Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Arguments by other means

A few weeks ago a post by Carol Black defending the use of learning styles was making the rounds on twitter. I say defending but in reality it was more of an attack on those criticising learning styles. People like me. 

I have a number of issues with Black's post which I will get into another time, however the most problematic part of her essay is that she attempts to discredit critics of learning styles by tying criticism to unpopular social/political positions. This can be seen, for example in the title of her piece:
Science / Fiction
‘Evidence-based’ education, scientific racism, & how learning styles became a myth.

From the title onward, Black explicitly attempts to link critics of learning styles with racism. This is not an attempt to argue that the evidence itself is weak (a legitimate position) or that more researcher needs to be done. She is simply trying to make those who disagree with her seem unsavoury. Debunkers of learning styles, she writes, are "are finding their way, step by step, back to their institutional origins in scientific racism". Now call me old fashioned but surely we should reserve the term 'racist' for, you know, actual racists? Of course, Black never explicitly calls critics, racist. She doesn't need to, the accusation is enough. Arguing from the position of 'this is why I'm not a racist' is not a good look for anyone. 

And what if you think learning styles is bunk but don't think you're a racist? Well, no fear! Black has this angle covered too, noting:
We should all know by now that structural racism can operate unconsciously, through unquestioned assumptions that have a racist impact without the oppressor intending or even being aware of the oppression.


In the same article she also unsubtly suggests that those who are dubious about learning styles are, by and large, men bullying women. This is, as Ashman has shown, entirely untrue. It is also untrue for TEFL where the only article in the literature really critical about learning styles was written by two women (most male academics who have published on the topic are generally supportive). 

Considering the author claims, that learning styles critics are trying to 'bully', 'shame' and 'intimidate' others, it seems astonishing that she would choose these tactics to make her argument. Black is, I think, aware of how bad this looks and so when challenged on this point continually denies it. 

On twitter, in response to Ashman's piece, she writes "Greg has misrepresented my views in his piece. There are reputable & rigorous scientists, both male and female, on both sides of this debate..." which seems a strange statement to make when her piece contains the claim that:
A disturbing feature of this discourse in education is the frequency with which it takes the form of male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational and should therefore be disregarded. 
Her earlier twitter comments also make this statement hard to believe. She previously dismissed Willingham's work on learning styles as 'mansplaining' and issuing 'edicts to (mostly female) teachers'. 

Again, compare this stated opinion of Willingham with later backtracking when challenged by Ashman. 

Is it possible to be respectful and a 'mansplainer'? 

The attempt to smear critics of learning styles continues when Black, through a series of convoluted arguments, arrives at the conclusion that:
when the debunkers double down on their claim that LEARNING STYLES DON'T EXIST, they are doubling down on the claim that the children who don't perform well in traditional instructional settings are in fact just less intelligent.
The logic here is that if a child is not doing well in traditional settings and we discount learning styles then the only explanation must be that the child is less intelligent. Black presents no evidence for this conclusion. Could there be other factors which affect a student's progress? teacher qualitypeersFamily? Not according to Black.  Any argument that will cast learning styles critics in a bad light is marshaled by Black regardless of how tenuously constructed it is. 

The more general point of this post is to say that I think this kind of 'tactic' in argument isn't helpful. Black isn't the only person who has attempted to discredit ideas based not on their merit but on some of factor, such as who said it or what accepting it might mean. 

We ought to be generous in our assumptions about intent or we risk creating a toxic environment. Accusations such as these can also be a double edged sword. Looking at her blog, how easy would it be to construct an argument that Black, with her frequent uncritical promotion of various tribal practises, actually fetishises minorities? From here it's a hop, skip and a jump to 'Orientalism', essentialising minorities, the 'noble savage' and then, right back to racism. But to do this would be wrong. 

Black's arguments about education, like all arguments, should be judged on their merits, not on assumptions about her intentions. Black would do better to start from the assumption that critics of learning styles actually just don't think the evidence shows they work. That would be the charitable thing to do. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Letters to the editor: Rob Sheppard

So I've been hoping to start a new section on the blog and my most recent post has fortunately facilitated that. Obviously there is the comment section of every blog post but Letters to the editor will be a place to post long reactions to, or criticisms of things I've written. Starting us with the very first in the (hopefully) series is Rob Sheppard with a response toolitics and English languge teaching'.

If you'd like to read more by Rob he's has recently written a post for Mike Griffin and also one for TEFL equity.  Over to Rob:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics
In a recent post on this blog, Russ expressed concerns that the current push for politics in the ELT classroom is one-sided: not a push for an unbiased discussion of politics generally, but for a liberal social justice agenda. “Not only are the political topics generally pre-selected but arguably the conclusions are reached before the lesson begins,” he writes.

