Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Review of ELT podcasts

2014 was a great year for EFL podcasts with several sprouting up like veritable fungi. I'm a huge fan of podcasts and think they can be a great way of learning while doing other stuff. So what TEFL podcasts are there and more importantly are they any good? 

1. TEFLology 
TEFLology is 45 mins, fortnightly podcast. The three guys who host it are, I think, lecturers in Japanese universities, which perhaps gives the podcast more of a slant towards applied linguistics, over TEFL topics. The very early episodes were quite unpolished, and there are still moment where the conversation just seems to fade out into  'yeah...mmm....right' kind of moments but they seem to be getting better at editing these out. The Podcasts is usually divided into a 'TEFL pioneers' section, TEFL news and a more general discussion of some ELT topic like DuoLingo, linguistic imperialism or TPR. Overall The podcast is well-researched and well worth a listen. In fact the level of research they seem to put into the episodes does make me fear they will burn themselves out. The podcast has recently had an impressive list of guests such as Nina spada, Widdowson and even an 'explicit' interview with Rod Ellis. It's also worth listening to for the 'home-made' jingle at the start. 

This podcast is almost the complete opposite to TEFLology. It's ESL focused rather than EFL and is hosted by two Americans,  Jean Dempsey and Stephanie Axe who I think are adjunct professors (?) at a US university. They have had a number of interesting episodes on things like 'What's the last P in parsnip' and  recap of goings on at the TESOL conference. I find this podcast interesting because I feel I get very little exposure to US TEFL culture and ideas. Obviously ELT is big over there too and I know their system is somewhat different to the UK, but I'm not entirely sure how. That said, in a number of episodes they have talked at length about catering for student learning styles and then were quite positive about prescriptive grammar, -my two pet hates.  Consequently I wrote a rather negative review of them. Since that there hasn't been another episode. I hope the two events are not related. They have reassured me they will be back in the New Year, so here's hoping. 

I thought kKCL was a pretty good podcast, with fairly high production values and a nice style. Their fifth episode was on the topic of learning styles. Guest Marjorie Rosenberg, discussed her new book with host Phil Keegan. I thought this particular episode was a good illustration of the problems with learning styles and so I wrote about it here. Unfortunately the podcast seems to have stopped after this. I hope the two events were not related. The curse of EBEFL? I hope not. Will 2015 see a reappearance of KKCL? Only time will tell.  

This podcast is the brand spanking new kid on the block. With only 3 episodes so far it may not seem worth reviewing but host Andrew Bailey has already managed to bag interviews with Scott thornbury and Ahmar Mahboob.And if that weren't enough he also got a guest anecdote from none other than the Master of TESOL himself, Mike Griffin.I f you've heard the 'freakanomics' podcast, you may feel this has a similar vibe.  This podcast is new so it's hard to say how it'll turn out but it's compact and slick and I've got this on my 'one to watch' list. It certainly has a lot of potential. 

Last but not least is ELTchat, the companion to the twitter #ELTchat. I have to include this because James Taylor would kill me if I left it out. This is a great podcast which includes well known, tweeters and bloggers like Vicky Loras, Tony Gurr and Marisa Constantinides. However so far it has only had about 12 episodes over four years and has only had one episodes in the last year (2014) which makes me wonder if perhaps it isn't in need of a bit of love and attention? James? 

Hopes for 2015
I hope some of the podcasts mentioned here are produced a bit more regularly. It'd also be great to see a podcast offering actual advice for teachers about jobs, something like "guide to teaching in..." and each week the country would be different. It'd also be nice if podcasts included more NNS as hosts and if we saw more women hosts as well.

Did I get anything wrong here? Anything I need to add? Did I miss out any podcasts you think are great? Let me know in the comments. 

Part 2 here

Monday, 23 November 2015

Review of ELT podcasts part 2

In my previous review of podcasts I wrote "2014 was a great year for EFL podcasts with several sprouting up like veritable fungi". Well not only had I missed some, but also more soon sprouted up like...more fungi?

