we want to do in life. Some of us do the job in English-speaking countries as a profession.
A lot of unprofessional behaviours and attitudes of teachers are ignored in the name of collegiality. Some employers don’t pay teachers for prep time due to funding issues or whatever and Ts end up doing hours of unpaid work.
The majority of teachers, especially at private language schools, are really just washed up has beens and life’s rejects, this always being the elephant in the room when issues of exploitation, unfair treatment and teacher’s rights are brought up. In other words, there may well be reasons for management at institutions, etc., treating teaching staff as interchangeable, expendable revenue generators, their attitude being that the ‘teachers’ (whom they tend to think of in inverted commas like that) wouldn’t be at their mercy without having seriously fucked up in life in one way or another (‘take it or leave it’, basically). There are indeed teachers who are passionate and go the extra mile, along with all the incompetent dross, but the rather awkward question of how most ended up long-term in what regular society regards as a silly sort of gap year job remains.
Linguists teach best. If you’ve learned a foreign language as an English native speaker, you’ve got to have a lot to contribute.

The industry 

it is too much work for too little pay
The lack of professionalism within the ELT industry.
It’s mostly all bollocks. People buy into all sorts of crap with messianic vigour and preach to a largely uncritical crowd. I suspect most teachers and students would mostly prefer to be left alone to get on with it in whatever way works best for them. Don’t mind me, I have fallen from the faith. Also. pretty much every test is meaningless and all the international language exams are essentially a scam. 
.That ultimately the private language school model is useless. Teachers have very little effect on the learners and they’d be much better off watching tv and reading books in English. The results we produce are typically down to the students own motivation/talent. For that reason it’s fine to use coursebooks as it will have the same effect as not using them.
1. Students are very often pushed into doing exams that they don’t need, and are not ready for, in the name of profit for schools and inflating salaries at the Anglocentric exam boards. Cambridge Assessment and the British Council are ‘not for profit’ which means they don’t pay taxes, and their income can also be ploughed into massive marketing campaigns. (I once contacted Cambridge Assessment to ask about their marketing budget for a research paper I was doing, but they said this information was ‘confidential’.) This means that in the EFL industry, the most highly remunerated are those who are not actually teachers or necessarily know anything about teaching. And, for example, Cambridge writing examiners are paid peanuts. 
2. ‘Management’ in ELT is just a euphemism for manipulation – how to get underpaid overworked teachers to do the job without having a nervous breakdown. All talk of ‘teacher motivation’ to me is thus senseless – pay them more and give them fewer hours- it’s as simple as that, instead of spending money on plastic red buses and gadgets like IWBs that nobody needs. To become Delta qualified is a massively costly and stressful exercise, but in London the going rate of pay at this level is only 20 quid a teaching hour gross. This is, quite frankly, very insulting and the main reason why I hope never to have to work for a language school again. 
3. Native speaker teachers (with TEFL+ observed teaching practice/CELTA ) are better than their NNS counterparts in some contexts because a) high school teachers in (eg) Italy usually have NO didactic training, neither are they observed or given feedback. Just having a degree in English is enough to be an English teacher. b) high level exam prep (CAE, CPE, Ielts bands 7-9) requires in-depth knowledge of idiomatic NS-like lexical chunks since the exam boards are Anglocentric. If you don’t like this then lobby to change the exams. But who would dare to challenge Cambridge Assessment and the BC?? 4. A1-B1 levels should be taught by someone who speaks their L1 and uses it in the classroom. Zero beginners especially should be taught in L1. CELTA style eliciting and CCQ-ing is just a pointless pantomime at this level. 
There are schools in the USA that are known to be little more than student visa factories, yet they manage to get CEA accreditation (for those outside the US, this is the body which oversees the quality of ESL schools and should prevent this situation).
Students 
the English students arrive in a course with is the English they leave with.
I don’t like every student 
We are fooling ourselves and our students in the process into believing that it is possible to learn language structures or concepts that native speakers learn over the course of their lives and have the ideal environment in which they can test their hypotheses about what they are learning.
That when intrinsic motivation for learning isn’t enough, there is very little I can do to motivate my students in the classroom 😦

Misc 

Some of the top academics often have trouble translating their amazing knowledge into practical application. They need to get their asses into a classroom again (or for the first time).
Racism is a much bigger problem in ELT than Native Speakerism.
Am also fed up of the environment as a topic. Just had to base an entire course on environmental themes and they wear very thin.
Textbooks are a good idea. Somebody took the time to plan a course not just so that you don’t need to but because you couldn’t do a better job AND teach at the same time.