As I indicated in a few tweeted responses, I think this post misses some critical nuances and misrepresents a benign—and in some contexts, necessary—push for politics in ELT. I won’t dispute that this push is aligned with liberal politics, but this is not an indication of a problematic bias. Rather, the historical coincidence that anti-racism, feminism, religious tolerance—principles of basic decency that ought to be universals, not partisan politics—have aligned with liberalism simply makes certain liberal principles appropriate for inclusion in the classroom.

Brevity is not a strength of my writing, but I’ll try to limit myself to five main points that Russ makes.

A Zealous Few
Russ treats the push for politics in the classroom as synonymous with a strict interpretation of Freire’s critical pedagogy, claiming that it “crosses a threshold between teaching criticality and indoctrinating.”

From his examples, we are left with the impression that swarms of social justice warriors are bent on injecting the classroom with their views about everything from race relations to GMO foods, environmentalism to 9/11 conspiracy theories. We are led to believe that this is characteristic of the push for politics, not a few zealous outliers.

Are there teachers out there like this? Sure. I’ve met a few. They’re typically young, overzealous and their boundary issues when it comes to political views are a problem out-of-class, as well as in. But are these teachers representative of the majority of teachers who believe that some politics have some role in the ESOL classroom? I don’t think so, and we are presented with no evidence that this is the case.

There is a difference between discussing political topics and indoctrination. However, once Russ expresses his suspicions that teachers are preaching their own foregone conclusions, he ceases to distinguish between the two. Maintaining the distinction is crucial both to his argument and to our classroom practice.

Blurred Lines

“Once you have legitimised advocating political positions in the classroom then how are you able to argue against topics like creationism, conspiracy theories and white supremacy?” wonders Russ.

The answer is easy: “Easily.”

The line that Russ overlooks is not a particularly hazy one, the way I see it. Racism is unacceptable falls on one side of the line. GMO foods should be labelled falls on the other. Sexism is unacceptable is on the former side. Supply side economics created jobs is on the other.

The issues that I feel no problem imposing on my classroom are those related to discrimination and intolerance. Put another way, they shouldn’t even be considered political opinions. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance: these are not legitimate political views. That throughout history certain politicians have leveraged hate to sow division does not lend these views any legitimacy. Nor does the horrifying fact that this populism works, time and time again.

No view that calls into question the humanity or equality of other people on the basis of who they are is acceptable in my classroom. The reason is very, very simple: I have students and colleagues of different races, genders, preferences, ethnicities, and religions in my classroom, and none of those people will be made to feel unwelcome simply for being who they are.

I’m not talking about the most liberal stances available, here; I simply require tolerance for those different from you. My students don’t need to agree with me about white privilege or affirmative action or immigration policies. We can disagree about these things without insulting or dehumanizing anyone.

Before moving on, a caveat I wish weren’t necessary. There are people who will say, “But you’re being intolerant of people with differing views.” This is an equivocation game we play in American politics, in which the intolerant flip the script and frame themselves as victims of intolerance. Fundamentalist Christians, for instance, sometimes try to claim a religious justification for refusing to serve gay couples. To any thinking person, this is a cheap sleight of hand, but just to head this one off, let’s be clear: the intolerance of human beings on the basis of who they are is not morally equivalent to the intolerance of particular views. Jews need not apply and Nazis need not apply are fundamentally different.

The Right Side of History

Russ writes, “it would be nice to imagine there is a 'wrong side of history' and we're all plodding along hoping we're on the 'right' side. It is difficult for though, for morality to ever be anything other than subjective.” In our Twitter conversations, he suggests that I’m oversimplifying the issue, focusing on the easy examples when there are countless muddy, difficult examples.

He is certainly right that there are challenging cases. I don’t deny that for a second. But complex cases do not lead us to the conclusion of moral relativism. More to the point, my argument is that I don’t think there is any widespread push to inject the muddy examples into our field.

The issues I believe have a place in the classroom are unambiguous. Issues of intolerance are categorically different from our views on taxation, corporate regulations, capital punishment, firearms legislation. I hold relatively liberal beliefs on all these issues. Under the right circumstances, I sometimes reveal my beliefs on such issues to my students. They are curious for insights into “what Americans think.” But I would never dream of presenting my view on these lesser issues as the right way. I would never dream of silencing a student who wanted to voice their disagreement with me on these issues.

The expression of intolerant views in a diverse classroom makes those who face marginalization and discrimination in society at large feel unwelcome even in our classroom. In many cases it calls into question the humanity or basic rights of individuals based on who they are. This is unacceptable. By validating, tolerating, or ignoring the expression of these views, teachers sanction them. We are leaders, and by taking up the onus of leadership, we forfeit the right to silence when injustice arises.

I don’t think that the view I describe here, the line that I draw is unusual. I think that I’m more representative of the politics-in-ELT push than the zealot Russ imagines.

An Isopropyl Solution?
Some will object that a better way to avoid this threat of intolerance is to create a classroom free of politics altogether, and Russ briefly flirts with this solution. Though I do not think he ultimately advocates for it, some did on Twitter, and I want to address this argument.
For one thing, the apolitical classroom is impossible in two senses.

