Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Lesson study

I once took part in a 'lesson study' class when I used to work in Japan. They're all the rage these days and the latest in a long line of 'they're doing it better abroad' approaches to education.

Lesson study basically involves a bunch of teachers from other schools coming over to your school and watching you teach. After the class (which is a performance like most observations) the kids are sent home and then you and the other teachers talk about your lesson and then discuss more generally 'teaching'. 

Sounds pretty neat, huh? 

So onto my second Japan related story. One of my favourite comedy programs over there once asked old people (who obviously have lots of life experience) which proverbs were the most useless. One guy said: 

Two heads are better than one (lit: three people together have the wisdom of Monju

The presenter asked him why he thought this was a useless saying and the old guy said 'because if the people are idiots it doesn't matter how many there are' 

And so back to lesson study. I distinctly remember receiving some interesting advice from some of the English teachers who were gathered there. I also distinctly remember them telling me that if the kids don't learn good Japanese their English will never be any good (myth) and that educating young kids in English would make their native Japanese 'go weird' (myth). As the teachers were all older and much more experienced than me I had to sit there in silence as they continued on with this kind of 'professional development'.

I'm sure study learning could have some great benefits but the plural of anecdote isn't data

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.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Try this! It works

One of the most frequent questions I hear is 'ok so maybe these things you write about don't work how about telling us what does work'? This question bothers me.

To some, noting that 'method X' doesn't work makes me responsible for filling a 'method X' shaped gap in the curriculum. A reasonable response to things that don't work is, I think, to stop doing them. We don't have to continue blood letting until something better comes along. Just stop.
However this answer doesn't always satisfy. The logic seems to be that  if I can't offer up something better than 'crystals in the classroom' then by god we're going to have crystals in the classroom! But things like NLP don't suddenly become effective if an alternative can't be found. It's not the least worst solution. It just doesn't work.

That said, It's not totally unreasonable, since the blog is called, 'evidence based EFL' to wonder what exactly is effective. for example, the always engaging 'teacher James (James Taylor) recently noted that even though he like me, is a sceptic, he's not entirely sure how he can make his teaching more evidence-based. He notes:

With all the will in the world, I can’t do the research myself. I would definitely encourage teachers to do their own experimental practice and investigate a particular area of their teaching, but we can’t investigate everything we do. If we want to access the research of MA students who are looking into all these areas, where do we go? Most research never sees the light of day after graduation, and if it does it’s published behind paywalls and in subscription only journals, which we can’t access and even if we could, would we have time to read them? 

Therefore, because I completely understand people's desire to know 'what works' and  also because I don't want to spend the rest of my life reading and writing about things like BrainGym and NLP (because as I've said before, anything I say or write will have little effect on their popularity) I've decided to try something new. 

I've decided to add occasional posts listing things which do 'work'. I have a feeling this might disappoint some as reality is less appealing than fantastical theories and saying 'try this! it probably works' is less sexy than shouting 'all of this is bullshit!'. If you think I'm going to say 'the correct answer is (drum roll) ...task based learning!' Then you'll be disappointed. This will be more a collection of techniques or principles which seem to have strong evidence of efficacy.

After wading through various books and journals trying to find things that 'work', I have to say two things in relation to this. Firstly, being a young field, and one with very low entry requirements, there's often very little solid evidence for anything. As Swan notes: 

We actually know hardly anything about how languages are learnt, and as a result we are driven to rely, in our teaching, on a pre-scientific mixture of speculation, common sense, and the insights derived from experience. Like eighteenth-century doctors, we work largely by hunch, concealing our ignorance under a screen of pseudo-science and jargon.

And secondly, I have to say, SLA experts boy, you don't make it easy for teachers! I'm a supporter of research. I'm on your side! But ploughing through some of the awful turgid prose that can pass for academic writing left me a tad depressed at times. If you actually want teachers to read this stuff, make it a bit more teacher friendly. Failing to do that means the space is being filled by opinion and at times, nonsense. 

This is not a job I can do by myself. As I said here, I'm looking for anyone who is an expert or at least more knowledge than most in a certain area (maybe you wrote your MA dissertation about a certain subject) to do a guest post. I've been lucky enough to host the wonderful Philip Kerr and will soon hopefully have another great post to share.

On a final note, James Taylor above encourages teachers to do research and about a year ago I wrote "ask to see the evidence and if there isn't any, why not try to make some?". I realise how daunting that may sound. but there is good news on that front too. Another James, (Pengelley this time) together with Rachael have been working on a project called 'The Scarlet Onion' which aims to:
...inspire and encourage teachers to be critical practitioners.  To offer a platform for those who would like to know more, do more, discover more about what they do and why they do it.  We want to provide a clear model of professionalism in EFL and instil the desire and ability in others to think critically, creatively, and challenge the ideas and assumptions they come across every day in their own work.
James tells me the site will be providing teachers with the tools to evaluate and even do research of their own. If everyone starts pushing in the same direction, asking questions, making research accessible on blogs and even doing it themselves, you never know, we might actually make a difference.  



