EBEFL asks: Should we listen to students?

At IATEFL Silvana Richardson, Scott Thornbury and Chris Smith (2015) all made reference to student opinion.  

  • Smith carried out research on students’ views of oral feedback and found that they really liked being directly corrected by the teacher and don’t feel they get enough correction. He made the argument that we ought to listen to students and correct them more.*
  • Thornbury noted in a poll he had carried out that the major reason teachers continue to teach the grammatical syllabus is that they believe students expect it. 
  • Richardson reported that many schools claim students don’t want NNS teachers and thus won’t employ them. She asked ‘is the customer always right?’ and argued that we should try to educate students and get them to see the error of their ways. 
I think the idea that we should listen to students has an certain ideological appeal. It fits nicely with concepts like learner-centred teaching, autonomy, negotiated syllabus, and other fashionable terms. So it feels good, but is it a good idea?


I would expect most people would say ‘it depends’. Should we listen to students for instance if they say:

  • the class is boring? 
  • they think I’m a wonderful teacher? 
  • there are too many tests? 
  • they feel stressed out? 
  • they want more grammar?
  • the material isn‘t very good?
  • they don’t like the teacher?
  • they want a native speaker teacher? 
  • they want a male teacher
  • they want a white teacher

I have to confess at this point that I’ve marshalled students in defence of an argument I was making. I argued that “If student want to sound like their ideal of a native speakers (and many do) then that’s fine. If they don’t that’s fine. It’s their money.” Yet In a talk I gave on student evaluation of teachers I concluded that we really shouldn’t be paying too much attention to students’ opinions on teacher quality as they’re not experts in teaching and because research suggests their views are largely based on things other than teaching (how much they like the teacher, how attractive the teacher is etc, etc etc). 


So when should we listen to students, -only when they already say what we want to hear? 

  

*Smith’s opinion was also based on a review of literature which showed oral EC to be effective.

The Importance of Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘healthy scepticism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

The need for research

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

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

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

 References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.


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?







 

Why we need evidence part 3: expert opinion

What do Rod Ellis, Michael Swan, Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury and Jim Scrivener all have in common?  Yes, they’re all white, native speakers and they’re all men in a profession which is largely female, non-white and non-native speaker. But that’s not what I was aiming for, no they are all TEFL “authorities”, and probably for whatever reason, the most recognisable names in TEFL/applied linguistics.

This isn’t a post attacking them. I happen to like all of them (though Swan is my fav!) but it’s more to question the authority that is afforded to them. Harmer for example is a teacher and a teacher trainer. Is he better or more capable than any other teacher trainer? -I have no idea and I have no idea how you would even work that out. Like Thornbury, Harmer has written a very influential book which means he’s certainly dedicated and driven, but is what he says any more reliable than a teacher who hasn’t written a book?

I have taken a lot of useful advice from Harmer’s practice of English teaching, as I’m sure many people reading this have. But I’ve also seen him recommend teachers test students to find out their learner styles in spite of the evidence he himself quotes against it. I’ve also seen him promote NLP, without a single word of criticism. though in this regard he’s no different from the British Council which seems to have no problem promoting either of these things.

Thornbury scores more highly in both these areas. He’s also refreshingly honest about some of ELT’s more entrenched practices which have dubious credibility. But one has to wonder about Dogme, criticised, -somewhat ironically perhaps, -by Harmer here.

I like both Harmer and Thornbury’s books, but neither men, as far as I can tell, are researchers. Their words should have just as much (or just as little) weight as anyone else’s. Even if they were researchers and leading researchers in their field, like Rod Ellis for example, it wouldn’t mean that their opinion on a given issue is necessarily the right one. For example Swan takes issue with Ellis’ whole approach to language teaching, -so which expert are we to believe?


