Thursday, 27 December 2012

merry xmas and happy new year




2012 is at an end and 2013 is nearly upon us and we still don't really have a name for this  decade (the teens?). Lexical gaps aside it's time for a run down of the year. But before that I'd like to post a few thank yous.

I've managed to meet loads of interesting people on twitter. This blog, which I started in March, has become more successful than I could have ever imagined so thank you for reading it, thank you for retweeting and thank you for commenting. The blog didn't get off to a great start when one of the first people to read "is Korea the worst place to teach English" angrily ordered me to remove the post and then blocked me. Things slowly got better though and I had more views in the first week of October than I did for the whole of the first two months. Next, I had more views in the first week of November than the whole of October. A lot of these may have been bots (if the spam is anything to go by) but anyway, I'm grateful to anyone who bothered to read this stuff. The lovely things people have said have really made a difference to me and when I started I never thought it would get anywhere near as many hits as it has done. In this blog I'm going to tell you my dodgiest teaching practices, the most popular posts this year and then my own personal favourite posts. so here goes...
 
Thanks


Maybe writing a thank you post like this is a bit premature for such a small blog but I want to take this opportunity to say thanks to a few people. If you don't want to read this then skip to the next heading.

Ok,Firstly Dan, who followed me first and told me to "keep writing", Louise, Susie and Emma for the nice things you've said about various posts. Rich and the Ophelia for putting up with being forced to read almost every post before I publish them. Also some people who have given me feedback or ideas about what to write, including (in no order) Steve King, Alistar Logan, Jo (thanks for the mail), Glynis, Amos Paran, Michael Swan, among many others.  
 

I also really want to thank a few people on Twitter who have either encouraged me or given me some interesting things to think about. Specifically Michael Griffin who I think has contributed more to the success of this page than anyone and who seems lovely and is a very welcome  presence on twitter. Others include leo, Alex, laura, sophia,  kevchan, TysonJames, Patrick, Adam, Marisa, Anne (who seems lovely),  Dan, Rachel, John and others too numerous to mention (sorry if I missed you!) all of who have supported this blog in one way or another.



Dodgiest practice award

There have been so many great contenders this year but there can only be one winner.

In at number 3 is BrainGym. Yes exercise is good. No rubbing your temple won't stimulate your brain buttons. It's probably the wackiest of them all but only seems to have very limited usage among EFL teachers. also, should teachers actually use it, it probably won't do kids any harm, as long as they don't teach the bizarre science that goes with it.

At Number 2 is learning styles. Yes it's true we all learn in different ways and yes teachers should probably try to get a good mix of activities into lessons, but with no practical application, unproven and contradictory claims about what learning styles are and no proven value for students even if they are taught using their favourite method, -this one's a real stinker.

But the number 1 spot goes to the method that literally left me with my mouth hanging open. Yes, the 2012 winner is neuro linguistic programming! Practitioners are often a little coy about what NLP entails but when you dig down and find some of the incredible claims it makes, combined with the cost of courses and more importantly the prevalence of NLP in EFL literature (even getting it's own, sightly dodgy ELTJ article) there can be no doubt about its selection for the top spot.

This year's "worth a second look" prize goes to "mindfulness". Despite it's Buddhist background and the therapy upbringing there might be something to this. I'm not rushing out to buy the incense yet but having students think carefully about things or just having humans in general be more thoughtful is probably a good thing. More importantly for this blog, there seems to be evidence to support it's efficacy.
 
Top posts

The most read posts on this blog are not necessarily my favourites but here they are at number three is the piece I wrote on Learning styles (300 hits). Number two is the first in the three part "why we need evidence" (450 hits). However, the clear winner with 1,400 hits is a non evidence-based look at the difference between the DELTA and MA. I guess this topic probably has pretty wide appeal unlike a lot of the other stuff.

As to the posts I enjoyed writing the most well, the look at who Vs whom inspired by grammargirl was really enjoyable and I like to think it's quite a good read. I have a soft spot for the first post on the misuse(?) of the word "literally". There were others which were a lot of fun, like Dr. Fox, the impostor syndrome and the Pygmalion effect but the one I enjoyed the most was Teacher beliefs in EFL. It's a bit silly perhaps and doesn't say all that much but linking penis theft and fan death with EFL is something of an achievement, right?