1. Lives of teachers

When I first wrote about podcasts Darren Elliott commented that I'd left his podcast out. I had! I was shocked to discover a TEFL podcast that had existed since 2010 and which started with an interview of Paul Nation as it's first episode! Elliott has interviewed EFL luminaries like Mike Swan, Scott Thornbury and Jennifer Jenkins. The interviews are great and Darren is an excellent host. My only criticism of this podcast (apart from its irregularity) is the fact that the sound quality is poor at times. It has improved recently but early episodes, particularly at the start, were very quiet. 

this show started in July and hosts Marek Kiczkowiak and Robert McCaul have already managed to pump out 16 episodes. They've covered a wide variety of topics such as 'Chinese v Western education systems' and 'product v process approaches to teaching writing'. It's quite 'loose' in style and of the 'two dudes talking' school of podcasting (Marek tells me he doesn't worry much about editing). At times the sound quality isn't great (the 'live from the language show' episode sounded like it was recorded in a submarine) but I'd still say it's well worth a listen. I'm a little biased however since they invented me on to one of their recent episodes and let me ramble on for about half and hour. It'll be interesting to see what happens with this podcast. 

The 'commute', hosted by Shaun Wilden and Lindsay Clandfield's (and James Taylor at times*) is a rare beast. A TEFL podcast that isn't about teaching. Instead they deal with peripheral issues such as 'photocopiers' and 'translation'. My favourite episode so far was their examination of the movie 'dead poets' society' from a teaching perspective. I really enjoyed that one. 

I would say that this podcast has far and away the best production values of these podcasts. It has clear sections, good art, good editing and (usually) great sound quality. They generally avoid teaching but do say in their blurb that it "might crop up" A recent interview with Scott Thornbury which touched on 'example sentences' got me wondering if this podcast would be even better if it did actually deal with teaching issues. 

4. SAGE language and linguistics (language testing bytes)

Glenn Fulcher started language 'bytes podcast' in 2010 and has so far produced around 20 episodes, so it's a pretty infrequent. The episodes are also very short with 26 minutes being the longest and 8 the shortest. What it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality. Glenn is a leading expert in language testing and has guests like Alan Davies and Stephen box discussing issues like 'aviation English testing' and 'rather bias in speaking assessment'. The podcast has been combined with one of Sage's other podcasts so the language testing is interspersed with 'child language teaching' which seems like a rather odd combination to me. 

5. EdTechConcerns

Another podcast I really enjoyed was EdTechConcerns. It was also hosted by Shaun Wilden and Lindsay Clandfield (with Philip Kerr) and ran for 7 episodes. It focused on the use of tech in education and the potential problems associated with that. It was packed with interesting interviews and was a high quality production. I'm not sure that you can listen to it now as it doesn't seem to be available. Was it a perhaps a trial run for the TEFL commute? 
So there's been a huge expansion in ELT podcasts but a few seemed to have died off. The minimal pair which I talked about last time and KKCL podcast both now seem defunct. I still think there is room for more so here are a few ideas:

1. A TEFL podcast that focuses on actually getting jobs in various countries. So each episode would be about a certain country/sector including an interview with someone there.

2. Similar to the above but getting a local teacher from different countries to talk about the particular language issues that students they teach have.

3. An Applied linguistics podcast. There's a lot of good stuff in TEFLology and and language testing bytes but it would perhaps be good to have a podcast about more academic issues with more in-depth discussion -but not too complex as to turn off listeners.

4. Academic reading circle. A podcast that discusses important/interesting ELT articles. One per episode. Even better if they could interview the authors.
5.A TEFL podcast with a female host.*

 Here's looking forward to a 2016 of great podcasting! 

*As Shaun Wilden notes in the comments, the TEFL commute does in fact have a female host  Ceri Jones. So apologies Ceri! 

Monday, 2 November 2015

Deep, man!

'lightning never strikes twice.'

'What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger.'

