MISAPPLIED LINGUISTICS


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

Case in Point No. 1:

MISLEADING TERMINOLOGY

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

Case in Point No. 2:

MISINTERPRETED FINDINGS

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case in Point No. 3:

MISGUIDED MEDIATORS

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

CONCLUSION

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

References

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

The least worst solution

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
Churchill

Scott Thornbury usually comes off quite well on EBEFL. He writes (somewhat) criticially about things like learning styles, reading skills and NLP. However there is one quote of his which bothers me. When writing about the image problem TEFL suffers from in “the unbearable lightness of EFL” he divides the world into the bare foot, ‘sandals and candles’ type of EFLer and the more academic type. He rejects both and offers us a “third way”.

When Clemente wrote to ELTJ to criticise his article he shot back with another article in which he wrote, “the fact is that ELT is at risk of being hi-jacked by men in white coats”. But who just who are these ‘men in white coats’?

Thornbury is propagating the “mad scientist” myth common to much pseudo-science writing. Rather than a person we have a uniformed symbol of something sinister. Shadowy, sinister  ‘experts’ are putting mind control drugs in vaccines. Fluoride will give you cancer (if you believe this kind of thing, this is probably the wrong blog for you.) but Thornbury doesn’t ever explain why EFL researchers would necessarily be male, nor why applied linguists would need white coats.  


Historically and unfortunately there has always been an odd artificial divide between the TEFL world and the applied linguistics world. There is a notion that researchers are off writing books and know nothing about the hard-realities of classroom life, the ‘chalk-face’, of ELT when they come out with their high-faulting theories on language acquisition. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

the vast majority of lecturers and researchers started life as teachers and most continue to teach. My dissertation tutor Julie Norton worked in France teaching business English and Japan. another of my tutors, Glenn Fulcher, taught in Greece for years. Sure these people went on to publish and become lecturers but PHDs don’t cause amnesia, -do they?
who are the white coat brigade?

but there is, it seems, not only antipathy towards researchers but also at times an  antipathy towards research. A large number of teachers not only seem to distrust research, but consider personal experience to be far superior. Now, in the absence of evidence then experience is perhaps our only guide, but is it right to spurn research in favour of experience?

Evidence comes in varying degrees of reliability and so it needs to be looked at carefully. a study of 5 students over 1 week is going to yield less useful results than a study of 400 students over years. However if we think “the only thing that matters is experience” then we find ourselves with a number of problems.
If you accept this argument then you basically give up the right to discuss anything. Or rather, discussing anything becomes pointless because the teacher with the most experience will de facto be the ‘rightest’, regardless of his/her opinion. If another person’s equally long experience differs to yours then who is right? . This isn’t education, or critical thinking, it’s just demanding acquiescence.

The “I have more experience than you” card, is basically a variant of the argument from authority. As such, all teachers would have to demur to older, more experienced teachers, regardless of how crap they might be. It is not an unfair position, in my opinion, that if someone has been teaching crap lessons for 30 years, this should count against, rather than in favour of them. Of course, we wouldn’t know the lessons were crap because the experienced teacher would say that “in their experience” the lessons were great, and that would be the end of that.
Experience absolutely should not be discounted and it is often a vital tool in checking the validity of an idea. For example, I learnt a foreign language pretty fluently, as an adult, without ever knowing what kind of learning style I had, and this experience made me sceptical of the claims being made about learning styles (though it doesn’t mean I was right, mind!) But this idea that experience is a reliable measure of something is a deeply flawed concept that can easily be shown to be wrong. At this moment in time we know there are teachers, good teachers, all over the world teaching using different and contradictory methods who are convinced, by what they see every day, that their chosen method really is working. Their ‘experience’ is telling them that their method is effective. Often though, these approaches contradict each other, textbook -no textbook, grammar -no grammar, correction, -no correction, simply put they can’t all be right. 

At this point we may be tempted to turn to relativistic platitudes. We often hear that “it all depends on context” and to an extent that’s true. Things we do in a kid’s classroom will differ to an EAP setting. But this also opens us up to an uncritical free-for-all and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all of our students are humans, using the same biological material (their ears, their eyes, their brains) to try to learn. Some things will work everywhere and others will work nowhere. Research can show us this and call me an old cynic but when I get sick and am admitted to hospital, I’ll take ‘tried and tested’ medicine from men (or women) in white coats, than something the local witch doctor knows, from his long-experience, is super effective.

Tim Harford, writing about Ben Goldacre’s recent push for evidence-based teaching, notes:

“Trust me, I’m a doctor” was never an excuse for not collecting evidence. And “trust me, I’m a teacher” is not an excuse today. But being a teacher is a superb vantage point for building an evidence-based education system. It is an opportunity that teachers need to seize

I would hate to think the antipathy towards research and the caricaturing of researchers is an attempt to retain authoritative power. Evidence, like democracy, might not be a panacea but it’s better than the other options.


