Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The myth of neat histories

Pure evil!
You've probably heara version of this story of before.

A long long time ago in a place called the 1950s there lived an evil wizard called 'Skinner' who lived in a castle with his many adherents. Skinner was a cruel man who practised a version of dark sorcery called 'behaviourism' which generally involve torturing animals and turning men into machines all in the name of science. His worst torture device was the Skinner box into which he put all manner of creatures including his own children. 

Skinner believed that people were really just machines and so if you wanted some kind of response from them all you needed was stimulus. Something like an electric shock would probably do the trick. 

Poor misguided TEFL teachers were caught in the hypnotic gaze of Skinner and developed a ridiculous  style of teaching called the Audio-lingual method. This involved forcing students to sit in a classroom listening to recordings of conversations for hours on end all the while repeating  mantras like so many zombies. Skinner enjoyed this depraved form of torture. In fact it helped him stay young.


One day, a brave young hero called Noam appeared and with a swish of his sword of logic he defeated the evil Skinner. Chomsky showed that language was innate and that people didn't have to be robots. On this day pair work was born and since language was innate no one needed to teach grammar anymore. Native speaker teachers everywhere rejoiced. 

OK I'm exaggerating but this is the way the history of these events often seems to be presented. For example:

...Behavioralist accounts of language learning became popular in the 1920s and 1930s... (64) In Behaviorist theory, conditioning is the result of stimulus response and reinforcement (51)...In a book called verbal behavior, the psychologist Bernard [sic] Skinner suggested that much the same pattern happens in language learning (52)...Behaviorism was directly responsible for audiolingualism (52)" (Harmer 2007)

And Harmer is by no means alone. Wherever you look, from Richards and Rogers, Ellis or Lightbown and Spada, the story is made up of more or less the same building blocks. Behaviourism? check,  lab animals? check, habit-formation? check,   Skinner? check, Chomsky? check? The pattern of events is clear and well-known by most teachers, but is it true? 

Something about the story niggles and my own personal dislike (not very evidence-based) of everything Chomskyan led me on a journey into the odd world of one of the most famous academic debates in history. Unfortunately this project continues to sprawl horribly out of control but I would like to share with you a few interesting things I've managed to find out. So here are the top 5 myths and misconceptions about the infamous Chomsky/Skinner debate and its aftermath:


1. Chomsky's review was a forensic deconstruction of Skinner's verbal behaviour 

Well...it was an attempt deconstruction of 'something' - though it wasn't Skinner's book Verbal Behaviour. In fact all the evidence suggests Chomsky either didn't read Verbal Behaviour or didn't understand it. The reason we can make this assumption is that Chomsky makes several mistakes in his review, attributing, for example, classical behaviourist beliefs to Skinner, whereas Skinner wrote about 'operant condition' which was a different beast altogether. 

MacCorquodale, in a comprehensive review, notes, that Chomsky's review didn't receive a reply from Skinner or any other psychologist, not because they were 'defeated' but rather because "...Chomsky’s actual target is only about one-half Skinner, with the rest a mixture of odds and ends of other behaviourism and some other fancies of vague origin." Chomsky's review has also been criticised for misquoting Skinner and taking quotes out of context. Skinner himself said of the review:
let me tell you about Chomsky...I published Verbal Behaviour in 1957, in 1958 I received a  55 page type-written review by someone whom I had never heard of named Noam Chomsky. I read half a dozen pages, and saw that he had missed the point of my book and read no further. (see the second video 5:50)
Also interesting is that most of the other reviews of verbal behaviour at the time were positive. This by itself doesn't mean Chomsky was wrong, but it might make us pause for thought. 

And rather than 'forensic', Chomsky's review was just really really mean. MacCorquodale, described the review as "ungenerous to a fault; condescending, unforgiving, obtuse, and ill-humoured". I urge you to read a few pages and see what you think. I'm not one to be overly concerned with comments about the 'tone' of someone's argument, but Chomsky actually seems to be personally offended by Skinner's book. Skinner often commented that he couldn't understand why Chomsky seemed so angry. A sample of the language can be seen in  Virues-Ortega 2006's review:
perfectly useless,” “tautology,” “vacuous,” “looseness of the term,” “entirely pointless,” “empty,” “no explanatory force,” “paraphrase,” “serious delusion,” “full vagueness,” “no conceivable interest,” “quite empty,” “notion,” “no clear content,” “cover term,” “pointless,” “quite false,” “said nothing of any significance,” “play-acting at science” (from )
The tone isn't so much the problem as the chilling effect this kind of academic writing can have on others. When a writer's work is discussed in such a dismissive tone it can give the impression to the uninitiated that the matter is settled, -which in this case, was very far from the truth. 

2. Skinner's Behaviourism led to Audiolingualism 

This is a tricky fish to fry. In order to answer this you need to be able to authoritatively identify Skinner's behaviourism, Audiolingualism and then the link between them. First we should examine the timeline. Skinner was born in 1905 and published Verbal Behaviour in 1957. Chomsky's review came out in 1959. The first mentions of the audiolingual approach were in the mid 1950s. But it starts to really get mentioned in the early 1960s. This would mean that ALM became popular AFTER Chomsky's review. 