Taboo ELT

Pluralistic ignorance is the situation whereby many people secretly believe something, but are all afraid of admitting it because they believe they are the only ones who hold the views. 


I was curious if there were any views TEFL teachers held but were afraid of sharing with their colleagues or peers. So I asked. The results of the highly scientific twitter poll was that around 52% of teachers said they do hold views they were afraid of sharing. I was really curious about what these views might be so I set up an anonymous poll. 


I will just post the views here without judgement or comment. I will say that I was kind of hopeful that there might be one view that stood out among a lot of teachers but the opinions were much more varied.  It was partiualrly interesting when people thought two opposing views were “taboo”. 


I should also note that this poll had no validity whatsoever. People could have been trolling or just writing something they really knew wasn’t a taboo view at all. There were 43 responses. I removed one because it was, to my mind, a little beyong the pale

Textbooks

Students can learn with or without coursebooks
I’m sick of explaining the hypocrisy of including a predictable, tokenistic chapter on ‘the environment’ in every textbook and syllabus written in the past 30 years when the ELT industry is largely dependent on millions of people travelling massive distances by airplane to undertake study. Similarly, I’m sick of schools and teachers making predictable, tokenistic gestures towards ‘the environment’ for the same reason: beach cleanups and banning plastic straws can all get to fuck if your entire student body just dumped literally tonnes of co2 into the atmosphere just getting here.
Textbooks represent a lot of research and a great understanding of students’ needs. They are an excellent resource to guide students through their English learning journey.


Natives Vs non-natives 

Students are often better off learning English from non-native speaker teachers.
That native English speakers are often better teachers.
*Some* non native speaker teachers have accents that are difficult to understand, make countless errors, and really shouldn’t be teaching. 
On native-speakerism: in an ideal world, every program would have an experienced non-native speaker (who understands students’ L1, their struggles with grammar) AND an experienced native speaker (for cultural knowledge, model of pronunciation). We had that in one program where I taught and it worked really well. It’s what I’d want as a learner too.
Educated native speakers will tend to “know” more idioms than most non-natives do! That doesn’t necessarily mean they are retrievable to order (In feedback, for instance), universal across varieties, or even (Dellar-style) teachable. But the fact remains.
Monolingual English native speaking teachers who’ve never learned another language to a decent level of proficiency (let’s say B2) lack credibility as English language teachers

Effectiveness of ELT

The students improve because they are living in this English speaking country and interacting on a daily basis, not because of our courses
The majority of teaching (75%) in ELT is below standard.
we can’t really “teach” anything

Approaches and methods 

PPP is fine.
I think skimming and scanning are probably just pointless rituals
skimming and scanning encourage students to get the wrong end of the stick
The debunking of learning styles/multiple intelligences has not really reached many of the teachers around me so I feel like I’m breaking wind any time I question whether we should be looking at learning through that framework.
learning styles are of course nonsense but can still be worth keeping in mind
I don’t believe that learning in a group is of any worth to anyone. If you really want to learn a language then doing so by yourself and having a one-to-one teacher is by far the best method. I don’t believe that attending a private academy/institution/language school is the best way to spend your money.
Ain’t just the one way. There are so many ways to learn a language, like there are different ways to learn a musical instrument. And they *all* work to some extent – because learners are meaning-makers.
I believe that leveling (grading) text can be quite useful for making text more comprehensible and accessible, especially to beginning learners who can’t comprehend the text otherwise. Some teachers in my primary-secondary school district seem to believe that reducing the lexile level (complexity, lexical level) of a text for a newcomer English learner is denying them access to grade-appropriate materials. So they kind of look at the act of leveling a text for a beginning reader as a denial of rights, which is completely absurd to me, but I think it actually comes from a good place.
Memorize vocabulary using word cards, lists, or vocab apps
accuracy is more important than fluency

