Doing it with style(s)

September 10, 2009

All teachers are, or should be, aware that different people learn in different ways. Most language teachers over the age of 35 probably learned a language at school through mainly grammar and translation; that worked for us, but maybe not for most of the other kids in the class who were probably put off languages for life. The temptation is to conclude that successful learners had a different learning style from the unsuccessful ones, and therefore if we want our own students to do better than the generations that preceded them, we need to find out about our students learning styles and tailor our teaching accordingly. I worked in a Further Education College in England, and the first thing students would do with their tutor is take a questionnaire which, at the end, would tell them if thir style was “visual”, “audio” or “kinaesthetic”. This is common practice in England, and inspectors will want to see it happening.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Absolutely – until you take a closer look. Firstly, the conclusion from the grammar/translation class mentioned above isn’t the only one you can draw. Maybe the more successful learners were more hardworking, had better support at home, got on better with the teacher, had been promised a bike if they passed all their exams… There are all kinds of reasons why one learner will be more successful than another.

Secondly, and more importantly, the theory of learning styles is far more controversial than many of us realise. Professor Frank Coffield, then of Newcastle University, actually did some proper research into learning styles and identified 71 different theories. When he and his team studied 13 models in more detail, he found serious flaws in them (links below). He was also critical of the way they were being implemented. I recall a learning styles questionnaire that asked if students made audio recording of the lesson to play back later (Yes? You must be an auditory learner.). In all my time as a student and teacher, the only student I saw doing that was partially sighted. Just read this article in the Internet TESL Journal to see how many different models you can cram into just one article. Does anyone really take all these models into account when planning alesson?

For me, the question is this: Even if the model you happen to be using is the correct one (out of the 71 out there), what should you do with the information. Suppose you discover that you have 10 “visual” learners, 8 “auditory” and 2 “kinaesthetic”; do you dedicate 50% of your teaching to “visual” methods to fit the style of the majority? Do you try to add more “kinaesthetic” activities to encourage your ten “visuals” to adapt their learning and compensate for their “weakness”? Or do you just try to incorporate a wide variety of activities to stop the students getting bored, which is what you would have done anyway?

What’s more, by risking pigeon-holing your students, there’s the danger that some will go “This activity doesn’t fit my learning style” and switch off. If you create the expectation that everything you do will be tailored to them personally (which you can’t do unless it’s a one-to-one class), you risk encouraging the idea that the students don’t need to do anything like hard work because you’ll spoon feed them what they need. Whatever their learning style, successful students are the one who put the work in and take some responsibility.

So my advice is not to make your students waste time on questionnaires that look like a bad Facebook “What Frends character/superhero/nationality are you?” application. Just keep them busy and make your lessons as varied as possible. And remember that human beings are complicated.

Each to their own, The Guardian, 31 May 2005

Fashion victims: Could “learning styles” tests do more hard than good? , The Guardian, 4 May 2004

Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning – A critical review


The fightback starts here

September 10, 2009

I’m indebted to The TEFL Tradesman, who recently  reminded me of one of my favourite TEFL articles ever, which I first saw on the sorely missed Englishdroid. I’m reproducing it here in its entirety, so just scroll down if you’ve read it before:

Crystals in the Classroom

The Aries student certainly has a proactive metaprogram, which means he first acts then thinks. Just to give a practical example: first he leaves the classroom, then asks to be excused.

Witch Hazel

There’s nothing very new about the New Age, of course. Just the packaging. Spirit mediums have long since abandoned their darkened seances and their ectoplasm to set themselves up as “channellers” of wise old Native American spirits and long-departed Atlantans—most of whom speak surprisingly good English but in a rather silly voice; ring-dancing Victorian fairies have been replaced by currently fashionable angels and crop-flattening aliens; protective amulets and strength-giving talismans have given way to pretty crystals emitting “healing vibrations”. But remove the shiny wrapping and it’s the same old credulous crap beneath.

