F is for Facts

19 02 2012

With all the hoo-ha surrounding the bicentenary of his birth, it’s worth recalling how comically, but also how ferociously, Charles Dickens ridiculed Victorian educational practices. Think of the irascible Wackford Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby, and his penchant for inflicting corporal punishment. And Mrs Pipchin, in Dombey and Son, whose approach to education was “not to encourage a child’s mind to develop and expand itself like a young flower, but to open it by force like an oyster.”

More extreme still is the unspeakable Thomas Gradgrind, the schoolmaster in Hard Times:

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

Gradgrind’s obsession with facts and rationality is what might nowadays be called the culture of positivism.

Gradgrind "murdering the innocents"

Positivism (also known as logical positivism) is the philosophical viewpoint  by which “knowledge becomes identified with scientific methodology, and its orientation towards self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively” (Giroux 1997 p. 11). According to the positivist view  “knowledge … becomes not only countable and measurable, it also becomes impersonal. Teaching in this pedagogical paradigm is usually discipline based and treats subject matter in a compartmentalized and atomized fashion.” (p. 21).

According to its critics, an educational system based on positivist principles, such as the “new conservatism” presently operating on both sides of the Atlantic, works to “promote passivity and rule following rather than critical engagement on the part of teachers and students” (p. 89).

New conservatives have seized the initiative and argued that the current crisis in public education is due to loss of authority… For the new conservatives, learning approximates a practice mediated by strong teacher authority and a student willingness to learn the basics… (p. 95)

Not only to learn the basics, but to be regularly tested on them.

But what, you may be asking, has this got to do with ELT?

Coincidentally, this week I took delivery of the latest catalogue of a major ELT publisher. I couldn’t help noticing the number of books listed in the catalogue whose blurbs suggest an allegiance to a view of language as “self-subsistent facts whose law-like connections can be grasped descriptively” (to use Giroux’s wording). For example:

  •  “It uses a step-by-step approach to help students build a clear knowledge of grammar and a solid vocabulary base”
  • “…a step-by-step approach with concise explanations and plenty of  practice of each grammar point”
  • “…step-by-step grammar presentations and carefully graded practice ensure steady progress”

Wackford Squeers

Contrast this view of language learning with a statement made by two researchers:

Of the scores of detailed studies of naturalistic and classroom language learning reported over the past 30 years, none suggest, for example, that presentation of discrete points of grammar one at a  time … bears any resemblance except an accidental one to either the order or the manner in which naturalistic or classroom acquirers learn those items. As Rutherford (1988) noted, SLA is a not a process of accumulating entities.” (Long, M. and Robinson, P. 1998, p. 16)

If this is the case, then a positivist approach to language teaching rests on somewhat shaky foundations. While such an approach may be appropriate to the teaching of maths, say, it does not seem to fit comfortably with language.  Atomistic rules may be enlisted to (partially) describe language, but they cannot, it seems, cause its acquisition.

So why has such a view persisted for so long?  Possibly because it lends itself to the ideological formation that embraces standards, order, control and the maintenance of the status quo – a viewpoint that asserts the authority of the teacher, and, by means of constant testing, maintains the learner in a subservient, even colonised, position.  According to Giroux (op cit):

There is little in the positivist pedagogical model that encourages students to generate their own meanings, to capitalize on their own cultural capital, or to participate in evaluating their own classroom experiences. The principles of order, control, and certainty in positivist pedagogy appear inherently opposed to such an approach  (p. 25).

Mrs Pipchin

Back to Dickens: “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over… With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic”.

And if there’s one thing that language ain’t, it’s arithmetic.


Giroux, H. (1997). Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope: Theory, Culture and Schooling. Oxford: Westview Press.

Long, M. and Robinson, P. (1998). Focus on form: Theory, research and practice. In Doughty, C., and  Williams, J. Focus on form in classroom language acquisition. Cambridge University Press.

(Parts of this article first appeared as ‘Reading, Writing as Arithmetic’ in Modern English Teacher 9/4, October 2000).



45 responses

19 02 2012

Another really brilliant post – thank you.

Working with adults I frequently encounter people who expect their learning to proceed in a linear fashion, predictably. They often experience considerable difficulties with the type of classes they find themselves in …. that is until they realize how much progress they are suddenly making. (At which point the trick is to not take credit for someone else’s learning!)

That said, don’t the words ‘step by step approach’ just make you feel safe? It may be inaccurate to the point of fraud to describe language learning in this way, but there’s a reason these things sell ; )

20 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Catherine, for being first off the block.

Yes, ‘step-by-step’ has a very reassuring feel to it. It often collocates with ‘tried-and-tested’ – another iconic positivist catchphrase.

19 02 2012

Excellent points, well made, as usual, Scott.
However, you overlook the fact that publishers’ blurb writers who are desperate to write different about every book are really pushed and often become quite desperate for a description which really is not worthy of the attention you provide. As a former blurb writer describing books as “designed to meet the needs and aims of (practically every
teaching/learning situation that you, the reader, might recognise) I should have been most flattered to have my words analysed in such detail. However I suspect that “step-by-step ” might just have come from the copywriter’s thesaurus for gradual, gentle, and nothing too radical that might frighten the punter. Call me a cynic but when some cynicism comes from experience.

