Pseudoscience in ELT – Evaluating the Research

Some conferences are better than others. Sometimes, it seems that much of the content is mostly quite bland or is just too rudimentary or it just recycles old ideas, but some of the content that came from the Harrogate conference this past spring was quite interesting.

The talk by Russell Mayne certainly wasn’t bland. You may even find it a bit offensive. Certainly it may challenge your view, because Mayne confronts ELT practices that have no evidence backing them up and yet remain very popular. He makes fun of things you may be quite fond of. Mayne is talking about how to identify pseudoscience in ELT. He says…

“Pseudoscience is something which looks like science… but it lacks the crucial ingredient of science… evidence.”

Mayne specifically talks about a number of fields that some might refer to as “fluff and nonsense”. Mayne refers to them as neuromyths and he’s talking about the areas of learning styles, multiples intelligences, brain gym, and neuro-linguistic programming. (I’ve done some ghostwriting in related fields so I relate quite strongly to this discussion. I’ve seen up close and personal, and been paid to fix, the way the promoters of these ideas make them look like science, when they clearly aren’t, so I know what he’s talking about.)

These things can be a problem when they are pushed on teachers because teachers have enough work to do without dealing with ideas that promoters make look like science, when they clearly aren’t.

Mayne, surprisingly since he’s at Harrogate with many of these people, specifically calls out some big names in the field and the British Council for popularizing these neuromyths that are “intuitive and plausible” and seemingly “learner-centric” but not evidence-based.

He says these neuromyths are believed because they “seem personal in the same way horoscopes do” and people believe what they want to believe.

Mayne quotes Swan, saying…

“You don’t make things true just by saying they are.”

Mayne then gives us a “baloney detection kit” – some questions for helping you evaluate techniques and recognize pseudoscience. These are a great way for our young pre-service teachers to think critically about their own practice and what they are learning and an especially important process for our young research scholars as they consider teachers topics.

For teachers and researchers who care about truth, this means something. If you don’t understand or don’t agree that testing theories with valid scientific methods has great value, you won’t appreciate this much, but do keep in mind that we in education have a long history of distorting pedagogical theory between the time it is theorized by researchers and the time it gets to teachers.

One of the best parts of this talk is Mayne’s story about how Howard Gardner, the inventor of “Multiple Intelligences”, was disturbed by the way his ideas had been mis-used, so he intervened and had their use removed from a school! (Gardner’s book in India.)

Go to the British Council’s Harrogate site to watch or see the highlights on the site of a Harrogate registered blogger. It’s a bit slow to load either way.

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