Another problem is that there seems to be a lot of confusion about what the audiolingual method actually was. When reading Lado's 1964 book entitled 'language teaching: a scientific approach', ALM is describe simply as the approach where (in contrast to grammar translation) speaking and listening are taught first. Yet others, like Cummins and Davidson conflate the audiolingual approach and the 'scientific approach'. 

things get more confusing as many others like Hall (here) and Lacorte suggest that ALM was synonymous with or grew from 'the army method' in 1945 (certainly before both Verbal Behaviour and Chomsky's review). While Coady and Huckin suggest that ALM is also known as 'the structural approach' by those who created it. They pin this honour on Fries in 1945. And Harmer, suggests it came from the Direct Method (p.64) There are also mentions of contrastive analysis being an important component by some authors while not being mentioned at all by others. 

As  Peter Castagnaro* notes neither Brookes, Fries or Lado (three names often associated with ALM) make much mention of Skinner at all in any of their books. True they use language associated with stimulus and response, -but why could this not  be inspired by Pavlov, rather than Skinner? (Harmer does link to earlier behaviourists Watson and Raynor). The only person who actually draws a direct link between Skinner and ALM was a critic of ALM, Wilga Rivers in "the psychologist and the foreign language teacher" and Castagnaro believes that Rivers' book is the cause of much misunderstanding, noting that it was Rivers who "saddled Skinner with being ALM’s theoretical parent"(523).

So, if we believe the literature on ALM the approach came from the Army Method, the Structural Approach, Contrastive Analysis or the Direct Method and was big in the 40s-50s (lightbown and Spada), or the 50s-60s (Richards & Rogers, Thornbury). It may or may not have been based on a book written in 1957 and then undone by a review written in 1959...even though, according to Richards and Rogers, the term Audiolingualism wasn't invented until 1964 -that's five years after Chomsky's review. Am I the only one feeling confused? 

*More than anyone else Peter Castagnaro (thanks to Harmer for this link) has attempted to unweave the knotted misunderstandings surrounding ALM. I would direct anyone to read his article for a much more concise examination of this topic.


3. Chomsky's review lead to the death of Audiolingualism 

In his ELTJ review of reviews, Alan Maley describes Chomsky's review as 'destructive' and one that 'changed the course of events'. Now while it is undeniable that Chomsky's review was influential and made his name, did Chomsky kill off Audiolingualism? 

After reading the previous section it becomes clear that this is unlikely. Not only does the timeline not work, but simply put methods and approaches are fashions and as such aren't killed off by logic of any kind. If methods are killed off, who killed off the silent way and suggestopedia? 


Almost certainly ALM just withered on the vine. In education, as Swan among others has noted, fashions rule and these fashions are often polar opposites. With Grammar translation reading and writing was paramount. Next came methods that banned reading and writing and translation of any kind. That an approach where people mechanically practiced  artificial sentences while worrying greatly about making mistakes should be replaced by an approach which allowed free 'authentic' conversation with little care for errors, should surprise no one at all. 

It's also difficult to properly perform an autopsy on the undead. As authors, like Scrivener note, many of the the techniques of 'ALM' "continue to have a strong influence over many classrooms"(38)

4. Chomsky's review led to the death of Behaviorism

Again, not true, Behaviorism carried on and continues to this day( see herehere and here). Skinners' book still sells well (better actually than Chomsky's response) and Skinner is considered one of the most important figures in psychology

Behaviorism is successful, despite the image problem, precisely because it works. It works in treating autistic children and if you've ever had any kind of therapy, it's likely it was CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) which is another.

5. Chomsky's new linguistic paradigm is accepted by most linguists today

Absolutely not. Chomsky ideas are accepted by few. The idea of Universal Grammar has been shown to be a myth, the Poverty of Stimulus argument has been rejected, and could only apply to syntax anyway. Vocabulary development in children has clearly been shown to be entirely affected by 'stimulus'. the generative grammar paradigm he created has been rewritten several times by the Chomsky himself in a failed attempt to salvage it. 

A recent scathing review by Behme describes Chomsky as not seriously engaging with criticism, misrepresenting the work of others and providing little or no evidence for his claims. She highlights, as many others have, his tendency to "[ridicule] the works of others". These claims are not surprising since they are pretty much the same claims made about his attack on Skinner 50 years earlier. 

Behme also lists Chomsky's other tactics, such as claiming his opponents are 'irrational' or have mental issues. This may seem shocking until we read papers by his former student Paul Postals who writes “After many years, I came to the conclusion that everything he says is false. He will lie just for the fun of it...It was like playing chess with extra pieces. It was all fake.” Postal also suggests Chomsky has written "the most irresponsible passage ever written by a linguist in the entire history of linguistics". 