Lessons in the bleeding obvious

I’m not allowed to go to IATEFL. 😦

Big department, quite a few people speaking and so sadly I will be manning the fort.

So don’t be surprised if the tone of this post is tinged with bitterness, jealousy and impotent rage.


anywho…

The “appeal to the masses” fallacy, also called the argument from popularity states that just because something is popular or widely used we should consider it valid, after all, everyone can’t be wrong, can they?

In order to become popular you usually need to appeal to a lot of people which means being accessible and bland enough to not really offend anyone. All of which brings me to one of my most hated things, Study Skills. Now this may seem to have nothing to down with TEFL but anyone working in Universities, particularly teaching EAP or in-sessional classes has probably come across at least some study skills work. There is even a new book out targeting international postgraduates.

I’m currently reading the insanely popular study skills handbook by Stella Cottrell. A lot of teachers love this book and it’s piled high in our university bookshop. They’ve even recently released a Chinese language version (presumably to squeeze a few more drops from the UK’s current cash cow). The book has excellent reviews on Amazon (4.5 stars from over 100 reviews) is in its third edition, has sold over 500,000 copies. I hate this book. 
Allow me to explain:

It’s very very long

350 pages long to be precise. So before you can start reading your course books or writing your essays, you need to get through 350 pages learning how to read your coursebooks and how to write your essays. As reviewer ABZ notes on Amazon:

I think this book is rather pointless, You would be better studying your work in the time it takes you to read it

Of course, it’s a handbook so you don’t need to read it all, but some of it really seems excessive, and of the order of In order to read, first make sure you have eyes…’ Very useful.

Although no doubt containing some useful information, it’s also crammed full of incredibly obvious things written about in great detail. For £12 you too can learn  useful life lessons like:

IT enables you to store large files of information on CD or a memory stick
Abbreviations save time
If you have too much [information] you will need to leave some out
You need to research less, read less, note less, and write less for a 1,500 word essay than for a 3,000 word essay.

and my favourite

An essay is a piece of writing which is written to a set of writing conventions

There is even a six point guide to “searching on the web” including “type your chosen keyword into the search field” and “press the enter key”.  In the words of one Amazon reviewer:

It is filled with common sense extensively padded out by hollow psychobabble gibberish about personal development. Essentially, making good notes is good, revising is good; you don’t need this patronising text to realise this and be a good student.

The almost endless self-assessment tick boxes are also hugely irritating. You tick the boxes and then what? Whenever we did this kind of development in school; you tick these boxes “I’m good at X” and “I need to work on X” then your teacher reads it and says “oh, you need to work X” and you say “yes”, then this is all filed into your PDP folder until next year when you have to do it all again.

Accuracy

For someone who has written a book on critical thinking Cottrell drops some huge clangers. She encourages readers to find their learner style, she promotes the thoroughly discredited left brain/right brain myth encouraging students to use their “whole brain” (as if they had a choice) when studying, she promotes NLP (88), she claims drinking 8 glasses of water helps study and she repeats the myth that Einstein wasn’t good in school. Maybe these are only small things but shouldn’t an educator get these kinds of things right? This is the third edition after all. As one academic writes about the importance of evaluating evidence “check the source of your information” (Cottrell 2008:280)

One size fits all

Another worry I have with the book is the idea that doing X is a good way to study and only that will bring success, other approaches don’t work or should be avoided. An example of this is the section on reading (118) that advises students to read “with a relaxed upright posture” and “with the light from behind, sufficient to light the page but without glare”. another section advises “good note taking strategy” for three pages. Can’t students decide for themselves when and where to read and how to take notes? Is there really a right way to do this? We seem happy to make allowances for supposed “right-brain logical visual”  learners, can’t we also make room for “reading all your course books in bed” learners, like me?

Concern with the periphery

It’s hard to be too critical of study skills, and it feels a bit mean. I’m sure there’s a lot that’s good in this book and in teaching people to learn but there is a limit to this and there is a danger with taking it too far. Like strategies and reading skills, learning skills are compensatory strategies not a replacement for language teaching. In the same way that you can’t scan and skim your way to understanding a text, if you don’t have enough language all the skills in the world won’t help you.


In an excellent article called “we do need methods” Swan talks about the “expanding periphery” of TEFL noting:

It seems clear that there is a real and substantial swing towards a concern with matters that are ancillary or peripheral to language teaching itself. These include learner characteristics and perceptions, societal needs, cultural contexts and personal development. (2012:169)

He goes on to suggest that a balance needs to be struck between ancillary concerns and the things they are ancillary to, namely, teaching. In the same way that teaching a man to fish will be more useful than giving him a fish, learner training and study skills can be useful, but there must be a balance between skills and language. What we don’t want is the fisherman spending three months in fishing college learning fishing skills from “the fishing handbook” and subsequently starving to death.

