Saturday, 29 September 2012

funny leaflet

Just came across this, thought it was funny.  I disagree with the author that the ideas can be "torn apart" though. 

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Teacher beliefs in EFL

There are many odd beliefs around the world, strongly held yet completely ridiculous.  I like to collect them. I’ll introduce some of my favourites here for you: 

Penis theft:

In nations like Nigeria, the Congo and Uganda witchcraft is still believed in.  Witches and warlocks have magical powers and, so the legend goes, one of these is the ability to steal a man’s penis by touching him.  The fear of penis theft is quite real yet there have been no reported cases of men with missing genitalia.  There have, however, been several cases of “witches” being murdered for stealing penises.  Penis theft is a kind of mass-hysteria in which a man may scream in a crowd “oh my penis has been stolen” or something like this at which point panic breaks out, a witch is found and often beaten to death. 

Korean Fan death

Thanks to newspaper misinformation many Koreans believe that leaving a fan on overnight will lead to death.  Quite how this works is a mystery, but there have been a couple of suggestions.  One is that the fan blades chop the air molecules up and thus decrease the amount of air and the other is that the fan creates a kind of vortex sucking all the air out of the room.

Chinese period panic

monthly taboos are common in many cultures.  Chinese medicine is a bit like western medicine was 400 years ago and so the idea of people being hot and cold etc still exists in the popular conscious.  Women are ‘colder’ than men and during their period they become even more so and thus must avoid cold foods like ice-cream, eschew ice in drinks and avoid some foods, like alcohol altogether.  It seems partaking of these things will lead to discomfort for women.   There are around half a billion people living their lives like this because this is what they believe.   

Interesting!  but what does this have to do with EFL?  
Bear with me! 

If you haven’t heard of these beliefs before, you may have read them with disbelief.  You may have even thought, “how stupid!” or “how could anyone believe that?” and perhaps assumed I was exaggerating.  You might have even entertained the idea that those countries have poor education so perhaps it is to be expected.  But how would you react if something you believed was on that list?

Well, I wouldn’t believe anything so patently untrue, -you might think, and if I had made mistake I would quickly change my views.  But would you?  We’ll do an experiment later on. The crucial thing to remember is that no one believes that they hold mistaken views.  If they thought they were wrong then they would believe something else.  You might expect, if we were rational, we might just say “oh I see, thanks for telling me!” but people don’t.  What you think is connected to who you are.  Believing something that turns out to be wrong makes you feel like an idiot, -it shouldn’t- but it does.  Only an idiot, after all, would believe in stupid things. 

So time for an experiment, read the following sentences and see how many of them you believe?

1.       People should drink 8 glasses of water a day

2.       You should wait an hour after eating before going swimming

3.       You lose 40% of your body heat from your head.

4.       Daddy long legs are very poisonous but cannot bite through human skin

5.       Fingernails and hair continue to grow after death

6.       We only use 10% of our brains

7.       Emus, when threatened, bury their heads in the sand

8.       The great wall of China is the only man-made object you can see from space

9.       Eskimos have 7/50/100/1,000 words for snow

10.     Blood in your veins is blue

Well, they are all wrong.  Not a bit wrong, or right under certain circumstances but all widely believed and absolutely wrong.  But what’s this got to do with EFL? I’m coming to that…
But first think about compare your reaction to the ones you already knew were wrong and the ones (if any) that you just found out were wrong.  No doubt you’ll pulling a pained look and heading straight for Google to check them out.  Perhaps a little shocked?  Perhaps even trying to justify your belief (well, it might not be 8 glasses, but drinking water is important etc etc).  Secondly think about how you came to know and believe in that "fact". 


How does this all relate to teaching?  Well EFL has a similar trickle-down of knowledge effect.  Examine the following sentences and see which ones you have heard/believe:

1.       An ideal class should have at least 60% student talking time to 40% TTT.

2.       A task-based approach is the best method for teaching languages

3.       A process approach to writing is better than a product based approach

4.       L1 should, where possible, be avoided in the classroom

5.       An inductive approach is best for grammar teaching

6.       It’s useful to have students activate their schemata

7.       Each student has their own individual learning style

8.       It's useful for students to get feedback on grammar mistakes

Now, I’m not going to now tell you that all of these are wrong. But before we go any further you might want to think about if you believe in these ideas, and if so, why? Personally, I have no idea for most of them but I'll comment on a few.