The first, which Russ addresses, is that everything is political. Silence is political, and all the more so to the marginalized and vulnerable. A quick flip through your average coursebook is quick confirmation. Choices intended to be apolitical are anything but: One-dimensional tokenism in representation of minority groups, heteronormative examples, antiquated gender roles.

The second is that these issues will almost always enter the classroom in an overt manner at some point or other. I didn’t always feel the importance of explicitly calling attention to these politics. It was a series of experiences that led me to this position: kicking a student out of class for describe certain races as literally subhuman, observing a student calmly explain to his teacher what punishments his god has in store for gay people, reading an essay explaining why a student was moving out of her “black neighborhood” because a “black guy” and “another black guy” robbed her… I don’t know how the apolitical classroom crowd deals with these situations, but as I said above, I don’t think silence is an option.
Finally, though, I think we need to inject political topics into our classrooms because these are topics that surround us. These are things that we talk about—important, consequential things—and our job is to prepare our students linguistically to talk about the things people talk about.

I won’t remove students out of my class for offences they don’t understand. Nor do I want my students to be shunned outside the classroom for expressing views that they don’t understand are unacceptable in their new home.

Where I’m Calling From
I have avoided talking much about teaching context so far, but context does matter. An EFL classroom in Saudi Arabia and an IEP in Northern California are different in fundamental ways, and of course we need to adjust accordingly.

My own most recent context has certainly informed my perspective on this issue and it is my understanding that the push to include politics in the classroom is much stronger in contexts such as adult education. The students are adult immigrants to the United States. They are the politics, the hostage bargaining chips discussed on the news each day.. What I have the privilege of talking about with the distant abstract noun, politics, has concrete impacts on these people and their families. For these students the machinations and debates of white guys on TV translate to My sister isn’t here anymore. I thought my green card meant I was safe here. A stranger yelled at me on the street for speaking Arabic. I don’t know if it’s safe to take my child to the hospital. To wash our hands and sanitize our classrooms of “politics” is a privilege not afforded to all.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Politics and English language teaching

One theme of 2017 was whether we should be more 'political' in our lessons. At IATEFL, JJ Wilson argued for the inclusion of 'social justice' in ELT classrooms and others criticised such things as the avoidance in materials, of PARSNIPS or other 'difficult' topics. Lessons promoting 'more politics in the classroom' have also been promoted, such as one on the French election and another on refugees. So should we be including more politics in ELT lessons? Do students want it? Does it lead to better educational outcomes? Is that even the point?

Everything is nothing

One of the main arguments for including more politics in class is that since 'everything is political' and all classroom practice is value-laden, politics is already there. 
‘Pedagogical choices about curriculum development, content, materials, classroom processes, and language use, although appearing to be informed by apolitical professional considerations, are, in fact, inherently ideological in nature, with significant implications for learners’ socioeconomic roles. Put simply, our choices as educators play a role in shaping students’ choices’. (Auerbach in Thornbury)
Of course, it follows that if everything is political then the push can't be so much for more politics in the classroom, but for different politics in the classroom. Currently, what students in fact get is a 'sanitised', inoffensive version of politics avoiding any politically sensitive topics. Students are treated to a diet of bland topics and never really have their ideas challenged. 

If we want more politics in teaching then, the question becomes how we differentiate political topics which are 'sanitised' and bland from those which are important. Elections in France were an important topic for one teacher (above) and LGBT rights for another. We could have lessons on a range of political topics, for instance, domestic violence, circumcision, gerrymandering, corporation tax, abortion, the death penalty, atheism, NAFTA and so on. But are these the right kind of politics?

Not politics but 'politics'

I get the distinct feeling that if I taught lessons on political topics like trade deficits, estate tax and the gold standard, those advocating more politics in the classroom wouldn't be satisfied. These are undeniably important topics which are not usually in textbooks but my sense is that they're not the 'right' political topics. That's because those pushing for more politics in the classroom are actually pushing for more of the politics which are important to them, specifically, broadly 'liberal' or 'social justice' issues. These I would guess, include topics such as inequality, environmental issues, sexism, and minority rights.

Not only are the political topics generally pre-selected but arguably the conclusions are reached before the lesson begins. Advocates often tout political lessons as merely being about examining views, having a discussion and 'asking questions' but to my mind this is not quite true. The reality is the lessons are used as a platform for a teacher to promote a certain political vision to her students. An example of what I'm talking about can be seen in this interview with J.J. Wilson. He suggests that the topic of 'work', a staple of many EFL textbooks, could be made more 'political':
Another common topic is work. Again, we problematise. We might ask about exploitation, environmental damage or corruption. Or we might question the very nature of work – and ask why an employee in a supermarket is setting out genetically engineered fruit rather than tending her garden, why a line cook is taking orders from strangers instead of cooking for his family, why a woman is watching the children of the wealthy at a daycare centre rather than spending time with her own, why a musician is composing jingles for fizzy drinks rather than jamming with his friends.
It is apparent here that Wilson thinks organic garden grown foods are preferable to GM foods. He also seems to suggest that the concept of work itself is problematic. The questions he's posing are pushing in a certain direction. Since there is no instruction about what kind of politics should be in the classroom, one could reasonably imagine questions like 'why do so many people dislike GM foods when they are so safe?' or ' Why do middle class Westerners eat organic food which takes so much more land and resources to produce -are they just selfish?' and so on. These questions, like Wilson's cannot be considered neutral.

