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.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Woo watch

I've noted before that ETp ('the leading practical magazine for English language teachers worldwide') is quite the purveyor of woo. As two of its four person editorial panel, Janet Olearski and (founder) Susan Norman are 'master' practitioners of NLP, this is perhaps not surprising.

In the July 2014 edition we can read an article by Duncan Foord on how to cater for left brained and right brained teachers including a helpful lesson plan and mind map! In the article Foord tells us that 'right brained dominant teachers and visual teachers will immediately identify with' information presented as a mind map (4:2014). He also notes that half of the teachers he tries this approach on are 'sceptical' but that we ought to try to persuade them to give it a go. Next, he references a book called 'teach for success' by someone called Mark Fletcher. I wasn't surprised to find the following quote on Mark's website 'Brain Friendly Books:
The book gives practical examples that will have a dramatic effect on teaching methods and learning expectations. It includes ways of using Mind Mapping, N.L.P., Suggestopedia, music, colour, learning styles and much more in your classroom.

All of this is somewhat ironic since ETP recently held their 'ETP live' conference in Brighton and who did they invite to speak? None other than Philip Kerr, debunker of  'left-brained/rightbrained' myths!

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Humble Pie

I love podcasts. One of my new favourites is Hello Internet. The hosts, C.G.P.grey and Brady Haran got talking, on the latest episode ,about the word 'humble' and how something weird seems to have happened to it.
Brady notes that the meaning of 'humble' (or more specifically 'humbling' and 'humbled') has changed. For example, last night according to many newspapers World Cup Champions Spain were 'humbled' by the 5-1 drubbing that Holland dished out. Humble which is etymologically linked to 'humiliate' (Latin:humilis) and meaning 'brought low' or 'caused to feel less important' makes a lot of sense here as Spain went from being possible finalists to possibly not making it out of their group.
However, in the same week as this World Cup upset, her Majesty has been dishing out MBEs and OBEs to the worthy. Many of these folk, like NHS surgeon das Kumar have spoken about how humbled they feel. Host Brady takes issue with this usage pointing out that surely you don't feel low after winning an award, in fact you probably feel great! How can you be humbled by an award?
This 'non-humble humble' bothers Brady and he's not alone. Paul Annett writes that nothing annoys him more than this misuse and Jerod Morris has written a blog post pleading with politicians to stop their 'egregious, persistent  misuse' of this phrase. Another blogger complains that it now means the opposite of what it's supposed to mean.

So is it a problem if a word has opposite meanings? No. 'Literally' means and has meant for over a hundred years, both literally and figuratively though this word is sadly still problematic for mavens. while,'literally' face approbation, other auto-acronyms (Janus words) like 'dust' (apply and remove dust) and 'sanction' (allow, disapprove of) slip by unnoticed.

There is also the question of whether a word should always continue to mean what it once meant. As I've written about here, again the answer is no. Those who suggest words, like decimate for example, should continue to mean 'destroy one in 10' are committing the etymological fallacy

The only language constant is language change but it's unsettling to witness language changing under our feet. Semantic change can happen for many reasons. A word suddenly gets a new lease of life when attached to a new concept or technology (think keyboard in the 1980s) or becomes unfashionable or politically incorrect (the Euphemism treadmill tends to be a solid engine of linguistic change). In this case, my guess is that something else happened.

The word 'peruse' originally meant 'to read deeply' and now it means 'to skim' and I would guess this happened for two reasons. firstly the word started to fall out of fashion. Google's Ngram backs this up:


Secondly, with the decline in the use of a word and as we learn most of our vocabulary implicitly there may well have been confusion over the meaning of phrases like "he perused the book" until an alternative, opposite definition gradually replaced the original.

Something similar could have happened to 'humble' as Ngrams shows a similar decline in its use:

It's not unreasonable to imagine the same forces that changed 'peruse' changing 'humbling'. But if 'humble' does have a new meaning, what exactly is it? When Obama claimed he was 'humbled' by winning the Noble Peace prize, what did he mean?
The new humble seems to be an extension of phrases like 'humble opinion', and 'humble home', that is, denoting 'small and insignificant'. Thus 'a humbling experience' seems to be linguistic shorthand for something like 'how could someone as  insignificant as me, deserve your praise/recognition.' I would guess most people understand this to be what the speaker is trying to convey. However some, are wilfully(?) finding the phrase confusing. This is reminiscent of those  who pretend not to understand 'non-literal "literally"' or claim that double negatives are confusing. 