The profession 

ELT teachers should not be allowed to teach YLs. It is simply a babysitting service. Most teachers don’t have the skills, passion or knowledge to teach and deal with YLs. You should only be allowed to teach YLs if you have done exactly the same qualifications as someone who teaches YLs in a state school for example. Degree, PGCE and possibly a masters in specialising in YLs.
loads. example: the majority of teachers I’ve worked with or managed outside of the higher education or public sector don’t deserve to be treated or paid as professionals as they utterly fail to conduct themselves as professionals, hold themselves to professional standards or do a tenth of the work of the average school teacher.
  I’m also constantly disappointed by the insistence of teaching staff to try to impose middle-class leftwing values on their classroom practice, particularly as so many of their students don’t share these values.
We aren’t saving the world!
Within the private academies, student progression is based on customer retention and ensuring they layout out payment for the next semester. Should you raise this issue, goodbye teaching job.
I feel that it’s all so technicist, focusing on techniques and the creativity side has gone. Maybe that’s just the context in which I work.
Some adolescent students are not temperamentally predisposed to language learning and therefore it is a complete waste of time teaching them. Their presence in the classroom is disruptive and counterproductive. Experienced teachers will know who these individuals are in the class within the first 10 minutes of a lesson. Exceptions will occur from time to time, but it would serve every one’s interests if these students were quickly moved into other subjects.
The field caters to middle aged white ladies far too much and this robs it of racial literacy
You might be living the dream teaching now. But the lack of a pension will fuck you up in your golden years.
That qualified & experienced EFL teachers are more knowledgable & hardworking than PGCE qualified teachers. EFL teachers never get to set work and do marking in class, EFL teachers have to satisfy a wide array of paying students and I’ve seen a lot of mainstream teachers on Twitter go crazy over the simplest of ideas that are the mainstays of EFL work. EFL teachers should be better paid and recognised as ‘proper teachers’.

Misc

The other teachers just SUCK at teaching
Krashen is wrong about FonF, but he’s so close to being right on everything else. (This isn’t taboo; it’s just not widely enough appreciated.)
“You’re a white supremacist”
 because e.g., You have an English only policy in your classroom 
You don’t teach about world Englishes 
You keep telling your Japanese students: Don’t be shy 
You keep asking your Japanese students to speak louder 
Can I really share these with my “colleagues” who even pretend I don’t exist at the teachers’ room? 
American Celta trainees just cannot take any criticism.
Standardised testing is overrated
No one cares about all the gendering stuff. It’s an English language lesson, not social engineering.
I don’t think there is that much evidence that explicit and implicit learning are separate processes.
I get to choose – pretty much – what I teach, but I do feel more and more uncomfortable with many of the ‘traditional’ theories of SLA. They are so monolingual and anglocentric in their view of how people use language, assuming that people speak and are educated in the same language they use at home and that a ‘second’ language is an add-on.
Students exchange some time and a bit of effort for 1 / 50th of a degree while we all pretend it means something more.
We spend 80% of our energy on the 20% who cheat, lie, and laze about.


The poll is still open. If you want to submit your views I will try to update this page periodically 

There were so many responses that I made a 2nd post. Here



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. 

edit 1

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


Woo Watch: EdyouFest

I recently came across an education festival for TEFLers called ‘EDUyoufest‘. Plenary speaker Lonny Gold is presenting a talk on “Teaching WITH the brain instead of AGAINST it“. Now whenever ‘the brain’ gets mentioned I do start to get a bit worried. Brain based approaches generally tend to come from the Romantic Humanist wing of the ELT world so I decided to investigate further and Gold did not disappoint. 


Gold, a Suggestopedia Master Trainer, has appeared in videos promoting the whacky teachings of Georgi Lozanov. Regular readers of this site will know that I have something of an obsession with all things Lozanov and so Gold instantly grabbed my attention. 


I managed to find a few of his articles and one of them in particular really impressed me. Most of lozanov’s acolytes are cool with his claims of accelerated learning and suggestive states of mind. Yet there aren’t many who are willing to follow the good doctor when he starts talking about using telepathy as a communication method. Gold is fearless though. He writes about a workshop presentation he held for the Liverpool SEAL conference:

The third and final segment of the workshop dealt with telepathy. In any open and nurturing environment, the telepathic connections between people are countless and to pretend they do not exist is silly and even irresponsible. In the case of teachers, a belief that what happens in class is not largely determined by the telepathic links within the group is either a dereliction of duty or – far worse – an admission that all form of human life has been successfully extinguished.

So there it is folks. Telepathy as a teaching tool. You heard it here first! 



Woo watch: Science / fiction

I wrote about Carol Black’s attempts to discredit opponents of learning styles as racists and sexists hereBlack’s piece troubled me not just for it’s unpleasant accusations but also because a number of sensible people told me they thought her argument was compelling. I think I understand why they think this. Black was a writer for The Ellen Show and ‘The Wonder Years‘, both very successful US TV shows. She is clearly a very talented writer. I think that some commentators are possible confusing ‘well written’ with ‘well argued’. These are very different things. 

