The least worst solution

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

Scott Thornbury usually comes off quite well on EBEFL. He writes (somewhat) criticially about things like learning styles, reading skills and NLP. However there is one quote of his which bothers me. When writing about the image problem TEFL suffers from in “the unbearable lightness of EFL” he divides the world into the bare foot, ‘sandals and candles’ type of EFLer and the more academic type. He rejects both and offers us a “third way”.

When Clemente wrote to ELTJ to criticise his article he shot back with another article in which he wrote, “the fact is that ELT is at risk of being hi-jacked by men in white coats”. But who just who are these ‘men in white coats’?

Thornbury is propagating the “mad scientist” myth common to much pseudo-science writing. Rather than a person we have a uniformed symbol of something sinister. Shadowy, sinister  ‘experts’ are putting mind control drugs in vaccines. Fluoride will give you cancer (if you believe this kind of thing, this is probably the wrong blog for you.) but Thornbury doesn’t ever explain why EFL researchers would necessarily be male, nor why applied linguists would need white coats.  

Historically and unfortunately there has always been an odd artificial divide between the TEFL world and the applied linguistics world. There is a notion that researchers are off writing books and know nothing about the hard-realities of classroom life, the ‘chalk-face’, of ELT when they come out with their high-faulting theories on language acquisition. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

the vast majority of lecturers and researchers started life as teachers and most continue to teach. My dissertation tutor Julie Norton worked in France teaching business English and Japan. another of my tutors, Glenn Fulcher, taught in Greece for years. Sure these people went on to publish and become lecturers but PHDs don’t cause amnesia, -do they?
who are the white coat brigade?

but there is, it seems, not only antipathy towards researchers but also at times an  antipathy towards research. A large number of teachers not only seem to distrust research, but consider personal experience to be far superior. Now, in the absence of evidence then experience is perhaps our only guide, but is it right to spurn research in favour of experience?

Evidence comes in varying degrees of reliability and so it needs to be looked at carefully. a study of 5 students over 1 week is going to yield less useful results than a study of 400 students over years. However if we think “the only thing that matters is experience” then we find ourselves with a number of problems.
If you accept this argument then you basically give up the right to discuss anything. Or rather, discussing anything becomes pointless because the teacher with the most experience will de facto be the ‘rightest’, regardless of his/her opinion. If another person’s equally long experience differs to yours then who is right? . This isn’t education, or critical thinking, it’s just demanding acquiescence.

The “I have more experience than you” card, is basically a variant of the argument from authority. As such, all teachers would have to demur to older, more experienced teachers, regardless of how crap they might be. It is not an unfair position, in my opinion, that if someone has been teaching crap lessons for 30 years, this should count against, rather than in favour of them. Of course, we wouldn’t know the lessons were crap because the experienced teacher would say that “in their experience” the lessons were great, and that would be the end of that.
Experience absolutely should not be discounted and it is often a vital tool in checking the validity of an idea. For example, I learnt a foreign language pretty fluently, as an adult, without ever knowing what kind of learning style I had, and this experience made me sceptical of the claims being made about learning styles (though it doesn’t mean I was right, mind!) But this idea that experience is a reliable measure of something is a deeply flawed concept that can easily be shown to be wrong. At this moment in time we know there are teachers, good teachers, all over the world teaching using different and contradictory methods who are convinced, by what they see every day, that their chosen method really is working. Their ‘experience’ is telling them that their method is effective. Often though, these approaches contradict each other, textbook -no textbook, grammar -no grammar, correction, -no correction, simply put they can’t all be right. 

At this point we may be tempted to turn to relativistic platitudes. We often hear that “it all depends on context” and to an extent that’s true. Things we do in a kid’s classroom will differ to an EAP setting. But this also opens us up to an uncritical free-for-all and we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all of our students are humans, using the same biological material (their ears, their eyes, their brains) to try to learn. Some things will work everywhere and others will work nowhere. Research can show us this and call me an old cynic but when I get sick and am admitted to hospital, I’ll take ‘tried and tested’ medicine from men (or women) in white coats, than something the local witch doctor knows, from his long-experience, is super effective.

Tim Harford, writing about Ben Goldacre’s recent push for evidence-based teaching, notes:

“Trust me, I’m a doctor” was never an excuse for not collecting evidence. And “trust me, I’m a teacher” is not an excuse today. But being a teacher is a superb vantage point for building an evidence-based education system. It is an opportunity that teachers need to seize

I would hate to think the antipathy towards research and the caricaturing of researchers is an attempt to retain authoritative power. Evidence, like democracy, might not be a panacea but it’s better than the other options.

The council of woo

The Council’ likes to promote itself as a rigorous and serious organisation, doing very serious testing and accreditation, but it can be quite partial to the odd bit of ‘woo’.  For example in order to get a CELTA trainees have to be well versed in “learning styles”. This predilection for a bit of magical thinking is most evident on its web page. 