Enjoy IATEFL! 

Happy Birthday EBEFL! (about)

On the 19th of March 2012 I tentatively started this blog with a post about the word literally not really expecting much f  reaction. One year, 41 posts 120 comments and 2,400 hits later (mostly from Swedish spam bots) and  I’m constantly surprised and incredibly grateful for the overwhelmingly positive reaction this blog has received. I want to take the opportunity to talk about why I set up EBEFL. Firstly I should say that I’m massively influenced by Ben Goldacre, and if you haven’t read his blog or his book, “bad science” then I can’t recommend it highly enough. Recently, he’s been writing about evidence in education and it’s well worth a read. 

Why Evidence-based EFL?

Life is short. The older I get the more I realize time is running out at a breath-taking pace.  A common theme in my life is investing effort into something which turns out, in the end to be a waste of time.  An example of this is martial arts.  I always loved martial arts and did them since I was a kid. I used to love martial arts movies like (based on a true story!) “bloodsport“. Finally when I moved to Japan I had the chance to do the “real” thing and took up a jiu-jitsu class.  Every week I went along and practised, and eventually got my black-belt.  My family were in awe, thinking I was some kind of dangerous killer. This was complete tosh and a strong gust of wind could have probably knocked me over, but the idea that I was an “expert” was enough to convince them and I certainly wasn’t about to deny it. I had almost completely convinced myself that this bit of coloured fabric had some actual meaning. It didn’t. 


The problem was that the martial art, like many martial arts was misguided.  It had a fixed method and it bent reality to fit with that. For example, if someone grabs your arm like X, then you twist it like so and hey-presto! Or if someone, punches you like Y, then you side-step and perform some killer move on them.  Of course, in truth, and if you ever see a real violent confrontation, no one will ever grab you like X or try to punch you like Y. By and large fights are messy affairs, and if someone is intent on doing you harm, they’ll probably do it, before you know what’s happened. People don’t hold knives out as they approach, nor do they telegraph punches. (incidentally, I recently found out that the true story bloodsport was based on was complete tosh.)  

Martial arts may seem unrelated to TEFL but exactly the same problems exist. Experts are made with qualifications (DELTA black belts!) and are often believed unquestioningly. Techniques and methods are designed and then reality is forced to fit them. In TEFL, like in martial arts (and in health care, public policy, science and pretty much any aspect of human life) a healthy dose of scepticism will almost certainly end up leaving us all better off.   

I recently read a blog post that insisted people are naturally sceptical but this isn’t quite right. People can be naturally sceptical about some things, some of the time. Sagan gives the example of buying a car:

When we buy a used car, if we are the least bit wise we will exert some residual skeptical powers — whatever our education has left to us. You could say, “Here’s an honest-looking fellow. I’ll just take whatever he offers me.” Or you might say, “Well, I’ve heard that occasionally there are small deceptions involved in the sale of a used car, perhaps inadvertent on the part of the salesperson,” and then you do something. You kick the tires, you open the doors, you look under the hood. (You might go through the motions even if you don’t know what is supposed to be under the hood, or you might bring a mechanically inclined friend.) You know that some skepticism is required, and you understand why. It’s upsetting that you might have to disagree with the used-car salesman or ask him questions that he is reluctant to answer. There is at least a small degree of interpersonal confrontation involved in the purchase of a used car and nobody claims it is especially pleasant. But there is a good reason for it — because if you don’t exercise some minimal skepticism, if you have an absolutely untrammeled credulity, there is probably some price you will have to pay later. Then you’ll wish you had made a small investment of skepticism early.(read more of this excellent piece here)

So we can be sceptical but often little tricks in our brains stop us from kicking the tires. The most powerful are perhaps confirmation bias and argument from authority. People can be fooled by “experts” or can fool themselves because they really want to believe their new method is producing great results. This self-deception is often the hardest to overcome. Scepticism is not just for debunking those things you think are wrong, it is far more important for challenging  -those things you’re sure about. 

When people read this blog and come across something lacking evidence which they believe in, they usually all have a similar reaction. They tend to shrug and say either  “well, evidence or not, I still believe this is useful and I’m going to continue to use it.” Or “well teaching isn’t science –it’s art!” or something like that. When people see something they think works cognitive dissonance kicks in and the rationalisations start. “I’m a good teacher so what I do in class must be good” or the more common one I encounter “well sure this method might not work but I’m going to keep doing it because students like it/I have no alternative/it’s good for tests etc etc.