Complaints about how 'everyone is getting it wrong' always tickle me. The complainants seem to believe they can stop the inevitable tide of language change. Surely when Morris writes of the new meaning of humble that "we hear so many athletes and public figures use it" he must realise the irony of suggesting it's 'wrong'. If everyone is using something, and everyone else is understanding what they say, then chances are this aint a battle you're gonna win


Sunday, 1 June 2014

Short Book Review: Approaches and Methods 2014 update!

Just got the 2014 version of approaches and methods. Some good news folks, NLP has been given the boot (Yeah!!) The reason given is that NLP is 'not a language teaching method' but a 'humanistic philosophy based on popular psychology and as such does not meet the criteria for inclusion.' (2014:x)

The bad news is that 'multiple intelligences' is still in there. I find this a bit odd since the authors actually describe it not as a language teaching method but as 'a learner based philosophy' (2014:230). This is apparently OK because 'applications of MI in language teaching have been more recent, so it is not surprising that MI theory lacks some of the basic elements that might link it more directly to language education.'(2014:232)

In short, we can give MI a bit of slack because it hasn't been around in the EFL world long. 

This is somewhat confusing as both NLP and MI had language teaching advocates as early as the late nineties (well before the 2nd edition of A&M) who wrote articles championing their use in publications like,  you guessed it, ETP. The very first edition of ETP had a Jim Wingate article on MI I believe. The MI chapter also explicitly quotes from an article by Reid (who, I believe, brought learning styles to the EFL world) written in 1997 exactly the same time the first ELT NLP book came out.

So in short, NLP is out because it's a philosophy and isn't really a language teaching method and MI which is a philosophy and not really a language teaching method is in. Got it?

But what about approaches which are not philosophies but, y'know, language teaching methods? How did they fare. well since the last edition in 2001 little has changed on the EFL method scene. Except of course for Dogme. Starting in roughly 2000 with Thornbury's call to arms, (and actually a little earlier if you ask me) it's not surprising it didn't feature in the 2001 edition of A&M. But since then Dogme has been talked about and argued over constantly and seems to be the default choice for DELTA experimental lessons. So how did it fare in 2014?

Well, put aside your personal opinions of Dogme for a second (I'm looking at you Mr. Dellar) and ask yourself, in a book which attempts to catalogue the state of methodology in EFL in 2014, and which includes full chapters on TPR, The silent way, CLL and Suggestopedia (all left in for 'historical perspective' (2014:x)) should there be a chapter on Dogme? There is an issue of consistency.

Perhaps I'm straying out of the 'evidence-based' zone here but I find it hard to understand why MI gets an entirely uncritical 13 pages (they do stick a reference to a critical Kerr (2009) article in at the end) while Dogme gets, unless I've missed something, two paragraphs.

I haven't had a chance to read it all yet so there may be more to come...

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Left brains and right brains in English language teaching

Author Gaetan Lee . Tilt corrected by Kaldari. CC
From Wiki
Well hello! Good news, I have a guest post today and who else but the original TEFL sceptic, Philip Kerr! The author of books on vocabulary,  and co-author of inside out and straightforward   he also recently wrote a book on how to use L1 and translation in the classroom and has spoken in support of translation and L1 several times at conferences ( see here for example). He's recently been writing about adaptive learning over on this blog.  
If you've seen my IATEFL talk, you'll know that someone asked why I didn't include 'left brained/right brained' teaching. Well, as I mentioned then, one of the reasons is that Philip had already done a pretty thorough job of critiquing it. Unfortunately the article in question was not available online, -until now that is!

This was originally published in issue 36, 2011 of ebulletin TESOL Macedonia-Thrace northern Greece. (p.5-7)

Left brain / right brain differences in ELT

If you ever go to ELT conferences or read magazines for language teachers, you will probably have come across references to the differences between left and right brains. For example, at the 2006 TESOL France Colloquium, Rita Baker gave a presentation entitled ‘The Global Approach to Understanding English Tenses’, the abstract for which says that ‘the Global Approach is a 'whole brain', visual and kinaesthetic way of teaching and learning, starting with the 'big picture' (right brain) so that the 'details' (left brain) can be understood in context.’ An article by Larry Lynch (2007),entitled ‘Using Right and Left Brain Activities in English Language Teaching and Learning’, describes the importance of developing the different skills and abilities located on either side of the brain. One best-selling international coursebook (Cunningham & Moor, 2005) offers a quiz for students that asks them to consider whether they are left or right brained. The examples I have given here are purely illustrative: a quick internet search will bring up many, many more.