An interesting note for all your corpus fans out there is that Chomsky has been a consistent critic of Corpus Linguistics considering them pointless and the data worthless. Rather, he suggests, Native Speakers should just sit around and think up examples: 

Chomsky: the verb 'perform' cannot be used with mass word objects: one can perform a task, but one cannot perform a labour.
Hatcher: How do you know, if you don’t use a corpus and have not studied the verb perform?
Chomsky: How do I know? Because I am a native speaker of the English language. (source)
One can 'perform magic', of course. This extract I think sums up Chomsky perfectly; unassailable arrogance.

Reality is not the neat history presented in so many EFL histories. In truth, almost every chain in the link is broken. Skinner wasn't the behaviorist he's painted as, he didn't inspire audiolingualism -whatever that is, and he wasn't overthrown by Chomsky, who isn't quite the 'hero' we might imagine. We should not be surprised that the facts about Skinner are often wrong in ELT as he is often misunderstood by psychologists too

As Hunter and Smith note ELT tend to package complex history into convenient bundles. This packaging may make digestion easier but it often involves cutting the corners off to make things fit. Sometimes the facts are fudged to give us a pleasing narrative where 'traditional' (read: dull and wrong) methods are superseded by all the great stuff we're doing these days. It's a nice story to tell ourselves but reality is more messy. 








34 comments:

  1. Good stuff, Russ, and a necessary corrective to the myths that are propagated (and that seem almost to propagate themselves) about the history of methods.

    Just a couple of things:

    I'm not sure why Ellis (presumably Rod not Nick) gets lumped together with Richards and Rodgers et al since Ellis hardly if ever writes about the history of methodology, and when he does, he is fairly measured, as in this extract from Instructed Second Language Acquisition (1990, p. 7):

    "It is easy to overemphasize the role played by behaviourist learning theory in audiolingualism. As Howatt (1984) points out, the progenitors of the method - Fries and Bloomfield - made little mention of behaviourist psychology but drew instead on structuralist descriptions of language as a basis for pattern-practice. However, there can be little doubt that behaviourist theories were used to underpin recommended instructional techniques. There was, for instance, a clear link between Skinner's theory of operant conditioning, which described how complex behaviours can be systematically shaped, and programmed learning".

    It's true that the audiolingual method was known as such until 1960s, but it's misleading to say that its principles and practices hadn't been around avant la lettre, as it were. As the Ellis quote above suggests, it dates back at least to 1941 and the founding of the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan by Charles Fries, as well as to the so-called 'Army Method' or Army Specialized Training Program, designed to meet the need for multilingual personnel for the war effort. Up until 1960 the method was perhaps best known as the 'mim-mem' method (short for mimicry and memorization) - although, as Spolsky (1995) points out, there was perhaps less 'audiolingualism' in the Army Method than later commentators claim.

    Finally, it's worth being reminded that the 'modernist narrative' of methods marching from darkness into light has long been challenged. As Kelly noted in 1969 (p. 396), the history of methods might more accurately be characterised, not as a linear progression, but as cyclical: “Old approaches return, but as their social and intellectual context are changed, they seem entirely new” (1969: 396).
    Oh, and one more thing: there's a great piece by Michael Hoey (2003) in which he uses stylistics to unpack Chomsky's rhetorical tricks and the devices he uses for 'cowing opposition'.

    Refs.

    Ellis, R. (1990) Instructed Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.
    Hoey, M. (2003) 'Persuasive rhetoric in lingusitics: a stylistic study of some features of the language of Noam Chomsky' in Hunston & Thompson (eds) Evaluation in Text: Authorial stance and the construction of discourse. Oxford University Press.
    Spolsky, B. (1995) 'The impact of the Army Specialized Training Program: a reconsideration' in Cook & Seidlhofer (eds) Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics. Oxford University Press.
    Kelly, L.G. (1969) 25 Centuries of Language Teaching, Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.

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    1. Thanks for this. I appreciate corrections. It's a vast and sprawling area and very difficult to untangle. Let me look into these and get back to you.

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    2. Hi Scott,

      sorry for the delay. I've found it hard to make time to look into this.

      So first, thanks for the reply. Ellis was 'lumped in' as originally it had a different author (any guesses who?) and at the last moment for reasons of pure cowardice, I decided to change it. That was a mistake.

      As to your second point, I'm curious as to whether the army method and ALM can be considered the same thing or that one begat the other so to speak. I've tried to find an answer to this without success. It all gets a bit murky.

      Harmer suggests that ALM comes from the direct method. Richards and Rogers aren't all that clear (to me) and seem to suggest it grew out of the michigan method. In contrast with Harmer they suggest that Fries' approach was in direct contrast to the direct method. R&R seem to indicate a collection of factors organically led to the emergence of something we now call ALM. Lightbown and Spada link it to Brooks and Lado but don't seem to say more than that. Howatt, as you note above, link it to the mim-mem method (an 'obvious frontrunner' to ALM) (2004:304). I'm just confused.

      Loved the Hoey piece, thanks for the head's up.

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  2. "It's true that the audiolingual method WASN'T known as such until 1960s..." I meant, of course.

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. Hi Geoff,

      I had a feeling you wouldn't like this post. I note on another blog you wrote "I’m a fan of Chomsky’s political work and I think his work in as a linguist makes him the finest academic in his field of the last 70 years." so I'm not sure how unbiased you are in this regard. I'll try to respond to your points in more details when I have a bit more time.