In number 2 for example, Swan looks at the idea that Task based instruction is superior to other methods and, after carefully examining the evidence, concludes that “The claim that TBI is a superior teaching approach, solidly based on the findings of current theory and research, cannot be sustained” (2005:396) a view he shares with Richards and Rogers (2001). Another example is process approaches to writing which seem quite popular these days but  for which “there is little hard evidence that they actually lead to significantly better writing in L2 contexts.” (Hyland 2003:17-18)

Most teacher give students corrective grammar feedback for their writing. But does it do any good? Truscott and Ferris have argued over this point for over 15 years. Truscott has claimed that feedback is not only pointless but might even harm students while Ferris has tried to find evidence for its efficacy. In a 2004 article entitled ‘The ‘‘Grammar Correction’’ Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here?’ Ferris admits that “despite the published debate and several decades of research activity in this area, we are virtually at Square One” (2004:49) If we don't know whether it works, and it could even be harmful why are we doing it?

For a lot of this, we just don't know. I am hopeful that as research techniques get better we will learn more. The purpose of this article is, though, to warn against dogmatism and bandwagon jumping. I've heard many teachers (myself included) make claims about this method or that approach, that just can't be backed up. New interesting ideas seem to move quickly to dogma in the EFL world and it becomes difficult to challenge the orthodoxy. Just think about how easily other false beliefs have implanted themselves in your mind, -or other people's for that matter. The medical world was convinced that bleeding people was a super cure for all manner of diseases, until it turned out that in fact it wasn't. And if you're thinking how stupid people were in the past, remember that it didn't seem stupid to them.

When asked about approaches teachers claim things like “I know this works, I can tell from the students faces” and “since I started doing [method/technique/approach] things have been better in my class” or "I don't care about evidence, it works for me!". Now these teachers may well be right, or they might be suffering from confirmation bias, but until there is solid evidence about practices, it's probably best if we all proceed with caution.

nb: As always, comments and corrections are very welcome!


Ferris, D.R. (2004) Grammar Correction’’ Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? Journal of Second Language Writing 13 (2004) 49–62
Hyland (2003) Genre-based pedagogies: A social response to process Journal of Second Language Writing 12 17–29

Richards, J. and T. Rodgers. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Swan, M (2005) Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction Applied Linguistics 26/3: 376–401


Thursday, 6 September 2012

That's so gay!

Reading (actually listening to) Steven Pinker's massive Better Angels of our nature, I came across an interesting section on the use of the word "gay" as a pejorative.  there was something of a storm a few years back when Chris Moyles of BBC radio 1 used it on air and there is a lot of hand-wringing about this modern usage; I always feel a bit guilty when I say it. 

However Pinker presents evidence to suggest that perhaps we shouldn't feel so bad.  Referring to a survey of American views of homosexually, he notes:
Many people have informed me that younger Americans have become homophobic, based on the observation that they use “That’s so gay!” as a putdown. But the numbers say otherwise: the younger the respondents, the more accepting they are of homosexuality. Their acceptance, moreover, is morally deeper. Older tolerant respondents have increasingly come down on the “nature” side of the debate on the causes of homosexuality, and naturists are more tolerant than nurturists because they feel that a person cannot be condemned for a trait he never chose. But teens and twenty-somethings are more sympathetic to the nurture explanation and they are more tolerant of homosexuality. The combination suggests that they just find nothing wrong with homosexuality in the first place, so whether gay people can “help it” is beside the point. The attitude is: “Gay? Whatever, dude.”(Pinker 2011:619)
In short, young people may use the word "gay" more often than older people, but they are also the group with the most tolerant views of homosexuals.  It's therefore difficult to equate using "gay", in this way, with being homophobic.  That's not to say that it wouldn't cause offence, but that it's likely none was intended, and to reinforce this, when questioned kids often adamantly deny they are homophobic
Is it possible that this is an example of words not necessarily being linked to their literal meaning as discussed by me here or could it be the birth of a new homonym, reminiscent of fat/fat (later phat to avoid confusion which mirrors the recent appearance of "ghey") which was in use when I was an undergraduate or funny/funny which is, if you think about it, an incredibly inefficient word for communication,  requiring, as it sometimes does, confirmation of meaning with the phrase "funny haha or funny peculiar?"  These kinds of words prove that languages evolve and are not regular or perfect but messy and constantly changing.  Language is so gay!

