Monday, 20 January 2014

Intelligence test

Reading the latest issue of ETP this week I came across and article describing how to use multiple intelligences in the classroom. As I read the article two things struck me. The first was the incredible regularity with which ETP runs articles featuring somewhat whacky approaches. There were articles on learning styles (for examples Rosenberg 2011, Rosenberg 2013) Multiple intelligences (Fletcher 1996, Puchta  2005, Puchta 2006, Hoogstad 2008, Berman 2010, Hamilton 2011)  a surprising number related to NLP (see, for example, Revell and Norman 1997, Revell and Norman 1998, Owen 1999, Owen 2000, Owen 2001, Rinvolucri 2002, Fahey 2004, Baker & Rinvolucri 2005, Rosenberg 2008, Zoeftig 2012) and even a four part series on something called "spiral dynamics" by NLP trainer and master practitioner Nick Owen. Now don't get me wrong, ETP publishes some great stuff, like recent articles by Rachel Roberts but considering the, shall we say, credibility problems with many of these approaches, they do seem to be very interested in devoting a lot of space to them.

The second thing was that despite all the talk of catering to students individual needs and so forth the actual activities described so often amount to the relabelling of standard practice as something quite exotic and revolutionary. Take the article I just finished reading for example. It describes activities you can use to cater for your students different intelligences. One such activity is getting students to write an email to their friends or a family member about a trip they took around the US. This may seem like a pretty regular TEFL activity but in fact, as the author points out, this will help students who have strong 'intrapersonal intelligence'. Another has students teaching each other how to dance, which in turn caters to 'bodily kinaesthetic intelligence'.

All of this reminded me of reading Mario Rinvolucri's book on NLP. In it the authors seem to  list altogether mundane teaching activities, like a dictation listening and then under PRS focus (the NLP version of VAK) it would say "auditory". I was quite surprised to learn that quite commonplace TEFL activities were actually NLP techniques!  You can play this game at home if you want, simply think of an activity, any activity in the classroom and apply a woo-woo label to it. 'Grammar auction' -students listen, so it goes under 'auditory' right? Hangman? Well they're looking at the board so, visual it is. 'Find someone who...'? - intrapersonal/linguistic (if you're a fan of MI) or kinesthetic if you're more into learning styles.

Of course someone always has to spoil the fun. In the  ETP article, The author suggests getting students to teach each other dance steps to work on their 'bodily-kinesthetic intelligence'. twenty years earlier, commenting on this kind of classroom application one educator noted that he was "leery of implementations such as ... believing that going through certain motions activates or exercises specific intelligences" (1999:90). And who was this anti-educational party-pooper? Howard Gardner, inventor of MI theory.


For more about MI check the great Kerr article on the 6 things website and the ensuing discussion or check this excellent page.

Monday, 13 January 2014

THE LAMENTABLE GULF BETWEEN RESEARCH AND PRACTICE IN ELT AS ELSEWHERE

So this is my first ever guest blog. Simon Andrewes (@simonbandrewes), who wrote a response to my learning styles piece has now written a reponse to my previous response to his response(?). Simon has a huge amount of experience teaching and has written acrticles for MET, ETP and HLT. He has very kindly given me permission to post this here. It's a good read -Enjoy (^_^)
 
 
[IN REPLY TO THE IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH, Russell Mayne. MET 22.4. Oct 2013. 53-55]
 
Russell Mayne wrote about research in MET22.2 and in particular about Learning Style (LS) theory, for which, he insisted, there was no evidential support. I replied in MET22.3 saying I found a “weak” version of LS theory to be useful for my teaching practice. In MET22.4 Russell criticised my position on various fronts, so I would like an opportunity to defend and clarify it.
 