 
 
2013

It's been a great year for EBEFL but it's time to start thinking about next year. I've been dealing with a lot of low-hanging fruit this year, like NLP, brain gym and learner styles. I'm hoping to write about guessing from context, stress timing, dogme, over-teaching, skimming and scanning, paraphrasing and academic dishonesty among others. What would you like to see featured in the 2013 posts of Evidence based EFL? Post your ideas below.
 
Thanks for reading!

 

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Why we need evidence part 3: expert opinion

What do Rod Ellis, Michael Swan, Jeremy Harmer, Scott Thornbury and Jim Scrivener all have in common?  Yes, they're all white, native speakers and they're all men in a profession which is largely female, non-white and non-native speaker. But that's not what I was aiming for, no they are all TEFL "authorities", and probably for whatever reason, the most recognisable names in TEFL/applied linguistics.

This isn't a post attacking them. I happen to like all of them (though Swan is my fav!) but it's more to question the authority that is afforded to them. Harmer for example is a teacher and a teacher trainer. Is he better or more capable than any other teacher trainer? -I have no idea and I have no idea how you would even work that out. Like Thornbury, Harmer has written a very influential book which means he's certainly dedicated and driven, but is what he says any more reliable than a teacher who hasn't written a book?

I have taken a lot of useful advice from Harmer's practice of English teaching, as I'm sure many people reading this have. But I've also seen him recommend teachers test students to find out their learner styles in spite of the evidence he himself quotes against it. I've also seen him promote NLP, without a single word of criticism. though in this regard he's no different from the British Council which seems to have no problem promoting either of these things.

Thornbury scores more highly in both these areas. He's also refreshingly honest about some of ELT's more entrenched practices which have dubious credibility. But one has to wonder about Dogme, criticised, -somewhat ironically perhaps, -by Harmer here.

I like both Harmer and Thornbury's books, but neither men, as far as I can tell, are researchers. Their words should have just as much (or just as little) weight as anyone else's. Even if they were researchers and leading researchers in their field, like Rod Ellis for example, it wouldn't mean that their opinion on a given issue is necessarily the right one. For example Swan takes issue with Ellis' whole approach to language teaching, -so which expert are we to believe?


In the world of evidence based research, opinion albeit "expert" opinion ranks dead last, (and sometimes doesn't appear at all) -and for good reason. The whole purpose of research and the power behind the scientific method derives from the fact that people are often wrong, and often wrong about being wrong. The Nobel Prize winning Scientist Linus Pauling serves as an important cautionary tale:
After becoming convinced of its worth, Pauling took 3 grams of vitamin C every day to prevent colds. Excited by his own perceived results, he researched the clinical literature and published Vitamin C and the Common Cold in 1970. He began a long clinical collaboration with the British cancer surgeon Ewan Cameron in 1971 on the use of intravenous and oral vitamin C as cancer therapy for terminal patients (wikipedia)

I've highlighted a very important sentence in bold here. Pauling believed that vitamin C really really worked and thus ignored his scientific training. Other people may take this idea seriously because such a famous researcher said it. They may even use an authority figure's opinion as evidence of a point they are making, -and I have documented cases of that here. This is often called the "argument from authority" for obvious reasons.

But how does someone become an authority? Well, you need to get people to listen to you. Imagine tomorrow I announced that I would be starting a new teaching method called "langology". I laid out all the precepts and techniques and wrote a passionate call for teachers to use it. How many people would? I'm guessing the number would be zero. Yet there are others who could affect the way thousands of teachers teach, just by doing this, get books published off the back of it and even stir up controversy in the TEFL world. Yet the people who suggest new theories or give advice about best practice are really only giving you their opinions.

Of course, opinions may come in a range of probabilities depending on the claims being made, but we should never forget that they are, no matter how accurate they sound, just opinions. And as such, the opinion of say Dr. James Ascher (the Dr. appears on all the TPR stuff) that TPR is good for kinesthetic students, is exactly and entirely as valid as my saying that "langology" will not only make you fluent in any language in a matter of weeks but it will also make you more successful, handsome and probably slightly taller. And importantly should be given exactly that much weight. This is unlikely to happen though, but why?