There are at times some interesting observations in the piece but what there is is obscured by the poor reasoning Black employs to make her case. In fact Black’s piece can be used to illustrate a number of well-known cognitive fallacies and techniques which are commonly used to make persuasive looking arguments in lieu of evidence. I will examine these in detail below. 

Teach the controversy

A popular technique of creationists who want to force their views on school kids despite not having any empirical support is to demand that teachers ‘teach the controversy‘. Unreasonable demands to include religion in science class are presented as merely teaching kids the ‘full range of scientific views’ and who could argue with that? The problem is that presenting things like climate change or evolution as a two sided debate is to seriously misrepresent the weight of evidence on each side. 


to be clear, I don’t think what Black advocates is anything like creationism. The point is merely that the tactics are the same. Black wants us to teach the learning styles controversy. She accepts that there are “are extremely reputable scientists on both sides of this debate”. She’s just asking for a fair hearing -and who could object to that?

The problem is that Black has already made up her mind and no amount of evidence is going to convince her otherwise. So what we see in her post is the pulling on of any strand, no matter how unpleasant, in order to bolster her preconceived beliefs. In short, this is a masterclass in motivated reasoning

Despite claiming there are reputable scientists on both sides, she is happy to make the argument that ‘debunkers’ are mostly men talking down to women. She ignores the fact that her 1/3 of the panel of “respected scientists and education researchers” who agree with her, are also male. She also ignores female researchers, like Lethaby and Harris or Rogowsky, Calhoun and Tallalall women and all ‘debunkers’ of learning styles. This omission is particularity ironic in a section in which she is complaining about Willingham “failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views.”

So does the existence of researchers who still carry out research into learning styles mean it’s wrong to say to say LS shouldn’t be dismissed? There are two problems:


1) There are lots of researchers in education who continue to promote the idea of learning styles. In my field, for instance, some of the most famous in fact; Hyland, Oxford, Nunan, Brown, Richards and so on. There had been no articles in the ELT research literature which were critical of the idea of learning styles, until 2015 when researchers published a critical piece. since then pieces continue to be published promoting learning styles. The pro v anti count is, I would guess, about 100:1 at this point. This tells us exactly nothing about the veracity of the claims of these writers. 

2) Black implies that as some researchers have published on topic X then topic X is still up for debate. To try to show the problem with this idea, here are a few examples of recently published papers. 

  • Another paper suggesting graphology might help with depression. Again this was published in 2018 in a journal with an actual impact factor. Does this mean the debate about handwriting analysis is still ongoing? No, it does not. 

The homeopathy example is especially interesting in light of this tweet. 


Black bristles against the idea that LS should be considered on a par with  something like homeopathy yet the identical arguments she makes for LS could be made for homeopathy.  As noted above, legitimate researchers in good institutions continue to research homeopathy and publish their results in fairly reputable journals. 

So why is Black so dismissive? Why is she “failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views” about homeopathy? The answer is that Black has an ideological investment in the idea of learning styles that she does not have in homeopathy. Science and evidence only matter to her when they can be usefully marshalled to defend things that align with her worldview. 

This is a frequent feature of Black’s work. In another article she dismisses all the research evidence about phonics teaching because her home-schooled daughter didn’t seem to like the approach. It should go without saying that anecdotal evidence is not good evidence. Black writes:  

The “scientific consensus” about phonics, generated by a panel convened by the Bush administration and used to justify billions of dollars in government contracts awarded to Bush supporters in the textbook and testing industries…

Science is “science” when Black disagrees with it. When in produces results she agrees with it becomes plain old science again. Note too in this quote that Black attempts to poison the well by linking phonics to the educational boo words of ‘textbooks’ and ‘testing’. That Bush convened a panel and that billions of dollars were awarded to various companies tells us very little about whether the conclusions of the research were valid or not. I do not know very much about phonics research but if Black wanted to persuade me she was right, a few links to good research would do far more than innuendo and smear. Learning that Einstein was a racist does not mean E no longer equals Mc2. 

Argument from popularity 

Black claims that because a lot of people believe in learning styles there must be something to them. She writes that ‘Most people believe they exist, of course (including the vast majority of teachers)’ but does not provide any evidence for this claim. She is, as it turns out, correct as Dekker et al (2012) and others have shownBlack is not the first to make the claim that popularity indicates validity. Hatami and Stobart have both made that argument in ELT literature. 