In the world of evidence based research, opinion albeit “expert” opinion ranks dead last, (and sometimes doesn’t appear at all) -and for good reason. The whole purpose of research and the power behind the scientific method derives from the fact that people are often wrong, and often wrong about being wrong. The Nobel Prize winning Scientist Linus Pauling serves as an important cautionary tale:
After becoming convinced of its worth, Pauling took 3 grams of vitamin C every day to prevent colds. Excited by his own perceived results, he researched the clinical literature and published Vitamin C and the Common Cold in 1970. He began a long clinical collaboration with the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron in 1971 on the use of intravenous and oral vitamin C as cancer therapy for terminal patients (wikipedia)

I’ve highlighted a very important sentence in bold here. Pauling believed that vitamin C really really worked and thus ignored his scientific training. Other people may take this idea seriously because such a famous researcher said it. They may even use an authority figure’s opinion as evidence of a point they are making, -and I have documented cases of that here. This is often called the “argument from authority” for obvious reasons.

But how does someone become an authority? Well, you need to get people to listen to you. Imagine tomorrow I announced that I would be starting a new teaching method called “langology”. I laid out all the precepts and techniques and wrote a passionate call for teachers to use it. How many people would? I’m guessing the number would be zero. Yet there are others who could affect the way thousands of teachers teach, just by doing this, get books published off the back of it and even stir up controversy in the TEFL world. Yet the people who suggest new theories or give advice about best practice are really only giving you their opinions.

Of course, opinions may come in a range of probabilities depending on the claims being made, but we should never forget that they are, no matter how accurate they sound, just opinions. And as such, the opinion of say Dr. James Ascher (the Dr. appears on all the TPR stuff) that TPR is good for kinesthetic students, is exactly and entirely as valid as my saying that “langology” will not only make you fluent in any language in a matter of weeks but it will also make you more successful, handsome and probably slightly taller. And importantly should be given exactly that much weight. This is unlikely to happen though, but why?

I can’t really answer that question but I would guess that it has something to do with the Halo effect.  This is what makes us think a celebrity giving us insurance advice is worth listening to or what leads to better looking students getting higher marks for an essay. Also perhaps it relates to how easily we are convinced by authority figures. Either way, it’s something we should be on our guard against. The next time someone at work, round the water cooler, mentions that “Harmer is big on drilling!” or that Ellis doesn’t think contrastive analysis is useful,  remember that in the absence of evidence, this is just an opinion.

Learning styles: facts and fictions

This article originally appeared in Modern English Teacher, volume 21 No.4.  Thanks to Dave Francis for allowing me to reproduce it here.  
 
 Learning styles (sometimes ‘learner styles’ hereafter LS) are pervasive in education and there are far too many articles examining the learning styles of various groups of students to reproduce here. However a quick search of Google scholar will bring up numerous articles examining the various LS of various groups, from Iranian freshmen to Taiwanese and Kuwaiti students. However, for the amount of attention they receive there is very little evidence of their efficacy:
The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated (Pasler et al 2008:117).
 This essay will examine LS in the EFL literature and question whether they actually provide a useful tool for aiding students language learning or whether they are merely a pseudo-scientific distraction. Firstly, This essay will examine the theory of learning styles, focusing on the VAK model in particular. It will then examine references to LS in a small sample of EFL literature. Finally some of the problems with the theories of LS will be outlined.
 
What are learning styles?
The basic premise of LS is that ‘individuals learn in different ways'(Nel 2008:51).  There is a large body of literature related to the various types, whether they be visual, audio or, kinesthetic, (VAK) left brained or right brained, concrete or communicative, levelers or sharpners, plungers or non-committers, convergers or divergers, the list, while not endless is certainly long!  The thrust of the various theories is that if a teacher caters to a student’s particular LS then said student’s learning will be enhanced. (Thornbury 2006)  Therefore a teacher should prepare a variety of approaches when introducing material in order to cater for these disparate needs.  
There does appear to be some conceptual confusion (Nel 2008) with regard to this term. Whereas for some, LS simply indicates the things different students prefer to do in order to learn,  For example, student A may use flash cards and student B may like writing lots of notes. For others LS indicates a scientific theory relating to ‘the biologically and developmentally imposed set of characteristics that make the same teaching method wonderful for some and terrible for others’ (Dunn & Griggs, 1988:3). There is quite a difference here between that which is preferential and that which is biologically constrained. This paper will specifically deal with latter of these two notions, though it is possible that the vagueness of the concept has actually aided its popularity, as a wide range of activities can be grouped under one catch-all term.   