Sunday, 6 July 2014

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Kangaroos are dangerous animals.  You can, however, avoid danger if you know  the signs. Joe Nichter, a frequent traveller, writes about discovering this in a trip to Australia:

While I was there, the local aborigines taught me a lot about the magic of the Kangaroo, and most importantly, how to tell when they're going to attack you. Surprisingly enough they are actually VERY dangerous, but fortunately for us they go through a checklist before they attack.

The first thing they do is smile. Well no, not really but that's what it looks like. Actually they're baring their teeth just like a dog, but because of their facial structure it appears as though they're smiling.

The second thing they do is double-check their pouch for baby Joey's. As it turns out they're very responsible parents whether they have children or not, they check anyways. There's something to be said about that.

And third, they look over both shoulders, checking behind them as they lay their very large tail down on the ground. It acts as a "kick stand" (which I believe is where the term came from) as they lean back and lay into you with a battery of high speed Kangaroo Karate kicks.

They average about five to seven solid kicks before you're knocked out of range. I spoke to a local man who holds the distance record: an adult Kangaroo kicked him fourteen feet. He's a bit of a celebrity who's very popular with the ladies. He has a shirt and everything.

None of this is true. Our critical thinking faculties are often disarmed by good stories. In fact, they only really come into effect when we're suspicious of something or when it disagrees with our world view. The danger is when we 'want to believe.'

Narratives are far more important to humans than facts. We are a consciousness inhabiting a body from moment to moment and what makes us seem like a unified self, unlike a series of Doctor Who-esque reincarnations over time, is the narratives we tell ourselves. We hold our 'selves' together with stories. The unreliability of our memories is well documented, and we generally edit  narratives to make them fit better with our beliefs about what should have happened, not what did happen.  

When I find myself watching shows like the X factor (usually if I visit my parents) I'm always amazed by the way personal history is edited to fit the present. Contestants say things like 'I've been singing since I was little', as if this was in someway unusual among children. But this temptation to repurpose our histories to make a better narrative about our lives, one in which everything we've done has lead to this unique moment, is powerful. How many people have you met who have 'ended up' as EFL teachers (like myself) but who then mine their history for moments which make their present situation seem somehow predestined. For example, the creator of Genki English, Richard Graham tells us: 
I first started teaching when I was 16. I was the first student in the UK to take the Advanced Level examination (the exams English students take at 18) in Music with my instrument as being [sic] the synthesiser...Anyway I had to teach myself how to play and being an enterprising 16 year old I figured that loads of kids were wanting to play synths instead of the "boring" (ok, it depends on your point of view!) piano. So if there were no other teachers out there then why not start teaching it myself!
always wonder what this story would look like had the 1980s never finished and Graham had made it as a star synth keyboard player instead being an EFL teacher. I imagine the 'synth' part would be turned up high and the teaching part turned way down low.

This overly long preamble brings me to today's topic. Did you know how many common English phrases have sinister histories?

Did you know, for example that the nursery rhyme 'Ring of roses/ a pocket full of posies/ Atishoo Atishoo/ we all fall down' was created during the plague of London? The roses relate to the red ring of infectious sores which signalled the beginning of the infection. The posies were, at the time, considered a treatment. The sneezing indicated a worsening of the symptoms and I don't need to explain the falling down.
And how about that "rule of thumb" actually refers to an old English law which permitted a man to beat his wife with a stick 'no thicker than his thumb'.
Did you also know that 'one for the road' has a similar macabre history? Condemned prisoners would be taken through the streets of London to be hanged. The prisoners 'on the wagon' would not be allowed to drink but occasionally guards, feeling pity, would let the men stop at a pub, for a final drink (one for the road) before their execution.
When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that's where the saying "dirt poor" came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a "thresh hold".

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that's where the saying "dirt poor" came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a "thresh hold".

When you came into the house you would notice most times that the floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, that's where the saying "dirt poor" came from. The wealthy would have slate floors. That was fine but in the winter they would get slippery when they got wet. So they started to spread thresh on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on they would just keep adding it and adding it until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. So they put a piece of wood at the entry way, a "thresh hold".

All of these are great stories and yet none of them are true. They are false etymologies but they survive because they are really good stories (more here) and good stories are always more interesting than boring old facts. If you're not convinced ask yourself why politicians always back up numbers with tales of 'a family man from Kansas told me...' and so on. Our brains react to stories not abstract numbers, which is why the anecdote "it worked for me" is so powerful.

Our narrative drive is so strong that we ignore statistical likelihoods in favour of anecdotes. Many people are more scared of shark bites than Louis Suarez bites though the latter is more statistically probable. (This example isn't, in retrospect, a very good one. See comments section for a discussion of this point). 

So 'debunkers' beware, recent research shows that not only are people unlikely to be swayed be facts, the 'backfire effect' often means a person's views will be reinforced by a evidence which contradicts their personal narrative. 

The sceptics job is a thankless one. as Dave Wilton writes in 'Word myths':
Anyone who has any experience debunking legends or pseudoscience knows that the task is often an unappreciated one. People do not like to have their beliefs questioned or to have good stories spoiled.