Edit:  I did come across an article which claimed that heaing the phrase "that's so gay" may cause students to be more likely to suffer from "headaches, eating problems and feelings of isolation".  I haven't had a chance to read the study yet. 

Monday, 3 September 2012

Met musings

The London metropolitan University has been in the news this week having been stripped of its "highly trusted sponsor" status meaning it can no longer recruit students from outside of Europe and more importantly that the 2,700 international students currently enrolled, be they pre-sessional students about to start courses,undergraduates halfway through their courses, or PHD candidates, who will have a PHD supervisor they have specifically chosen to study under,  must all find a new place to study in three months or face being labelled illegal immigrants and deported.  If you're not familiar with the terrifying and complex workings of international student visa regulations it might all seem a bit confusing.  So what exactly has happened to the Met?  

Basically, all Universities in the UK are awarded a visa sponsor licence and the level of the status defines what kind of visa they can issue.  For example the "highly trusted sponsor" ranking is the most desirable, and this means institutions can issue offers to students which will allow them to apply for tier 4 visas.  The system is complex and constantly changing, and is an attempt to stop questionable language schools who are basically just visa factories masquerading as language schools. 

This is big news as it's the first time the UKBA has actually revoked a university's HTS licence.  So what has the Met done to provoke the wrath of the UKBA?  Well the Guardian reports that:

The government revoked London Metropolitan University's highly trusted status (HTS) for sponsoring international students after it found more than a quarter of a sample of students studying at the university did not have permission to stay in the country.

Details are quite sketchy but it seems that the following three charges are being levelled at the Met:
  • Student visa information was not known/incorrect
  • Student attendance records were not correctly kept
  • Information regarding language tests was somehow not adequate
Now this is all very vague and we won't know more detail until later, -if ever.  But we can speculate  a little about some of these claims.  The first one, if true, is  very serious. the fact that a random sample of students turned up more than 25% lacking the appropriate visa is shocking.   Visa regulations are a pain and at my institution a source of headaches. We chase up paperwork and work hard to make sure every single one of the  international  students is here legally.  If the reports are correct then the Met has been incredibly irresponsible.  One or two students turning up with a mistake in their visa is perhaps understandable, but 25% of a random sampling is unbelievable.
The second charge is a bit less clear.  According to the Guardian, student attendance of lectures was not being monitored adequately but it's not clear if this means during the English courses or during the actual lectures themselves.  I'm not aware of any HE institute which monitors students' attendance of lectures or how you would go about doing that.  We do monitor attendance of the pre-sessional English courses very closely though, registers are taken daily and checked by the course director and students who miss class are investigated and cautioned.  If the Met has been failing in this regard, it's harder to have sympathy for them and according to the BBC there were problems with 142 out of 250 students examined. 
As for the final charge, this is a little complex.  Sindhyar talpur writes:

every student has to show their English proficiency not only to the University they are to attend, but also to UKBA. Standard proficiency tests like IELTS are taken, and students have to pass them to a higher level before they could even get admission. It is thus, difficult to understand how University failed to live up to the standard required for English, since the UKBA itself verifies English proficiency, and even conduct interviews with the candidates

This shows a slight misunderstanding of how the system actually works.  Students are often required to get around 6.5 in IELTS to enter university courses.  However, Pre-sessional courses offer students, who fall short, the chance to reach a "notional" 6.5 after a period of intense study.  In order for this system to be accountable the students must take test which are comparable to IELTS in order to show they have reached an adequate level of English to cope with university courses.  Without this check in place, universities could "game" the system and pass students regardless of their ability.  In the case of the Met it seems that English language assessment was not adequate or was missing altogether.  Again I can only compare with my institute where assessment is carried out, teachers are standardised, work is second and often third marked and then kept until those students graduate.  As I noted, details are sketchy, but if the Met is falling short of these standards, as one of its lecturers allegedly claims it is,  then it deserves to be punished. 

Students and UKBA

If the claims are true the Met should be punished but none of this is the fault of the students.  I hope that the 2,700 odd students can find places in other institutes and with the rush to recruit from the profitable international sector, and the drop in home student going to university some of them should have no problem finding a place.  It is disruptive for those students who are mid-way through a course, have friends or have rented accommodation, though one student interviewed by the Guardian noted that changing universities wasn't such a bad thing because the Met's "organisation and facilities are so poor".   