I can't really answer that question but I would guess that it has something to do with the Halo effect.  This is what makes us think a celebrity giving us insurance advice is worth listening to or what leads to better looking students getting higher marks for an essay. Also perhaps it relates to how easily we are convinced by authority figures. Either way, it's something we should be on our guard against. The next time someone at work, round the water cooler, mentions that "Harmer is big on drilling!" or that Ellis doesn't think contrastive analysis is useful,  remember that in the absence of evidence, this is just an opinion.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Genki!


I wrote this at the start of the year and after many chats on twitter (including this one with Mike) I don't think I would stand by everything written here. particularly the idea of "proving" a method, which is perhaps something we can't do very easily, if at all. I do think though, that particular sword cuts both ways and so making claims about how effective a method is must be viewed as equally dubious.

I really hoped to get this article published somewhere but it wasn't to be. I still think its important to examine a method which is so widely used. Even if you disagree with what I've written, I think the debate itself is important. So here is my (slightly edited) take on GenkiEnglish.

This article will introduce and examine Genki English (hereafter GE), a materials supplier, and teaching methodology which is currently being used to teach English to large numbers of children in public schools throughout Asia, including Japan, China and India.  Thailand’s government, together with the British Council, has introduced GE into “every primary school in the country” (Graham a). There are now several million students around the world learning from this method.  

Genki English is both a materials supplier and  method of teaching. The site itself claims to be “a collection of games, songs and ideas for use by teachers of languages to children”(Graham b). It contains teaching materials but it also contains sample lessons, a curriculum and more importantly a specific approach to teaching.  This approach might be termed the “Genki Method” and owner and creator Richard Graham can be seen presenting his ideas on teaching on a variety of YouTube videos.

The GE Method

 None of the materials or techniques used by GE are particularly new or original.  Graham notes “Although I've given [GE] a funky name, there's nothing too new or ground breaking theory wise, it's just a collection of useful, helpful ideas and resources that work very, very well” (Graham c).   Speaking and listening, seem to be the major focus with much of the actual teaching method involving “old fashioned drilling”(Graham d) in the form of songs and games. 

The lesson plans are relatively fixed, every lesson following the same pattern and the same timing.  The pattern involves students repeating the target language in song form: 



Warm up/Review (3-5 minutes)

2. Introduction of new English (15-20 minutes), including teaching of the song. Use this 3 step approach to keep kids interest and energy levels high.


a) introduce new vocab

b) teach song a cappella with the "Mini Lesson"

c) sing together with the music,

3. Practice of new material (15-20 minutes) (Graham e)

There is also a step two, which involves projects, such as students talking about pets or food and contacting foreign students (Graham e) but this is only available to students who have completed the first step of the curriculum.

Material

The GE material is targeted at Japanese elementary school children and as such there is very little material for writing and reading practice, (MEXT prohibited the teaching of reading and writing) though there is a phonics book available. There are also songs and games included as well as cultural events like lessons about Christmas and Halloween all of which follows MEXT guidelines. (MEXT online) The ordering of items is described as purposefully "non-linear".  Some lessons are purely about learning related vocabulary, such as "fruit market" and "colours" while others are  largely grammatical such as the three lessons dealing with "where is the..." structure.  The language targets are fairly basic and do not tend to develop much beyond the present tense. However, the stated aim of the curriculum is to allow the students to say "anything they want"(e),  an ambitious claim and as past tense, future aspect and even plural nouns (among other items) are excluded, a seemingly unlikely one. 

