Monday, 27 October 2014

Try this it works! No.1: Practice makes perfect.

when I was a kid and trying to learn the guitar my dad used to tell me that if I practised something for half and hour, I'd be half an hour better at it than someone who didn't.

When I first started learning Japanese there were a bunch of other teachers who arrived at the same time. We all went off to different schools and met six months later for training. By that point my Japanese had improved the most. In that six months I had practised for one hour every morning before work. I practised in my lunch break and after work and I studied during my weekends and holidays and I spent most of my time with Japanese people. 

Being 'half an hour better' may not seem like much but over a week that's 3.5 more hours studied. After 6 months you're 84 hours better. 

Practice is very effective for language students. Although that might seem like 'lessons in the bleeding obvious' or what Gillum 2004 calls '"duh" observations' in EFL it's actually not that simple. 'practice', can be a dirty word in EFL. 'practice gets a raw deal in the field of applied linguistics' DeKeyser (2007:1) suggests citing its associations with the 'discredited' field of behaviourism. In a 2010 paper he notes:

[practice has] taken a beating in recent decades. Krashen claimed that "learning does not become acquisition" (1982 p.83), R, Ellis that "the results [of empirical research] are not very encouraging for practice" (1994)
The paper, titled 'don't throw out the baby with the bathwater' attempts to redress the balance and points out how much research evidence there is in EFL supporting practice. In fact, research into the benefits of practice for learning is some of the most compelling not only in EFL but also in mainstream education. Authors like Hattie, Willingham and Pashler all strongly recommend practice as a top intervention for improving learning outcomes. But what kind of practice should we be doing?

In order to be effective practice should meet certain criteria. Firstly it should ideally be meaningful. Lightbown who argued in 1985 that 'practice does not make perfect' noted that she was referring to mechanical drills and suggested that meaningful practice is 'clearly beneficial and even essential '(2000:243). Pashler et al (2013) agrees, noting in a study looking at foreign vocabulary retrieval 'repeat after me' activities are less effective than students trying to recall the vocabulary themselves.

Secondly repeated practice must occur over time (spaced) not crammed into one lesson (massed). In Hatties Visible Learning ‘spaced practice’ (2009:185) has an effect size of 0.7 which is the 12th most effective intervention he lists. Hattie also reiterates the idea that 'drill and kill' simply won't work. The exposure needs to be varied, with feedback and be related to various contexts. This, he argues, will 'enhance mastery [and] also fluency'. 

In a paper called 'inexpensive techniques to improve education' the authors list three strategies which are proven to be effective in the classroom and one of them is, you guessed it, 'spaced practice' while another is 'retrieval practice'. Similarly Dunlosky et al (2013) in a paper on the best evidence-based practice, note that spaced practice with around 24 hours between exposure was more effective than both going over the same material on the same day or leaving a much longer gap. And as with Pashler, they suggest that having students try to recall, rather than just being exposed again was the most effective. Willingham (2009:120) reiterates this point adding 'you can get away with less practice if you space it out than if you bunch it together.' 

In relation to the amount of time between exposures Nation notes, that if enough time passes between learning a word and seeing it again it then the ‘encounter is effectively not a repetition but is like a first encounter’ (2008:67). Whereas if the chance to retrieve the word is close enough to the original encounter, the knowledge of the word will be strengthened. 

What does this mean for your class? 

Practice can be useful for fluency in speech and reading, learning vocabulary, improving pronunciation, writing and spelling DeKeyser (2007, 2010). It can also help with receptive skills (Thornbury 2006:196). Whether or not it can help with grammar is a complex and controversial question and one which I neither have the confidence nor space to discuss here (I would point you here, if you're interested).

It's my feeling that practice is skimped on in a lot of classes. It certainly has been in many of mine. How often have I explained words and seen students write them into their notebooks (or as Swan calls them 'word cemeteries') only to noticed they've forgotten them by the end of the week,  or have students repeat a word a couple a times in class but never go back to it on another occasion. How many times have I spent five or ten minutes on something but then not reviewed it, except perhaps as homework? Even when I have reviewed it it was only once or twice, a number nowhere near enough for automaticity to occur. 

I remember an experience recently where I taught a certain phrase that was very important to a group of students. The next day I asked them to write down the phrase we'd practise and only one out of 15 students was able to do it. I asked them again three days later and this time around half the class could do it. I waited till the following week and it was still only about half of the class. It wasn't until the end of the second week that all but one student could write down this one single phrase.  