It is also heart-breaking for students who have yet to come to the UK but who have now been told to stay at home.  The visa application process takes at least two weeks and is expensive.  It would be tough for students to find another institution, receive an offer and get a visa in time for new courses.  Another problem is that the Met offers cheaper courses than many other universities, so students who do change may end up paying more; though on a brighter note Regents College has offered to take 200 students and provide scholarships to make up the difference in costs.   
The Met may have made mistakes but the UKBA doesn't come out of this looking great either.  The leaking of the decision to The Times newspaper certainly seems like a very poor decision.  The timing isn't ideal either but is there is a perfect time to make an announcement like this?  It's not the first time that the UKBA has caused problems for HE institutions.  Last year they announced that students must have adequate IELTS scores for all four skills.  Previously a student could get an overall IELTS score of say 5, with a 6 in reading and a 4 in writing.  The rule change was fine, but the fact that the UKBA instituted it after offers had been sent out to students with very little warning left a lot of universities  and students unhappy.  Students who had previously reached the required level and been accepted were then told that they had to retake the IELTS exam or they wouldn't be allowed entry. 

Similarly with the Met decision, the way in which the action has been carried out is not ideal.  It's hard to understand why the met couldn't allow present students to finish but ban the recruiting of new students.  Maybe finding so many student errors convinced the UKBA that the problem was fairly widespread.  But this still isn't much solace for students who were at the Met perfectly legally, went to class and could speak English.  These students will now be thrown into turmoil and some of them will even be forced to leave.  So whereas the Met may have significant failings the UKBA has (yet again) hardly covered itself in glory.

There are some who suspect that this might be a ploy, by the coalition, to reduce immigrant numbers but this seems unlikely as the loss of 2,700 is a drop in the ocean of immigration.  The UKBA tier 4 visa does constantly change and is a pain for institutions and students alike.  Making entry increasingly difficult seems rather foolish as international students generally come to the UK, give us huge sums of money (about £12.5 Billion annually) and then go home after one year.  Keith Vaz, notes:
Students are not migrants. They come from all over the world to study here, contributing to the economy both through payment of fees and wider spending. Whilst we are right to seek to eliminate bogus colleges and bogus students, we need to ensure that we continue to attract the brightest and the best. The Government’s policy ought to be evidence-based. Generating policy based on flawed evidence could cripple the UK education sector. In the case of international students this could mean a significant revenue and reputational loss to the UK
However if there is a seret policy to reduce student numbers then it seems to be "working" with a drop in the number of international students by around 21%.  Another possibility is that, as it's very unlikely it was functioning as a "visa factory", the Met is merely being made an example of by the UKBA as a warning to other universities to make sure their houses are in order.  But, if the reports about the Met are true, and if they really did fail to comply despite being given six months in which to do so, then we really don't need to search for a grand conspiracy. 

The Met's colourful history

The MET was established in 2002 and is currently ranked as bottom or near bottom among UK universities. 
Guardian 2013 University Ranking

This isn't the first time that the MET has courted controversy. Right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics the Met awarded the Dalai Lama (not massively popular in China) with an honorary doctorate in philosophy. At the time the Met had around 450 mainland Chinese students and so this decision, taken when it was, seems to show incredibly poor judgement, economically at least. The Met later issued an apology after suggestions that Chinese students and agents might boycott the university.

It's also not the first time the Met, in it's short history, has run into financial trouble.  In 2008 incorrect reporting of student numbers, which meant the university had been receiving extra funding for years, was uncovered and lead to the threat of funding being withdrawn and 500 members of staff losing their jobs.  An interesting factoid for EFLers is that Ian Lebeau and Simon Kent, authors of the popular "language leader" series both work there.

The future

If the Met is unable to overturn this decision (and possibly even if they are able to) things do not look very encouraging.  Not only will their finances take a £20 million hit but the reputational damage will have long term implications for its ability to recruit overseas students.  The recruitment offices in India have already closed down and any student who applies in the future will surely have a nagging doubt in their mind about the institution's viability.  Some people have suggested that this decision will damage the UK's image abroad and affect future enrolement but I have my doubts about this.  Students come to the UK not only to improve their English but often also because they believe the education offered here is of a certain quality.  Assuming the reports about the Met's failings are correct, the decision would probably be seen as a positive move.  The UKBA's continuing unapologetically cack-handed approach to visa policy and it's handling of this case are infintely more likely to damage the UK's image abroad.