I hope that this blog will be a home for critical thinking. I hope it will stop teachers and students wasting time and money on things which don’t or can’t work. I hope it will challenge authority and more than anything get people thinking. If you don’t agree with what I write that’s fine, but at least think about what you’re doing and don’t just accept what your CELTA tutor, the British council or a famous good-looking tanned, TEFL expert tells you. But also don’t believe yourself either and certainly don’t take my word for anything. Ask to see the evidence and if there isn’t any, why not try to make some?



How to create your own TEFL method

disclaimer: All methods appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real methods, living or dead, is purely coincidental

1. come up with a new theory

It doesn’t really have to be new, it can be a rehash of old stuff with a new name if you like. Ideally it would involve doing the opposite of whatever it is teachers are currently doing. For example, if teachers are using textbooks, the your method should be textbook free. And if teachers generally like to correct students’ grammar then your method should avoid that altogether. In fact it should expressly prohibit correction.

Teachers are constantly disappointed with the results they achieve. Like the overweight   making yet another doomed set of new year’s resolutions, teachers’ sense of hope is strong. They believe that if they can just find the right method, it will unlock the secrets of English for their students. Whip up some interest, -the thrill of the new, -claim that your method is “revolutionary” and make extravagant claims about it’s effectiveness.

2. Give it a interesting name

Call your method something ear-catching and cool. If you can’t do that then come up with an approach which ideally can be reduced into a three letter acronym like TPR, NLP, CLL, ELF, PPP or TBI. If you only have two then just toss in a meaningless word.  Like ‘total’ in total physical response.  Could we have HHPR (half hearted physical response) or NMPR (not much physical response)?

The more complex the name the better. Make it sound complex and scientific if possible -don’t worry if you don’t know the first thing about science, it doesn’t matter!  Just grab some sciencey sounding words and paste them together. The more obscure the better.  Take Neuro linguistic programming for example, (NLP!) even the practitioners state, with no apparent shame, that it has nothing to do with neuro science or linguistics! 

3. don’t really describe what it is

That is, tell people it’s a new ‘system’ or ‘approach’ (don’t call it a method!) that is concerned with the approach to humanistic and holistic autonomous learning spheres which takes account of students’ multiple intelligences and promotes student-centric learning. Or something like that. Alternatively just define it as whatever anyone says it is, like this:


A: It seems to me this is related to motivation?
B: yes, motivation plays a part in it.

or

A: Is it related to teacher identity in the technological classroom?
B: If you want it to be

3.5 be a man 

No method has ever been invented by a woman. 

4. tell people it works
 
Nothing succeeds like success. In the same way. nothing works like things that people say work!  Just keep telling people that your idea “really works” that the students “love it” and that you have seen great improvements and eventually someone will become your follower and start saying all this stuff for you. After a few years you’ll have a book out and be running training courses in your approach.


5. In case of emergencies

By this time your method becoming quite popular. This is when the backlash begins.  Don’t worry about those spoilsports pointing out that your theory is meaningless, just carry on and be even more vague than you were before. Tell your critic that what you do is not measurable by their methods, but only by whole body and mind convergence and the nourishment of the soul!  Let’s see them try to measure that.


6. If that doesn’t work

Weird theories are oddly resistant so don’t worry. Even if some bright spark shows you to be a complete fraud just nod sagely and say that “it’s not for everyone” and that “teacher’s and more importantly students can decide for themselves what works and what doesn’t”.  Another well worn trick is to throw out some of the troublesome bits of the theory and keep the popular bits. Strangely in EFL when something doesn’t work teachers are very reluctant to throw it out but would rather keep using bits of it, so you’ll still be able to sell books and appear at conferences. Also if you wait about 30 years your method will no doubt come back into fashion.


7. sit back and count the cash

Now you can relax and let your followers do all the work for you.  If you’re as successful as someone like Chomsky you can move out of the field together, reappearing with a book every now and then!  Don’t worry about being found out, the academic world is slow to process things and weighted towards the ones with the ideas, not those who point out they don’t work. 


So what are you waiting for, get cracking with your new theory and good luck!




Skimming and scanning

For those of you who are firm believers in teaching skimming and scanning feel free to skim this post and answer the questions at the end…you have 1 minute…go! For those of you, like me, who are more sceptical…read on.

This is the second in my “reading skills” series, following up the piece on prediction. Like prediction, skimming and scanning are very attractive to teachers as they make the rather mysterious process of reading eminently teachable. Without “reading skills” teaching reading would resemble teaching the ‘Cinderella skill’, listening. But should we teaching skimming and scanning at all? I will argue ‘no’ for two reasons. Firstly, skimming and scanning don’t accurate reflect the way people usually read and secondly because most students already know how to do them.
 