When I was learning Japanese and heard a new word I would walk around trying it out on everyone I met. 'Hey, I learnt a new word today'. 'Oh yeah? what's that?' 'danson johin!' or whatever. Invariably I'd mess it up and they'd correct me, but I was getting good quality practice; it was meaningful, it was spaced and it was me trying to recall (with feedback) not someone saying 'repeat after me'.

I've been teaching for over 10 years now and just this year I've realized how much repetition and practice I'll need to incorporate if what I'm doing isn't going to be completely futile. Worries about covering that day's material or doing 'boring' repetition/review perhaps blinded me to what the research and ironically my own experience as a language learner spelt out. Try practice, it works!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Teaching is an art, not a science!

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

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

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

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

When criticising teacher grading:

When railing against common core

When railing against tests in general. 

When promoting the value of student placement. 

When warning against the deindividualization of students

when promoting...erm...'vital infusing core values'(?)

and of course when arguing that students 'are not fish'

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Questionnaires are hard

Q1. Have you ever illegally downloaded movies from the Internet or engaged in other forms of copyright infringement?   Yes/ No 
One of my favourite parts of teaching postgraduate students is helping them when they start planning their research. They almost always plump for questionnaires and then ask their friends to fill them in. Like many students, they seem to think this is the easy option. But actually questionnaires are somewhat like temples in Indiana Jones films. One false move and suddenly you're running in a blind panic as a large bolder tumbles after you, and a pit full of snakes opens at your feet. Metaphorically speaking. 

Many of my students look glum when I tell them that questionnaires can often have very poor response rates even dropping as low as 10%. This isn't really surprising, just ask yourself how often you willingly click on an online questionnaires (sure thing website, I'm happy to sit here and fill out your survey! Really! I've nothing better to do) 

When numbers get low there is a danger of non-response bias which means the non-responders outnumber the responders and therefore your result may not be representative. Even when people do respond their answer are subject to response bias. The question above, for example, asks about 'illegal downloading' and so the the likelihood people who see themselves as generally law-abiding, but yet who download movies may not answer truthfully. This is known as social desirability bias, and it's not the only response bias

Biases aside, question writing is a minefield. The question at the top is no good for a few reasons. firstly, it asks two questions which can be confusing. Secondly, it uses language which some respondents might not understand which may lead to them abandoning the whole thing. They might also do this if the survey is too long and boring, or if the answer options don't allow them to give the answer they want. It's also not a good idea to have leading questions, irritating questions, questions that use negatives (or double negatives) or even too many open ended questions.

I read a lot about surveys recently since I've been trying to write one with Nicola Prentis over the course the last 3 months and it only has about 10 questions. It had several pilots (and we still found flaws when we released it). One question in particular had endless rewrites -can you guess which one? Hopefully all this has whet your appetite! Go and take our survey here! 

Go on! 

right now! 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Woo watch: the minimal pair

I've always wanted there to be a good TEFL podcast on itunes, then two appeared at once. TEFLology and The Minimal Pair. Initially I was excited by this but recent episodes of the minimal pair have left me rather disappointed.  

Their most recent show touched on 'grammar snobs', something I have a keen interest in. From two university educators, I expected,  an enjoyable and thorough debunking of silly prescriptivist rules. Alas the hosts seemed keener to stress that people ought to 'know the rules before they break them' and further stressed how important it was for people to 'follow the rules'. There was never any discussion of why 'the rules' are rules or whether they should be rules at all. One of the hosts seemed a little distraught that Steven Pinker had recently suggested we don't need to worry that much about 'dangling modifiers' and said 'there goes my lesson plan for next week'. -A lesson on dangling modifiers? (O_o)

Oddly 'the pair' defined prescriptive grammar as 'the real technical rules' and descriptive grammar as 'just making yourself understood'. This to me showed something of a lack of understanding of these terms, particularly when one host spent much of the segment relating descriptive grammar to 'textspeak' and saying of it 'if you're in some sort of emergency state and you need to make yourself understood, then whatever'. 

Descriptive grammar (or more properly descriptive linguistics) is just recording  the way people actually communicate. Prescriptive grammar is the way one particular group believes everyone should communicate. One sentence can be viewed differently by both groups. 