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  4. Hi Russ,

    Sorry for last line of my comment: please delete it. Yes, you're right, I am biased, but let's try to weigh the evidence :-)

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    1. No worries Geoff. I'm not sure how to delete a part of a comment, but I'll look into it. If that's not possible should I delete the whole comment?

      I'm more than happy to weight the evidence. Looking forward to a hopefully fruitful debate.

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    2. Hi Russ,

      Please delete my first comment and allow this I look forward to your reply and to a polite, good-humoured exchange of views. I'll do it 2 bits because of limitations in length of replies allowed.
      .
      My basic criticism of this post is that it belies your stated commitment to "evidence-based EFL".

      1. You say “All the evidence suggests Chomsky either didn't read Verbal Behaviour or didn't understand it”. This is false. There is ample evidence from Chomsky himself that he read it thoroughly, and the fact that he could show the main arguments supporting Skinner’s argument to be wrong indicates that he understood it very well.

      2. You say “The reason we can make this assumption is that Chomsky makes several mistakes in his review, attributing, for example, classical behaviourist beliefs to Skinner.” That’s not a sufficient reason to make such a sweeping assumption.

      3. That Skinner stopped reading Chomsky’s review after the first few pages is no evidence that Chomsky didn’t understand Skinner.

      4. You offer no evidence that Chomsky’s criticism of Skinner’s book “Verbal Behaviour” is wrong. Chomsky argued that the knowledge of language which children manifest cannot be explained by appealing to the language they are exposed to; if he’s right, Skinner is wrong.

      5. You say “most reviews were favourable” and “Chomsky's review was just really really mean”. Neither point is evidence when it comes to assessing Chomsky’s argument against Skinner.

      6. It is not a myth that Chomsky’s review of “Verbal Behaviour” had a profound effect on the study of linguistics and on ELT.


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    3. 7. You say “Behaviourism carried on and continues to this day … Skinners’ book still sells well (better actually than Chomsky’s response) and Skinner is considered one of the most important figures in psychology”. All sorts of quackery continues to this day; “The Complete Homeopathy Handbook“ still sells well (better than “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory”; and Dan Brown is considered one of the most important figures in modern literature. I hope you get my point.
      The real question is, of course, whether there are any good reasons to believe that psychological behaviourism provides a good explanation of human and animal behaviour. Its explanation is (just in case you’re interested in the facts) that human and animal behaviour can be seen as the results of (i.e. caused by) external physical stimuli, responses, learning histories, and (for certain types of behaviour) reinforcements. Psychological behaviourism started with the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), then Edward Thorndike (1874–1949), then John Watson (1878–1958). Its fullest and most influential expression is B. F. Skinner’s work on schedules of reinforcement. It’s true that elements of behaviourism survive in both behaviour therapy and laboratory-based animal learning theory, but, to quote the Stanford Encyclopaedia of philosophy, “ behaviourism is no longer a dominating research program” anywhere in the world. Why? Because it assumes that behaviour can be explained without reference to non-behavioural, mental (cognitive, representational, or interpretative) activity. Chomsky (1959) argued that behaviourist models of language learning cannot explain the rapid acquisition of language by young children. A child’s linguistic abilities are radically underdetermined by the evidence of verbal behaviour offered to the child in the short period in which he or she expresses those abilities.

      Furthermore, a fundamental fact about human beings seems to be that our behaviour often surpasses the limitations of individual reinforcement histories, in such a way that our history of reinforcement is too impoverished to determine uniquely what we do or how we do it. As Chomsky argues, much learning therefore requires pre-existing or innate representational structures or principled constraints within which learning occurs.

      8. You say “Behaviourism is successful, despite the image problem, precisely because it works. It works in treating autistic children and if you've ever had any kind of therapy, it's likely it was CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) which is another”. Behaviouristic approaches to the treatment of autistic children are, precisely, therapeutic treatments, involving time-intensive, highly structured, repetitive sequences. These have nothing to do with general learning theory. Similarly, CBT is a type of talking treatment that focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviour, and teaches you coping skills for dealing with different problems. It combines cognitive therapy (examining the things you think) and behaviour therapy (examining the things you do). This has nothing in common with the behaviourist theory of learning advocated by Skinner.

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    4. 9. You say it’s a myth that Chomsky's linguistic paradigm is accepted by most linguists today and that, in fact “Chomsky ideas are accepted by few. The idea of Universal Grammar has been shown to be a myth”. This is quite simply false. The evidence from linguistics departments in universities around the world is that Chomsky’s UG remains a dominant theory of linguistics.

      10. You say “the Poverty of Stimulus argument has been rejected”. Well of course it has, by some. But on what grounds? What evidence do those who reject it give? How does their alternative explanation stand up to the evidence provided by those investigating language learning among young children?