And what has all this got to do with ELT? Well, have you noticed the sort of people writing for English Teaching Professional and similar industry publications these days? Hypnotherapists, Master Practioners of NLP, Multiple Intelligence Theorists, shamanic counsellors. And it’s not just the magazines. Take a look at the titles of some of the teacher training seminars in your area. If it’s anything like where I live, you’ll see what I mean. As for the Internet, many ELT websites are awash with the sort of tosh exemplified by the above quote from the Language Fun Farm. (Notice, by the way, how Witch Hazel’s ridiculous and dangerous assertion that a student’s star sign corresponds to something called a “metaprogram” cleverly blends astrology, the world’s oldest surviving species of claptrap, with one of the newer and trendiest forms of pseudoscience, Neuro-Linguistic Programming.) Unfortunately, with so much encouragement from supposed “experts”, there are all too many teachers who take this stuff seriously.

So why is ELT so prone to such nonsense? It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to the sceptical ELT teacher that much of the Orthodoxy handed down on CELTA and DELTA courses is based less on objective, thorough research than on pseudoscientific thinking and such trendy but infuriatingly fuzzy concepts as “student-centred learning” and the “holistic approach”. The superficially impressive jargon, when it’s not obscuring the bloody obvious is all too often obscuring the bloody ridiculous or at best highly questionable. Against such a background, is it any wonder that so many dangerously irrational and anti-scientific ideas flourish?

Of course, silly ideas have been around for a while. Try your school’s bookshelves. There probably won’t be anything there that’s over twenty years old—however good some of the coursebooks of the seventies may have been, they just don’t have enough colourful pictures of house husbands and female construction workers to make them acceptable in the modern classroom—but flick through any set of coursebooks old or new and the chances are that you’ll find at least one section on horoscopes or similar nonsense, often thinly justified as presenting adjectives of personality or the “will” future. Now look on the discussion and role play shelf, if you’re lucky enough to have such a thing. Those helpful Speaking Personally-type books, perfect for the minimum preparation post-pub lesson, are riddled with pop psychology-style questionnaires on telepathy, palmistry and the like.

The difference nowadays is that, where once such things were just a bit of relatively harmless fun to liven up dull coursebooks or get students speaking on Friday afternoons, the recent ascent of the New Age movement has meant that equally bizarre ideas are rapidly becoming incorporated into ELT theory and methodology, with far more dangerous consequences.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming™ (NLP™) is a trendy and typically vague New Age pseudoscience. It dates back to the mid seventies when Richard Bandler, a mathematician and computer programmer, and John Grinder, a linguist, got together and decided that what we needed was a user manual for “programming” our brains. (In more recent years the highly litigious Bandler has been suing his old friend Grinder and other prominent NLP people for hundreds of millions of dollars, so I shall be very careful what I write.) Heavily influenced by hypnotherapy and the unsubstantiated Freudian notion that conscious thoughts and behaviour are greatly affected by the unconscious mind, it is perhaps best known to the general public through its use on corporate training events in which people unleash their “true potential” and learn to perform such amazing feats as firewalking. (Firewalking is allegedly a triumph of mind over matter but it’s actually a simple demonstration of the counterintuitive fact that glowing charcoal has a low specific heat—anyone who can walk can firewalk, but don’t tell that to your New Age friends.)

NLP’s infiltration into ELT has been achieved mainly through its pronouncements on “body language” and “learning styles”. In an article for English Teaching Professional, Jim Wingate, a writer, teacher trainer and regular contributor to that magazine, presents an activity from his book Knowing Me Knowing You. “When people are thinking,” writes Jim, “they tend literally to look at the place where their thought is situated in their heads, so you can tell from their eyes how (not what) they are thinking.” He goes on to catalogue the eye movements that supposedly correspond to each type of thinking—visual = up, auditory = to the side, kinaesthetic = down to the right, remembering = left, etc—and he helpfully provides an exercise in which students can record the eye movements of their classmates in response to various questions and instructions. “Keep the activity and the discussion light-hearted,” Jim advises. After all, the “principal aim is to give students fun language practice.”

Some might say the principal aim is to indoctrinate students with fashionable ideas that are superficially pretty but ultimately without any scientific validity whatsoever. Even more worrying, and equally without support in the scientific literature, is Mr Wingate’s assertion that you can tell when people are lying because “their eye movements will often give them away. If they are inventing information (rather than remembering the truth), they will probably look up and to the right!” Is this the sort of thing we should be teaching our students? Tragically, many teachers already are.