weak and strong forms

It is useful to divide LS into two versions, for the sake of criticism. The first can be termed the ‘weak’ version in which it is posited that all students learn in different ways and while one student can find a activity enjoyable or an explanation clear, another student can find the same activity dull and the same explanation confusing (Pashler et al 2008:116). Also, as noted earlier, students have their own favourite ways of learning. All of this is relatively uncontroversial and probably quite familiar to most teachers. The ‘strong’ version however moves from this position to suggesting that not only do students learn differently, but that that difference is attributable to a certain biological difference within each student. Furthermore this difference can be reliably discovered through testing (often in the form of self-report questionnaires)  and that a teacher can then target lessons to suit the students particular LS which will in turn accelerate a student’s ability to learn. In this version, LS is presented as a complete and well defined theory. This view of learning is as problematic as it is popular.  
 

References to LS

The weak form can sometimes be used as a wedge to introduce the strong form. Alternatively, criticism can be deflected by appealing to the more general and ‘common sense’ ideas of the weak form while the strong form is pushed as being a legitimate technique. An example of this can be seen in ‘the practice of English language teaching’ in which Harmer, despite noting that the claims of this theory have not ‘been subjected to any kind of rigorous scientific evaluation'(2007:93)  suggests carrying out computer based tests of students’ multiple intelligences. Harmer notes that the Coffield study has severely criticised learning styles including the following quote ‘[we] advise against pedagogical intervention based solely on any of the learning style instruments’ (Coffield et al 2004:140) Yet continues to promote learning styles claiming that they are useful for making teachers aware  of  ‘self-evident truths, – namely that different students react differently to different stimulus’ (2007:93). While it may be the case that learners learn differently, it does not follow that therefore LS are the answer to this. nor is it at all clear why teachers need to be made aware of things which are ‘self evident’. The same tact is employed elsewhere in the section:
         It may sound as if, therefore, there is no point in reading about different learner styles at all – or trying to incorporate them into our teaching. But that is not the case. We should do as much as we can to understand the individual differences within a group (2007:89)
 Understanding that students are individuals is quite a different thing from employing specific LS tests and classroom practices. In the above quote Harmer refers to evidence based criticisms of LS and yet dismisses these criticism, without evidence, merely by asserting that ‘this is not the case’.  
 
Thornbury is more damning of LS noting that there is little evidence ‘that any of these dispositions correlates with specific learning behaviours. Nor has it been shown that preference in one area predicts success in language learning.’ (2006:116-7) Yet despite Thornbury’s  caution LS are presented uncritically in a large amount of EFL literature, or criticisms are brushed away, as with  Nel (2008) who after acknowledging the conceptual confusion in LS and listing criticism of LS, then goes on to suggest, similarly to Harmer, that teachers should still test their students to find out their LS in order to ‘maximise the learning opportunities of their students'(2008:57). However, as the next section will show, even if we accept LS as a legitimate theory, it is hard to see how it’s implementation would actually aid students learning in any way. Ellis is equally critical of the research noting that his original conclusion of their limited worth did not require updating for the second edition, published 14 years later. He also apologies for the lengthy treatment of LS noting that this merely reflected the huge amount of “attention it has received from researchers”(2008:671-2).
 The evidence problem
There is very little credible research to support LS (Coffield et al 2004:140). Specifically in the field of L2 acquisition Ellis notes that there is uncertainty over whether “any useful generalisations can be based on the research undertaken to date”(2008:669 ) Pashler et al. (2008:116)  in relation to research on the subject which reaches an acceptable level of credibility note that :
 
only a few fragmentary and unconvincing pieces of evidence that meet this standard, and we therefore conclude that the literature fails to provide adequate support for applying learning-style assessments in school settings… several studies that used appropriate research designs found evidence that contradicted the learning-styles hypothesis
 
Despite this there is a very lucrative industry built around testing and providing materials for different learner types. Another unfortunate trend as noted is, when faced with disappointing results, or criticism of LS,  some in the EFL world seem reluctant to accept them, possibly noting that there is not enough research yet or that the ideas are still, on some level, useful.
 