These sentences both sound really profound while being nonsense, and nonsense that can very quickly be identified as nonsense. In both cases a few seconds of thought would be enough to show this. The word 'lightning rod' and the existence of lightning rods is not a contested issue. Lightning rods exist and are placed on the side of tall buildings precisely because lightning often strikes the same spot (tall things) repeatedly. Similarly it's not hard to think of things which while not killing a person would definitely not leave them any stronger. Ebola, spinal injury or brain damage are a few examples. And yet, like the bizarre 'it's the exception that proves the rule' despite making no sense and this fact being apparent to anyone with normal mental capabilities, these phrases continue to be used

One place they're particularly prevalent is on any social media platform that teachers have discovered. Social media + education has led  to the rampant proliferation of what Carl Hendrick calls, 'the scourge' of motivational posters'. Little nuggets of 'wisdom' about teaching usually plastered over the top of an inspiring landscape or picture. Alternatively the quote appears next to a famous figure (Einstein is a popular choice) who probably didn't actually say the quote in question. They're so prevalent they've inspired a satirical section on Shaun Wilden and Lindsay Clandfield's TEFL commute podcast

The internet is awash with these edu quotes and they come In a few different flavours. There's the ego-bolster: memes about how hard teaching is and what under appreciated heroes teachers are.On a side note, it's interesting that such a large number of these memes exist. If you google, 'doctors are heroes' or 'even 'firefighters are heroes' you get far fewer memes than you do for teachers.  Next, there's the heart warming type usually including the word 'heart' in the quote and a picture of a heart somewhere. And finally there are the deepities.

Deep deepities
The word Deepity was coined by Daniel Dennett. He explains it (see video) thus: 

The example he goes on to quote is 'love is just a word'. He makes the point that saying love is just a word is either false (it is an emotion, a condition or  way of explaining a phenomenon) or it's trivially true (yes its a just a word, like pain or joy or sadness, but why even say this?). Other deepities include 'beauty is only skin deep', or there is no I in team'. I am inclined to add the phrase 'everyone learns in different ways' into this category. If it means 'everyone has a preferred way of studying' then *shrug* who cares? If however the implication is that learning, as in the process that occurs in the human brain differs among people, then that would be truly earth shattering as "the architecture of human brains varies very little among adults or among children” (Long 2011:375). 

It is perhaps not at all surprising that we find NLP cornering the market in these kinds of pseudo-profound edu memes, after all, reproducing form without bothering about the substance is kinda NLP's thing. Here are a few examples that I've collected over the years:

‘[1]What you believe to be true either is true, or becomes true.’ 
‘[2]All behaviour has a positive intention’ 

‘[3]There is no failure in learners, only in the teacher’s intervention’ (Millrood 2004:29)

‘[4]There is no such thing as reluctant learners, only inflexible teachers’ (Winch 2005).

'[5]there is no failure only feedback' 

The fact that these statements have appeared (and continue to appear) in print in teacher training publications is hard for me to understand. Not only are these quotes, after a minute of consideration, obviously not true, in many cases they seem to absolve students of any responsibility and lay everything at the teacher's feet. what kind of masochist believes that a [4] reluctant learner must be the fault of the teacher or that [3] any student failure is the teacher's fault?  And the notion that 'all behaviour has a positive intention' seems indefensible until you notice that NLP experts helpfully redifne the word explaining that 'positive here, does not mean good so much as goal driven.' In other words, people do things for reasons. Behold! An earth-shattering truth reduced to banal triviality. 

Fish Trees
He didn't say this 

My most hated of all 'edu memes' is the infamous fish tree meme. I hate it for many many reasons. Firstly, Einstein didn't say it. Secondly if everyone is a genius then no one is a genius. 

This quotes is wheeled out usually in opposition to standardised testing or in calls to rethink education. Climbing a tree is unfair for a fish because a fish can't climb a tree. It follows, supposedly that this is just like how maths tests are bad for those who are not mathematically gifted. Yhe 'take-away' is supposedly that a fish doesn't have the ability to climb a tree and some kids don't do well at maths, and so tests are evil, right? This poster seems superficially deep, but why would  teachers ask students to do things that they were physically incapable of? I could rant on about this quote for a whole blog post but I'll direct you to this one by Todd Pettigrew instead

Credit: Carl Hendrick
It seems odd that actual discussions about teaching and learning have, in some parts of the education world been replaced with pithy saccharin soundbites tweeted and retweeted ad nauseam. As Carl Hendrick notes. these kind of posters show "a culture that privileges the media-soundbite over critical reflection" Ironically, the same teachers who insist on the importance of critical thinking and creativity as the very pinnacle of a good 21st century education are often the ones thoughtlessly reproducing these edu memes. 