It is also quite limited for a 6 year language course.  If the material can be mixed and matched as the website claims then it seems that students are not expected to move much beyond acquiring a very basic grasp of the language. The example six year plan by Joel Bacha, featured on the site seems to bear this out.  Graham notes that while others may see this as a weakness, he sees it as "a Challenge!  You can go anywhere you and your kids interests lie and teach things exactly to their level"(Graham g.)  This also seems in line with MEXT who suggests "Easy English conversation" as one of the aims of Elementary English (MEXT online)

As a young learner material supplier, comparison with Oxford's six level "let's go" series is interesting, as these feature much of the entire GE syllabus in the first book.  They also include plural nouns very early on (arguably useful for languages which lack these) and go on to more complex structures in the later books.  Let's go includes reading and writing, has numerous authors, with a great deal of experience teaching children, such as Ritsuko Nakata, president of the IIEEC.  It also has a reader series which complements the textbooks, flashcards and picture dictionaries. Therefore it is apparent that Japan is not lacking resources or experience regarding the teaching of children.

 Does GE Work?

Although it is perhaps unfair to criticise what is essentially a publicity website it is unavoidable as there is no other published material relating to GE.  There are quite a number of questionable claims made on the site, for example:

Simply by deciding to do the song gives you a huge advantage as it sets a goal, something the kids can work towards. A goal properly set is one half reached. It means whereas usually you could teach 3 or 4 answers to a question in one lesson, you can now do 7 or 8 (Graham d).
First is the rather odd claim that setting a goal is half way to reaching it.  Second is the claim that people usually teach three or four answers to questions in a lesson.  It is difficult to be entirely sure what this means or if Graham actually has some data pertaining to "number of answers usually taught in English lessons".  Regardless, according to Graham  a teacher can now do nearly twice as much!

A further problem with this approach is although Graham admits GE is not original, he seems to be suggesting here that introducing songs into a children's English class is innovative.  With the huge number of children's English textbooks, games, flash cards and CDs available it seems quite improbable that this really could be the key to GE's success, or even something that English teachers are not already aware of.  Moreover, the GE materials themselves are largely produced by Graham and are arguably less 'polished' than most published materials. The songs are also written and performed by Graham whereas the "let's go" series, for example includes material performed and written by Jazz Chants series author Carolyn Graham.  It is of course possible that the rough-and-ready nature of the materials are attractive to young children. I have personally used some of the CDs, with very young children, and they enjoyed them at lot.

The most serious problem though is with claims relating to the effectiveness of the method.  Graham claims the materials work "very, very well" (c) but it is not at all clear what "work" means in this sentence.  Do they, for example, work in creating an enjoyable learning environment? Or do they work in helping inexperienced teachers navigate the perils of Elementary school classes or do they actually lead to students learning English?  It is impossible to know as there is no published material relating to their effectiveness. 

Graham does address this issue on his web page noting "Of course we all know Genki English works great because we see it every time on the kids’ faces" (2009).  He continues by noting that this level of evidence is not sufficient for some, such as BOEs and head teachers (what misers!).  He then claims research has been carried out by the University of Newcastle, into the effectiveness of the approach and that the results appeared positive. Though the research is not available yet and so I can't comment on it here. More recently the GE web page carries the logo "Researched by Harvard University Graduate School of Education" though what this is supposed to signify, I'm not entirely sure.   

Graham also suggests that “although the ideas on these pages are all fun and exciting they do correlate very well with current practise and language theory” (c) but fails to indicate what language theory and practices these are. There are also no sources of research or theory quoted on the site, an admission he explains by stating “there are three basic reasons why I don't quote direct sources on the site” (c).  These are (1) that there is, according to Graham, little credible research in the field of applied linguistics but that what does exist supports GE (2), that the techniques were "tested on students", with unsuccessful ideas being abandoned  and (3) that:

A lot of the methodology behind Genki English is taken from my own experience and research of many years into various different fields, from science teaching to advertising. Much of this consisted of reading articles and books that I cannot now trace or in discussions with a great many people, most of which were never recorded (Graham c).



There may well be little solid research in language teaching. Regardless, that is not a good reason for not doing research.  It would have been useful to have links to the material referred to which supports GE, however the third point perhaps explains why these are missing. The second claim makes rather liberal use of the word test.  It also underlines a fundamental problem with  the GE approach, namely the idea that, since  it seems to work (whatever "work" means here) it works.  The reasonresearch exists is precisely because humans are notoriously good at reachingconclusions beneficial to themselves. 