Skimming and scanning are pretty popular in EFL, with hundreds of web pages offering lesson plans for skimming and scanning classes. St Martins University are keen on them  as is the ‘teaching English’ website and Harmer includes lesson plans with these skills as targets. Textbooks like Oxford’s “Well read” and “Headway” include these activities and   Grellet’s book, which as Paran notes is probably responsible for the popularity of these skills in the TEFL world, has a whole section on “from scanning to skimming”. Telling though Grabe doesn’t mentioned them once in his book on the reading in a foreign language, something which Kerr describes as “eloquent commentary” (2009:29).

Skimming and Scanning are so pervasive that a large number of teachers, (like the one pictured above and me, for the longest time) have managed to convince themselves that this is actually how people read. But it isn’t. At least, not usually. Usually we read one word at a time as you’re probably reading now.

Skimming and scanning are classed as “expeditious reading” (Nation 2009:70) skimming is reading quickly and for the general or “gist” meaning. Scanning is trying to identify specific information in a text. The classic example was always a “name in a phone book” until phone books went the way of tape cassettes and chalk. Nowadays “bus timetable” is the most likely example. Not only is this a reading skill that doesn’t need to be taught, it’s a basic human skill that doesn’t need to be taught. People who disagree should read “where’s Wally”.
 

Gist in laymen’s terms means a general understanding devoid of specifics as in “I wasn’t really paying attention but I got the gist of what he was saying”.  But is this a teachable skill? Or even one that we should be teaching?

We may do reading activities like setting time limits for our students while reassuring them that they “only have to get the gist” but is this teaching them anything or merely expecting them to apply a skill we assume they already have. Is a teacher who says “skimming is just trying to get the general meaning” teaching or explaining a concept we expect students to already know? If it’s the former, we have failed as we haven’t ‘taught’ them how to do it; we’ve just explained what it is. If the latter, why do we assume they don’t know how to do this? After all plenty of monolingual EFL teachers seem to be able to manage skimming without prior instruction –hell they’re so good they can even teach it!

 Secondly, what exactly is reading for gist? If it were possible for me to read faster than I do now then I would do it. But sadly I can’t (so the pile of unread books and papers grows ever larger, staring accusingly at me). If a person reads for gist then they are necessarily losing something. Otherwise they are just reading. If I read faster than normal, then I ignore parts of the text –I miss bits out. These bits may be important, they may not. I just take my chances.

Often with skimming students are told to read the first and last sentences of a paragraph; or the first sentence, or the first and second sentences. Sometimes they are told to “run their eyes over the text” whatever that means. This advice might work at times but other times it may not. Would it work with the paragraph directly before this one? I think it possible could for a test question like “what is this paragraph about” but probably not for understanding the text. 
 
I have heard it argued that these techniques could be useful for EAP students looking through texts and trying to find useful ones in a hurry, or trying to locate relevant sections in a book, but students will almost certainly not be doing these things under timed conditions. They’ll probably while away many pointless hours in libraries reading the wrong books, -much like native speakers do. It’s also quite likely that once the “don’t use a dictionary –just get the gist” bullies are out of the picture and the students successfully make it onto their courses, they’ll probably sit there (sensibly in my opinion) with a text in one hand and a dictionary in the other slowly trying to make sense of whatever tortuously dull and impenetrable academic text they are unlucky enough to find themselves having to read.

 
In fact, and rather ironically, these skills seem to be most useful for doing English reading tests. That is we, the EFL community, design tests which require students to employ reading skills they probably already know and then ‘teach’ them these skills in order for them to pass the tests we wrote! Genius! Perhaps we should also invent writing upside tests and tests of underwater listening.

Don’t teach grandma to suck eggs

Skimming and scanning are at times, very useful; so useful in fact that every person who comes from a culture with a written language already knows how to do them.  Arguably though they are more useful to teachers than to students as they give us something to teach. Thornbury notes

 


Very quickly, skimming/scanning became an end in itself, and teachers were misled into thinking that, by having students skim or scan texts, they were developing the skill of reading. How often do you see this expressed as an aim in examined lessons: “To develop the sub-skill of skimming a text for its gist.”

The point he goes on to make, and one also made by Swan is that student likely already have reading skills in their L1. “Much of the teaching of reading skills is predicated on the assumption that learners do not already possess them” (Swan 2008:266) but they almost certainly do and we almost certainly don’t need to spend time teaching them.Swan and Walter in a piece called “teaching reading skills: mostly a waste of time” refer to research which indicates that students will be able to use these reading skills automatically when their language reaches a proficient enough level.

 
In defence of Skimming and Scanning
 

There aren’t many defenders of skimming and scanning these days but one article written by Phillip Kerr could possibly be described as a “defence” but that wouldn’t really be accurate as Kerr lists criticism and then suggests that there might be some reasons why it might be OK to use them:

1. They aren’t very difficult and they don’t take much time and so they might motivate students to feel like they have achieved something.

2. Well-designed skimming and scanning activities can help students to decode and create meaning in a text.

3. The skills are short and though not perhaps helping students learn to read, may give them some impression about the text.