Many, but certainly not all, of the references to left / right brain differences in the discourse of ELT are to be found in texts associated with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) or Brain Gym. On the British Council / BBC website, Teaching English, for example, there is an article by Steve Darn, (2005), ‘Neuro Linguistic Programming in ELT’, which explains that NLP ‘encompasses or is related to 'left / right brain' functions’. The online magazine, Humanising Language Teaching, contains an article by Tom Maguire (2002) about Brain Gym, which he describes as a holistic approach to learning that ‘enables students to find an equilibrium between both sides of the brain and the body’.

Lynch (2007) provides a brief summary of the left brain / right brain issue for ELT practitioners. Learners can be categorised as predominantly left-brained (number skills, written language, reasoning, spoken language, scientific thought) or right-brained (insight, three dimensional, art / visual / images, imagination, music). More generally, it is implied that left-brained individuals are rational, linear (boring and male); right-brained individuals are typically intuitive, emotional, creative (fun and female). By extension, classroom activities can be categorised in the same way so that particular activities will particularly suit a learner of left (e.g. using lists) or right-sided (e.g. singing) lateralisation. The significance of these differences is that schools, and the activities that take place within them, tend to bias the left brain, thus disadvantaging certain types of individual.


The popular history of left brain / right brain differences

The interest of educationalists in brain lateralization (the functional differences between the two cortical hemispheres) dates back to the 1960s when Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga conducted research into epileptic patients who had had their corpus callosum (an area of white matter that connects the hemispheres) cut. It was observed in such patients that certain cognitive functions could be attributed to one or other of the hemispheres. Their findings were rapidly picked up on by others, and, in 1972, Robert Ornstein published his massively influential ‘The Psychology of Consciousness’. In this book, he argued that education needed to place greater emphasis on the more creative, intuitive functions of the right brain. Other, even more popular, books, including Betty Edwards’ ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ soon followed. At the same time, NLP and Superlearning® (both of which drew on ideas about ‘whole brain’ learning) began to take off in educational and management circles. Corballis (2007: 293 ff.) provides a useful, short history of the evolution of right / left brain ideas in popular consciousness. From a combination of these sources, ideas about brain lateralization have found their way into the discourse of ELT.


There is, however, a problem with the application of these ideas to education. The idea that people can be categorised as predominantly left brained or right brained is a myth. As Dörnyei (2009: 49) puts it, this idea is ‘simplistic at best and utter hogwash at worst.’ Dörnyei uses strong words, perhaps because of the widespread acceptance of such a myth in the world of education and language teaching, in particular. It is, he believes, very unfortunate, ‘that the aspect of brain research that has most succeeded in filtering through to the wider domain of public knowledge [i.e. left brain –right brain discrepancies] is a highly problematic, and a somewhat outdated, area of cognitive neuroscience.’ His view is shared by Usha Goswami at the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, University of Cambridge, who describes the ‘current gulf between neuroscience and education’ (2006: 406), a gulf that is filled with ‘packages and programmes claiming to be based on brain science’ but are actually full of ‘neuromyths’.


Academics such as Dörnyei and Goswami may be justified in their irritation with the durability of these myths. Almost thirty years ago, Michael Corballis (1983) drew attention to the popular misunderstanding of what researchers refer to as hemispheric specialization. ‘Hemispheric specialization means that one side of the brain is more adept than the other. It does not necessarily mean that the other side cannot perform a function at all or is not routinely involved in a particular activity. […] Virtually all behaviors and modes of thinking require both hemispheres working together.’ (Hampson, 1994) Researchers are in broad agreement that there are differences between the information-processing biases of the brain’s hemispheres, but that these exist at the micro-level, and not at macro-levels such as language or spatial processing. The idea that the left brain is rational and analytic or that the right brain is intuitive and suggestive is not a scientific idea: it is pop psychology or pseudo-science. As it is scientifically meaningless to talk about left-brained or right-brained learners, it is correspondingly meaningless to talk about classroom activities that favour one particular side of the brain or that contribute to inter-cerebral communication.