As to the third, if current research is not credible it seems unlikely reading it would have helped to inform a theory. Though it seems that perhaps what was read was more eclectic and unfortunately unavailable. Graham also claims that "English stands up to any educational scrutiny"(Graham f) though again it is tempting to wonder, with the supposed paucity of research, what exactly this is supposed to mean. It is also questionable as to whether a claim like this, made by the creator of a method and with no empirical peer reviewed studies to back it up, can be taken seriously.

In a different section Graham claims that speaking and listening are focused on because "There's no point starting reading or writing till the kids can actually talk in English" and that "I'm sure you've all seen what happens when things are done the opposite way round"(Graham e).  This is a point made with some conviction and it would be interesting to know how this conclusions was reached and what the dire consequences of starting the wrong way round are.  Could a teacher not start all of the skills at the same time?  In the same section Graham suggests that speaking is the "biggest challenge" for almost "every country in the world" which again, seems like a rather definitive claim to make in the absence of any supporting evidence. Speaking from personal experience, certainly among Arab students the reverse is quite often true.

The Reason GE Exists

GE can perhaps be seen as a product of poor language policy at the governmental level. Routinely ALTs with no teaching experience have been and continue to be instructed to teach English in Japanese Elementary schools with little guidance as to what to teach and how to teach it.  On the GE website Graham notes, in the "what are we supposed to be teaching in Japanese elementary schools" section, that "Nobody has really decided" (Graham g) and adds that the website was originally set up precisely because he had encountered this problem. It should be noted that Graham was not a language specialist tasked with creating a syllabus for the whole of Japan but rather a young ALT with no language teaching experience. It is somewhat depressing to realise that this was over 10 years ago and the situation in Japan has not improved since then. 

The lack of a clear syllabus in GE as noted above is reflected in the complete lack of a syllabus in the MEXT guidelines. Therefore any criticism of GE should be seen in the light of this fact.  However, despite the usefulness of GE for ALTs who find themselves in the situation described above, the appropriateness of the introduction of this approach into different contexts, such as state run schools in Thailand in conjunction with the British Council has to be wondered about.   

The Thai Connection

To his credit, Graham donated materials to the Thai MOE, through the British Council. The British council in Thailand chose to approach him on the basis that there was a "strong positive response from learners and teachers", not because they had any evidence that these methods worked or were suitable to the particular context  (Budsaprapat, T personal communication 13 August 2009 and 27 August 2009).The British Council has gone on to license the use of GE in 15 of its teaching centres worldwide, giving an untested and limited method considerable legitimacy.

Conclusion

There is arguably a gap between what committed EFL professionals would like the EFL world to be like and what it actually is like. It seems counterintuitive that a method, like GE, created by one young teacher trying to survive elementary school English classes, supported by little evidence of efficacy, and employing largely homemade materials should become the choice teaching method of millions of teachers around the world even being adopted by governments and institutions such as the British Council.  This is perhaps a reflection on the EFL world as a whole. Is a method that suggests children's English lessons be energetic and enjoyable really a revolutionary concept for English teachers?

I personally believe that GE is, at its core well intention and enjoyable for teachers and students.  However, I would like to think that methods exist and are used because of their merits and not merely because children seem to enjoy doing them. Language education should absolutely be enjoyable for students but that is not enough.  Students pay to learn and so should be taught with the best methods and materials available. I congratulate the entrepreneurial spirit of GE but am somewhat alarmed by its growth and acceptance. GE may make children and teachers feel good but is that enough?

references

Graham. R, (n.d.a). British Council press release: Genki English now part of Thailands official teaching materials . In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/teaching/british-council-press-release-genki-english-now-part-of-thailands-official-teaching-materials.