My 100th Blog post. For this occasion I wanted to write something clever, deep and satirical. I couldn't do that so I just wrote this instead. Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Guide to methods part 3: What Richards and Rodgers don't tell you.

I always had something of a soft spot for Suggestopedia with it's comfy chairs, baroque music and meditation. It always seemed to me like the cool kid of methods, taping straight into the brain and speeding up learning. I even continued to look at it affectionately after starting this blog because I remember reading in Richards and Rodgers that Lozanov accepted that his method was a placebo but tried to actually use the power of the placebo effect in his teaching. (it later turned out that was not true). 
That said, Suggestopedia would clearly bring up lots of red flags on my education 'baloney detection kit'. It makes extravagant claims of efficacy such as the claim that learning can be accelerated 5 - 50 times using suggestopedia or that “…1,000 words [can be] learned in a day" (Ostrander & Schroede 1979:15). 

It makes claims about things which are vague or hard to test“the method appeared to improve health and cure stress-related illnesses” (Ostrander & Schroeder 1979: 33). Also we can commonly see claims that “[suggestology] is a method of…making use of the unknown reserves, powers and abilities of the human mind” (Lozanov 1971:292), ah, those unknown reserves! Any guesses what percent of the mind Lozanov thinks people are currently using

With its 'double-planedness', 'elaboration', 'concert sessions',  'primary activation' and 'pseudo-passiveness', jargon or sciency sounding words are liberally employed. Richards & Rodgers note that “The method has a somewhat mystical air about it…partially because of it’s arcane terminology and neologisms, which one critic has unkindly called…  pseudoscientific gobbledygook’” (2014:317). 

It also has little evidence to back up it's claims. The few experiments done to tests its efficacy did not produce encouraging results.  Wagner & Tilney tested it, finding “no significant improvement across the five-week experimental period" (1983:5). And even Bancroft, a supporter of the method admits that:
Very often the exact means by which [Lozanov's] results were obtained remains obscure. Statistics, as has been pointed out by more than one reviewer, are often faulty or incomplete; the evidence from several experiments tends to be fused (or even confused).(1999:51)
All that said, it would be easy and rather pointless to pull apart and poke fun at suggestopedia here. What I'm more interested in looking at here is how much respect this approach received and why certain facts about the method were glossed over or ignored in the literature. 

What Richards and Rodgers don't tell you. 
I wanted to know more about Suggestopedia so I got hold of a copy of another book that details Lozanov's work called 'psychic discoveries behind the iron curtain'. Unlike many EFL books, this actually features interviews with Lozanov, and he gets to explain directly his beliefs. Here are a few things I learnt:

1) Lozanov was a Pioneer of parapsychology and believed that "everyone is psychic" (1971:281)

2) he ran the suggestopedia and parapsychology research centre in Bulgaria and 20 years work on precognition  

3) he believed that Telepathy is an inexpensive and promising communication system” (1971:293) 

4) he believed that he could render people unconscious with telepathy. 

Now, none of this means that he was necessarily wrong about Suggestopedia, (as the TEFLology guys point out that would be the 'genetic fallacy') but this information is nowhere to be found in any of the TEFL sources I've ever come across.Is it. The fact that someone claiming people can learn 1,000 words a day also claims that he put people to sleep with his mind seems to me, at least, relevant.

And it's not just Richards and Rodgers who don't feel this is important information. in Byram's encyclopedia of language learning (entry by Baur) Lozanov is credited as working in a state run centre of 'suggestology' when in fact he ran the "institute of suggestology and parapsychology". 