Their article on NLP is littered with embarrassing factoids about my favourite TEFL pseudo-science. The article starts by telling us that NLP has “its roots in psychology and neurology” which is slightly misleading as its creators were studying maths and linguistics at the time. It has nothing to do with neurology and has been soundly rejected by psychology which classes it as a pseudo-science. Not to fear though, ever the great shape-shifter NLP has found a good home in management and education –two rich breeding grounds for ‘woo’.

Writer Steve Darn goes on to tell us that NLP is “about the way the brain works” (which it most certainly isn’t) and that it can help to train the brain (which it can’t because it doesn’t work). Next he tells us it “is related to ‘left / right brain’ functions” (also known as the “left brain right brain myth) and that it shares something with….yes you guessed it “learning styles, multiple intelligence and other areas of research”! BINGO!

Hang on a sec though; let’s look at that last sentence again. “Learning styles, multiple intelligence and other areas of research”…one of these three is not the same; one of these three is different. Ah yes, research. Because research is where you have a theory and then you test it, which is the opposite of what learning styles and multiple intelligences do. They tend to subscribe to the “have a theory and then sell loads of books” method.

Darn then notes “NLP and related subjects have their sceptics, particularly in terms of general classroom applicability and how NLP is commercially marketed as a method of self-improvement.” and as a creepy method of mind control?
“NLP has been labelled a ‘quasi science’ and criticised on the grounds of lack of empirical studies” That’s the spirit Steve, -don’t spoil it now…

“but there are sound reasons why NLP is compatible with current classroom practice”

This is what I like to call the ‘nod to scepticism’. You list as load of criticism and details as to why something has been rejected by science and then with a wave of your hand you dismiss all those problems. Fantastic! Perhaps we can try this when we teach?

“Well this essay has numerous grammar problems, it’s half plagiarised, it’s not related to the topic and is 100 words too short. –but don’t worry about that stuff, this essay is compatible with an A grade.”


I could go on and on about NLP but to be honest I can’t be bothered. The true believers will just retire to their familiar “well I know it works, I saw it with my eyes.” If you’re at all curious, don’t believe me, I advise you to go and check the literature. See if you can find any credible sources recommending NLP be taken seriously for anything.

If you can then you’ve done more than I managed in months of research. In short NLP either works and our knowledge of how the human brain works and how human languages evolved is wrong, or (and the safe money is here) teachers are signing up for expensive courses and wasting students’ (valuable) time with something which has the same credibility as Ouija boards and tarot cards.

Live by the sword…

Ranting about the lack of precision in language is one thing and quite a popular thing too, but being able to weed out all the imprecision in your own speech is another. I love “the skeptics guide to the universe” and James Randi, with his million dollar prize. I’m trying to listen to their entire back catalogue of podcasts (over 8 years worth) and enjoying it greatly.

The only thing that bothers me is that at times they can be quite prescriptive about language use. This doesn’t seem fitting for sceptics, -but at the same time, its hardly surprising for me to see scientists muscle in on linguists’ territory.

Anyway, episode 181 features a section with James Randi complaining about imprecision in language use; redundant’ phrases like “unfortunate tragedy”, “rich millionaires” and a “deadly fatality”. Fine, go ahead and complain about this stuff, but if you are going to complain Randi, then in the very next breath, don’t say something like this:

[interviewees] begin every single response with the phrase “well…”

Hold on, every single? As a oppose to what? Surely if you want to remove redundancy this should be “every response”. Randi has shown here that it’s a lot easier to pick at things you don’t like than to actually remove all of the supposed imperfections from your speech. If you’re going to criticize language use you’d better make sure yours is perfect. Five seconds before he makes this ‘blunder’ Randi says:

I understand that this is only an expression but it’s a careless one.

And here’s another expression “live by the sword, die by the sword.”

Lessons in the bleeding obvious

I’m not allowed to go to IATEFL. 😦

Big department, quite a few people speaking and so sadly I will be manning the fort.

So don’t be surprised if the tone of this post is tinged with bitterness, jealousy and impotent rage.


The “appeal to the masses” fallacy, also called the argument from popularity states that just because something is popular or widely used we should consider it valid, after all, everyone can’t be wrong, can they?

In order to become popular you usually need to appeal to a lot of people which means being accessible and bland enough to not really offend anyone. All of which brings me to one of my most hated things, Study Skills. Now this may seem to have nothing to down with TEFL but anyone working in Universities, particularly teaching EAP or in-sessional classes has probably come across at least some study skills work. There is even a new book out targeting international postgraduates.