The problem with this argument, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, is that believing something doesn’t make it true and increasing the number of people who believe in a thing does nothing to increase the possibility that it is true. A lot of (the same) people who believe in learning styles, believe in left brain and right brain learning. They also believe that humans only use 10% of their brains. A huge number of people believe in the Christian God and an equal amount believe in Allah. They cannot both be right. Should we look into penis theft or Korean fan death if enough people believe in these phenomena? 
The retort to this is usually to claim that those things ‘are different’ somehow and learning styles is more credible. Those wishing to make that argument should therefore tell us exactly which popular views should be taken serious and which ones should not and what criteria we are to use to know the difference. Black could start by telling us why, despite its popularity, she is so dismissive of homeopathy? 


Argument from authority 

Another technique that Black employs is the argument from authority. Authors who agree with her are “respected scientists and education researchers” with “legitimate competing views”. Whereas most of those who criticise learning styles are mentioned only by name, her favoured researchers are presented in their full academic pomp:

Li-Fang Zhang, editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Education Psychology
…And, as it happens, the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology chapter on “Cognitive Styles” by Harvard researcher Maria Kozhevnikov says the same thing. Researchers Carol Evans (University of Southampton), Elena Grigorenko (Yale), Stephen Kosslyn (Keck Graduate Institute), and Robert Sternberg (Cornell), agree.

No mention of  ‘Daniel Willingham (Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia). Instead his ilk are “male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational”, “patronising” and speaking with a “paternal [sic] tone”. The attempt to discredit learning style pundits by reference to their gender is of course also an ad hominem as their maleness (or whiteness or whatever) has no bearing on the truth of learning styles. 


Burden of proof 
Black attempts to dismiss Willingham and Pashler’s work as being too simplistic and thus not capable of showing the reality of complex creativity classrooms. The issue with this position is the following:

  • Person A claims that learning styles are real and can help with students learning. 
  • Person B tests this claim and finds it false 
  • Person A says the tests were not sensitive enough to find the results 
  • Person B tests again with more sensitive tests and still finds it false
  • Person A says the tests were STILL not sensitive enough to find the results

Can you prove there isn’t a teapot orbiting the sun? It’s too small to be seen by telescopes but I’m sure it’s there. Prove me wrong! This analogy is known as Russell’s teapot and Bertrand Russell proposed it to show that the burden of proof rests with the person making the claim. At what point should person A accept the responsibility to provide evidence for the claim they are making? If no tool is sensitive enough to measure the effects of learning styles in the classroom on what basis can they be said to be useful?


Conclusion 

Black claims she wants to DISMANTLE arguments that learning styles are a myth. If she really wanted to do this she could have simply done, or linked to, good experimental research showing the effectiveness of the approach. Instead she has marshalled arguments from authority, popularity, and has attempted to discredit opponents with accusations of racism and sexism. What’s clear is that research and academia are tools and props for Black to further promote her worldview. For her, citations are so much cargo cult academic decoration.  


When Black is building her case against ‘debunkers’ she writes that people like me argue that “cognitive biases, emotions, denial, irrationality, etc., are what prevent untrained people from accepting this conclusive body of scientific data.” Ironically, in this case, she’s absolutely right. 

Woo watch: Baba Vanga

Baba Vanga

Baba Vanga was a blind Bulgarian mystic. She is quite well-known among people who are into the weird and wonderful world of ‘parapsychology‘. She’s famous for her Nostradamus like predictions which had a ‘80% accuracy rate‘. She is said to have predicted, among other things the 9/11 attacks, the election of a Black president and the 2004 boxing day Tsunami.

Impressive stuff. Of course, like all good psychics there is quite a bit of artistic licence. And more importantly while the hits are counted, the misses are quietly forgotten. 2016 is over so we can say with some confidence that her prediction* that ‘Europe will cease to exist’ didn’t come true (a good woo-master would somehow link this prediction to Brexit ). It’s perhaps not surprising since she also predicted that 2010 would be when World War 3 started and that it would end in 2014, and that Muslims would wage war against Europe in 2013. So all in all, I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say that we shouldn’t take Baba Vanga very seriously.
So what does Baba Vanga have to do with TEFL? The figure of 80% accuracy (60-70% here) in her predictions was reported by a group of scientists who worked for the Bulgarian institute of Suggestology and Parapsychology. The head of the institute was Georgi Lozanov who was the inventor of the TEFL method known as Suggestopedia.
Lozanov said of Baba Vanga (source) “The stories about Vanga Dimitrova are not fantasies…She is extraordinarily talented….Vanga does read the future for those who go to her personally…she has psychic capabilities…” (p. 275). Lozanov also reveals that he has psychic power and was able to ‘block’ Vanga to some extent. (p. 276)
The genetic fallacy means we shouldn’t write off an idea, just because of where it came from. However, in Lozanov’s case I think we have been a bit too generous. The same research group which produced the amazing results on the effectiveness of suggestopedia also took a psychic seriously and produced ‘scientific research’ showing how effective a psychic she was. It isn’t therefore that Lozanov had some whacky ideas but his research was solid. We have evidence that his research was extremely unreliable.
SEAL – a lozanov inspired org.