The significant divide between English language theorists and teachers that Russell says I “further reinforce” - whereas in fact all I do is observe it - is hardly a controversial issue and indeed Russell himself provides quotes from two highly respected theoretician-practitioners, Scott Thornbury and Henry Widdowson, that back me up. I feel flattered and partially vindicated by the good company I find myself in.
Russell takes me to task on several fronts:
1.       I do not recognise the complexity of the research-practice problem;
2.       My argument is based on a fantasy in which I set up straw man villains against noble teachers;
3.       I dismiss research without the bother of having to do it or read it;
4.       I use my lengthy classroom experience to position myself as the voice of authority, which is tantamount to an “anything goes”  attitude to teaching;
5.       I make too much of the weak version of LS which may be true but is at the same time obvious, uncontroversial and un-noteworthy;
6.       I mix up LS and MI (Multiple Intelligences) theory.  
 1.       I confess I was writing entirely from a teacher’s point of view. I was not trying to view the problem objectively from all sides but was giving voice to a disillusion with theory that I have observed among colleagues, theory that is often perceived as imposed and lacking a comprehensive understanding of our practice. I also confess to sharing their disillusion for much the same reasons that they expressed.
 2.       I identify myself first and foremost as a teacher, not a noble one, more of a run-of-the-mill dogged practitioner. I do not see my “villains” as straw men as their influence is only too real. I might categorise the villains into two types: those who are in the pay of publishers and promoting their materials in a way that often comes across as facile, a sort of panacea for difficult classroom situations; and those who advance classroom methodologies that are remote and clearly not based on a study and analysis of actual classroom practice.
3.       So Russell is right in saying I dismiss research but he is rather unkind in saying I do so without the bother of having to do it or read it myself. In fact, I enjoy research and think it can be useful in its own right, without any direct reference to classroom practice. Indeed, this kind of research may be the most valuable in its disinterest in proving or disproving practical considerations. I would challenge Russell’s implication that it is a bother to carry out research and think it can be a privilege, or a pleasure. Just as teaching can be.

4.       In dismissing research, I use my experience to position myself as the voice of authority, says Russell, backing up his argument with a quote from Widdowson’s Defining issues in English language teaching: “Teachers who claim to be simply practitioners with no interest in theory “conspire against their own authority, and against their own profession”.  Now, throw me a quote by Widdowson and I am likely to catch it in midair and swallow it down like a trained seal. I agree 100% with Widdowson’s argument, as I often do.
 When I write “nobody is better placed than the teacher to determine what will work in practice” I do not mean “anything goes”; I mean that that the teacher is in a position to apply critical and reflective thinking to teaching practice in order to evaluate it. As a teacher I am conscious of the limited and in many ways limiting vision of the classroom. What happens in the classroom may indeed provide me with a too subjective and non-scientific view of the variety and diversity of practice in classrooms across the world. Evidence from the classroom is too restricted by the confines of its four walls to make too many generalisations from.
5.       Moving on to the essence of the LS debate, Russell says the weak version amounts to nothing more than saying different students have different study preferences but there is no evidence that people learn better if they get information through a preferred sensory channel.

Here Russell is talking about research evidence and seems to take it for granted that evidence from classroom practice doesn’t count. Yet, with Penny Ur (ETP issue 21 Oct2001Check It Out 5 - 8), I would insist that a or the primary and certainly a valid source of meaningful theory is that drawn from our own experience. Secondary (research/theoretical) sources can and should be drawn on to confirm or contradict conclusions for our teaching convictions that we reached via our primary source. As such, I find that the weak version of LS theory provides me with a check, a reminder that not everybody learns in the same way as I do and it makes me more sensitive to other learning paradigms. In fact, I am convinced I have built up evidence of this in classroom observations of the way learners learn.

As for the hard version of LS theory, I can happily agree with Russell when he says there is no research evidence to support it.

6.       Not only do I simplistically confuse LS with “study preferences”, to return to Russell’s critique, I mix up LS and MI theory, in which Howard Gardner – Russell tells us - redefines the concept of aptitudes as “intelligences”, and which also, apparently, lacks any scientific credibility.

I do not want to speak of scientific credibility, but I can see there are things in MI that serve a purpose. If different students have different aptitudes, then it seems reasonable to suppose those varying aptitudes will have some bearing on how they learn things. To follow up an example cited by Russell, I confess to crawling across the floor with the youngest learners I have taught and whether I was fostering “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence” in doing so I cannot say. But did it work? Well, I think it might have, and we all enjoyed it and I certainly don’t think it got in the way of learning. I felt at that moment the child needed that crawling activity and would not have learnt so well without it. I would probably do it again, thinking I was furthering learning.

