Evidence and (my lack of) accountability

Last ramble before I’m back to sharing lesson ideas.

I’ve been re-reading Russ Mayne’s blog on evidence based ELT. I remember being quite into it in the lead up to my diploma and agreed with (what I saw as) his main message. We can’t rely solely on our own reflections or those of so-called experts to validate the methods/approaches we use. We need more objective evidence. If there isn’t any then we should be skeptical, and if there is evidence (e.g. from research) then we should ensure that it is reliable.

Perhaps one reason I like Mayne’s stance is because I used to be more science-focused. My MSc was in cognitive psychology and I was working on experiments with large quantitative data sets. I chose that path mainly because my BA involved a lot of qualitative research which I found was often subjective or too easy to manipulate. I felt with quantitative data things were more objective and trustworthy – providing that I didn’t do something calamitous to my SPSS/Excel spreadsheets, which I often did!

The main effect my studies had on me was that I came to question everything. The trouble was, questioning everything didn’t seem to work well in teaching. By questioning everything, I essentially had faith in nothing. When I started out there wasn’t really one teaching method I truly believed in. Coupled with that, I was genuinely a crap teacher, so not only did I lack faith in the methods I was using, I was ridiculously hesitant and lacking in confidence. Jeez, my poor DOS back then. I must have been a nightmare.

My education had geared me up to think, not to do. Unfortunately, in order to actually ‘do’ (i.e. teach) I did need to buy in to some sort of method, whether I felt it was effective or not. I had to deliver a lesson on reading to my learners, but my knowledge of the dual-route framework of reading, patterns of fixations and saccadic movements of the eye, or the estimated time it took to access the meaning of a word from your lexicon had no importance whatsoever. I needed the learners to be interested in the text, help them to ‘access’ it, understand the general points made, test comprehension in a more detailed way, and use it as a springboard to some production practice. Apparently. That’s what they said on my course anyway.

The whole fixations and saccades thing I mentioned – I trusted the evidence of that because there was tonnes of scientific research into it using things like eyetracking techniques. But the standard set-up of a reading lesson thing – I had no idea where that came from. I was just… told it? Or it appeared in the key reading on the CELTA course? I can’t remember who said it worked. I still don’t know. But I sometimes still do it because I just remember it being ‘good practice’. It’s worrying actually. Blind faith…

Fast forward nearly 10 years, and I’m a materials writer. I am the one writing these materials, so I should have a level of accountability. All the questions I had before about why materials are organised in a certain way, or why one approach is better than another, I should be able (and expected) to answer them now. Pfff!

I have spent time reading ELT research. Not comprehensively, I’m not a scholar, I’m a practitioner. Nevertheless, I have plugged holes in my knowledge, if you can class much in ELT theory as knowledge. I’m probably less wrong then I have ever been about what makes teaching effective, but I’m probably still wrong nonetheless! Contrary to my past education, I’ve put arguably more faith than I should in my own classroom experiences as guiding my practice. Funnily enough, a decade ago I did once argue that psychology could find some benefits to embracing phenomenology and subjective truth. Now most of my career seems based on it!

I want to be the kind of writer who understands the pedagogical underpinning of an approach in great detail, and with vast evidence to back it up. However, if I wait for that to happen then it will be another decade, I dunno, lifetime even, before I attempt any more writing. I can see the need for more evidence-based teaching, but it won’t happen overnight. I wonder how much has happened in the last 6 years since Mayne started that blog. I’ve seen quite a bit about myth debunking (e.g. learning styles), but what else do we have real evidence for now? In the absence of knowing, I guess I’ll just fall back on what seems to work. That makes me feel so guilty and still so ignorant. But somehow, so liberated…

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