Friday, 6 December 2013

The Importance of Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


‘healthy scepticism”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The need for research

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Language Mazazine (2012). Interview with Rod Ellis. In The journal of communication and education. Retrieved 3rd August 2013, from





Sunday, 1 December 2013

Thought terminating cliches

A: I think gay people should have the same rights to marry as straight people!

B: You say that but I'm a Christian and as such I believe that God created humans beings with the intention of them procreating. A good example of His wishes can be seen in the fact that the first two people he created, according to The Bible were a man and a woman. 
  Compare that with this:

A: I think gay people should have the same rights to marry as straight people!

B:  God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve

What's great about this phrase (and there isn't much) is that it neatly encapsulates a whole position in a short pithy phrase. It conveys a lot of information in a small space and solidifies thinking on a position. It can also be a good conversation stopper, -unless you have an equally neat retort. These phrase are an excellent way to avoid cognitive dissonance a good example would be the religious person who thanks god for surviving a serious disease, but when questioned why God allowed them to get the disease in the first place will say "God works in mysterious ways". Job done. end of.

And don't think I'm singling out the religious, everyone does this. For example, I've talked before about the nonsensical phrase "the exception that proves the rule". It neatly ends a conversation (despite not making any sense). Other examples are the phrases "it's political correctness gone mad!", "I'm entitled to my opinion" and "Gun's don't kill people, people kill people!". Recently I've discovered that these phrases are called 'thought terminating cliches a phrase invented by Robert Jay Lifton who wrote:
The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis...for instance, the phrase "bourgeois mentality" is used to encompass and critically dismiss ordinarily troublesome concerns like the quest for individual expression, the exploration of alternative ideas, and the search for perspective and balance in political judgments.
Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China,

I'm glad I know the name because I've seen a lot of these phrases used when I talk to teachers about evidence in education. For example when I suggest that research might be useful I often hear "teaching is an art, not a science". I'm not going to tackle this one in particularly because Daniel Willingham has already done so in this video.

One that I do want to look at is the idea that 'context is king' (also know as 'think of the variables!') in teaching. This is something I hear regularly expressed in sentiments like those expressed by Simon Andrewes in a recent comment on this blog. He mentions Kumaravadivelu and his idea of the "unique classroom" and notes that this means it is "practically impossible for teaching theory to apply to all cases." He's not the only one. I've heard many teachers claim that the most important thing is context and so research is a waste of time because the number of possible variables a context can bring will render any research invalid. It can't be generalised to other classrooms because there are too many factors which relate to one classroom and one group of students in particular.  For this post, I will call this position 'the argument from relativism'.
Relativism is a very fashionable position in all kinds of fields, not just teaching. You'll hear people tell you that 'truth is relative' and your truth is different from my truth, that there's not objective truth and 'everything's relative.' We also have moral relativism, which is equated by many with progressive thought, so different cultural practices are not objectively 'better' or 'worse' than things we do in the west, they are just 'different' but equally valid.
All of this generally comes from a good place and can be seen as a reaction to things like colonialism and racism where everything was seen through a lense of hierarchy with (usually) rich white straight Christian men at the top. The problem is, for all its good intentions, relativism is just plain wrong. As Nagel notes:
Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity — self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe. (the last word 1997:6)

That is, the statement that "everything is relative" must include itself. So either the statement itself is relative (and is therefore meaningless) or is an 'objective' fact, true about 'everything' in which case in contradicts itself. Nagel goes on to note the danger that relativism brings:
The worst of it is that subjectivism is not just an inconsequential intellectual flourish or badge of theoretical chic. It is used to deflect argument, or to belittle the pretensions of the arguments of others. Claims that something is without relativistic qualifications true or false, right or wrong, good or bad, risk being derided as expressions of a parochial perspective or form of life - not as a preliminary to showing that they are mistaken whereas something else is right, but as a way of showing that nothing is right and that instead we are all expressing our personal or cultural points of view. The actual result has been a growth in the already extreme intellectual laziness of contemporary culture and the collapse of serious argument throughout the lower reaches of the humanities and social sciences, together with a refusal to take seriously, as anything other than first-person avowals, the objective arguments of others.(1997:5)
What I think Nagel gets at here, is the "thought terminating" nature of this phrase and the detrimental effect this has on arguments. Under the tyranny of relativism it becomes impossible to say that belief systems espousing hatred for gay people or promoting child brides are objectively 'wrong', that's just your Western version of reality -don't try to force it on other people.
Relativism has the same chilling effect on discussions of language teaching. Whenever the topic of research comes up, hands are quickly thrown into the air and the words "context" and "variables" appear and that's that; everyone nods and the conversation moves on. Context absolutely must play a part in a teacher's decision making process -but it's not the only part. There is also truth. There are things we can learn which can apply to many, if not most contexts. despite the protestations of relativists all of our students have the same hardware in their heads -they all have brains and they all learn in exactly the same way.
The last sentence may have caused consternation about some teachers aware of another 'thought terminating cliché' namely that 'every student learns in different ways' but this is not quite the case. While all students like to study in different ways learning happens in the brain, in exactly the same way for everyone. A good analogy for this is Nuthall's statement that "We all have different food preferences...[but this] does not mean that the metabolic processes by which we digest and use food are different” (Nuthall, 2007:34) Since learners all possess a human brain, why would we not think there were some things we could generalise from one classroom to the next?
There is also another problem with the argument from relativism, which is to what extent do we apply it? Now sure, Japanese school kids may have slightly different needs from Spanish school kids but not all Japanese school kids need the same thing. A busy Tokyo high school may have different needs from a small rural high school. And when you really think about it, wouldn't the male students, in both cases, have different needs to the female students? And all students have different levels of English and different aptitudes.  When you get right down to it, isn't each individual student their own 'unique classroom' with its own needs, -and those needs may change from day to day, or hour to hour?

If this sounds ridiculous then remember that this is, in a sense, what humanistic 'learner centred' approaches already promote. Not only should you know each student's individual level but also whether they are visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners, whether they are 'power planners, expert investigators, radical reformers or flexible friends' (Rosenberg 2012) Whether they are left brained or right brained thinkers, and which is their dominant intelligence. You might also consider what their preferred representational system is and just how emotionally intelligent they are. This presents (not including first language, age, sex, level and aptitude) around around 1080 (3x4x2x9x5) different possible combinations. 

This doesn't seem to faze teachers though who manage somehow, to produce material for the 'whole class'. And if learning can be generalised from the individual to the class with all the differences it purportedly contains, why can't it be generalised to other classes, in other contexts?
Despite protestations, research is possible and will help to improve teaching. And why would teachers object to their job becoming more professional, with a more reliable skill set and deeper professional knowledge? The awful alternative is the idea that nothing is ever really knowable in teaching and knowledge only lasts as long as the class is together and is then gone. This is the logical conclusion of relativism, where best practice is only ever something that can exist for one class, or one student at one point in time. If this is the case, scrap journals, scrap teaching qualifications, scrap blogs and scrap conferences, because none of them matter.