So, asks Russell finally, do I think we should teach according to our students’ star signs or the colour of their aura, as these have, in his words, as much credibility as the theories I am defending? Well, no, I don’t actually, because I have no primary evidence that these things work in practice. But I would not be loath to give them a go, if I saw a positive effect in it.
In conclusion, “experience is a good bet in the absence of evidence”, Russell concedes. But here, he shows he does not really value the primary evidence of the classroom. He is talking about the secondary evidence of the university, the ivory tower. And thus the gulf between classroom practice and theory is maintained by Russell’s reluctance to accept the classroom teacher’s ability to draw a directly meaningful theory from her own experience. And the two communities continue to talk past each other.

Friday, 10 January 2014

In defence of duolingo

Avid followers of EBEFL will remember I came down quite hard on the memrise app before. Looking back at that article it's clear I was more critical of the 22 hours-to-learn-a-language claim than the app itself. I did try the app and it wasn't much fun and quite buggy. In this article I'm going to look at another app which is quite fun, -the rather good Duolingo. I want to compare it to a French class I took recently because I think neither of these methods would lead to anyone becoming fluent in a language but I wonder, on the whole, which is a better supporter of language learning.


Cost

Duolingo
  My French Class
 nothing, nada, zip, zilch
£100 for 10 weeks, 2 hours per week plus a £30 text book


 Should probably add here that I quit my awful French class after about 4 classes. As did, I reckon,  around half of the class. I didn't get any money back so each lesson was about £25.
 Winner: Duolingo



Method
Duolingo
My French Class
 Grammar translation
erm? 'traditional'?


Here's a lesson plan from one of the classes. First 40 minutes were taken up with a reading exercise. We read a text and tried to answer the questions "True" or "False". The Teacher then went through the answers. To shake up the second half she opted for....wait for it...a 40 minute reading excercise! Don't worry this time it wasn't True/False. The last 20 minutes were spent on speaking practice. 10 minutes of which were spent explaining and then 5 minutes on practicing pron, -so all in all we got 5 minutes of speaking in 2 hours.

Some may argue that 'Grammar translation' is bad and it certainly isn't perfect, but Phillip Kerr has made a good defence of using first language and translation in the classroom, though he is clear that old fashioned sentence translations of the kind you see in Japanese schools is not what he's advocating. I think Duolingo falls down a bit here, but it's hard to see how a computer program, could do anything else.

Sure, it's frustrating when you get "une" and "un" wrong and lose a point. Perhaps the developers could introduce an accuracy scale so you could decide how picky you want the program to be.
 
Winner: draw



First language use
Duolingo
My French Class
 about 50% of the time
most of the time


Duolingo asks you to translate about, I would guess 50% of the time and all the instructions are in your language not the target language. In contrast, my French teacher hardly ever spoke French.  

Winner: Duolingo


Authenticity
Duolingo
My French Class
 'the apples are red'
'I like hiking'




Duolingo is horribly inauthentic. You'll quickly find yourself getting sick of 'red apples'. The French class was slightly better as it used a textbook aimed at university students. I got to do sentences like "I like hiking" (I don't) and "have you ever been Canoeing?" (I haven't). As mike Boyle notes, sentences like "the horse eats bread" may "have no real meaning or relevance to learners" but so what? My feeling is that 'the noun verbs the noun' is probably the aim of this lesson. If you can say "the horse eats bread" you could probably say "the man eats bread" or even "I eat vegetables" etc. I think the app could be improved by adding more (interesting) phrases, which have a higher frequency count  They could even teach the task instructions in the target language and then start using those, instead of using "write this in French".
 
 Winner: My French class
 

TTT
Duolingo
My French Class
 Minimal
blah blah blah


Teacher talking time on Duolingo is almost 0. There are occasinal grammar points in bubbles. My French teacher on the other hand, although being a nice enough person, like so many teachers she couldn't help regaling her captive audience with jokes and funny stories. In the lesson I talked about earlier, students spoke for about 5 minutes of the class, this wasn't unusual.
 