Critical Pedagogy thus crosses a threshold between teaching criticality and indoctrinating. Teaching students to think critically must include allowing them to come to their own conclusions; yet Critical Pedagogy seems to come dangerously close to prejudging what those conclusions must be.

The right answer is...

Unlike questions of grammar and vocab which usually have a right (or at least, standard) answer, questions of politics are more tricky. it would be nice to imagine there is a 'wrong side of history' and we're all plodding along hoping we're on the 'right' side. It is difficult for though, for morality to ever be anything other than subjective. Sure some issues seem easy. Should some people be slaves? Should we kill people who we think are witches? But it quickly gets more 'muddy'. Should the state help terminally ill patients to commit suicide? Should male inmates convicted of rape be allowed into female prisons if they identify as female? Should male religious circumcision be banned

The idea that something is morally right for all time and everyone should 'get up to speed' as soon as one country does is naive. Most people living 100 years ago would be moral monsters to us, and no doubt we will be moral monsters to those living 100 years hence. different times, and different places have different views about things. 

Neutrality works for both sides. 

A key point that advocates of more politics in the classroom miss is that anyone who can use this argument to teach the 'right' topics can also use it to teach the 'wrong' topics. Once you have legitimised advocating political positions in the classroom then how are you able to argue against topics like creationism, conspiracy theories and white supremacy? Those who consider instituting bans on certain 'wrong' politics are myopic and never consider that those tools, once instituted, may someday be used against them. The bland, sanitised topics arguably protects everyone from the experience Callista Hunter describes in this screenshot. 

Bully for you

Another issue with those promoting more politics in classrooms is the faintly moralistic whiff with which they sometimes do it.  Johnson writes:

Critical pedagogists have also commandeered a certain political vocabulary that gives them claim to the moral high ground. They borrow extensively from the language of proletarian protest, talking frequently of struggle, emancipation, and liberation. Their favorite adjectives are revolutionary and radical. Their metaphoric use of such terms seems intended to make readers feel like romantic rebels. (2012)
A cynic might ask exactly whose interests the politicised classrooms are serving? The students, who might learn a bit of interesting or unusual vocabulary, or the teacher who gets
to believe their teaching is a higher calling than, as Wilson puts it mere 'classroom managers transmitting McDonaldised content'. This kind of rhetoric belittles teachers who just want to teach. Teachers, who do not partake in activism, are shills, or to quote one, are  'colluding in highly neoliberal/ imperalistic form[s] of global governance/ managerialism.' Teachers are either critical or stooges, 'with us or with the terrorists'. As Ding writes:

This conflictual and aggressive discourse is also accompanied by a binary and divisive stance regarding the choices facing teachers...It does so because of a lack of nuance and subtlety, failing to accommodate ideas and pedagogies that do not foreground quite so vocally an ideological version of language education...

Can we avoid politics? 

I think a lot of these people feel passionate about injustices they see in the world and want to do something about it. I don't doubt the convictions and the good intentions of those who want to live in a better world but activism disguised as academia isn't, to my mind, the right way to go about it. I see the classroom as something akin to the yearly family get together. There's history and disagreements and racist uncles. It all bubbles under the surface and so we put a nice polite smile on our faces and get through the ordeal sticking to bland, safe topics 'How's work' and 'been on holiday anywhere nice?' rather than 'Grandad! why did you vote for Brexit!?' 

I actually don't have a problem bringing up controversial topics in class especially if the students ask about it and everyone is happy to discuss it. These kind of classes/moments are usually really valuable. I have a problem with political activism disguised as teaching and the implication that 'just' teaching makes you a puppet of shadowy corporate forces.

I was reluctant to write to this post as politics doesn't really fall under my remit. I also can't point to any evidence to say it's wrong or right to inject your politics into the classroom. All I can really say is that I wouldn't like it if I were a student and I don't like the idea of doing it as a teacher. I also don't think teacher's should be shamed for not pushing certain politics on students. Educating someone is itself inherently empowering. Isn't that enough? 

Monday, 29 January 2018

Guest Post: Korea isn't the worst place to teach English

When this blog first started I saw it as being something like a Private Eye kind of blog for ELT. I initial wrote posts on things like London MET losing its highly trusted sponsor status or criticisms of the British Council. One of the first posts I wrote was about whether Korea was 'the worst place to teach English.' The title of the blog post came from a google autocomplete 'is Korea...'. 