For example, with my family I, like many British people, say things like 'where's me coat gone'. Descriptive linguistics would suggest that 'me' is used as a possessive by some people in some situations instead of the more standard 'my'. Prescriptive grammarians would tell you that 'me' is just 'wrong' here and you should stop saying it. Obviously there is a place for both of these approaches, but perscriptivism tends to be the one people take to heart. Humans, for reasons I can't work out, adore being told what 'the rules' are and enjoy even more the delicious thrill of telling others that they're 'getting it wrong'. 

This prescriptivism love-in though, would not normally be enough to land them in the woo watch column. In a later section, when 'the pair' discuss the pros and cons of using PowerPoint to teach, one of them notes how good PowerPoints can be guessed it...visual learners! Apparently, "some students just learn better when they have an image presented to them." It was with great dismay that I heard the host refer listeners back to a special they'd done on visual learners so back I went, and listen I did 

Now I've heard podcast episodes on learning styles before, but this went one further. They presented a segment on both audio learners and visual learners and promised an future episode on kinesthetic learners. were these really the same people who were suggested the use of PowerPoint to teach was controversial? 

So there you have it; perscriptivism and learning styles all in one podcast. Oh 'minimal pair' why must you taunt me!  Later in the episode one of the hosts noted how important it was to teach critical thinking. I couldn't agree more. 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Oh Beware the ladder of inference!

He didn't reply to my email. It's been over a week!

Maybe the tone was rude or perhaps I should have written 'Dr.' Perhaps now he thinks I'm a really rude person? He looked at that email and thought 'Jesus, this guy is a real amateur'. The request was so stupid he was insulted by it. That's probably it. I've probably insulted him. Why else wouldn't he reply? I'm such an idiot! I need to write to him and apologise right away. 

My slightly crap rendering of the ladder of inference
This type of thinking is called climbing the 'ladder of inference' a concept developed by Chris Argylis which helps to explain why very small things can  often get blown out of all proportion. For instance, in the above example all that happened is that someone didn't reply to an email. That is the only 'fact' here. Everything else is perception, assumptions and (probably) mistaken conclusions. The person in question might just be busy or on holiday, who knows? The ladder of inference is a product of our incredible brains which are designed to infer meaning where meaning is not always explicit (or doesn't exist at all). 

For example, if someone in your family shouts 'door' at you, after the doorbell goes, they're not just randomly shouting words, instead they're informing you that they'd very much like for you to go and open the door. 

But this talent for spotting what's 'really' going on, doesn't always work well in online discussions. The ladder can at times work to colour our views before we have all the facts. For example, after watching my talk on pseudoscience, one commenter wrote:

You seem to support traditional teaching. Any new technique needs a licence. ...Nowadays, you have to focus on the learner.
When climbing the ladder you start with real evidence, that is 'He doesn't supports learning styles'. From there you move to selected data and experience 'old-fashioned teachers don't use learning styles'. Next you affix meaning 'he must be an old fashioned teacher' and make an assumption 'old fashioned teachers aren't interested in students, they are teacher-centric and don't value individuality' and then act on these beliefs 'I can disregard this opinion because the teacher is not progressive and doesn't care about students.'

The talk mentions nothing whatsoever about my preferred teaching method or my view on 'traditional teaching' or 'learner-centred' approaches. Yet this commenter is already half-way up the ladder. The inference here is that my dismissal of neuromyths must mean that I basically want kids sitting in silence while I crush their individuality and stomp all over their creativity. This is a shame since my lessons are actually filled with rainbow-coloured unicorns.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Lesson study

I once took part in a 'lesson study' class when I used to work in Japan. They're all the rage these days and the latest in a long line of 'they're doing it better abroad' approaches to education.

Lesson study basically involves a bunch of teachers from other schools coming over to your school and watching you teach. After the class (which is a performance like most observations) the kids are sent home and then you and the other teachers talk about your lesson and then discuss more generally 'teaching'. 

Sounds pretty neat, huh? 

So onto my second Japan related story. One of my favourite comedy programs over there once asked old people (who obviously have lots of life experience) which proverbs were the most useless. One guy said: 

Two heads are better than one (lit: three people together have the wisdom of Monju

The presenter asked him why he thought this was a useless saying and the old guy said 'because if the people are idiots it doesn't matter how many there are' 

And so back to lesson study. I distinctly remember receiving some interesting advice from some of the English teachers who were gathered there. I also distinctly remember them telling me that if the kids don't learn good Japanese their English will never be any good (myth) and that educating young kids in English would make their native Japanese 'go weird' (myth). As the teachers were all older and much more experienced than me I had to sit there in silence as they continued on with this kind of 'professional development'.

