G is for Grice (and his Maxims)

28 03 2010

H.P. Grice

What would the language philosopher H.P. Grice have made of Twitter, I wonder? If you recall (and if you don’t, you have only to check the A-Z!) Grice formulated what is perhaps the most influential theory in the development of pragmatics, now best known as the Cooperative Principle:

The cooperative principle is the principle that speakers try to cooperate with one another. When people take part in conversations they do so on the assumption that the other speakers will observe certain unstated “rules”… (An A-Z of ELT)

 These rules (popularly known as Grice’s Maxims) are:

 1.         Maxim of quantity: Make your contribution just as informative as required.

2.         Maxim of quality: Make your contribution one that is true.

3.         Maxim of relation: Make your contribution relevant.

4.         Maxim of manner: Avoid obscurity and ambiguity. Be brief and orderly.

Of course, speakers frequently violate these maxims, but they do so in the full knowledge that they are breaking the rules – and they will often signal that they are doing so, by, for example, prefacing a statement with “This is totally beside the point, but…” or “I’m sorry to bang on about it, but….” As I point out, in An A-Z, “Without the shared belief in a cooperative principle, we would be compelled to ask, after any utterance, Is that all? Is that true? What has that got to do with it? and Can you be any clearer? The fact that this only normally happens in a court of law suggests that, for day to day purposes, Grice’s maxims apply.”

Twitter seems both to affirm and to challenge Grice’s cooperative principle. In encouraging concision, the 140-character limit works brilliantly to enforce Maxim 1 (The maxim of Quantity) and, to a lesser extent, Maxim 4 (The maxim of Manner). But how do you explain the relevance (maxim 3) of tweets like the following:

Went out and bought a plastic lining for the compost frame and put that in.

Chicken burger with avocado and blue cheese, accompanied by butternut squash wedges.

Sitting with my brother discussing the weather. 

By what possible standards could the above texts be considered relevant? And yet a significant proportion of tweets that are sent are of this nature. Perhaps the assumption is that, if you’ve chosen to follow me, everything I tweet is relevant. And that, in the absence of a shared world (which would confer a degree of relevance), trivia helps to create one.

Be that as it may, Grice’s maxims have helped in the formulation of some ground-rules for Discussion Board postings on the on-line MA TESOL that I teach on. For example:

1.         be brief – 250 words max.

2.         be relevant: stick to the topic; if you need to digress, signal the fact in your subject line;  

3.         be explicit: change the subject line to make it clear whether your posting is a new response to the main DB task, or a digression (see above) or simply a social intervention;

To which I’ve added:

4.         be original (i.e. no plagiarism)

5.         be appropriate (i.e. this is an academic context even if the medium tolerates a degree of informality) and

6.         be courteous (i.e. no flaming)

So far, these rules seem to have worked fine, on the Discussion Boards, to encourage both cooperative interaction and critical thinking. What chance of imposing them on Twitter!?

L is for Learning Styles

21 03 2010

When I wrote An A-Z of ELT, I was not entirely persuaded by the argument that learners can be categorized in terms of their preferred learning style, whether visual, aural, kinesthetic etc.:

So far… there is no convincing evidence that any of these dispositions correlates with specific learning behaviours. Nor has it been shown that a preference in one area predicts success in language learning.  In fact, it is very difficult to separate learning style from other potentially influential factors, such as personality, intelligence, and previous learning experience.  Nor is it clear to what extent learning style can be manipulated, e.g. through learner training (p. 116).

However, I was prepared to accept the case for “meshing” learning style and teaching style: “If the learner’s preferred learning style is out of synch with the type of instruction on offer, then success is much less likely than if the two are well matched.”

It seems I was wrong. Alerted by a somewhat sensationalist headline in a recent Guardian Weekly (5th March) to the effect that Learning styles ‘are hogwash’, I hunted out the research study on which this shock-horror claim was based: ‘Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence’, by Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. in Psychological Science in the Public Interest,  9/3, December 2008 , pp. 105-119.

While the authors do not  dismiss the notion of learning style outright,  they cannot find any evidence for the ‘meshing hypothesis’, i.e. the idea that learning is optimsed when instruction is matched to the individual learner’s learning style. Sifting through a host of studies on learning style, they found no study that proved conclusively that a teaching approach that was effective for one style of learner was NOT effective for a different style of learner. They concluded, therefore, that “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice” (p. 105).

Given this lack of evidence, why has the case for matching teaching and learning style  persisted?  The authors of the paper suspect that this belief  “may reflect the fact that people are concerned that they, and their children, be seen and treated by educators as unique individuals” (p. 107).  Moreover, learning styles offer unsuccessful learners (and their parents) a stick to beat their teachers with: “If a person or a person’s child is not succeeding or excelling in school, it may be more comfortable for the person to think that the educational system ..  is responsible [and] that the fault lies with instruction being inadequately tailored to one’s learning style” (p. 107-8).  Learning styles, in other words, are a convenient untruth.

Rather than pigeon-holing learners  into aural, visual, verbal, etc.-types, the authors of this study “think the primary focus should be on identifying and introducing the experiences, activities, and challenges that enhance everybody’s learning” (p.117, emphasis added). “Given the capacity of humans to learn, it seems especially important to keep all avenues, options, and aspirations open” (ibid.).  Besides, an approach that focuses on what learners have in common, rather than on what differentiates them, is ultimately more practicable. The alternative–small groups of like-minded learners getting individualised instruction– is a luxury few educational institutions or systems can afford.