All of this information was available in the 70’s and yet Suggestopedia was generally treated fairly credulously. It receives serious coverage in works by Krashen, Larsen-Freeman, and many, many others. In Tomlinson’s ‘Materials development in language teaching’ a whole chapter is devoted to writing and grammar presentation in ‘the Lozanov method.’ The author Hansen, tells us that these days (1998) it’s easier to understand here Lozanov was coming from since “quantum science has become more familiar” meaning we can perceive in “multidimensional” ways. Even today you can find published papers (here, here and here for instance) examining the effectiveness of the method and even the ELTJ recently had an article citing Lozanov.

Baba Vanga died in 1996 but almost every year an article appears talking about one or more of her predictions and trying to link it to some current event. Lozanov died in 2012 but his influence lives on in suggestopedia courses, books and in articles. Usually defenders of Suggestopedia say we should take the ‘good stuff’ and leave the rest. I suppose we could do that with Vanga too. I don’t believe in seeing into the future or magic powers but suggestopedia does seems to have something of a charmed life and I don’t predict that changing any time soon.

*difficult to find reputable sources for these claims. Webpages tend to vanish when things don’t come true.

When critical thinking is not critical thinking

Science and social justice

The strange case of Lindsay Shepherd and Laurier University hit the news in 2017. During one class in order to illustrate how gender pronouns have caused controversyShepherd, a 23 year old teaching assistant, showed a clip of Canadian Psychology professor Jordan Peterson. The clip was of a TV show in which he discussed his opposition to legally enforced gender pronoun use. 

After the class, a student (allegedly) complained about the video and the university launched an enquiry. Shepherd was asked to attend a meeting and was castigated by her employer for showing the video. The conversation, which Shepherd recorded, included this exchange: 

Rambukkana: So bringing something like that up in class, not critically, and I understand that you’re trying to-
Shepherd: It was critical. I introduced it critically.
Rambukkana: Howso?
Shepherd: Like I said, it was in the spirit of debate.
Rabukkana: Okay, “In the spirit of debate” is slightly different than “This is a problematic idea that maybe we want to unpack”
Shepherd: But that’s taking sides.

This conversation shows two competing version of the term ‘critical’ crashing into each other in real time. So how do these two version of ‘critical’ differ?

The ‘critical’ schools 

From the 1960’s there was a flourishing of academic subjects using the term ‘critical’ in the title. These include but are not limited to such things as:
These subjects often seem to be concerned with similar things. For example, Critical Discourse Analysis focuses on:

the role of discourse in the (re)production and challenge of dominance. Dominance is defined here as the exercise of social power by elites, institutions or groups, that results in social inequality, including political, cultural, class, ethnic, racial and gender inequality.

Critical pedagogy is defined as

an approach to language teaching and learning which, according to Kincheloe (2005), is concerned with transforming relations of power which are oppressive and which lead to the oppression of people. It tries to humanize and empower learners…The major goal of CP, as Vandrick (1994) claims, is to emancipate and educate all people regardless of their gender, class, race, etc

Critical EAP similarly seeks to take account of factors previously ignored in EAP, like “gender, class, race and power relations…” (Benesch) The key themes, then of ‘critical’ fields are 1) power and oppression, 2) ‘social justice‘ and 3) the notion of using academia to transform society. This is quite different from the usual sense of ‘critical’ in phrases like ‘critical thinking’. Burbules and Berk suggest that the traditional sense of being critical:

…basically means to be more discerning in recognizing faulty arguments, hasty generalizations, assertions lacking evidence, truth claims based on unreliable authority, ambiguous or obscure concepts, and so forth.

I recently had a couple of papers published. One was titled ‘a critical look at NLP in ELT‘ and the other ‘A critical examination of perceptual learning styles in ELT‘. Both of these papers use ‘critical’ in the sense of something akin to scientific skepticism. Questioning the veracity of claims, asking for evidence to support arguments and evaluating claims. I would guess this is what most people understand ‘critical’ to mean. 