      11. You say “vocabulary development in children has clearly been shown to be entirely affected by 'stimulus'”. It might have been “clearly shown” to your satisfaction, but not to that of most experts’. Your evidence for this claim is the book “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children” by Hart & Risley, hardly a scholarly work, and, in any case, the authors don’t even pretend to argue that all language behaviour can be explained without recourse to any mental constructs.

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    5. Thanks for the detailed list Geoff, I will get on this as soon as I can. The original post took months to write so the reply will also not be soon I fear. I will reply in full to these points though. Russ

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    6. Hi Geoff, if you don't mind I'd like to comment on a few of your points (numbers don't correspond to yours).

      1) Chomsky not reading Verbal Behavior: I think the MacCorquodale paper really systematically demonstrates that Chomsky horribly misunderstood the main thrust of Skinner's points. For example, Chomsky's heavy emphasis on the problems with stimulus-response explanations of language makes no sense given that Skinner's book is essentially an entire tome that explains why stimulus-response explanations couldn't account for complex behavior like language.

      2) "Chomsky argued that the knowledge of language which children manifest cannot be explained by appealing to the language they are exposed to; if he’s right, Skinner is wrong.": this isn't necessarily true, as Skinner also agreed that language didn't come entirely from the environment. Skinner was a behaviorist so obviously he rejected blank slatism, he didn't think that behaviors (especially those as complex as language) could be explained without appeal to biology. Skinner's position was simply that learning plays a greater role in language development than previously assumed.

      3) On "most reviews are favourable": it's true that it doesn't necessarily lend support one way or the other but it does mean that it gained more scientific respect than Chomsky gave credit for. Skinner could have been wrong but it makes it unlikely that he was wrong for the blatant reasons that Chomsky presents.

      4) On behaviorism still continuing today: it's a little dishonest to compare behaviorism to homeopathy. Pretty much all psychologists today, whether they like or dislike behaviorism, will admit that the experimental methodology (if not the overarching philosophy itself) is behaviorist so it undeniably had a significant amount of validity.

      5) "Its explanation is (just in case you’re interested in the facts) that human and animal behaviour can be seen as the results of (i.e. caused by) external physical stimuli, responses, learning histories, and (for certain types of behaviour) reinforcements.": you've misunderstood behaviorism here. Behaviorism is the idea that behavior is a product of biology and environment. Keep in mind that all major behaviorist writers have heavily emphasised the importance of genetics on the development of behavior (the originator, Watson, was an ethologist who spent most of his career studying innate behaviors and dedicated the final two chapters of his seminal book "Behaviorism" to the importance of instincts).

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    7. [Part 2]:

      6) "Why? Because it assumes that behaviour can be explained without reference to non-behavioural, mental (cognitive, representational, or interpretative) activity.": This is a little misleading as the comment you present is uncontroversially true. The statement is one made by Skinner which argues that behavior can be a valid level of explanation in itself; that is, we can explain behavioral phenomena by looking at behavioral causes, which is true.

      Skinner himself made it clear that to fully understand behavior we need to look at deeper levels like neuroscience but his point was simply that we don't need neuroscience in order to scientifically study behavior.

      7) "As Chomsky argues, much learning therefore requires pre-existing or innate representational structures or principled constraints within which learning occurs.": Skinner made this same point decades before Chomsky, he even termed the distinction as the difference between "phylogenetic" and "ontogenic" behaviors.

      8) "These have nothing to do with general learning theory.": behaviorist approaches dominate learning theory. I can't think of many learning theorists who aren't behaviorists in the field today.

      9) "This has nothing in common with the behaviourist theory of learning advocated by Skinner.": CBT is precisely what Skinner had in mind when he came up with radical behaviorism - i.e. the idea that cognition could be shaped and changed in the same way we manipulate external behaviors.

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    8. Hi Mike,

      Sorry, I’ve only just read this comment. I hope Russ doesn’t mind our chatting like this.

      On Chomsky not reading Verbal Behavior, you say “the MacCorquodale paper really systematically demonstrates that Chomsky horribly misunderstood the main thrust of Skinner's points.” I’ don’t agree. The main thrust of Skinner’s points is that language learning is the same as any other kind of learning and can be fully explained by observing behaviour without any recourse to constructs like “mind” or “cognition” or “linguistic knowledge”. Chomsky, using the poverty of the stimulus argument, says that Skinner can’t explain what young children demonstrably know about language, and thus, it’s wrong. A better explanation, says Chomsky, is a cognitive one; one where the mind is an important construct, and where language learning is seen as special, being aided by a dedicated module of mind. That’s what the debate was about. To say that Chomsky misunderstood Skinner’s particular type of behaviourist thinking is to lose sight of this key argument. You say “Skinner also agreed that language didn't come entirely from the environment”, but his theory has absolutely no explanation for the “non-environmental” parts. You say “he didn't think that behaviors (especially those as complex as language) could be explained without appeal to biology”, but how does biology explain language learning? You say “Skinner's position was simply that learning plays a greater role in language development than previously assumed”, but it wasn’t simply that, it was simply behaviouristic, where mental activity plays no part.
      Favourable reviews don’t do anything to support Skinner’s theory: nothing.