4. Good for tests

 
Number four has been already been discussed. Number two is the idea that these skills  belong to the psycholinguistic model of reading, criticised by Paran and Grabe. sampling a text is not how most people read, most of the time. 

 
But let me take a minute to talk about the other reasons. If you read the article you’ll notice Kerr wraps up his reasons in such apologetic language that you almost feel sorry for skimming and scanning and want to teach them just so they don’t get thrown in a bag with some Cuisenaire rods and drown. Kerr seems to be saying, “Well, look, we all know we don’t need to teach these skills but they’re awfully quick and they might make the students feel good about themselves and oh please! It’s awfully cold outside; these skills have no place to go!”

But don’t feel sorry for these skills. Feel sorry instead for the poor students who are forced to do them, and the poor teachers filling up their DELTA lesson plans with skimming and scanning targets. Isn’t it time we stopped teaching students to do things they can already do?







 

When nothing is better than something

 
 
Dr. Duncan MacDougall found that after humans die their weight changes by exactly 21 grams. He carried out his research on terminal patients and weighed them before and after death. He also carried out the same tests on dogs and found no weight change. No one can explain this strange phenomenon and the religiously minded as well as the New York Times wasted no time attributing it to the weight of the human soul.

An incredible and disturbing finding, were it true. 

Which it isn’t. 

 

While it’s completely true that what this experiment was carried out and that those were its findings, it’s equally true that it was a naff experiment. It’s easy to think any research is better than no research but bad research is often pretty useless; it tells us nothing and worse, sometimes it can even be dangerous. Dr. MacDdougall’s experiments were conducted on 6 people which is a horribly small number to warrant such extravagant claims. And that’s not all, quoting here from the blog “rationally speaking” the research had a number of other problems:

Not only was the experiment never repeated (by either MaDougall or anyone else), but his own notes (published in American Medicine in March 1907) show that of the six data points, two had to be discarded as “of no value”; two recorded a weight drop, followed by additional losses later on (was the soul leaving bit by bit?); one showed a reversal of the loss, then another loss (the soul couldn’t make up its mind, leaving, re-entering, then leaving for good); and only one case actually constitutes the basis of the legendary estimate of ¾ of an ounce. With data like these, it’s a miracle the paper got published in the first place.

Second, as was pointed out immediately by Dr. Augustus P. Clarke in a rebuttal also published in American Medicine, MacDougall failed to consider another obvious hypothesis: that the weight loss (assuming it was real) was due to evaporation caused by the sudden rise in body temperature that occurs when the blood circulation stops and the blood can no longer be air-cooled by the lungs. This also elegantly explains why the dogs showed no weight loss: as is well known, they cool themselves by panting, not sweating like humans do.

Ah, you may say, this was a long time ago before we had proper research. Well, while it’s true that scientific techniques improve all the time, research now, like research then is carried out by humans. So could a badly designed study get newspaper headlines these days? Over to Andrew Wakefield who ‘discovered’ a link between vaccinations and autism, research which led to, and continues to lead to parents not vaccinating their kids and thus the return of previously controlled diseases, such as mumps and measles as well as occasional deaths. Wakefield, who was eventually struck off the medical register, conducted his research on exactly 12 children so, twice as many as MacDougall’s study.  This didn’t stop theDaily Mail and other papers creating huge panic with this information.
 
Now small studies are not always problematic, but newspapers tend to have an undue influence on what people think and a story which might not get much (or any) attention in academia because of problems, such as its sample size, could have considerable influence if published in a newspaper. I wrote here about Memrise the amazing new technology which mean you can learn a new language in only 22 hours (disclaimer, for “language” read “some words” , for “22 hours” read “three months” and for “amazing new technology” read “flashcards and mnemonics”). Memrise is a good example of how the media can create excitement about something that really isn’t all that exciting
 
Recently there was a TEFL article in the guardian making the claim that the “argument was over, the facts were in” and that explicit grammar teaching was a must for EFL. Catherine Walker’s bold claims were marred by a couple of issues. Firstly the article wasn’t in a peer reviewed journal, it was in the Guardian (though even journals can get it wrong, and do, regularly, and spectacularly) and journalists are not experts and are therefore much more likely to let things slide that academics would probably pick up. Being a newspaper Walker didn’t have to provide any evidence for her claims, but when prodded by commentators listed the following:

Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega. 2000. Effectiveness of L2 instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.
Gass, S. & L. Selinker. 2008. Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition). New York: Routledge/Taylor.
Spada, N. & Y. Tomita. 2010. Interactions between type of instruction and type of
language feature: a meta-analysis. Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.
Spada, N. & P. M. Lightbown. 2008. Form-focused instruction: isolated or integrated?
TESOL Quarterly 42: 181-207.