These omissions in the literature and the seeming way his slightly weirder beliefs are ignored  interests me. Take Baur's insistence that
Lozanov discovered that certain yogic techniques of physical and mental relaxation could be used to produce a state of analgesia, or relief from pain, on the one hand, and a state of hypermnesia, or greatly improved memory and concentration, on the other...
Did Lozanov actually discover this? Or did he claim to discover it, -there is a whole world of difference. It just seems that Baur is happy to accept Lozanov's claims without question. But don't 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?
These are not isolated incidents, almost everywhere Lozanov appears there is no mention of any of this kind of thing and his claims are either taken on face value or just ignored. Brian Tomlinson's is equally generous. In his 2011 book on materials development he writes:
The complexity of Lozanov's method is due to a lifetime's research into the hidden language and territory of the unconscious, in particular the nebulous area where it meets the conscious, which he calls the 'para-conscious'    
He then goes on to talk about 'left brained and right brained learners'Another example is Diane Larsen-Freeman  who in this video tells viewer to keep an open mind and don't dismiss things 'ask yourself instead, is there anything valuable here that I can adapt to my own circumstances.' 


A very cursory examination of suggestopedia turns up things that would strain the credibility of even the most credulous. For example, Bancroft notes that "Dr. Lozanov...has performed painless surgical operations using suggestion and/or hypnosis instead of anesthetic" (2005:21) And yet suggestopedia still has some degree of currency in the ELT world. It still has exactly one more chapter in Richards and Rodgers latest edition than approaches like Dogme, crazy English or Demand High. It is still a choice for some DELTA experimental lessons and some teachers still use this approach. This study for example shows just how seriously some teachers can take it. Lozanov even made an appearance as a supporting reference in an ELTJ article recently.

TEFL hoarders?

'These fragments I have shored against my ruins' -T.S. Eliot 

That this happens isn't perhaps surprising. As I noted with my final 'red flag' supporters are not moved by contrary evidence. I think I might revise this statement to 'the method is promoted despite criticism' as this rule does not necessarily apply only to supporters. Everyone seems to do it. For example, Richards and Rodgers despite listing numerous issues with Suggestopedia describe a criticism (above) as 'unkind'. They go on to write “Perhaps, then, it is not productive to further belabour the science/non-science, data/double-talk issues and instead…try to identify and validate those techniques…that appear effective” (Richards & Rodgers 2014:326). 

The quote above about taking the best techniques and keeping them is particularly curious when we note that from the same publication, on the previous page the authors note that "Lozanov is unequivocally opposed to any eclectic use of the techniques outside of he full panoply of suggestopedic science" (a quote that appears verbatim in Byram). So are Richards and Rodgers suggesting we ignore the creator's advice and try to find something among the creation? If so, wouldn't that mean Lozanov didn't really know what he was doing and had just hit upon something completely by accident?

 My question then is 'why?' Why is it necessary for every method to be examined for some small saving grace? It almost seems as if there is a hoarding tendency among the TEFL community and we are reluctant to disregard methods wholly, no matter what problems we find with them. 'Sure' people say, 'The Silent Way is not for me, but Cuisenaire Rods? Now that I can get on board with!' 

We sit surrounded by odds and ends of grammar translation, trinkets of audiolingualism and some TPR stuffed under the mattress. Is it that we are such an impoverished field it seems risky to throw anything at all away? Or is this the elusive beast 'principled eclecticism' that I've heard so much about it. It certainly seems eclectic, but I'm struggling to see what the principles are.


afterword: A note on the name

there is some seeming confusion over what exactly the method was called. Part of this is caused by lozanov himself. Lozanov himself calls the 'science' suggestology and the education part of it suggestopedia. He then switches at some point to desuggestopedia because, in his words it sounded too manipulative and he wanted to remove the negative connotations and also because his approach rid people of there previous negative learning experiences (like dethorning a rose). This may seem clear but Lozanov also says:
Although it seems a little early to talk about reservopaedia before the science reservology has been entirely established, it will be right to gradually replace the word suggestopaedia by the word reservopaedia. And the science called reservology can be developed with the initial research of the laws of reservopaedia. These laws are very typical. All we need is highly qualified and respectable scientists. (2005:11)
so really it's anyone's guess what it's called. 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

woo watch: ELGazette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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