      You say “Pretty much all psychologists today, whether they like or dislike behaviorism, will admit that the experimental methodology (if not the overarching philosophy itself) is behaviorist so it undeniably had a significant amount of validity”. Neither the experimental method nor the overrarching philosophy of modern psychology is behaviourist. Cognitive, biological, developmental, social, clinical and personality psychology—just to mention a few—all have their own set of theories and methodological approaches, none of which resembles Skinner’s.

      I say behaviourism claims that human and animal behaviour can be seen as the results of external physical stimuli, responses, learning histories, and (for certain types of behaviour) reinforcements. You say I’ve misunderstood behaviorism because it’s “the idea that behavior is a product of biology and environment”. I don’t think you’ve done anything to explain my misunderstanding. I also say that behaviourism assumes that behaviour can be explained without reference to non-behavioural, mental (cognitive, representational, or interpretative) activity. You say this is “a little misleading as the comment you present is uncontroversially true”. If it’s true, why is it misleading?

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    9. (Part 2)

      You say “Skinner himself made it clear that to fully understand behavior we need to look at deeper levels like neuroscience but his point was simply that we don't need neuroscience in order to scientifically study behavior”. Again, his point wasn’t simply that: his point was that we can’t explain things in terms of non-behavioural, mental (cognitive, representational, or interpretative) activity. The “deeper levels like neuroscience” can only be admitted once they’ve been cleansed of all reference to mental activity.

      You say “I can't think of many learning theorists who aren't behaviorists in the field today”. Try this website http://www.learning-theories.com/ where behaviourism is one of 6 paradigms discussed, two others cognitism and constructivism.

      You say “CBT is precisely what Skinner had in mind when he came up with radical behaviorism - i.e. the idea that cognition could be shaped and changed in the same way we manipulate external behaviors”. Cognition is a construct disallowed by Skinner’s theory, and I doubt he’d have approved of your saying that CBT was what he had “in mind”. :-)

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    10. "I also say that behaviourism assumes that behaviour can be explained without reference to non-behavioural, mental (cognitive, representational, or interpretative) activity. You say this is “a little misleading as the comment you present is uncontroversially true”. If it’s true, why is it misleading? "

      I explain above - it's misleading as it's a comment on levels of analysis, not a comment on causality. That is, his argument was attempting to justify behavioral analysis as its own field. He was not rejecting neuroscientific and cognitive explanations.

      As a comparison, a chemist would justify his field by saying that we can explain chemical interactions by appealing to laws of chemistry, and so it is a field in itself without depending on physics. That's not a rejection of the fact that physics underpins chemistry, just a comment that you can do chemistry without explaining them all by quantum mechanical interactions.

      "Again, his point wasn’t simply that: his point was that we can’t explain things in terms of non-behavioural, mental (cognitive, representational, or interpretative) activity. The “deeper levels like neuroscience” can only be admitted once they’ve been cleansed of all reference to mental activity. "

      No, you've confused Watson with Skinner. Skinner was a radical behaviorist which means that he argued we needed to include cognitive explanations in our science in order to have a full explanation of behaviors.

      Let's put it another way: there was a massive, massive shift when radical behaviorism overthrew methodological behaviorism. What do you think the major differences between the two philosophies were?

      >Try this website http://www.learning-theories.com/ where behaviourism is one of 6 paradigms discussed, two others cognitism and constructivism.

      "Try this website http://www.learning-theories.com/ where behaviourism is one of 6 paradigms discussed, two others cognitism and constructivism. "

      Firstly, that's just a random website made by nobody special.. Secondly, it's talking about "learning theory" in terms of education which only has a very loose connection to psychology. Specifically, "constructivism", "design-based", and "humanism" have never been philosophies underpinning the science of psychology. That should have been your first clue that you had linked to something irrelevant to the discussion.

      "Cognition is a construct disallowed by Skinner’s theory, and I doubt he’d have approved of your saying that CBT was what he had “in mind”. :-) "

      ...No, his behaviorism specifically argued that behaviorism needs to be applied to cognition. That's why behavioral analysts today practice CBT.

      As Skinner puts it in About Behaviorism: "A science of behavior must consider the place of private stimuli as physical things, and in doing so it provides an alternative account of mental life. The question, then, is this: What is inside the skin, and how do we know about it? The answer is, I believe, the heart of radical behaviorism. (pp. 211–212)".

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    11. Hi,

      Sorry about the delay, I've had a lot on. I see you've stopped discussing this with Mike, so I'm not sure if you're going to see this or not but I'll respond anyway. Firstly I'll just say considering I wrote to you to say "Hi Geoff - just a note to say I won't be able to get back to you re Chomsky till the second half of this year...August probably" right after you wrote these comments, I find it disheartening that you attacked me on another blog as having avoided this discussion. Those comments were made in bad faith and were very disappointing.

      So I intend to deal with these points one by one to stop the thread getting too crowded. so firstly.

      "1. You say “All the evidence suggests Chomsky either didn't read Verbal Behaviour or didn't understand it”. This is false. There is ample evidence from Chomsky himself that he read it thoroughly, and the fact that he could show the main arguments supporting Skinner’s argument to be wrong indicates that he understood it very well."