An alarmingly high number of people seem to believe that NLP is a science. It ain’t. Of course, it surrounds itself with the trappings of scientific-sounding language and a few of its techniques may even be effective for some people, but it eschews the scientific method. Its assertions, when they are not too hopelessly vague, metaphorical or ambiguous to be subjected to any meaningful test, tend not to be based on or affected by peer-reviewed experimental evidence (certainly not the findings of neuroscience) but on testimonials and anecdotes. Oh, and most sciences don’t trademark themselves.

Another intriguing idea currently fashionable in ELT circles is that of “learning styles”. You may have been told on a CELTA course or teacher development workshop that your students all have their own preferred ways of receiving and processing information: kinaesthetic learners like running around the classroom with phrasal verbs stuck to their foreheads, visual students respond to pretty pictures and diagrams, auditory ones need to hear things, etc. Now, I’m sure there’s a fair amount of truth in this. People, after all, are complex beings and often respond very differently to identical stimuli—for example, I’m told some people actually think Lenny Henry is funny—and it makes sense that different students will prefer information to be presented in different ways.

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to mix up your classroom activities accordingly. (Note to teachers just off CELTA courses: some students actually learn better sitting down.) The problem is, as so often in ELT, common sense tends to be jettisoned as an interesting though not entirely convincing concept is seized upon and stretched to extremes. Well-meaning but patronising teachers start diagnosing and pigeonholing each student as a particular “type” on the strength of such ideas. Rather as astrologers categorise people with their utterly baseless horoscopes.

Often (deliberately?) confused with learning styles, and equally beloved of trendy ELTers, is the notion of “multiple intelligences”. Howard Gardner’s “Theory of Multiple Intelligences” goes something like this: There are seven (possibly even eight—I think he’s still working on the last one) types of intelligence which we all possess in varying degrees, namely linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic (that word again!), interpersonal and intra-personal. Interesting, but hardly original. It gets better: apparently, each one of these intelligences is resident in a separate part of the brain and each is independent of and unaffected by the others. There’s bugger-all hard evidence for any of this as yet but, predictably, the ELT world and the “liberal” educational establishment as a whole have lapped it up. After all, it fits in perfectly with their “everybody is gifted and all shall have prizes” weltanschauung.

Teacher trainer Rosie Tanner, for example, presents a totally uncritical look at the subject in Issue 21 of English Teaching Professional and offers her own questionnaire “devised specifically to help teachers to look at their teaching in the light of MI theory”. Among the 58 statements in Ms Tanner’s questionnaire, each of which we are invited to grade from 1 (never) to 5 (a lot), are “I would describe myself as a planner,” “I like units in my coursebook which deal with natural phenomena (e.g. volcanoes, animals),” and, er, “I touch my learners.”

Just add up your scores to discover your “MI profile”. Then, why not try some of Rosie’s suggested activities? Number 3 is particularly useful: “Using your linguistic and interpersonal intelligences, discuss with someone how you believe your intelligences influence you as a teacher.” Or, for an entirely different perspective, try number 4: “Using your intrapersonal and linguistic intelligences, write down how you believe your intelligences influence you as a teacher.” Fascinating. Might I suggest using your bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence to chuck this sub-Cosmo garbage into the nearest bin?

At this rate, how long will it be before there are crystals in every ELT classroom and new students are subjected to a thorough dowsing to ascertain their emotional and spiritual intelligence before joining a course? Think I’m joking? My colleagues include two witches, two astrologers and at least one fan of Ayurvedic medicine and our classroom walls are regularly festooned with horoscopes and photocopies of students’ palms.

Haven’t our multiple intelligences been insulted enough? Isn’t it time the silent sceptics and the advocates of common sense started to fight back?

I’ve decided to take Englishdroid at his (it’s?) word – the time to fight back is long overdue! EFL Skeptic is dedicated to taking a critical look at the bizarre theories and practices which too many teachers accept without question. Watch this space, and feel free to leave links to any articles, books, websites etc that smack of quackery. I just hope it doesn’t keep me too busy…