I'm sure study learning could have some great benefits but the plural of anecdote isn't data

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Crystal Balls

About 2 years ago, before I first started this blog I was feeling a little disillusioned with EFL. I remember coming across an article by Michael Swan called “we do need methods”. No article I’ve read before or since has had such an effect on me. I downloaded every article I could find and read them all. Finally I wrote to him and was amazed and grateful to receive a lengthy thoughtful reply. The article is featured in his most recent work, ‘thinking about language teaching’ which is, by far, my favourite book on language teaching.

In my recent talk I made reference to an article in IATEFL issues (158) written by Swan back in 2002 which was in response to another article extolling the virtues of using ‘crystals’ for teaching. When I read the article, I was again excited to find someone who had described my feelings in such a concise and powerful way. Unfortunately, that article hasn’t been available online until now. I’m very pleased that the author has allowed me to reproduce it here. I hope you get as much pleasure from reading it as I did.

Crystal Balls

On first looking at the article ‘Crystals in the Classroom’, I thought it must be a very skilfully-written spoof. On a second reading, I realised that it was serious. At which point I began to feel very disturbed. Why (I asked myself) is a responsible language teachers’ journal giving space to a New Age disquisition about using moonlight to cleanse crystals, placing pieces of quartz on one’s solar plexus to gain relief from stress, generating ‘happy stones’, overcoming shyness with sodalite, and using jade to inspire wisdom? Has this got anything to do with language teaching?

Well (you might reply) who am I to say it hasn't? Teachers are creative individuals, and what doesn't work for me may well work for someone else. We can only be the richer for listening carefully to each other. What right have I to dismiss an approach espoused by another practitioner, simply because it is remote from my own practice? Not everything in the world is a reducible to scientific method. Don't professional journals have a duty to allow space for unorthodox opinions as well as mainstream views?

Yes, of course they do - provided the claims are properly backed up in the normal way by persuasive argument and/or reasonably convincing evidence. I'm not suggesting we should aim at the same standards of proof in our work as apply, say, to physics or history - rigorous proof is generally too much to ask for in the behavioural sciences. And what counts as good evidence varies from one situation to another, because language-teaching has one foot in science and the other in art. But this does not absolve our discipline from the normal professional requirement to provide adequate support for its claims. Assertions - in both science and art - always need justification: you don't make things true just by saying they are.

If, say, I read a flat statement that definite articles are always learnt before indefinite articles, I need to know more so that I can evaluate the claim and make an informed judgement about it. How was the investigation carried out? How many learners were studied, from what language backgrounds? Has the study been replicated? Similarly, if you tell me that a colleague has obtained good results from getting her students to teach each other card tricks in English, I'm not unwilling to believe you, but I still need to be convinced. It would be unreasonable in this case to ask for research-based statistics, but other kinds of question are apposite. How was the card-trick activity organised, and what language did it generate? What is your colleague’s basis for claiming ‘good results’? Is she experienced enough to be able to compare reliably the results she gets from different kinds of activity? What confidence do you have in her judgement?

The more implausible an assertion, the more support is needed for it to be taken seriously. Keeping an open mind does not mean accepting uncritically whatever somebody says. If a writer tells us that conscious ‘noticing’ of grammatical structures is a necessary prerequisite for learning them, we have a right to demand very good evidence indeed for this remarkable claim. Equally, if Jones announces in the staff room that he has speeded up learning by a factor of seven by getting students to put their feet in buckets of water and balance birdcages on their heads, we will be unwise just to take his word for it, however popular his classes may be. We cannot prove that the buckets and birdcages method doesn't work - it is almost impossible to prove a negative. But it is not our job to prove that it doesn't work; the onus is firmly on Jones to come up with convincing evidence that it does.

Despite the many difficulties, we have an obligation to ourselves and to our students to ensure, as far as possible, that what we are doing in the classroom is genuinely appropriate to our aims and reasonably cost-effective. If we experiment with new techniques (as of course we should), then we need to keep a very critical eye on what we are doing. Have we really found a valid new approach; or does it just appear to work with our students because we have persuaded ourselves and them that it does?

And if we go public, and talk or write about our experiments, we have an equally important duty to our colleagues and to the profession at large to justify, as rigorously as we can, whatever claims we are making. The article in question, however, provides neither evidence nor supporting argument for the assertions about the alleged pedagogic and therapeutic value of using certain mineral crystals in the classroom. We cannot evaluate what the author says, because he has given us no basis for doing so. And so, regardless of the truth or otherwise of his beliefs, it seems to me that his paper is out of place in a professional language teachers’ journal.