I’m currently reading the insanely popular study skills handbook by Stella Cottrell. A lot of teachers love this book and it’s piled high in our university bookshop. They’ve even recently released a Chinese language version (presumably to squeeze a few more drops from the UK’s current cash cow). The book has excellent reviews on Amazon (4.5 stars from over 100 reviews) is in its third edition, has sold over 500,000 copies. I hate this book. 
Allow me to explain:

It’s very very long

350 pages long to be precise. So before you can start reading your course books or writing your essays, you need to get through 350 pages learning how to read your coursebooks and how to write your essays. As reviewer ABZ notes on Amazon:

I think this book is rather pointless, You would be better studying your work in the time it takes you to read it

Of course, it’s a handbook so you don’t need to read it all, but some of it really seems excessive, and of the order of In order to read, first make sure you have eyes…’ Very useful.

Although no doubt containing some useful information, it’s also crammed full of incredibly obvious things written about in great detail. For £12 you too can learn  useful life lessons like:

IT enables you to store large files of information on CD or a memory stick
Abbreviations save time
If you have too much [information] you will need to leave some out
You need to research less, read less, note less, and write less for a 1,500 word essay than for a 3,000 word essay.

and my favourite

An essay is a piece of writing which is written to a set of writing conventions

There is even a six point guide to “searching on the web” including “type your chosen keyword into the search field” and “press the enter key”.  In the words of one Amazon reviewer:

It is filled with common sense extensively padded out by hollow psychobabble gibberish about personal development. Essentially, making good notes is good, revising is good; you don’t need this patronising text to realise this and be a good student.

The almost endless self-assessment tick boxes are also hugely irritating. You tick the boxes and then what? Whenever we did this kind of development in school; you tick these boxes “I’m good at X” and “I need to work on X” then your teacher reads it and says “oh, you need to work X” and you say “yes”, then this is all filed into your PDP folder until next year when you have to do it all again.


For someone who has written a book on critical thinking Cottrell drops some huge clangers. She encourages readers to find their learner style, she promotes the thoroughly discredited left brain/right brain myth encouraging students to use their “whole brain” (as if they had a choice) when studying, she promotes NLP (88), she claims drinking 8 glasses of water helps study and she repeats the myth that Einstein wasn’t good in school. Maybe these are only small things but shouldn’t an educator get these kinds of things right? This is the third edition after all. As one academic writes about the importance of evaluating evidence “check the source of your information” (Cottrell 2008:280)

One size fits all

Another worry I have with the book is the idea that doing X is a good way to study and only that will bring success, other approaches don’t work or should be avoided. An example of this is the section on reading (118) that advises students to read “with a relaxed upright posture” and “with the light from behind, sufficient to light the page but without glare”. another section advises “good note taking strategy” for three pages. Can’t students decide for themselves when and where to read and how to take notes? Is there really a right way to do this? We seem happy to make allowances for supposed “right-brain logical visual”  learners, can’t we also make room for “reading all your course books in bed” learners, like me?

Concern with the periphery

It’s hard to be too critical of study skills, and it feels a bit mean. I’m sure there’s a lot that’s good in this book and in teaching people to learn but there is a limit to this and there is a danger with taking it too far. Like strategies and reading skills, learning skills are compensatory strategies not a replacement for language teaching. In the same way that you can’t scan and skim your way to understanding a text, if you don’t have enough language all the skills in the world won’t help you.

In an excellent article called “we do need methods” Swan talks about the “expanding periphery” of TEFL noting:

It seems clear that there is a real and substantial swing towards a concern with matters that are ancillary or peripheral to language teaching itself. These include learner characteristics and perceptions, societal needs, cultural contexts and personal development. (2012:169)

He goes on to suggest that a balance needs to be struck between ancillary concerns and the things they are ancillary to, namely, teaching. In the same way that teaching a man to fish will be more useful than giving him a fish, learner training and study skills can be useful, but there must be a balance between skills and language. What we don’t want is the fisherman spending three months in fishing college learning fishing skills from “the fishing handbook” and subsequently starving to death.

Enjoy IATEFL! 