Graham. R, (n.d.b). What is "Genki English.com"?  In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/about.htm

Graham. R, (n.d.c). The History of the Genki English methodology. part 1 . In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/theory.htm

Graham. R, (n.d.d). How to teach Genki English Songs -> Games -> Projects. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/songsgamesprojects.htm

Graham. R, (n.d.e). GenkiEnglish.com Curriculum /Lesson Plans. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/curriculum.htm

Graham. R, (n.d.f). PHDs. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/teaching/phds

Graham. R, (n.d.g). what are we supposed to be teaching in Japanese elementary schools In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/whatteach.htm

Graham. R, (2009) Academic Research: Genki English really, really works.  In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/teaching/academic-research-genki-english-really-really-works

MEXT(n.d.) 小学校における英語教育についてin文部科学省 Retrieved May 7 2012, from
http://www.mext.go.jp/b_menu/shingi/chukyo/chukyo3/004/siryo/05080401/004_2.htm

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Monday, 3 December 2012

When nothing is better than something

 
 
Dr. Duncan MacDougall found that after humans die their weight changes by exactly 21 grams. He carried out his research on terminal patients and weighed them before and after death. He also carried out the same tests on dogs and found no weight change. No one can explain this strange phenomenon and the religiously minded as well as the New York Times wasted no time attributing it to the weight of the human soul.

An incredible and disturbing finding, were it true. 

Which it isn't. 

 
While it's completely true that what this experiment was carried out and that those were its findings, it's equally true that it was a naff experiment. It's easy to think any research is better than no research but bad research is often pretty useless; it tells us nothing and worse, sometimes it can even be dangerous. Dr. MacDdougall's experiments were conducted on 6 people which is a horribly small number to warrant such extravagant claims. And that's not all, quoting here from the blog "rationally speaking" the research had a number of other problems:

Not only was the experiment never repeated (by either MaDougall or anyone else), but his own notes (published in American Medicine in March 1907) show that of the six data points, two had to be discarded as “of no value”; two recorded a weight drop, followed by additional losses later on (was the soul leaving bit by bit?); one showed a reversal of the loss, then another loss (the soul couldn't make up its mind, leaving, re-entering, then leaving for good); and only one case actually constitutes the basis of the legendary estimate of ¾ of an ounce. With data like these, it's a miracle the paper got published in the first place.

Second, as was pointed out immediately by Dr. Augustus P. Clarke in a rebuttal also published in American Medicine, MacDougall failed to consider another obvious hypothesis: that the weight loss (assuming it was real) was due to evaporation caused by the sudden rise in body temperature that occurs when the blood circulation stops and the blood can no longer be air-cooled by the lungs. This also elegantly explains why the dogs showed no weight loss: as is well known, they cool themselves by panting, not sweating like humans do.

Ah, you may say, this was a long time ago before we had proper research. Well, while it's true that scientific techniques improve all the time, research now, like research then is carried out by humans. So could a badly designed study get newspaper headlines these days? Over to Andrew Wakefield who 'discovered' a link between vaccinations and autism, research which led to, and continues to lead to parents not vaccinating their kids and thus the return of previously controlled diseases, such as mumps and measles as well as occasional deaths. Wakefield, who was eventually struck off the medical register, conducted his research on exactly 12 children so, twice as many as MacDougall's study.  This didn't stop theDaily Mail and other papers creating huge panic with this information.
 
Now small studies are not always problematic, but newspapers tend to have an undue influence on what people think and a story which might not get much (or any) attention in academia because of problems, such as its sample size, could have considerable influence if published in a newspaper. I wrote here about Memrise the amazing new technology which mean you can learn a new language in only 22 hours (disclaimer, for "language" read "some words" , for "22 hours" read "three months" and for "amazing new technology" read "flashcards and mnemonics"). Memrise is a good example of how the media can create excitement about something that really isn't all that exciting
 
Recently there was a TEFL article in the guardian making the claim that the "argument was over, the facts were in" and that explicit grammar teaching was a must for EFL. Catherine Walker's bold claims were marred by a couple of issues. Firstly the article wasn't in a peer reviewed journal, it was in the Guardian (though even journals can get it wrong, and do, regularly, and spectacularly) and journalists are not experts and are therefore much more likely to let things slide that academics would probably pick up. Being a newspaper Walker didn't have to provide any evidence for her claims, but when prodded by commentators listed the following:

Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega. 2000. Effectiveness of L2 instruction: a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis. Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.
Gass, S. & L. Selinker. 2008. Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition). New York: Routledge/Taylor.
Spada, N. & Y. Tomita. 2010. Interactions between type of instruction and type of
language feature: a meta-analysis. Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.
Spada, N. & P. M. Lightbown. 2008. Form-focused instruction: isolated or integrated?
TESOL Quarterly 42: 181-207.