This article has been slightly abridged at the request of the author.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Try this! It works

One of the most frequent questions I hear is 'ok so maybe these things you write about don't work how about telling us what does work'? This question bothers me.

To some, noting that 'method X' doesn't work makes me responsible for filling a 'method X' shaped gap in the curriculum. A reasonable response to things that don't work is, I think, to stop doing them. We don't have to continue blood letting until something better comes along. Just stop.
However this answer doesn't always satisfy. The logic seems to be that  if I can't offer up something better than 'crystals in the classroom' then by god we're going to have crystals in the classroom! But things like NLP don't suddenly become effective if an alternative can't be found. It's not the least worst solution. It just doesn't work.

That said, It's not totally unreasonable, since the blog is called, 'evidence based EFL' to wonder what exactly is effective. for example, the always engaging 'teacher James (James Taylor) recently noted that even though he like me, is a sceptic, he's not entirely sure how he can make his teaching more evidence-based. He notes:

With all the will in the world, I can’t do the research myself. I would definitely encourage teachers to do their own experimental practice and investigate a particular area of their teaching, but we can’t investigate everything we do. If we want to access the research of MA students who are looking into all these areas, where do we go? Most research never sees the light of day after graduation, and if it does it’s published behind paywalls and in subscription only journals, which we can’t access and even if we could, would we have time to read them? 

Therefore, because I completely understand people's desire to know 'what works' and  also because I don't want to spend the rest of my life reading and writing about things like BrainGym and NLP (because as I've said before, anything I say or write will have little effect on their popularity) I've decided to try something new. 

I've decided to add occasional posts listing things which do 'work'. I have a feeling this might disappoint some as reality is less appealing than fantastical theories and saying 'try this! it probably works' is less sexy than shouting 'all of this is bullshit!'. If you think I'm going to say 'the correct answer is (drum roll) ...task based learning!' Then you'll be disappointed. This will be more a collection of techniques or principles which seem to have strong evidence of efficacy.

After wading through various books and journals trying to find things that 'work', I have to say two things in relation to this. Firstly, being a young field, and one with very low entry requirements, there's often very little solid evidence for anything. As Swan notes: 

We actually know hardly anything about how languages are learnt, and as a result we are driven to rely, in our teaching, on a pre-scientific mixture of speculation, common sense, and the insights derived from experience. Like eighteenth-century doctors, we work largely by hunch, concealing our ignorance under a screen of pseudo-science and jargon.

And secondly, I have to say, SLA experts boy, you don't make it easy for teachers! I'm a supporter of research. I'm on your side! But ploughing through some of the awful turgid prose that can pass for academic writing left me a tad depressed at times. If you actually want teachers to read this stuff, make it a bit more teacher friendly. Failing to do that means the space is being filled by opinion and at times, nonsense. 

This is not a job I can do by myself. As I said here, I'm looking for anyone who is an expert or at least more knowledge than most in a certain area (maybe you wrote your MA dissertation about a certain subject) to do a guest post. I've been lucky enough to host the wonderful Philip Kerr and will soon hopefully have another great post to share.

On a final note, James Taylor above encourages teachers to do research and about a year ago I wrote "ask to see the evidence and if there isn't any, why not try to make some?". I realise how daunting that may sound. but there is good news on that front too. Another James, (Pengelley this time) together with Rachael have been working on a project called 'The Scarlet Onion' which aims to:
...inspire and encourage teachers to be critical practitioners.  To offer a platform for those who would like to know more, do more, discover more about what they do and why they do it.  We want to provide a clear model of professionalism in EFL and instil the desire and ability in others to think critically, creatively, and challenge the ideas and assumptions they come across every day in their own work.
James tells me the site will be providing teachers with the tools to evaluate and even do research of their own. If everyone starts pushing in the same direction, asking questions, making research accessible on blogs and even doing it themselves, you never know, we might actually make a difference.  



Sunday, 6 July 2014

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Kangaroos are dangerous animals.  You can, however, avoid danger if you know  the signs. Joe Nichter, a frequent traveller, writes about discovering this in a trip to Australia:

While I was there, the local aborigines taught me a lot about the magic of the Kangaroo, and most importantly, how to tell when they're going to attack you. Surprisingly enough they are actually VERY dangerous, but fortunately for us they go through a checklist before they attack.

