Sunday, 20 July 2014

Crystal Balls

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

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

Crystal Balls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


  1. Paul Powell's article about crystals in language learning in IATEFL Issues Aug / Sept 2000 was a truly memorable piece. It inspired me to write an article myself about the dangers of crystals, essential oils and recordings of whale song in classrooms by unqualified practitioners, but, sadly, IATEFL Issues did not want to publish it. However, my good friend, Roger Hunt published his own response to the Powell article and this can still be accessed on the IH Barcelona website:
    For anyone who enjoys the one-stop-beyond-East-Ham version of ELT, I recommend 'English Language Teaching Matters: A Collection of Articles and Teaching Materials' by Michael Berman, Mojca Belak and Wayne Rimmer (O-Books, 2011) where you can find articles on topics such as 'Using Circles in the ELT Classroom' or 'Making Use of Divination in the Classroom'. The book is liberally sprinkled with marvellous quotes, such as this one on page 29: 'All of us feel like cracked pots at some time in our lives'.

  2. Thanks for the link. Satire is usually the best way to with these things :)

    I just checked out the Berman book. Looks interesting. His previous works are quite eye-opening "Journeys outside Time, Tales of Power, A Bridge to the Other Side: Death in the Folk Tradition and Georgia through Earth, Fire, Air and Water"

    He also has a PhD in alternative medicine!

    ps. I was curious if you've read Richards 'secret life of methods'? re our conversation about approaches and methods. Richards seems a lot more critical here than in his book.

  3. Nope, I haven't read that. I should!