The power of metaphor

The fact that we do not use only one side of our brains to be either intuitive or analytical does not, of course, mean that some people are not generally more or less intuitive or analytical than others. There is nothing wrong with contrasting intuitive insights with rational ones. Learner differences exist, and the idea that we should adapt our teaching to our individual learners is neither new nor contentious. The problem is how we categorise these differences, and there is no research-based consensus on how we should go about this. If there is agreement on anything, it is that individual differences are not absolute and context-independent (Dörnyei, 2005: 218): such differences are situated in particular contexts.

This is, frankly, unfortunate. It would be nice to have a way of categorising learners (e.g. into left and right brains, or into visual / auditory and kinaesthetic, or into one of Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences’) and then to devise learning programmes and activities that addressed their different needs. It is unfortunate, too, in that those people who argue that we should move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching have a very valid point. Teaching does tend to be excessively rational, atomistic and analytic, and would almost certainly benefit from a more emotionally-rich and holistic approach. The people who talk about left brains and right brains offer us pegs on which we can hang our cultural preconceptions (Corballis, 2007: 300) and their ideas resonate in very positive ways. The left / right brain metaphor is comforting (Sternberg, 2008: 419) and may be useful in correcting some of the problems in our approaches to teaching. Unfortunately, it is only a metaphor.

It has sometimes been argued that we should judge theories by their transformative potential, rather than the extent to which they can be subjected to empirical testing. Should we worry if left brain / right brain ideas are actually hare-brained … so long as they lead to improvements in the real world? Perhaps not, but there is a deep problem when writers like Lynch or Maguire co-opt the language of science in order to confer a spurious scientific respectability on their ideas. Their practical suggestions may be good, but their cause is not advanced by appeals to pseudo-science. It may be the case that, at some point in the future, science will unequivocally legitimize some of these practical suggestions. However, as Sternberg (2008: 419) points out, we are not there yet. Importantly, too, there is a very substantial literature, going back almost three decades, that cautions educators against jumping to conclusions. To ignore such literature is surely to lose the right to call oneself an educator.

For teachers who are interested in the relationship between neuroscience and education, the website of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Neuroscience in Education may make a useful starting point . Alternatively the books by Blakemore & Frith (2005) or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2002) will provide intelligent and informed reading. For a brief no-nonsense summary of educational principles that can be derived from research in neuroscience, Christison (2002) is also useful. Developments in this field are fast and furious. They deserve our respect and interest. The crude simplification of insights from this research in order to sell us a coursebook, an interactive whiteboard or a teacher training course deserves our contempt.


References and further reading


Blakemore, S.J. & U. Frith (2005) The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education. Oxford: Blackwell

Bruer, J.T. (1999) In Search of …Brain-Based Education Phi Delta Kappan Vol. 80 / 9

Calvin, W.H. (1991) The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain New York: Bantam

Christison, M. (2002) Brain-based research and language teaching English Teaching Forum April 2002 pp. 2 – 7

Corballis, M. C. (1983) Human Laterality New York: Academic Press

Corballis, M. C. (2007) The dual-brain myth. In Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain Ed. Della Sala, S. Oxford: Oxford University Press pp. 291 – 313

Cunningham, S. & Moor, P. (2005) New Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate. Harlow: Pearson Longman

Darn, S. (2005) Neuro Linguistic Programming in ELT

Dörnyei, Z. (2005) The Psychology of the Language Learner. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Dörnyei, Z. (2009) The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Edwards, B. (1999). The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Tarcher

Goswami, U. (2006) Neuroscience and education: from research to practice? Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7 pp. 406-413

Hampson, E. (1994) Left Brain, Right Brain: Fact and Fiction Organization for Quality Education Newsletter, December 1994

Lynch, L. M. (2007) Using Right and Left Brain Activities in English Language Teaching and Learning Ezine Articles

Maguire, T. Brain Gym® Humanising Language Teaching Year 4 Issue 3

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2002) Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science

Ornstein, R. E. (1972) The Psychology of Consciousness. San Francisco: Freeman

Sternberg, R.S. (2008) The Answer Depends on the Question: A Reply to Eric Jensen Phi Delta Kappan, February 2008 pp.418 - 420

Willingham, D.T. (2006) ‘Brain-based learning: More fiction than fact’ American Educator Fall. (available online at



Monday, 19 May 2014

EBEFL asks part 2: The evidence strikes back...