So, is this how I should re-write the last sentence of the entry on Learning Styles in An A-Z?

…Nor is it clear to what extent learning style can be manipulated, e.g. through learner training. Nor are there grounds (apart from wishful thinking) to believe that adapting teaching style to learning style produces any increments in learning.

C is for Conditional (the Third)

14 03 2010

A recent report on the BBC News website had this to say:

“The district committees approve plans weekly without informing me,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told Israel Radio on Wednesday morning.

“If I’d have known, I would have postponed the authorisation by a week or two since we had no intention of provoking anyone.”  (March 10th, 2010)

If I’d have known – not If I’d known …  Whose wording was this, I wonder? Eli Yishai’s? Israel Radio’s? Or the BBC’s?  Interesting, anyway, that the BBC didn’t feel the need to correct it. Maybe they didn’t even notice it, so frequent it has become.

Out of interest, I ran a check  using – just for fun – this data base of cinema screenplays (thanks to Nik Peachey for this link) to see how often – and how far back – the “if I’d have known…” conditional occurs. Here are some examples:

Sorry about that. If I’d have known, I’d take you to New Orleans (Apocalypse Now 1979)

If I’d have known this was going to be the last time me and Bubba…  (Forrest Gump 1994)

Yeah? I’d have brought my gloves if I’d have known  (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels 1998)

If I’d’ve known this was gonna happen, I’d have brought my motherfuckin’ gun! Help!   (The Rock, 1996)

These examples suggest that the phraseology is most common with the verb know – forming what amounts to a fixed expression. But what about these?

I couldn’t live with myself if I’d have hit her. (Cinderella Man 2005)

If I’d have fallen asleep then I would have ended up in a ditch with a headache .(Signs 2002)

If I’d have went to jail, I’d be getting out today (Jarhead 2005)

And just to show that the usage is not new, here’s an example from over 50 years ago!

If I’d have been careful piloting that reconnaissance plane you wouldn’t have had the chance to take the pictures

(Rear Window 1954)

All of which raises the question – if this usage is so well-established –  should we accept it when our students produce it?

S is for “Strategies”

7 03 2010

At the ELTONs awards ceremony in London this week, I had the good fortune to be seated next to Ingrid Freebairn. If you weren’t already teaching in the 70s and 80s, you might not know that Ingrid was one of the team that wrote  Strategies (what became known as ‘white Strategies’), published by Longman in 1975. Strategies was the first major course to espouse a functional (or notional-functional) syllabus. Up until then the structural syllabus – that legacy of audiolingualism – was still the reigning paradigm. A structural syllabus is a form-based syllabus, organized primarily according to criteria of structural complexity. So, you start with the verb to be, then the present continuous, then the present simple, and so on.  Strategies, by contrast, adopted a semantic organization, with unit headings such as Invitations, Ability, Polite requests, Recent Activities and Speculating about the past. In the words of the blurb on the back cover: “In these materials the criteria are primarily functional and secondarily structural.”

In adopting a semantic organisation, Strategies was instrumental in introducing the ‘communicative approach’ to a generation of teachers (including myself) who had been formed during the late-audiolingual era. Although still labelled “functional-notional”,  the approach that Strategies embodied  was communicative. It had to be, because, if you base your curricular goals around functions (such as Polite requests) or notions (such as Ability), you need a methodology that allows these meaning-driven goals to be realized in terms of classroom activity. You need role plays and dialogues. Moreover, you need activities that distract attention away from a focus on (grammatical) form and, instead, encourage a concern for meaningful interaction. So you need communicative games, information-gap tasks, and jigsaw activities. For someone like myself who had been trained mainly to elicit, drill and correct structural patterns, this radical shift in learning objectives and teaching procedures was truly revolutionary.

For that reason I have always had a soft spot for ‘white’ Strategies, and its subsequent re-packaging as the (more systematic and more colourful)  Strategies series (Starting… Opening… Building… Developing…). So, as we tucked into the ELTONs dinner, I happened to ask Ingrid what had inspired the concept behind the Strategies series.  While she did not quite echo my sentiment of  “bliss was it, in that dawn to be alive!”, she did confirm that the mid-seventies was an exhilarating time for methodologists and materials writers, where the sense of a sea-change was palpable, and where the publishers, too, were prepared to throw caution to the wind.

The original site of the University of Reading

What I hadn’t realized, until talking with Ingrid, was that the thinking behind Strategies was directly influenced by the work of David Wilkins, then at the University of Reading, where Ingrid had just completed a Masters degree. Wilkins was one of the chief architects of what would come to be known as the communicative approach: his seminal Notional Syllabuses, building on his work with the Council of Europe, would be published in 1976. In fact, when I got home and pulled down my copy of Strategies (long ago rescued from a recycling bin at IH Barcelona) I found that this connection is explicitly acknowledged:

From the work of David Wilkins we took as our starting point this quotation:

What people want to do through language is more important than the mastery of language as an unapplied system.

How come I had never noticed that acknowledgement before? More worryingly, what happened, subsequently, to reverse this sea-change – to make the structurasl syllabus the primary one again, and the semantic one only secondary? Why is it that “the mastery of language as an unapplied system” again takes precedence over its communicative purposes? What happened to the communicative approach?