To be fair to Walker, meta-analysis are the creme de la creme of research and are positioned at the very top of of the hierarchy of evidence pyramid. However there are still some problems with the piece. The first flaw is that the headline for the article is misleading. Articles from 2010, 2008 and 2000 can't be run in 2012 with the headline "the evidence is finally in", without stretching the "finally" beyond recognition. Secondly the headline makes the claim that evidence shows that grammar teaching is effective, yet later in the article this is watered down to:
 


However, evidence trumps argument, and the evidence is now in. Rigorously conducted meta-analyses of a wide range of studies have shown that, within a generally communicative approach, explicit teaching of grammar rules leads to better learning and to unconscious knowledge, and this knowledge lasts over time.

That is, if you are using the Communicative Approach, it is better to have grammar taught explicitly. So this is not so much a debate about the value of grammar teaching but a debate about the value of teaching grammar explicitly within a certain method. The title of the article may have had us all rushing back to the oft mocked (but pretty widely used) Grrammar Translation method.  Another possible problem is the conflict of interests. Walker has a written a number of grammar textbooks and while this doesn't mean she's wrong, the possibility of bias is there; "shock! grammar teacher claims teaching grammar works!". 
 

So language articles are often annoying because they get tweeted and retweeted when the findings may be problematic or in some cases nonexistent, like a story doing the rounds  at the moment. Apparently, English is not a Germanic language but a Scandinavian one. For years linguistics have been wrong and this new research shows conclusively that English comes from Scandinavian not from Old English. Except it doesn't because, as far as I can discover, there is no research. Yes, there are researchers and yes there are news articles and yes there is even some evidence of conference talks but I can't seem to find a paper published in a major peer-reviewed journal (please someone link to it if you can find it).

Now, I'm out of my depth with the argument as to whether English is or isn't a Scandinavian language perhaps it really is but what I can say is that a massive claim like this, if correct, would make the careers of both the authors. I can also safely state that a claim which has such large potential, needs a equally large amount of evidence to back it up. To use the Sagan Standard "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Judging by the comments on some of the blogs that have reported this, I'm going to tentatively suggest that that evidence will not be forthcoming.

  
The king of getting media attention with little research is of course, Chomsky. Slayer of the evil behaviorists, discoverer of the mysterious UG, Noam wins the prize by virtue of having done exactly 0 research to test his theories. His ideas, which have held sway over linguistics for 60 years, were thought up by him, and then left for others to argue about.  People who actually took the trouble to look into and test Chomsky's claims found him to be wrong, wrong and more wrong.*  Geoffry Sampson writes:
Hang on a minute,’ I hear the reader say. ‘You seem to be telling us that this man [Chomsky] who is by common consent the world’s leading living intellectual, according to Cambridge University a second Plato, is basing his radical reassessment of human nature largely on the claim that a certain thing never happens; he tells us that it strains his credulity to think that this might happen, but he has never looked, and people who have looked find that it happens a lot.’

Yes, that’s about the size of it. Funny old world, isn’t it! (2005:47)


References

Sampson, Geoffrey. 2005. The Language Instinct Debate. London & New York: Continuum


*I'm really really out of my depth on Chomsky but if someone wants to come and put me right I'll be happy to listen.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Fantastic Dr. Fox

In mathematical terms, Derrida's observation relates to the invariance of the Einstein field equation tex2html_wrap_inline1393 under nonlinear space-time diffeomorphisms (self-mappings of the space-time manifold which are infinitely differentiable but not necessarily analytic). The key point is that this invariance group ``acts transitively'': this means that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed; the tex2html_wrap_inline1395 of Euclid and the G of Newton, formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity; and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point that can no longer be defined by geometry alone


What you just read is complete and utter unadulterated nonsense.

But it's important nonsense.
 