One odd thing that happened after IATEFL was people suddenly assuming I was an EFL expert. I started getting questions about the efficacy of this or that method or the merits of vocabulary versus grammar. To be honest I generally have no idea and while it may be expedient for me to cultivate an image of being a knowledgeable so-and-so that's not the case. I'm not expert in very much and more importantly other 'experts' are probably not as expert as we may think. 

How do I know this? Maths. 
According to Fred Perry there are around 100 journals relating to SLA and language teaching at present. Each of these puts out around 3 or 4 issues a year (3x10=300) and each one has, let's say, about five articles a piece which is about 1,500 articles a year. There is no way anyone could reasonably be expected to keep up with these and all the articles/books that have gone before them. Rod Ellis may be an expert on SLA but how would he fare in discussions of ELF, testing or corpus linguistic?
So in short I don't know that much and nobody knows everything. These two points bring me to two requests:

No. 1. I'd like to try to help spread the 'ask for evidence' meme created by Sense about Science. If anything came out of the talk at IATEFL for me it's the need for teachers to be less afraid of asking questions and challenging the status quo. I had a large number of emails thanking me from people saying they'd always thought something was not quite right but never felt they couldn't say anything. Some had even got into trouble for questioning 'established practice'. There is nothing wrong with asking the question 'how do you know that?' In fact, it's sad that educators should feel they can't. As long as you are not rude or patronising it's reasonable to expect an answer.

So the next time someone claims that 'teacher talking time should be reduced' or 'grammar mcnuggests are bad for students' or that 'students have nine different types of intelligence' politely enquire on what grounds the speaker makes those claims and be cautious of accepting 'my experience' or 'it's obvious' as answers. There may be very good reasons for the claims, then again there may not. Either way, you'll learn something. I've always been pleasantly surprised that people, who are probably far busier than me, have taken the time to respond to my emails. And that brings me to...

No. 2 I'd like to ask anyone who is an expert/knowledgeable in a particular field, be it motivation or vocab to get in touch. As I said earlier, it's impossible for anyone to know everything and with that in mind I'd really like to start having some guest bloggers, particularly those who can offer teachers practical advice based on research. Ideally you'd be highlighting the research evidence that a certain practice or set of practices 'work' or conversely, don't.
Let me know at

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Hubbard or Gattegno

I've recently been reading up on the silent way for another post and it has inspired this post, which is a trivial game.  The rules are simple. Read the statements below and decide if they were said by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard or Silent way founder Caleb Gattegno. Scroll down for the answers.

He wrote over 100 books during his life.

2. "
Consciousness . . . is present in every cell and in every amount of energy in the soma’"

3. "A misunderstood word will remain misunderstood until one clears the meaning of the word. Once the word is fully understood by the person, it is said to be cleared."
4. "‘Ogden’ is the name we have given to the [amount of] mental energy mobilized to retain an arbitrary sound or an arbitrary connection."
5. "I have been engaged in a study of applications of technology to illiteracy and illiterate or semiliterate populations."

6. "The supporters of mankind could achieve their ends if they could shift to becoming holders of the relativity that generates tolerance of the other, But 
. . . they do not seem ready to pay the price: abandonment of absolutes passed on from times when awareness was not the concern of people."

7. "An educational program[me] which begins with the child's parents, progresses through kindergarten and grade school, through high school and into college and preserves at every step the individuality, the native ambitions, intelligence, abilities and dynamics of the individual, is the best bastion against not only mediocrity but against any and all enemies of mankind"
8. "I have need of more lives to chisel myself, my quantum, further and [to] make me more myself by making me more human"

9. "Mental energy is simply a finer, higher level of physical energy. The test of this is conclusive in that a thetan "mocking up" (creating) mental image pictures and thrusting them into the body can increase the body mass and by casting them away again can decrease the body mass

 10. "I am an energy system endowed with awareness. Hence I can become aware of the energy inputs I receive and know them for what they are"


All of the odd numbers are Hubbard and the evens are Gattengo, except number 1 which is Gattegno. L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) started life as a TEFL teacher in Guam whereas Gattegno (1911-1988) started life as a maths teacher. All Gattegno quotes come from Stevick.