To be fair to Walker, meta-analysis are the creme de la creme of research and are positioned at the very top of of the hierarchy of evidence pyramid. However there are still some problems with the piece. The first flaw is that the headline for the article is misleading. Articles from 2010, 2008 and 2000 can’t be run in 2012 with the headline “the evidence is finally in”, without stretching the “finally” beyond recognition. Secondly the headline makes the claim that evidence shows that grammar teaching is effective, yet later in the article this is watered down to:

 



However, evidence trumps argument, and the evidence is now in. Rigorously conducted meta-analyses of a wide range of studies have shown that, within a generally communicative approach, explicit teaching of grammar rules leads to better learning and to unconscious knowledge, and this knowledge lasts over time.

That is, if you are using the Communicative Approach, it is better to have grammar taught explicitly. So this is not so much a debate about the value of grammar teaching but a debate about the value of teaching grammar explicitly within a certain method. The title of the article may have had us all rushing back to the oft mocked (but pretty widely used) Grrammar Translation method.  Another possible problem is the conflict of interests. Walker has a written a number of grammar textbooks and while this doesn’t mean she’s wrong, the possibility of bias is there; “shock! grammar teacher claims teaching grammar works!”. 
 
So language articles are often annoying because they get tweeted and retweeted when the findings may be problematic or in some cases nonexistent, like a story doing the rounds  at the moment. Apparently, English is not a Germanic language but a Scandinavian one. For years linguistics have been wrong and this new research shows conclusively that English comes from Scandinavian not from Old English. Except it doesn’t because, as far as I can discover, there is no research. Yes, there are researchers and yes there are news articles and yes there is even some evidence of conference talks but I can’t seem to find a paper published in a major peer-reviewed journal (please someone link to it if you can find it).
Now, I’m out of my depth with the argument as to whether English is or isn’t a Scandinavian language perhaps it really is but what I can say is that a massive claim like this, if correct, would make the careers of both the authors. I can also safely state that a claim which has such large potential, needs a equally large amount of evidence to back it up. To use the Sagan Standard “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Judging by the comments on some of the blogs that have reported this, I’m going to tentatively suggest that that evidence will not be forthcoming.
  
The king of getting media attention with little research is of course, Chomsky. Slayer of the evil behaviorists, discoverer of the mysterious UG, Noam wins the prize by virtue of having done exactly 0 research to test his theories. His ideas, which have held sway over linguistics for 60 years, were thought up by him, and then left for others to argue about.  People who actually took the trouble to look into and test Chomsky’s claims found him to be wrong, wrong and more wrong.*  Geoffry Sampson writes:

Hang on a minute,’ I hear the reader say. ‘You seem to be telling us that this man [Chomsky] who is by common consent the world’s leading living intellectual, according to Cambridge University a second Plato, is basing his radical reassessment of human nature largely on the claim that a certain thing never happens; he tells us that it strains his credulity to think that this might happen, but he has never looked, and people who have looked find that it happens a lot.’

Yes, that’s about the size of it. Funny old world, isn’t it! (2005:47)


References

Sampson, Geoffrey. 2005. The Language Instinct Debate. London & New York: Continuum

*I’m really really out of my depth on Chomsky but if someone wants to come and put me right I’ll be happy to listen.

Cargo Cult Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

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

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


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



 references
  

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

 

 

 

Halloween Special: Saints and sinners

Me and my colleague the EAP archivist sometimes talk about the fact we feel like frauds in the classroom. Here we are, teaching EAP to graduate students, in a respectable university and yet we’re secretly know-nothings, hopeless amateurs who have somehow lucked our way into these jobs. And just like the little boy pointing at the naked king, eventually one of our students will say “you don’t know what you’re doing, do you, -why on earth are you teaching?!” Or perhaps ask a innocent grammar question which will leave my  confidence unravelling on the classroom floor, as I flail about before their eyes.

This is very silly. Both me and she are experienced teachers with MAs and DELTAs who work in good jobs and who have absolutely no reason to think like this -yet we do, and we’re not alone.

This week I discovered the name of this feeling, (thanks to wonderful Ed Yong). It’s quite common, -and not just among teachers. Impostor syndrome, apparently even affects incredibly successful people like writer Maya Angelou and the excellent comedian Tina Fey who says she sometimes hears a voice in her head saying “I’m a fraud. Oh god, they’re onto me! I’m a fraud!”

Another of my colleagues (Dan) suggests that if you’re worried about whether you’re doing it right, then you probably are. The teachers who just assume they are and who don’t question themselves and what they do in the classroom are probably the ones to worry about.