The first thing they do is smile. Well no, not really but that's what it looks like. Actually they're baring their teeth just like a dog, but because of their facial structure it appears as though they're smiling.

The second thing they do is double-check their pouch for baby Joey's. As it turns out they're very responsible parents whether they have children or not, they check anyways. There's something to be said about that.

And third, they look over both shoulders, checking behind them as they lay their very large tail down on the ground. It acts as a "kick stand" (which I believe is where the term came from) as they lean back and lay into you with a battery of high speed Kangaroo Karate kicks.

They average about five to seven solid kicks before you're knocked out of range. I spoke to a local man who holds the distance record: an adult Kangaroo kicked him fourteen feet. He's a bit of a celebrity who's very popular with the ladies. He has a shirt and everything.

None of this is true. Our critical thinking faculties are often disarmed by good stories. In fact, they only really come into effect when we're suspicious of something or when it disagrees with our world view. The danger is when we 'want to believe.'

Narratives are far more important to humans than facts. We are a consciousness inhabiting a body from moment to moment and what makes us seem like a unified self, unlike a series of Doctor Who-esque reincarnations over time, is the narratives we tell ourselves. We hold our 'selves' together with stories. The unreliability of our memories is well documented, and we generally edit  narratives to make them fit better with our beliefs about what should have happened, not what did happen.  

When I find myself watching shows like the X factor (usually if I visit my parents) I'm always amazed by the way personal history is edited to fit the present. Contestants say things like 'I've been singing since I was little', as if this was in someway unusual among children. But this temptation to repurpose our histories to make a better narrative about our lives, one in which everything we've done has lead to this unique moment, is powerful. How many people have you met who have 'ended up' as EFL teachers (like myself) but who then mine their history for moments which make their present situation seem somehow predestined. For example, the creator of Genki English, Richard Graham tells us: 
I first started teaching when I was 16. I was the first student in the UK to take the Advanced Level examination (the exams English students take at 18) in Music with my instrument as being [sic] the synthesiser...Anyway I had to teach myself how to play and being an enterprising 16 year old I figured that loads of kids were wanting to play synths instead of the "boring" (ok, it depends on your point of view!) piano. So if there were no other teachers out there then why not start teaching it myself!
always wonder what this story would look like had the 1980s never finished and Graham had made it as a star synth keyboard player instead being an EFL teacher. I imagine the 'synth' part would be turned up high and the teaching part turned way down low.

This overly long preamble brings me to today's topic. Did you know how many common English phrases have sinister histories?

Did you know, for example that the nursery rhyme 'Ring of roses/ a pocket full of posies/ Atishoo Atishoo/ we all fall down' was created during the plague of London? The roses relate to the red ring of infectious sores which signalled the beginning of the infection. The posies were, at the time, considered a treatment. The sneezing indicated a worsening of the symptoms and I don't need to explain the falling down.
And how about that "rule of thumb" actually refers to an old English law which permitted a man to beat his wife with a stick 'no thicker than his thumb'.
Did you also know that 'one for the road' has a similar macabre history? Condemned prisoners would be taken through the streets of London to be hanged. The prisoners 'on the wagon' would not be allowed to drink but occasionally guards, feeling pity, would let the men stop at a pub, for a final drink (one for the road) before their execution.
When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that's where the saying "dirt poor" came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a "thresh hold".

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that's where the saying "dirt poor" came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a "thresh hold".

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that's where the saying "dirt poor" came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a "thresh hold".

All of these are great stories and yet none of them are true. They are false etymologies but they survive because they are really good stories (more here) and good stories are always more interesting than boring old facts. If you're not convinced ask yourself why politicians always back up numbers with tales of 'a family man from Kansas told me...' and so on. Our brains react to stories not abstract numbers, which is why the anecdote "it worked for me" is so powerful.

Our narrative drive is so strong that we ignore statistical likelihoods in favour of anecdotes. Many people are more scared of shark bites than Louis Suarez bites though the latter is more statistically probable. (This example isn't, in retrospect, a very good one. See comments section for a discussion of this point). 

So 'debunkers' beware, recent research shows that not only are people unlikely to be swayed be facts, the 'backfire effect' often means a person's views will be reinforced by a evidence which contradicts their personal narrative. 

The sceptics job is a thankless one. as Dave Wilton writes in 'Word myths':
Anyone who has any experience debunking legends or pseudoscience knows that the task is often an unappreciated one. People do not like to have their beliefs questioned or to have good stories spoiled.