The other ‘critical’ thinking 

In contrast, the ‘critical’ in Critical Pedagogy means something akin to ‘Marxist’. Proponents can be a bit coy about this, but Scholem (in Hammersley) notes that after the Nazi takeover of Germany, Marxists of the Frankfurt school fled to the US, a country not particularly welcoming to Marxism. There they adopted the term ‘critical’ to describe the kind of research they were interested in. Freire’s critical pedagogy is an example of this:

Freire’s philosophy was continuous with what has been euphemistically termed “western” Marxism, which embraces the quest for a sufficient theory of subjectivity identified in the post-war periods with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt school, psychoanalysis, and phenomenology.” (Aronowitz)

Freire was a Marxist with a fondness for approvingly quoting Mao Tse Dong*. The Marxist roots are important to note because they represent the underpinnings or tenants of ‘critical’ subjects and include such things as: 
Both types of ‘critical’ would describe what they are doing as ‘critical thinking’ but this seems to be, in the critical theory sense a case of humpty-dumptying (after the character’s insistence that ‘When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean’). Freire’s definition of critical thinking, namely “thinking which discerns an indivisible solidarity between the world and the people and admits of no dichotomy between them” (92) is not one most people would recognise as ‘critical thinking’. 

It’s worth noting too, that those who advocate for critical approaches don’t necessarily see a difference between the two forms of critical thinking. One is merely the logical conclusion of the other. If your analysis identifies a problem in the world, naturally you would work to fix it. That is to say, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it“(Marx). 


What’s the difference?

So how would a ‘critical’ article differ from a traditionally critical one? Recently a useful example popped up in my twitter feed. It’s a critical look at the book ‘Visible Learning’ called ‘Seven reasons to question the hegemony of Visible Learning‘.  Those not aware of critical approaches might take this to be an examination of Hattie’s arguments and the evidence supporting them, but the authors are very clear that that is not the case:

Critique of this program […] has tended to centre on the mechanisms of meta-analysis. We consider what Visible Learning puts to work in relation to cultural politics and find it closely aligned with agendas of neoliberalism, sexism and ableism…

That is, they are not going to criticise Hattie for factual errors but rather for having the wrong ideology. The journal in which it is published, ‘discourse studies in the cultural politics of education‘ may just sound like any other journal name but if we examine its scope we note that it:

adopts a broadly critical orientation, but is not tied to any particular ideological, disciplinary or methodological position. It encourages interdisciplinary approaches to the analysis of educational theory, policy and practice
Recent articles include ‘Key elements in the naturalisation of neoliberal discourse in higher education in Chile‘ and ‘Christmas in U.S. K-12 schools: categorizing and explaining teacher awareness of Christo-normativity’. 


There are a many critiques of Hattie’s work, based on issues with his statistical analysis (see for example hereherehere and here) but as this is a critical paper, the focus is elsewhere. The authors are concerned that “colonising metaphors” like Visible Learning, with its focus on the “dominance of the visual” and “seductive neoliberal style” are in danger of becoming tools of “fascistic education”. Visible learning is “sexist and masculinist” in it’s pornographic “preoccupation with the visual” that forces a “feminized profession” (teaching) to submit to a “heteronormative, sexist and ableist” vision of education which revolves around “ejaculatory outcomes”. 

Being critical of ‘critical’ 

Science, when it works, is a self-correcting system (see for instance the recent replication crisis and trial registration). So we can ask, ‘is this the right way to go about thinking about a problem?’, ‘is this the right problem to be thinking about?’ ‘Are these criticisms valid?’, ‘how can we tell?’, and so on.  The critical academic subjects generally do not:  
it is characteristic of CDA, and of much ‘critical’ work in the social sciences, that its philosophical foundations are simply taken for granted, as if they were unproblematic. This reflects the fact that, in many ways, the term ‘critical’ has become little more than a rallying cry demanding that researchers consider ‘whose side they are on’.”(1997:244)
The ideas central to the critical subjects cannot be challenged. We cannot, for example, ask if Freire is right that people are not currently ‘fully human’ and that praxis and inquiry would make them ‘fully human’. Nor can we ask if it’s useful to divide the world into oppressors and oppressed. In short, critical subjects are not, themselves, subject to criticism. 

When we do approach them critically we notice problems. For instance, the seemingly simplistic division of people into either oppressor or oppressed class. It’s never exactly clear how a person finds themselves in one of these groups. 

