Wednesday, 28 September 2016

boooooo! hurrah!



Penn and Teller's show 'Bullshit' was a favourite of mine. Every week they debunked commonly held beliefs from 12-step-programs to cryptozoology. In one particular episode they asked people to sign a petition to ban Dihydrogen monoxide -a substance found in 'pesticides, baby food and the water supply'.

Hundreds of people signed up to demand the government ban H2O, more commonly known as water. So why would someone want to ban water? Probably because it was presented to them as a scary sounding chemical and 'chemical' is for many people a 'boo' word. 

'Boo' words, and their opposite 'Hurrah' words come from an old theory called Emotivism which holds that "ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes". I'm not too concerned about the philosophical theory but I rather like the notion of boo and hurrah words. Put simply boo words are things that are just accepted as bad, and hurrah words, the opposite. When we hear 'Chemical' we mentally relegate it to the pantomime villain category and boo accordingly. 

So what are boo and hurrah words in education? Swan noted that:
the applied linguistic equivalents of democracy and motherhood - include 'learner-centred', 'meaning based', 'holistic', 'discourse', 'discovery', 'process', 'interaction', 'negotiation' and 'strategy'. On the other side of the communicative fence, concepts related to 'bad' pedagogic attitudes felt to be discredited and undesirable include 'teacher-dominated', 'form-based', 'discrete', 'sentence-level', 'transmission model', 'product', memorization', 'repetition', and 'drill'. (2009:167). 
I would probably add 'testing' and 'textbooks' to this list. These words are often placed in 'boo' or 'hurrah' boxes and there they linger with little examination. And it's not just ELT, as a comment on the now defunct 'Web of Substance' blog wryly notes:
I am disappointed in you as well Harry. You should know by now that, in polite education society you label your OWN ideas as "authentic", "innovative", "Child-centred" and "21st Centruy" so that when anyone disagrees they are, essentially, arguing for a counterfeit, old-fashioned, child-hating, Victorian education. 
We often take our views 'off-the-peg', after all, none of us really have the time to go and read up on every single subject which may concern usWhat, for instance, is the link between wanting relaxed gun laws and thinking climate change is a hoax? Seemingly nothing, and yet (American) people with one of these views will often have the other. Have these people really reasoned out the pros and cons of each side, or have they adopted the views of the 'tribe' they most identify with? 

What this boils down to is ideology. Once we choose an ideology to follow, be it socialism, Islamism or environmentalism, we reshape reality to fit that frame. A petition to ban a chemical? Sure, where do I sign!

Is this a problem? As long as our chosen ideology is sound, the views that follow will also be sound, won't they? Perhaps. But I'm uncomfortable, for two reasons. 

Firstly, our views are often unexamined. I can't speak for other teachers, but I often find a lot of the TEFL discourse confusing because I can never sure the terms people are using mean the same thing to them as they do to me.  

Take for instance the discussion on PowerPoint on the Minimal Pair podcast. One of the presenters said something about trying to avoid using PowerPoint because they're so 'teacher centric'. Thassumption in this statement is that 'teacher centric' (whatever that means) is bad and should be avoided. I kept thinking, 'are they teacher centric and if they are is that a problem?' 

Secondly, we've seen this go wrong before. Learning styles rode an ideological wave to success. It is an appealing notion to imagine that every learner has their own special abilities and if we just teach them in the right way, tapping into their unique 'intelligence' they will flourish. It's certainly more appealing than the notion that some people are just smarter than others and will do better than them no matter what we do. Learning styles is attractive, ideologically, but unfortunately its not true. 

Alan Waters, who passed away recently, wrote several articles examining ideology in applied linguistics noting that "a good deal of its discourse promotes or proscribes language teaching ideas on the basis of ideological belief rather than pedagogical value." A view supported by 40 years of learning styles promotion. Dana Ferris, who is perhaps the leading scholar in written error correction notes that, on largely ideological grounds "composition theorists have for decades ignored, minimized, or even openly disparaged any issues related to error treatment in writing courses." (2011:61) And Hyland suggests that although process approaches to writing may be appealing "there is little hard evidence that they actually lead to significantly better writing in L2 contexts." (2003:17-8)

These examples make me wonder, what teaching practices we are currently being ignoring because they don't fit our ideology. And likewise, what teaching practices are popular because they appeal to our world view? Is a teacher-centric lesson bad because it limits learning, makes students unhappy and is boring, or is it because it's 'authoritarian' and 'traditional' while we are modern, democratic, freedom loving sorts? Is there a difference between claiming you teach in a 'a learner-centric, communicative way using only authentic materials' and say claiming that you only eat 'organic, gluten free, locally sourced, food?'

Walters wrote several papers on this theme, taking quite an extreme position at times. He claimed, for instance that the EFL world engages in a kind of Orewelian 'newspeak' where unacceptable views are supressed  and only, "approved’ ways of thinking, such as in the use of the term ‘authentic’" are acceptable. (2015) He argued that getting rid of textbooks or advocating learner autonomy or ELF are not just pedagogical choices, but markers of right thinking people

And perhaps he has a point. Are textbooks disliked more because they present materials in pedagogically unsound ways or because they are written by large companies who make lots of money? Arguably it's a bit of both. So how do we stop ideology slipping into our teaching? I think it's important to carefully scrutinise our beliefs. The first step would be making sure we have a clear and accurate definition of what it is we're talking about. Take autonomy for instance, most teachers would consider it a good thing but as Mike Swan noted at a recent talk, while autonomy can certainly be good, the logical end point of autonomy, is no teacher. 

Next, we need to examine our biases, -what would we like to be true. I correct my students mistakes in class. Therefore I hope that that helps them learn. If I found out it didn't help them, -even hindered them, I'm likely to feel pretty bad about that. Therefore, I have a vested interest in trying to find data that back that view up. I'll also fight harder against, and examine closer articles which contradict that view.

Lastly, we should ask ourselves what our beliefs about teaching are based on. Do you teach the way you do because it's the way you were taught to teach, or because it's how everyone else teaches? What reason do you have to believe the things you do and more importantly, what would it take to change your mind. If the answer to the former is 'I just know' or 'common sense' and the answer to the latter 'nothing' then what you are describing is dogma. 

A chemical like H2O may save your life or, like H2O2 it might be poisonous. Chemicals themselves are not inherently bad, and H2O2 is excellent for dying hair while water may drown you.