The post wasn't very serious, and as I note, I've never set foot in Korea in my life. That said, it was, like much on here, just me thinking out loud. I posted it when I'd just started using twitter and I remember someone writing that the post was racist or discriminatory or something like that, and promptly blocking me. 

I was quite alarmed by this reaction and thought perhaps twitter wasn't the place for me. Around that time, Michael Griffin who back then had some amazing number of followers, (like 700 or something!) retweeted the post and engaged with me about it. I think a lot of people on twitter have had the experience of being encouraged by Mike and I'm grateful to him. 

Anyway, as time went by the post (5th most viewed of all time) started to look less and less at home on this blog. So I asked Mike to write a rebuttal of it and I'm really please to add him to the roster of guest bloggers on Evidence Based EFL. 

One of the first times I read this blog (which I later came to know and love) was a provocatively titled post “Is Korea the worst place to teach English?” I should mention the post was about South Korea (the Republic of Korea) and not North Korea (the…ahem Democratic People’s of Korea). I’d guess that North Korea is among the worst places on earth to do much of anything. If you are interested in learning more about teaching in North Korea I can recommend the (in my view at least) flawed but interesting book, Without You There Is No Us  which the New York Times called “a chilling memoir.: If you are interested in reading one man’s thoughts about teaching English in Korea and why there used to be many complaints please read on. I want to be clear that this is truly just based on my own thoughts and experiences and is much more anecdata than any sort of evidence-based anything. I’d also like to offer the usual caveats about generalizations. Please feel free to imagine the words “sometimes” or “typically” into any sentences that jump out at you as a step too far towards a generalization. Also, in this post I write about the experience and situation related to “native speakers” which it should be noted is actually a very small minority of those teaching English in South Korea. I am also just focusing on the private sector (which means I’m not focusing on public schools or tertiary education).

My first full-time (I hesitate to use the word “real”) job was at a small family-run language school in South Korea (hereafter Korea) way back when. In the era I started, (before the 2002 World Cup) I considered the private education system to be something like the Wild West. Young folks from all over the world (well, actually, not from all over the world, just from the 7 countries deemed to be populated enough by “Native-speakers” of English) were seduced by the  chance of quick, stress-free, and easy riches. There were extremely low barriers to entry which might partially answer Russell’s question about why so many teachers went to Korea in the first place. Korea was in the midst of a push for globalization (and in the aftermath of a financial crisis) and English skills often made a major difference in an extremely competitive job market. Further, the testing and thus teaching (hello washback!) had previously been laser focused on grammar and reading/writing and now there was a sudden push for speaking and listening skills. The belief was that native speakers could fill this gap and thus teachers were hired by the planeload. The idea was that “free-talking” with “native speakers” would be the panacea for any and all ills related to English education.

The element of making a quick buck was also present for language schools (hagwon) and their owners. I got the sense many hagwon owners rushed into the business without much interest, knowledge, or acumen related to running a business or educating people. Korea was gripped by English Fever and it was easy for hagwon owners to make a bunch of money without caring much about what they were doing. I often thought if it was not English education it could be a coffee shop, software, plastics, or some other trend. So, we had a case of easy money with a lack of sincere competition or a desire to change. Hagwon owners were not always known as the most scrupulous people around and the boom period helped keep them afloat.

To my view, in the past, Korean students of English were not very sophisticated consumers of English education. They knew that English was important and accordingly spent time and money in various directions in order to get a leg up on the completion. So, there was a situation where inexperienced and ill-equipped hagwon owners were hiring inexperienced teachers to teach English to students who didn’t really know what they needed to learn (among those who were not forced by their parents to go to class.) That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success does it? For good measure we can add in cultural differences and language barriers to the mix. Again, those involved were not always life-long teachers or managers but rather people quite new to it. I think there was also the element of hagwon owners sort of resenting their “cash cows” who they didn’t value as professionals but rather hired just based on their native tongues and not their skills or knowledge. Many of those hired to teach were not only working full-time for the first time in their lives but were also living abroad (and with the exclusion of college, maybe living away from home for the first time.)  Since these teachers were given limited training and very little in the way of support it’s no wonder there were so many problems.

I think there were bound to be disagreements and challenges. If we squint a bit we can see these as growing pains in an industry that was growing rapidly without a chance to consider where it was going. There were certainly a lot of mismatched incentives and goals.  

Readers with a keen eye for detail will have noticed I used the past tense above. I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture but I do believe things have changed for the better. I think much of what I wrote above is actually in the past. I don’t think things are perfect but I think they are not as bad as the past or as bad as South Korea’s lingering reputation for TEFLers. I truly believe the industry as well as the parties involved has matured.