This idea is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect and was investigated in a paper called “unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognising one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self assessment.” Dunning and Kruger asked individuals to rate how funny jokes were, and then to rate how good they themselves were at judging how funny jokes were. they also asked professional comedians to rate the jokes and compared the subjects estimates with these. The interesting finding was that those people who were terrible at estimating how funny a joke was, were also terrible at estimating how terrible they were at estimating.  They also tested logical reasoning and grammar ability:




the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humour, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd [my italics]

  

As an interesting aside, the results showed that highly competent people often under estimated their own competence. Dunning and Kruger suspect that the highly competent assumed that other people were as competent as them. They invited the best and worst candidates back to mark other candidates’ results and then reassess their own ability. What happened? Well the competent cohort revised their estimate of their own ability upwards, getting it more in line with reality. However, those who were poor at estimating, when confronted with the evidence of their lack of competence, continued to estimate their  ability as being much higher than it actually was.

Notes:

ok so this is really tenuously linked to Halloween, I admit!

Read more about DK effect here, -a blog in which Dr. Dunning actually posts a comment.

 

Why we need Evidence: part.1 ‘it works!’


Teaching isn’t the most rigorous of professions.  It’s not glamorous and usually not very well paid. Most of the teachers I meet do it because they love the job, and they love the students.  It’s often said that teaching is “an art not a science”.  There might be some truth in this. But is evidence unimportant?  I’m going to try to argue ‘no’ in a series of posts. 
 
It’s difficult to prove much of anything in TEFL and there is very little for which  there is solid evidence. However, new techniques and approaches appear all the time and are taken up with vigour by teachers who become convinced that this time they have hit upon the holy grail of teaching -the method to rule them all!  They are sure that this time….this time…they have discovered the method that will turn their barely communicative disinterested students into fluent autonomous learners. Said teacher is convinced of the efficacy of the approach due to the stunning results it produces and the expressions of sheer joy on student faces. This position could be called the “It works- just look at their faces!” position. A few examples are the following:

“Of course we all know Genki English works great because we see it every time on the kids’ faces” (2009 online) Richard Graham, founder of GenkiEnglish, presenting the ‘evidence’ that his method “really, really works”

“both kids and teachers told us it really works” Video extolling the virtues of Mindfulness training in classrooms.

Teachers using BrainGym continue to this day, despite all the evidence against it, continue to insist that it works.

“In the final analysis, like any other methodology, [neuro-linguistic programming]NLP will work or not for an individual teacher because it is right for them and not because it is scientifically proven or not.” (Harris 2002:37)
 
I cannot really say that these doubts have completely disappeared but I can say that ,little by little, I BELIEVE that the magic of NLP can actually come true. I am really conscious that the changes I am experiencing with myself and with my students in class…How do I know is it working? Because I can see it in my students´faces, gestures and attitudes (Esteve online)
 

 

Now some teacher might take me to task here saying “well how can we prove whether a method works or not in any scientific sense?”  This is a fair point and I agree but I have two caveats to add to it.  Firstly, if a method can’t be proved to work, then we should resist saying that “it works”.  Certainly we should not suggest that students’ reactions or the way we feel about it constitute any kind of reliable evidence.  Secondly, though it may be difficult to prove that something works, it’s relatively easy to prove that something doesn’t work, -or can’t work.  for example, NLP claims that you can tell a persons “learner style” by watching their eyes move and listening to the pitch of their voice.  BrainGym claims that children can children can massage their bodies to increase the oxygen supply to their brains.  Both of these claims are demonstrably false

  
Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit, is a good place for teachers to start.  In this case, the following principle might be useful:

wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts

This is because people believe what they want to believe.  A teacher who likes a a particular activity/method/approach will find it easy to convince themselves that their students like it, or benefit from it.  Confirmation bias (i.e. recording the hits and forgetting the misses) will do the rest to convince a teacher that their method “really works”.

But what does “work” mean here anyway?  If you want to test something then it’s a good idea to have a clear idea of what it is you want to test.  Does “work” mean “make the students happy” or “allow me to skive off the lesson” or “make me, the teacher, feel good about myself” or “increases the chances the group of students will become more proficient”?  If you don’t know what “works” means then it’s meaningless to say that something works. 

no one is impervious to this kind of thinking, which is why we do need evidence that our practices work, or at least, the ability to weed-out those which really do not.  Fifty years ago teachers were making their students listen and repeat and declaring that “it really works!” and 20 years ago communicative language teaching came and that “really worked” too and now Dogme “really works!”  If all these methods work, why do we keep changing them?

 

part 2 is here
for more about GenkiEnglish read this.

NB:  If you want to read a blog which basically says everything I do, except funnier and before me, then check out this one.

references 


Harris, T. 2002. ‘NLP: If it Works, use it … or is there Censorship Around?’ in HLT magazine retrieved September 23 2012 www.hltmag.co.uk/sep02/martsep023.rtf


Graham. R, (2009) Academic Research: Genki English really, really works. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/teaching/academic-research-genki-english-really-really-works