Sunday, 7 April 2013

Lessons in the bleeding obvious

I'm not allowed to go to IATEFL. :(

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

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


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

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

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

It's very very long

350 pages long to be precise. So before you can start reading your course books or writing your essays, you need to get through 350 pages learning how to read your coursebooks and how to write your essays. As reviewer ABZ notes on Amazon:
I think this book is rather pointless, You would be better studying your work in the time it takes you to read it
Of course, it's a handbook so you don't need to read it all, but some of it really seems excessive, and of the order of 'In order to read, first make sure you have eyes...' Very useful.

Although no doubt containing some useful information, it's also crammed full of incredibly obvious things written about in great detail. For £12 you too can learn  useful life lessons like:
IT enables you to store large files of information on CD or a memory stick
Abbreviations save time
If you have too much [information] you will need to leave some out
You need to research less, read less, note less, and write less for a 1,500 word essay than for a 3,000 word essay.
and my favourite
An essay is a piece of writing which is written to a set of writing conventions
There is even a six point guide to "searching on the web" including "type your chosen keyword into the search field" and "press the enter key".  In the words of one Amazon reviewer:
It is filled with common sense extensively padded out by hollow psychobabble gibberish about personal development. Essentially, making good notes is good, revising is good; you don't need this patronising text to realise this and be a good student.
The almost endless self-assessment tick boxes are also hugely irritating. You tick the boxes and then what? Whenever we did this kind of development in school; you tick these boxes "I'm good at X" and "I need to work on X" then your teacher reads it and says "oh, you need to work X" and you say "yes", then this is all filed into your PDP folder until next year when you have to do it all again.


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

One size fits all

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

Concern with the periphery

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

In an excellent article called "we do need methods" Swan talks about the "expanding periphery" of TEFL noting:
It seems clear that there is a real and substantial swing towards a concern with matters that are ancillary or peripheral to language teaching itself. These include learner characteristics and perceptions, societal needs, cultural contexts and personal development. (2012:169)
He goes on to suggest that a balance needs to be struck between ancillary concerns and the things they are ancillary to, namely, teaching. In the same way that teaching a man to fish will be more useful than giving him a fish, learner training and study skills can be useful, but there must be a balance between skills and language. What we don't want is the fisherman spending three months in fishing college learning fishing skills from "the fishing handbook" and subsequently starving to death.

Enjoy IATEFL! 


  1. So very glad I 'm not the only one who reads my coursebooks in bed.

    I'm inclined to agree with you. By the time someone is proficient enough to write college essays, or be able to use a study skills book, they probably have already established their own study skills that work. The way I see it, study skills are things I might suggest to a specific learner who appears to lack them, not teach to a class.

    I won't even touch the idea that popularity is evidence of validity - imagining what this country would look like if that were true makes me shudder.

  2. I was looking for the 'like' button!