 Winner: Duolingo



Awareness of Level
Duolingo
My French Class
Minimal
blah blah blah

 

Duolingo comes out on top again. It knows exactly what I can and can't do because it constantly asks me. Sure it might be a bit too picky about la and le for my liking but it remembers perfectly my mistakes and gives me the option of working on weaknesses. My French teacher on the other hand found it hard to remember my name. 
 
Winner: Duolingo
Time with teacher
 
Duolingo
My French Class
 whenever, wherever for however long
Monday 6-8

In a class of 15 you may have a few dedicated minutes with each student. Certainly you can't spend hours tutoring only one member of the class. Duolingo can not only do this, it also works whenever I want to work. My French class was 6-8 on Mondays which meant making sure I had nothing planned at that time and gong after work with no time to eat. Of course, you can't ask Duolingo specific questions if you get stuck and that's a problem.
 
Winner: Draw

Learner styles
 
 
Duolingo
My French Class
 nothing
what style are you?
My French teacher made a point of asking all of us what learning style we preferred. Presumably this was to cater to visual (and so on) students. She then went ahead and did what she was planning to do anyway. Luckily, Duolingo isn't bothered what kind of learner I think I am. It also sensible gives me visual, auditory and kinesthetic input.This is not a good thing because the theory of learning styles is correct, but rather because it makes the material far more interesting.

Winner: Duolingual



Enjoyment and motivation 
Duolingo
My French Class
 'you got to the next level!'
I quit after 4 weeks

This is where Duolingo really gets it right. It has a friendly bright interface and manages to gamify language learning in the right way.  My French class was dull, I didn't feel I was learning or that the teacher knew much about me or my level. Duolingual is constantly making little beeps and showing graphs, all of which is nonsense but it makes me feel I'm progressing, which is vital. Motivation is one of the most important things in language learning and if the student stops coming to your class, all your qualifications, methods and authentic materials mean nothing.
 
Winner: Duolingo
 
This app will not lead anyone to be fluent in a foreign language but it might help. And in terms of helping I would say it is far superior to the language class I took and other language classes I have taken in the past. In the UK, where 40% of language deptartments face closure and where only 15% of the population claim to be able to hold a conversation in any foreign language, anything that encourages or makes language learning easier is a good thing. More power to Duolingo's elbow I say!








 


Wednesday, 1 January 2014

2013 in numbers

Here's the EBEFL review of 2013 in numbers.
and they lived happily ever after...

1 Article published. As in 2012 I managed to squeeze a piece into MET in 2013. Thanks to Simon Andrewes whose response to my learning styles piece lead to this article.

2 weddings. I got married, not once, but twice this year, -best to make sure.

3 Number of conferences I presented at. My first ever conference paper was in March, in Kyoto in Japanese and it was as terrifying as it was dire! I did BALEAP in April, you can see the talk here and I did another BALEAP talk in November.

4 months break from twitter. Who knew they delete your account after a month?!?! My 700 ish followers down to a mere 50, I like to think of these as the wheat, the crème-de-la-crème, the hard-core, folks like the wonderful Florentina Taylor, the marvellous Michael E Griffin, as well as many others like the secret DOS, Mura, James, PatrickLeo, Anne, Hugh, Rachel, and Tyson among many many others. I'm hoping I can get to meet some of these people at IATEFL next year.

5 the number of people who came to watch me talk at BALEAP in November. I did get nice feedback from them though, -so that's something.

33 the number of posts I wrote this year. That seems like an awful lot.

51,000 the number of pageviews this blog has had ,so far. March was a very popular month with almost 10,000 views. It may have been my Guessing from context post which became the second most popular post on this blog. When the head of IATEFL retweeted this post, I got quite a lot of traffic too.

Too many, books I've bought and not had time to read. The best book was "Thinking about language teaching" by Swan. Every teacher should own a copy. honourable mentions go to Teacher Proof and Bad Education which I reviewed here, "why don't students like school" and the "myths" series, so far I have "SLA myths" and "vocabulary myths". although I just started reading it "learn to write badly" seems like a fab read, particularly for those of you in EAP.

Resolutions

I hope to start a new series of posts called "Try this -this works!" in which I talk about those things we should be doing in the classroom according to the evidence. I've had quite a few requests for something like this and have held off, but I think I'll give it a whirl.

Thanks for reading, -hope you have a fab 2014!