In the 2012 post mentioned above Russell wondered why he was hearing and finding so many horror stories about teaching in Korea. My simple thought is and was that those who are generally happy and fine with things and getting on with their life don’t have the energy, time, or inclination to get on Dave’s ESL cafĂ© (or wherever) and bitch about a whole country or the private education system of a nation they find themselves in. I’d also posit that perhaps the availability bias was at work and the emotionally charged and scary nature of some reported experiences in Korea made them stick out and thus be more memorable. Hopefully with the changes and development I’ve alluded above to the horror stories will become just another memory. 

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Me, my wife and I

Should you say 'me and my wife went to the party' or 'my wife and I went to the party?' 

Most people who are likely to care at all about this kind of thing will tell you that 'my wife and I' is correct and anything else makes you sound uneducated or impolite. There are three reasons given for this:

1. The words 'Me and my wife' are in the subject position (at the start of the sentence) and so we should use the subject pronoun 'I' . 
2. Removing words from the sentence indicates that 'my wife and I' is correct. 
3. It is polite to put other people before ourselves. 

In this post I'm going to attempt to convince you that the pillars holding up the 'my wife and I' position are unsound. Most of what I will write about comes from John McWhorter's lexicon valley podcast (link). I would strongly recommend listening to that instead of reading this. 


Many defenders of 'my wife and I' will tell you that this is a 'rule'. You always have to be a little bit weary when someone tells you that something is a grammar 'rule' because they're often talking about arbitrary prescriptions or personal taste. This is the case with 'my wife and I' which is one of those 'rules' that people need to be taught like 'double negatives'. I've talked at length in this post about how if you need to constantly explain to native speakers that their language use is wrong, then maybe it isn't. Also, like double negatives, other languages have no issues with 'me and my wife' construction. As McWhorter notes, in French 'moi femme et je' would not be a possible construction and the correct  'Ma femme et moi' clearly has the object pronoun 'moi' in the subject position. 

so without further ado, let's have a look at those arguments. 

1. The words 'Me and my wife' are in the subject position (at the start of the sentence) and so we should use the subject pronoun 'I' 

English sentences usually start with subjects. so in 'I love you', I is the subject. If it were the object it would change to 'me' such as 'you love me'. The sentence 'me and my wife went to the party' seems to flaunt this rule because 'me' is in the subject position and so it should be I. 

The problem with this argument is, were it true, the sentence 'I and my wife went to the party' would be a perfectly proper sentence, after all, the subject is properly 'I'. However, 'I and my wife' sounds a bit off to me. So is something else is going on here?

McWhorter makes the rather bold claim that 'me', not 'I' is in fact English's subject pronoun and that I is a rather special word that is only used when there is only one subject before the verb. Therefore 'I went to the party' sounds OK, and 'me and the lads went to the party' sounds OK, but 'I and the lads went to the party' doesn't sound right because there is more than one subject. I'd never heard this argument before but I'd welcome some disconfirming evidence. 

McWhorter defends his idea by noting that the sentence 'Who did it?' is normally answered by 'me'. To explain why this is a problem for the 'my wife and I' crowd I need to explain a bit of grammar. 

'Who did it?' is what is know as a 'subject question' because the question word 'who' is replacing the subject word of the sentence and so the answer would be the subject of the sentence. It might be 'John did it' for instance. This is in contrast to an object question like 'What did John eat'. You can't answer this by simply swapping out the 'what' with the answer (*pizza did John eat'). 

The answer to 'who did it' should therefore be 'I' because it's the subject of the sentence. However people don't say that. They say 'me'. So 'me', McWhorter argues, seems to be acting as the subject here. You could, I suppose, try to make the case that this is an abbreviated form of 'It was me'  but this just seems like convenient hand-waving to me.  Besides, the 'my wife and I' crowd would surely also insist on 'It was I', not 'it was me'. 

2. Removing a word will indicate whether the sentence is correct. 

A second pillar of the argument is that If we remove 'my wife' from the sentence 'me and my wife went to the party' we end up with 'me went to the party' which is incorrect and therefore it must be 'I' not 'me'. I have two objections to this. 

Firstly, if you remove any word from a sentence there is a good chance it won't be correct anymore. Take 'John and Dave are going to the party'. If we remove 'and Dave' we end up with 'John are going to the party' which is wrong. The sentence with the word removed though tells us nothing about the correctness of the original sentence. 

Secondly, a form may 'break rules' in certain contexts. Take for examples the sentence "I am lucky'. We note that the verb 'am' correctly matches the subject 'I'. However, if we tried to stipulate that 'I' must always be used with 'am' we would run into problems. In the very specific case of a contracted negative question form 'am' changes to 'are':

I am lucky 
am I lucky? 
am I not lucky? 
aren't I lucky? 

I defy anyone to claim that 'are' is the correct verb form to use with 'I'. But in this very specific case most people would accept it as correct. And so it follows 'me' might act as the object pronoun most of the time, but it may also act as the subject pronoun in a very small set of circumstance such as with the sentence 'me and John got pizza'. To see 'me and my wife' as problematic but none of the other instances of abnormalities in English 'rules' seems wholly arbitrary.  