      If there is ample evidence he read it/understood it then please present it. I supplied a link to that assertion (Palmer 2006), please feel free to read it and criticise it. To quote "[chomsky's] remarks about the place of Skinner's work in science reveal misunderstandings so great that they undercut the credibility of the review substantially". Let's not forget that as noted in the post, Skinner consistently asserted that Chomsky misrepresented his views. As Mike has noted the MacCorquodale paper also deals with this.

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  5. Lots of personal attacks and unwarranted claims here. I like how one of your main criticisms is that Chomsky is just a meanie. Equally amusing is your claim that Chomsky must have misunderstood Skinner because Skinner only read the first few pages of the review!

    The sourcing is particularly silly. For instance, book reviews, popular psychology articles and unpublished works are cited as evidence that the entire field of linguistics has rejected Chomskyan theory. In fact, it remains a mainstream theory, and generative linguists are found in departments around the world.

    It's a pity that this was primarily written up as an attack piece, because there are some interesting nuggets of truth here, particularly the point that audiolingualism didn't begin with Skinner and that we can actually trace it back a lot further.

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    1. if you'd like to detail the particular criticisms you have I'd be happy to talk about them (under your real name perhaps?) then I'd be happy to change anything I've objectively made a mistake over. he 'Chomsky was a meanie' was and is supposed to be lighthearted. That said, as I noted Skinner and others made the same point. The level of vitriol in his review is certainly worth commenting on.

      The sourcing may be 'silly' but are the points wrong? If they are please point out where. I'm happy to correct anything. I'm no expert on linguistics but I'm taking the word of linguists like McWhorter who says "few linguistis believe in Chomsky's UG" https://twitter.com/johnhmcwhorter/status/546665422133547009 And others. I happy to be correct, though. :)

      I don't see this as an 'attack' piece. I see what has happened to skinner over the years as being a sustained attack.

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  6. i agree with previous comments the interesting bit here is how a field is described historically, certainly audio-linguism roots is worth tracing

    the chomsky saying 'mean' things is the certainly one of the weakest arguments, some of which is explained by Chomksy himself in the link you provide

    and even if we grant that he was 'mean' have you not seen http://shitmyreviewerssay.tumblr.com/ ? :)

    ta
    mura

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    1. Hi Mura

      I'll happily admit that that was perhaps a bit of cheap ad hom. I do think though there is a certain type of academic who will dissuade argument just braking at his opponents and making them feel small. I think you need to welcome challenges and try to meet them with good humour, -but that's just my opinion.

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  7. Further to my previous comment, I' ve been reading what Diane Larsen-Freeman has to say about audiolingualism - in her 'Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching' (Oxford 2000). I think she gets it about right in arguing that audiolingualism evolved over time and 'ingested' Skinnerian principles as it did so:

    She starts off by pointing out that AL 'unlike the Direct Method, has a strong theoretical base in linguistics and psychology'. And she goes on:

    'Charles Fries (1945) of the University of Michigan led the way in applying principles for structural linguistics in developing the method, and for this reason, it has sometimes been referred to as the "Michigan Method." Later in its development, principles from behavioral psychology (Skinner 1957) were incorporated. It was thought that the way to acquire the sentence patterns of the target language was through conditioning - helping learners to respond correctly to stimuli through shaping and reinforcement. Learners could overcome the habits of their native language and form the new habits required to be target language speakers.' (p. 35).

    Not unlike the way that the communicative approach developed, in fact: first there was a theory of language (in the case of CLT it was a functional one) and only later did a theory of learning come along to justify the way that the theory of language was being realized in the classroom.

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    1. It's interesting to think about Audiolingualism 'evolving' from other methods. I wanted to get hold of the books that are most often referenced, so I bought Fries, Brookes and Lado and they barely mention ALM at all. Yes, they talk about 'pattern practice' Lado lists three types of pattern practice but no mention of ALM. A few books refer to it as 'the so-called audio lingual method' which struck me as accurate because it's not clear that, if you want to call what Fries, Brookes and Lado were doing audiolingualism, that they would have called it that. I get the impression they just thought of it as main-stream teaching. Lado calls it the 'scientific method' and refers to ALM as just starting with speaking & listening rather than reading and writing (as GT did)

      Larsen Freeman may link Skinner to Michigan Method but Fries was talking about 'Stimulus and response' well before 1957. So either he was getting his ideas from other behaviorists or from Skinner's earlier work on organisms...not Verbal Behavior.

      Larsen Freeman's quote also seems a little odd to me. What is she suggesting here? That correction only came after Skinner? Skinner was interested in SOR not SR conditioning so it seems odd to pin this type of practice on Skinner. I think there is a nice line in Howatt about the Oral Michigan method..."The [Fries'] Michigan Oral Approach is often credited with having applied behaviorist psychology to language teaching, but this is a rather doubtful claim. Fries himself, for example, does not mention psychology in the early papers which establish the Approach..." then something (top of my head) about 'the approach didn't need an ideology and none was offered'...I haven't managed to untagle all this yet, as you can see.