Intercultural Language Activities: book review

This originally appeared in IATEFL lit sig
Culture is always a tricky area to delve into with students.  In fact many textbook writers are so cautious about getting stuck in the mire of culturally awkward topics that PARSNIP (short for no politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms or pork) exists to guard against it.  John Corbett’s book attempts to break the PARSNIP or at least bend it to some extent. It also provides teachers with tools and materials to promote intercultural language teaching which can be seen as focusing on more than merely the nuts and bolts of the language. 
Like other Cambridge handbooks the book is easy to dip-into in order to supplement courses and lessons.  It is thematically organised into fourteen sections and clearly laid out with a boxes detailing the content and focus of each activity.  There is also an introduction to each section highlighting the aims and hoped outcomes of the activities.  The book also comes with a CD-ROM containing printable versions of the activities.   The CD  ROM material is great.  Having instantly available worksheets that can be printed out is really useful.  It would have been even nicer if Word rather than PDF had been used and thus the materials were adaptable.   The material is not locked though and so can be copied onto a Word document this does however often cause the formatting to disappear.
There are many useful activities in this book and I think most teachers, particularly those in multi-lingual classrooms would find something useful.  The early section dealing with setting up an online community comes in for special praise.  I have tried several times with varying success to do this and Corbett’s book has very interesting ideas for improving the process.  I am quite keen to try some of these out.  There is also a section on using the British corpus for teaching.  I hadn’t been aware of this site previously and used this instead which doesn’t provide such detailed results.   Most importantly the activities are quite often light hearted and fun. 
There is a tension however, at the heart of this book.  Two of the largest influences on a culture are its politics and religion and as the adage suggests, they should be avoided in polite company.  The book seems to come unstuck at this juncture as the author realises the importance of these topics but at the same time, and for practical reasons, knows that these areas are best avoided as discussions about religion and politics which start with comparison may quickly lead to evaluation.   The result is a section on controversial topics with the controversy largely removed.  The section on politics (216) for example has an activity in which students look at a politician’s body language (219) ; the stated aim being “persuasion and body language”. Like other activities in these sections, the controversy is tangentially present, -a sheep in wolf’s clothing.
As mentioned in the introduction the book is anti-parsnip and this is both its strength and its weakness.  PARSNIP is not used by overly-cautious publishers who enjoy producing anodyne course books but is adhered to out of strict necessity and business sense.  Students don’t like to feel uncomfortable in classrooms and won’t want to use books which produce this effect.  Cambridge, the publisher of Corbett’s book, know this and so the references P and R that appear in the book are first diluted and then swaddled in protective warnings which appear throughout these two sections, -even at one point advising teachers to get written permission to try certain lessons in certain contexts. (227)  It is impossible not to have sympathy with any author writing in this area though, -the interesting stuff, the things not to be mentioned at dinner tables which shock, excite and disgust us about other cultures are included at an inversely proportional rate to number of people willing to buy and use the book.   
There are also certain elements to the book which were confusing, for example, it wasn’t clear if the author wanted students to evaluate each other’s cultures or just learn about them without comment.  This confusion stems from the stated aim of the book as a place for “observation, description and evaluation of different cultures” (1) which seems to contradict a latter claim that the debates should “ideally be characterised by principles of empathy and respect for others”. (5)  This seems somewhat problematic as evaluation and respect may be incompatible at times.  Corbett himself touches on this problem when he notes:
Multiculturalism has been criticised for going too far the other way by treating all cultural values as equally acceptable, and therefore, for example, tolerating oppressive practices against women or minority groups.(5)
So whether students should critically evaluate unpleasant, racist, sexist and homophobic views or be respectful about them and find learning about them “mutually enriching” (5) is not clear.   The Intercultural classroom supposedly will help to promote “genuine understanding and respect.” (5) The problem being, that where polar opposite views exist mutual respect probably cannot.
The author does suggest that these activities should not lead to “uncritical acceptance of the values and beliefs of others” (6) however the message is slightly undermined by the material.  The notion that students don’t have to accept other cultural norms and the usefulness of debate is somewhat contradicted by the lengths the book goes to avoid debating sensitive issues and causing offence.   The treatment of women and minority groups are not one of the issues dealt with in the book. 
It is possibly because a large number of my students come from Saudi Arabia, China, Taiwan and Kurdish Iraq that I am aware of just how contentious even seemingly straight forward issues can be.  Including “Taiwan” in a list where other countries are mentioned (71 & 30) might even be enough to scupper an activity before it began.  Seemingly uncontroversial topics like “your national dish” (199) might again cause problems for Taiwanese students and even arguments among Kurdish and Turkish students.   Another potential problem is that, it is hard to see how useful this book would be in a monolingual classroom.  Exploring other’s cultures only works as long as there are enough cultures to explore.      
One criticism levelled at learner centred teaching is the idea that whereas before the teacher was ordering students to listen to him, now he’s ordering them to listen to each other.   The same could be said of intercultural communication.  Rather than forcing students to conform to NS norms and imagined norms of particular NS cultural context we may be forcing them to conform to ELF and to “respect” other cultures, whether they want to or not.  Corbett sees intercultural learning as a possible “substitutes” (1) for the target of native speaker norms though it is not at all clear whether non-native speaker students coming to the UK or the US wouldn’t really rather learn about the cultures of the country they chose to go to.  Another problem with the presentation of intercultural learning as an alternative to native speaker norms is that it seems even less of a tangible thing to teach. 
In short, as a resource it is a fun book that could be used in many class rooms to great effect and that has a large number of useful activities that have not appeared in other publications.  As an argument for making intercultural learning the focus of EFL education it was less appealing.