Gobbledgook


The quote is from a published paper called "transgressing the boundaries" by a physics professor at New York University called Alan Sokal. Sokal had a theory that much of what was published in literature journals at the time as post-modernism was nothing more than meaningless pseudo-babble and he decided to test that theory. The essay was submitted to the journal "social text" and was published. Later Sokal admitted that the whole thing was a parody. This became known as the Sokal affair. The fact that what was essentially meaningless rubbish was published in a prestigious journal is the central theme of this post.

So ask yourself this question; would you be able to see through complex sounding hogwash if you saw it?

The answer is most likely "no".

As Ben Goldacre notes here, the use of complex terms and irrelevant but scientific sounding information tends to make it harder for non-experts to spot poppycock. This is a worrying finding for the field of TEFL in which teachers with very little training may have trouble distinguishing legitimate but complex descriptions of linguistic and mental phenomena (inverted pseudo-cleft sentences, lexical priming and voiced alveolar fricatives) from equally impressive sounding balderdash.
 
Jargon can often mislead people and  "blinding with science" really is a thing. In the same way that putting on a white coat, a suit or a uniform gives someone an air of authority, big words and fancy terms can cow critics and help to convince others of the legitimacy of an idea. So can "dressing up" daft ideas in TEFL help to give them more credibility?  Here's a quote from the Neuro-linguistic programing TEFL representatives Revell and Norman:
 

The Meta Model in NLP defines and challenges linguistic imprecision. It consists of a list of different kinds of distortions, deletions and generalisations (often called Meta Model violations) and a parallel list of suggestions for challenging them (= Challenges) The Meta Model is too large to be described here in its entirety...but we can start with prt of it known as the precision model. (English teaching professional)

 
NLP writers are not the only ones guilty of this. Swan in a piece criticising the directions of EFL, notes that at IATEFL the array of complex sounding presentations is a worrying phenomena which might be discouraging for new teachers and notes here that the balance between language teaching and those things which are peripheral to it seems somewhat off. In another article he charts the rise of this kind of terminology, which he describes as "impenetrable", during his days as a young teacher and adds that after grappling with these ideas he came to the conclusion that "If I couldn't understand a professional book, perhaps it wasn't my fault after all." 

 

Dr Fox



And it's not just laypeople who can be fooled. In the 1970s an actor was paid to pretend to be an academic; the impressive sounding Dr. Fox. He gave a completely meaningless lecture on the made-up subject of "mathematical game theory as applied to physician education" to a group of psychologists, therapists and educators. He practised the speech the night before and despite this, comes across as sounding very authoritative and crammed his speech full of intellectual sounding nonsense. The experiment was carried out three times and each time he was rated as being stimulating and those in the audience felt that they had learnt something from the lecture. I think that this is a cautionary piece of research for those of us in the TEFL world especially when watching conference speeches
 
 


Pluralistic ignorance.



One more factor which might stop you pointing out how awfully nude the king looks is pluralistic ignorance. Basically this is the situation whereby everyone secretly knows something is fishy, but they think everyone else is a believer and so are reluctant to stick their neck out and be the one to invite derision. Last year I was going to give a short presentation skeptically tackling reading skills and learning styles at a small EAP conference in the East Midlands. I ended up getting cold feet the day before and backing out. I had a horrible feeling that the room would fill with an embarrassed silence, my peers whispering "how did this guy ever get a job teaching EAP!?" I do regret that now because as the people who follow this website have shown me, I'm not the only one who thinks there are some dodgy ideas floating around out there.

I think we need to be less afraid to criticise sacred cows, common sense and received wisdom of EFL and education in general, it's very healthy for the industry as a whole. Science uses complex terminology because it talks about very complex ideas. Calling a negative thought a "meta model violation" doesn't, to my mind, move us any further forward and is just so much cargo cult science. We have no reason to try to outdo scientists or throw around impressive sounding words, -as English language teachers surely we should be skilled at, and proud of making things as accessible as possible. We need to be on guard against this kind of language, as "Tom" at Englishdroid writes:

superficially impressive jargon, when it’s not obscuring the bloody obvious is all too often obscuring the bloody ridiculous or at best highly questionable. Against such a background, is it any wonder that so many dangerously irrational and anti-scientific ideas flourish