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    2. I agree that it's difficult to untangle, Russ - but that's not surprising, I feel, since methods don't march forward in unison, following a straight line to a pre-determined goal. Rather, they emerge locally, evolve idiosyncratically, and accrete theory and practices as they go along. As I suggested above, this was very much the 'story' of CLT, and I see no reason to doubt that AL evolved in a similarly haphazard way. Of course, retrospectively we might discern a pattern in the sand, but we can never really know what it was like to be there.

      What I'm saying, I guess, is that Skinner's behaviourism (which long pre-dates the publication of Verbal Behavior, of course) was seized on by some proponents of AL (or whatever other names it was given) but ignored by others. After all, habit formation as a principle of language learning had been around pre-Skinner, and didn't need him to popularize it. Witness Harold Palmer in 1921: 'Language-study is essentially a habit-forming process' (The Principles of Language Study).

      In similar fashion, you could argue that Chomsky's attack on Skinner accelerated the demise of AL for SOME teachers, but was blissfully ignored by others, while, for still others, AL was already discredited.

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    3. Apropos of my last comment - re the pre-Chomskyan disaffection with mim-mem, or AL, or whatever you want to call it, John Carroll (1953), having reviewed a number of examples of intensive language programs in which drilling was a prominent feature, makes this rather amazing suggestion:

      "[The writer, i.e. Carroll himself] would like to find out whether methods emphasizing the aural oral approach might not be made to work better if, instead of presenting the student with a fixed, pre-determined lesson to be learned, the teacher created a 'problem-solving' situation in which the student must find, by inquiring of either the teacher or the dictionary, appropriate verbal responses for solving the problem - which might be, for example, finding a hidden object, or getting an offending window closed, or choosing a satisfying meal from a foreign-language menu. [...] The essential point is that the student would early be forced to learn, by a kind of trial-and-error process, to *communicate* rather than merely to utter the speech patterns in the lesson plans. Instruction conducted in this way might more realistically parallel the student's actual or potential needs."

      This is 1953. And yet it accurately captures the essentials of the communicative approach (student-centred learning, discovery learning, needs-based instruction, inquiry-based learning, task-based instruction, at-the-point-of-need teaching, etc) that was still two decades away.

      And Carroll wasn't some rogue outlier, but taught linguistics at Harvard University - under whose imprint his book, The Study of Language, was published.

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    4. Chomsky replaces Skinner and Yygotsky replaces Chomsky. The evil behaviorist is replaced by the evil cognitivist. Actually, all three metaphors of learning are useful, so the replacement assumption is not helpful. Therefore, this statement is not really true anymore: "Chomsky's new linguistic paradigm is accepted by most linguists today", unless 'today' is the 1990s. Social cognitivist approaches that Vygotsky advocated are now as much the norm in applied linguistics as older ones.

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  8. The words of Chomsky himself are better, surely, than all of the pseudo-intellectual guff some indulge in:

    In a later review of Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, I did devote a footnote to MacCuorquodale’s rejoinder. By then Skinnerian behaviorism had pretty much collapsed from within, apart from some useful experimental techniques.

    This article keeps to easily refutable falsehoods from M’s response. To pick just the first mentioned, I didn’t attribute classical behaviorist beliefs to Skinner, though I did review them as background, then going on to Skinner’s operant conditioning. I went through his claims in close detail and showed that if the technical terminology was interpreted literally, they were not only false but ludicrous, and if it was interpreted metaphorically, it was a very shallow form of mentalism without the subtlety and insight of traditional versions. You can read it for yourself and see.

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    1. thanks for this, do you have a link?

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  9. Chomsky:

    In a later review of Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, I did devote a footnote to MacCuorquodale’s rejoinder. By then Skinnerian behaviorism had pretty much collapsed from within, apart from some useful experimental techniques.

    This article keeps to easily refutable falsehoods from M’s response. To pick just the first mentioned, I didn’t attribute classical behaviorist beliefs to Skinner, though I did review them as background, then going on to Skinner’s operant conditioning. I went through his claims in close detail and showed that if the technical terminology was interpreted literally, they were not only false but ludicrous, and if it was interpreted metaphorically, it was a very shallow form of mentalism without the subtlety and insight of traditional versions. You can read it for yourself and see.

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  10. Great post, Russ.

    Sociologists of science such as Bruno Latour have researched how intellectual movements become 'scientific fact'; it's often more to do with power, luck and accident than design (see 'The Pasteurization of France' by Latour, 1993). The story of Chomsky might be an example of this. Once a body of scholars put their weight (and careers) behind a theory, then it's very difficult to shift opinion!

    Russ, a request: when are you going to set your sights on 'Reflective Teaching' and the 'Reflective Practitioner' which has become hegemonic IMO, but in which there are contradictions, such as the stripping out of a 'critical' reflex, and Donald Schon's background in industry.

    Paul Walsh

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    1. Hey Paul,

      Glad you liked it. Reflective practice is certainly an interesting topic and one that I'd like to get my teeth into. I'm finding it harder and harder to do anything these days with the demands on my time. :(

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