3. It is polite to put other people before ourselves in a sentence. 
As noted earlier, supporters of 'I' being the subject pronoun and thus correct run into problems when encountering the sentence 'I and my wife'. to get round this the usual suggestion is that 'it is polite to put your other people before yourself.' On the face of it, this is quite an odd statement. We are at this point no longer appealing to grammatical accuracy but to 'politeness'. It is curious then that this 'politeness' rule doesn't seem to work very well when we switch to third person. 

my wife and I went to the party 
His wife and he went to the party 

No doubt, the grammar aficionado would stress that 'he and his wife' is correct in this case because we don't need to worry about 'putting other people before ourselves'. In that case, and since we are considering 'politeness', wouldn't 'ladies first' be a good rule to follow? 

Does all of this mean  that I think everyone should say 'me and my wife went to the party?' Not at all! The 'rule' is silly, but enough people know it that you risk looking bad by not following it. Rather, I would like people to stop insisting the perfectly normal subject 'me and...' is a 'grammar mistake'. It's really no more of a mistake than a split infinitive, 'healthy food' or saying 'I'm good' as a response to 'how are you?' 

It's rare for me to quote Chomsky in agreement but I think he is right when he says: 
I would certainly think that students ought to know the standard literary language with all its conventions, its absurdities, its artificial conventions, and so on …. I don’t think people should give them any illusions about what it is. It’s not better, or more sensible. Much of it is a violation of natural law. In fact, a good deal of what’s taught is taught because it’s wrong. (Chomsky 1991)

Monday, 13 November 2017

Try this, it works! Written Error Correction

I've come across a few posts on written error correction recently. ELT research Bites took on the topic in a two part post (2) and earlier in the year Gianfranco Conti (PhD applied linguistics, MA TEFL, MA English lit, PGCE modern languages an P.E.) wrote one. Conti claims that marking students books should be the 'least of a language teacher's priorities' but is he right?

Conti's post starts with a reference to Hattie who has suggested that feedback is very effective. Conti notes that giving corrective feedback on writing has now been given top priority in many state schools. He then goes on to write that his post is a response to the numerous teachers who have written to him asking whether the time and effort they put into marking is justified. Conti states:
I intend to answer this question by drawing on thirty years of error-correction research, my personal experience as a learner of 14 languages and teacher of five and, more importantly, neuroscience and common sense.
Impressive stuff. 14 languages! 30 years of error correction research! AND neuroscience! However when we get to the research we run into a problem. 

What jumps out initially is the age of the references. Conti promises 'thirty years of error correction research' but sadly those 30 years seem to be 1974-2004. The most recent reference, Conti 2004, is to his own writing. In fact, the only post 2000 references are to his own writing. I would have liked to read the works in question to evaluate the claims made but as Conti doesn't provide a reference list or hyperlink to the texts referenced in the post, this wasn't possible. 

Now, references don't have best before dates, and to this day E still equals MC squared. That said, the age of Conti's references does present an issue in this case. For instance, Dana Ferris, possibly the world's leading expert on written corrective feedback (WCF) is only mentioned in relation to a 1999 paper. She has, since then, written extensively on the subject including three books (Response to student Writing 2003, treatment of error in second language 2002, 2011, and with BitchenerWritten Corrective Feedback 2012). None of these are mentioned in the section called "What L2 error-correction research says". 

What's more, the research findings show a distinct change in the period Conti leaves out. For instance, Ellis and Shintani note that whereas in 1996 it was possible for Truscott to argue that the effectiveness of WCF could not be supported, this position is no longer tenable (2013:271). And as if spookily preempting Conti,  Ferris, in a 'state of the art' paper from 2004 notes that 'since 1999, I have done a considerable amount of both primary and secondary research work on the issues surrounding error correction in L2 writing' (2004:50). 

A lot is missed if we miss out the last 15 years of research. In a recent meta-analysis looking at WCF, of the 21 studies that met the inclusion criteria, only four were published before 2004. Conti's post does not include any of the 17 remaining studies. This is important as the research design of 'early (pre-Truscott, 1996) studies' contained design and execution flaws (Bitchener and Ferris 2012:50) perhaps indicating why 'studies published after the year 2000 showed a significantly higher effect size...than that of the studies published before 2000' (Kang and Han 2015:99). 

So what does the research say about corrective feedback? 

Research tends to suggest that error correction is effective. Ellis and Shintani state that 'both oral and written CF can assist L2 acquisition.' (2014:268) It has a positive effect on student writing (Ferris 2011, Bitchener and Ferris 2012). Kang and Han conducted a meta analysis of current research and concluded that "written corrective feedback appears to have a moderate to large effect on the grammatical accuracy of L2 students(2015:7)Research by Van Beuningen et al (2012) also points to the efficacy of WCF noting that it can improve subsequent pieces of research. This contrasts Conti's claims  that 'both direct and indirect correction do not impact students’ accuracy more effectively than no correction at all' (though it is perhaps possible that the bold font cancels out the research evidence).