It is also worth noting that what I have mainly described (VAK) is just one version of the LS theory. Coffield et al note that ‘learning style researchers do not speak with one voice’ (2004:140) For example is a pragmatist the opposite of a theorist or a reflector?  It depends on which theory you choose. The proliferation of theories, all lacking direct comparability and each with their own technical terms, ‘is both bewildering and off-putting to practitioners and to other academics who do not specialise in this field.’ (Coffield 2004:136)
 Another issue is, as Pashler et al (2008) point out, the subject being taught may well define which approach to the content is best. Whereas they give geometry as an example, for EFL perhaps the idea of a listening lesson for non-audio learners would be sufficient to highlight the absurdness of LS. Or perhaps trying to think of ways to teach reading to non-visual learners.  But if moving around the classroom with bits of text or reading out loud comes to mind, I have to admit I despair for our profession.
 
The feasibility problem
Another problem with LS is that even if it were a viable theory, it is doubtful that it would be of any use to use in the EFL field. As Harmer notes (2001:90) different intelligences mean some learning tasks might ‘not be appropriate for all of our students.’  He then suggests activities which might appeal to different types. There is something of a catch 22 here though which seems to remove all the supposed benefits of the approach. If we imagine a class with three learners, with LS X,Y and Z doing an activity targeted at style X will perhaps be less than optimal for Y and Z. so any benefit of supposed accelerated learning is instantly lost when we are inclusive. Any benefit gleaned from knowing the student’s LS would be lost. We could divide the students up by their individual LS as we divide students up by ability now but the cost of ‘interventions built around learning styles’ would be huge as students would need to be tested, customized materials made and teacher’s retrained. (Pashler et.al 2008 116) And how would we know which version of LS to use in the first place?   Can we ethical test students for their optimum VAK LS while ignoring their right-brain/left brain potential?  But that’s not all, some students may, according to the theory, have two LS or a mix of all 3 (in the VAK model). You maybe for example be 30% visual and 70% kinaesthetic.  If the purpose of this knowledge is to inform a teachers about the method of delivery it is hard to see how it is anything but general to the point of useless. Even if LS could be proved to be effective, the benefits would have considerable to make up for these costs. Is it not infinitely more sensible to spend this time teaching all these students language in as engaging a way as is possible? 

Conclusion

Students have a limited amount of time in the classroom. We um and ah over whether to schedule practice tests in class time, whether to use a whole hour for review and whether the students are getting enough practice time. Despite this we seem perfectly happy to throw away lesson time on something which is untested and probably completely useless. Pashler et al (2000:117) recommend (as Coffield et al cited earlier) due to the problems citing in this essay, use of LS at present is an ‘unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.’
 There is also the question of the massive amounts of research time that is wasted on this kind of thing. Not only the researchers’ and their subjects time, but the time of the trainee teacher, keenly devouring article after article on ‘getting the best out of kinaesthetic learners.’ Then there are the hours wasted by the likes of Coffield et al and Pashler et al debunking these ideas only to leave us back where we started knowing no more about teaching than we did before.  This time could have been spent teaching students more language, researching better ways for students to retain language or reading articles which actually tell us something of use. Not only are we wasting our student’s time but we’re also making ourselves look foolish. Worse, we risk the students, who may well also be teachers, uncritically adopting these ideas and spreading them in their home nations.

References

Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K., (2004) ‘Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning : a systematic and critical review’ London; Learning and Skills Network.

 Dunn, R. and Griggs, S. 1988. Learning Styles: Quiet Revolution in American Schools. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals


Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd ed.). Oxford:Oxford University Press.

 Harmer J.2007 The Practice of English language Teaching Essex: Pearson Education Limited

 Nel, C. 2008. ‘Learning styles’. In Griffiths, C. 2008 (Ed.). The good language learner: A tribute to Joan Rubin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

 Pashler, H.,  McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. 2008 ‘Learning Styles: Concepts and evidence’ Psychological Science in the Public Interest9/3, 105-119

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A to Z of ELT Oxford: Macmillan