Sunday, 9 August 2015

woo watch: ELGazette

ELGazette is a great little publication. It exposes dodgy goings-on in the ELT world, commissions interesting articles and most importantly pays a really decent rate to its writers. I know this because they asked me to write an article last year which appeared in print a few months ago. So it's a shame to see them featured in 'woo watch'. What have they done to end up here? Well, this month they printed a response to my piece on pseudoscience by a writer called Janet Denyer and it's really this article that has landed them here. 

Denyer's article is called 'making the case for NLP' (here). In it she writes that she was 'intrigued' by my article's findings but 'dismayed' by its 'lack of depth'. This is an odd criticism since as Denyer, who is also writing for the Gazette must know, the publication commissions articles of around 700 words. It's pretty hard to get depth with 700 words. If depth is what you're after, you can perhaps wait for the publication of my 5,000 word piece on NLP. I wouldn't hold your breath though as it has been 'under review' with the TESOL journal for over two years (no joke). 

Denyer goes on to encourage me to do some research on NLP. She notes 'as an expert in linguistics Russ may be in an excellent position to address the distinct lack of empirical research evidence...' Let me stop you there. Firstly, I'm not an expert in linguistics, -in fact I'd say I'm not an expert in anything at all (except, perhaps, procrastination). Just to be absolutely clear to anyone reading, I'm a teacher, with no title, no research grants and no PhD. I largely spend my days teaching.  

And secondly, I couldn't possibly address the lack of empirical research on NLP even if I was an expert in linguistics. This is not only because NLP is unrelated to the field of linguistics but also because there isn't in any way a lack of empirical research evidence about NLP. There's tons of it. NLP has been researched to death. There are even meta-analyses about it. It could be though that Denyer means here is 'address the distinct lack of empirical research evidence' which supports NLP. In which case she would be correct. But why this lack needs addressing isn't clear to me. That would be like saying 'we hope you can address the distinct lack of empirical research evidence against man-made climate change'. It can't be address because it isn't true. 

Denyer goes on to explain that she is a 35 year veteran of lecturing though it wasn't clear to me what that had to do with her following point that although some 'facts' about these practices may have been misrepresented she has personally seen the benefits of some of the things I disparage. For example, she has seen great benefits for students 'who actively use both sides of their brain'. I tried to think of something witty to say here about students only using one half of their brains but I just don't have the energy anymore. 

Denyer defends NLP noting that 'NLP is not something that you do to people' which is odd because I got the distinct impression it was explicitly promoted as a tool for doing things to people; things like persuading and influencingclosing sales, making someone love youcuring allergies, curing asthma and anxiety and on and on. 

Denyer then moves on to a defence of BrainGym which she claims has been abused by 'marketeers' in the UK and its current incarnation isn't true to 'Dr. Dennison's' original vision and his research. She may well be right. I have no idea. The problem however is that even if we're true to Paul Dennison's original vision, that wouldn't be saying much. Watch the cringe-inducing interview with Dennison below. There are some real gems in here like his stating that '[human beings] are electrical'. Is this the 'original vision' we're supposed to adhere to?

I tried to find Dr. Dennison's published output on google scholar. I found a manual for BrainGym and a couple of articles all published in the journal of 'edu-kinesthetics' I wanted to check out the journal but it's not available online...not a good sign. (ND: He does appear to have one article in a now defunct journal). 

Denyer closes this section by suggesting that 'Russ must acknowledge the positive learning environment in many classrooms today, compared with half a century ago'. I find this sentence difficult to understand and in fairness it may be editorial rather than the author but is Denyer saying that BrainGym is responsible for the changes in educational practices in the last 50 years? That's quite a claim. (And speaking of editing there is an section where she claims eye accessing cues were first identified in 1890 (sic?) by someone called 'James' (first name or last name?))

Denyer's next strategy is to make NLP seem credible through the use of adjectives. Argument adjectivium? She writes that NLP is underpinned by the work of 'esteemed family therapist Virginia Satir' and 'acclaimed author' Robert Dilts. If she had managed to find an honourable and a holy I fear I would've had to concede. This seems to be some kind of reverse ad hom. Does it really matter if the author is esteemed or not? They can still be wrong.

In the final section she appeals to me to not be so sure of my assumed facts reminding me that 'we once knew the earth was flat'. Sadly, while this fact is truthy it isn't true. She then sets up what is know as a 'false dilemma' quoting Howard Gardner (of MI fame) and saying 'Surely you would not wish to return to the days when intelligence was measured by the intelligence quotient'. In short, if I don't accept MI, then I'm promoting IQ testing for all. These are the only two choices. (on a side note, when did we stop measuring intelligence with IQ tests? -I'm pretty sure that's still what's used.)

For the coup de gras she 'recommend[s] Russ open his mind to our potential for learning'. It always tickles me when someone suggests you 'open your mind' because you can bet what they're actually saying is 'you should agree with me.' So I'll close with the esteemed words of (not) Carl Sagan "Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out".