Freire deals only in vague generalities. Oppression is never clearly defined. Freire concentrates on the oppression of the poor and fails to deal realistically with oppression as it is found at all levels of society. It is a mistake to see only the poor as oppressed and all others as oppressors. (Elias 1976)

Among Radical Feminists a woman would be a member of the oppressed class ‘woman’ and a victim of the ‘patriarchy’ system. However, the same woman, if she is white would, in critical race studies be a privileged member of the oppressor class in the system of ‘white supremacy’.

If we start from the position that women are part of an oppressed class, then our research will tend to look for examples that support that narrative whereas a fact based approach may tend to throw up problematic data. For instance, a recent trend on twitter was for female PhD holders to affix ‘dr’ in front of their names. This was in response to a viral tweet from ‘Sci Curious’ about how male colleagues were far less likely than female colleagues to correctly address a female colleague. When the researcher actually checked her emails she found no difference. 


There is also an unfortunate tendency to characterise opponents as fascist or at least unwitting agents of fascism. For instance, in the meeting with Lindsay Shepherd, Professor Rambukkana (who’s written on topics like ‘From #RaceFail to #Ferguson: Digital Intimacies, Racism and the Politics of Hashtag Publics.’ and ‘Taking the Leather out of Leathersex: BDSM Identity and the Implications of an Internet-Mediated Sadomasochistic Public Sphere.’) thought showing a clip of Peterson‘s was comparable with showing a clip of Hitler (a position for which he later apologised). Tying opponents’ opinions to unsavoury movements like fascism can in some cases, be a substitute for refutation.  

Widdowson, responding to a critical paper, characterises such approaches as having an ‘epistemological intolerance‘ noting that:

There is here a sort of fundamentalism: a zealous adherence to a way of conceiving of the world based on an unthinking trust in the wisdom of the pronouncements of some guru, sage, or prophet, whether this be Karl Marx or Thomas Aquinas or Ron Hubbard.

Finally it’s not at all clear that critical approaches actually deliver on the promise of empowerment and liberation. One reporter noted that “for years I have been searching for an instance in which peasants have broken out of their oppression, but have found none. When I asked Freire he admitted that neither has he.”

The spread of a critical approach

slides from RadicalKent EAP conference
Over the last couple of years I’ve noticed that this critical approach seems to be gaining more popularity in ELT and applied linguistics circles. Perhaps this is just a frequency illusion or perhaps these approaches are really starting to resonate with people due to the particular political situation we find ourselves in. 


Recently, The University of Kent hosted a ‘RadicalEAP‘ event, which included talks on subjects such as ‘Learning and teaching for the post-capitalist economy’, ‘How can I increase my impact as a teacher upon WP and BME students?’ and ‘Critical Race Theory (CRT): A framework for liberating, learning, teaching, assessment and the curriculum in higher education (HE)’’. 


‘White knowledge’ 
similarly, the AAAL conference this year seemed to have quite a ‘critical’ focus. For instance, echoing the ‘OscarsSoWhite‘ trend of 2015 the hashtag AAALsowhite was promoted by Ryuko Kubota who spoke against ‘white Eurocentric knowledge’ and criticised the conference for not having more PoC speakers. Another speaker dealt with the question of whether or not applied linguistics is a ‘tool of white supremacy‘. 
not the same

Adopting a critical perspective can mean viewing the world through a restrictive lens. Teaching English becomes enforcing ‘linguistic imperialism‘, which in turn is pushing Western values on oppressed people and is thus a tool of white supremacy (even when ‘the oppressed’ don’t necessarily agree). 

There is also a real danger that as critical approaches becomes influential, research which discovers uncomfortable truths will be censored or suppressed. There is evidence that this is already happening (see here and here). Alice Dredger‘s book Galileo’s Middle Finger documents a number of cases of this kind. She argues that Good research has “to put the search for truth first and the quest for social justice second”. 

I think it’s possible to worry that women or PoC often suffer discrimination without believing that there is a systematic ‘neoliberal’ conspiracy at work to keep them under the boot. It’s also possible to want to improve the world without assigning yourself either oppressor or oppressed status. As Widdowson puts it“you do not have to be a critical linguist to have a social conscience”. 



*It has been pointed out to me that the wording of this is not quite accurate. Freire does seem to talk approvingly of Mao’s China up to 1985 and never walks those comments back, but he doesn’t actually quote Mao in the main body of Ped of Opp.