It isn't clear from his post, but Conti may be talking about lower level students. As Schmidt notes on the ELT research bytes webpage, the Kang and Han meta Analysis found that '[WCF's] efficacy is mediated by a host of variables, including learners’ proficiency, the setting, and the genre of the writing task' (2015). Notably, Kang and Han's analysis suggests WCF is less beneficial among lower level learners. 

And what type of feedback is best? 

Conti claims that direct correction is 'pretty much a waste of time'  and 'Indirect correction, on the other hand, is not likely to contribute much to acquisition as the learner will not be able to correct what s/he does not know' (section 2) But what does the research say about types of correction? 

Direct or indirect? 

Direct correction, that is telling the students exactly what is wrong, and what they ought to write, 'is more effective than indirect' and direct feedback alone 'resulted in gains in grammatical accuracy' (Ellis and Shintani 2014:271). According to Shintani and Ellis 'Bitchener and Knoch (2010), Hashemnezhad and Mohammadnejad (2012) and Frear (2012) all reported direct feedback to be more effective than indirect' (2015:111In older studies no difference was detected, or indirect CF appeared superior  (Ferris 2011:32) but 'recent studies report a clear advantage for direct forms of feedback.' (Bitchener and Ferris 2012:74). As an interesting side note, teaching guides tend to promote indirect feedback (Ellis and Shintani's 2014:279). 

In conclusion, we can say fairly confidently that feedback of some kind is, in most cases, better than no feedback. Research suggests that even a 'single treatment', particularly if focused on a grammar point with a clear rule, is effective. (Ellis and Shintani 2014:271). 

indirect coded 
Coded or uncoded? 

Coded feedback is using some kind of code like 'V' for verb or 'S/V' for subject verb problems. These are usually accompanied by some kind of meta-linguistic explanation. Uncoded feedback, on the other hand, would just be highlighting that an error had occurred but not providing an indication as to what it was. The theory behind correction codes is that students will have to work a bit harder to work out what their errors are. 

indirect uncoded 
Interestingly, there is no evidence that coded feedback is superior to uncoded (Ferris 2011:34). Both teachers and students, however,  believe that coded feedback is more effective. (Ferris and Bitchener 2012:93) and there is some research supporting the idea that meta-linguistics explanations make feedback more effective (Ferris 2011:100). 

Focused or unfocused?

Focused just means concentrating on one type of error, verb forms or articles for example, rather than picking up different types of errors. The research is not that clear here. According to Ferris most researchers now believe focused feedback is more effective than unfocused (Ferris 2011:51, 2010:182). Shintani and Ellis (2015:111) are more cautious, noting that research has shown focused feedback to be effective 'in the sense that it results in gains in grammatical accuracy in new pieces of writing' and adding that it is more effective than unfocused feedback 'in some cases'. 

So the jury is seemingly out on focused vs unfocused WFC. However, whereas a study that compared focused and unfocused feedback found no difference between the two (Ellis et al., 2008) both were superior to the 'no feedback' group. A finding which seems to contradict Conti's bold statement. 

Doesn't error correction demotivate students? 

Finally, a common complaint is that error correction demotivates or humiliates students. This is certainly possibleConti quotes research from 1998 noting that 'an excessive concern with error treatment may affect students’ motivation negatively'. Well yes, it may, but (ready the bold font) it also may not. Ellis and Shintani argue that the case for this is perhaps overstated, pointing to the fact that 'learners typically state that they want to be corrected' (2014:275) a point Ferris (2011:51)  and Conti himself (see point 1) concur with. In my context (academic English writing) a study by Weaver (2006, N=44) suggests, like much research on this subject, that when students are asked, they say they like and want feedback. In fact, 96% of business students surveyed by Weaver agreed that 'tutors don't provide enough feedback'. Unless they actively enjoy humiliation (a hypothesis I'm sure someone could investigate,) then it seems unlikely that students mind WCF.  


Conti has written a great deal on this subject. His blog includes posts explaining how current essay feedback practices are questionable, '7 reasons why traditional error correction doesn't work', 'why asking students to self correct is a waste of time' and 'why teachers should not bother correcting errors in their students writing'. Clearly, there is a theme here (and no, it's not starting blog posts with the word 'why'). Conti doesn't think error correction is all that worthwhile. To be clear, he doesn't think it is worthless either, just that it shouldn't be given as much importance as it currently is. It would be really useful though, when making statements like "There is no conclusive empirical evidence that EC can be effective" (2.7), if he could explain why he chooses to only discuss evidence that is 15 or more years old. I don't know Conti's teaching context so can't comment on whether or not there is an overemphasis on WCF there. What I can say is that, on my reading of the evidence at least, 'there is a clear case for correcting learners written errors' (Ellis and Shintani 2014:276). 

*I realise 'I like dogs and I like cats' isn't a great sentence.