20 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

I would never call you a cynic, John! But I take your point that you can’t judge a book by its blurb. On the other hand, when you start to see a consistent pattern (not to say patter) you can be justified, I think, in inferring that – even if the writers of the books don’t wholly subscribe to a positivist, step-by-step pedgagogical model – their market certainly does (as Catherine points out above, and as evidenced by the blurb writers’ attempts to seduce this market), and sooner or later the market will determine both the content and the pedagogical model in the books.

So – is there a pattern? Helen Basturkman, a researcher in NZ, analysed the back cover blurbs of a range of current coursebooks, and, based on the high frequency of mentions of words like grammar, vocabulary and language, concluded that “the ELT community views language as a core of grammatical structures and vocabulary” and that “the emphasis [is] on the underlying generative base or language rules rather than on surface level aspects of use”. An informal study that I did of publishers’ calalogues in 2000 would seem to bear this out.

Basturkman, H. (1999) A content analysis of ELT textbook blurbs: reflections on theory-in-use. RELC Journal, 30/1.

20 02 2012
John H Walsh

Would it be too cynical to say that “intermediate” is a pedagogic piece of string? If students (and maybe their teachers) can’t really tell how well the language learning is going then labelling students by “level” perhaps provide comfort to both – in the face of lack of scientific evidence! Just a thought.
Great discussion, Scott, which I am following avidly.

19 02 2012

Yes – EFL’s flirtation with positivism emanates undoubtedly from its science envy – that is, from a time when it needed to jostle for some space in the academy and so put itself forward as an applied science. Yet despite these positivist claims, where is the real positivism in EFL? How many journal articles read like a dry dissection of the scientific process while ignoring the fact that their findings are specific to their settings alone? The supposed natural order of acquisition, beloved by coursebook defenders and writers, emerged from a study with HOW MANY subjects?

And yet positivism and empiricism appear to rule the roost. Any view of language teaching that doesn’t ground itself in either philosophy is a fringe view. Ironically, the embrace of positivism and empiricism is wholly unquestioning! Thus we are told that there is a correct way to teach, to learn etc. But there’s no evidence of it. We are told that books are necessary and that teachers are necessary. But no evidence is necessary. We are told that learners need to be graded into between 5-9 different levels, but no evidence that this is beneficial is ever presented. The communicative approach is used as an official stamp – if it’s communicative it must be good. But a clearly defined set of criteria for communicative is never presented nor are the underlying assumptions behind the communicative approach ever examined. We need to plan. But there’s no real evidence that planning adds any extra value. Teachers need to be observed, but there’s very little in the way of evidence that this serves any honourable purpose. At the risk of stomping all over a hornets’ nest, we listen to the paeans to technoteaching, but nobody has been able to (or ever will be able to) present us with clear and unquestionable evidence that the inclusion of digital technology in the classroom leads to improved learning.

Dogme – if you have ever come across this phenomenon- makes itself attractive to me by critically squinting at this positivism. It appears to suggest that just working with the students might just work and appears to argue that the best way of finding this out is…well…is to actually try working with the students. In other words, dogme gives credence to people’s experiences. Since discovering action research, I have felt reinvigorated. No longer do I need to think of a scientific design for my research that enables my findings to be universal; now it is enough for me to find ways of improving my own experience. My experience is as valid as any other. And if I share my experience with other people, they may find something of value there; or they may tear my findings to pieces (aka subject them to critical review), thus furthering my own understanding of what I thought I had discovered.

Leave positivism to those scientists who investigate the phenomena of the natural world. Those of us who work in the world of human interaction need another paradigm I think. Luckily, there has been an alternative around for the last few thousand years (although I have no concrete evidence to support this assertion).

19 02 2012
Luiz Otávio

Hi, Diarmuid
I often use the term “principled eclecticism” whenever I’m asked about the best “teaching method.” Trouble is, “principled” here means plausible, seemingly sensible, rather than grounded in sound, generalizable evidence, like you said.

So while I also sometimes despair of the lack of EVIDENCE underlying most of what and how we teach, I often wonder if it is at all possible to provide scientific evidence in favor of a certain “method” (I’m using the word here very broadly, of course) / set of procedures. After all:

1. How do we know how each teacher’s set of beliefs impacted the implementation of the “method” under scrutiny?
2. How do we know how each learner’s amount of previous linguistic / schematic knowledge affected his / her ultimate level of attainment?
3. How do we know how each learner’s perception of the “method” affected his / her learning, too?

So, who knows, maybe method A works better than B, but we’ll never be able to prove it because of the nature of all the variables involved.

And that’s exactly your whole point, isn’t it? Using action research as a tool to probe into teachers’ own sense of plausibility rather
than scientific evidence in the orthodox sense of the word.

20 02 2012

That’s a beautifully concise summary of what I was trying to say!

19 02 2012

I have missed you Diarmuid – where have you been??

20 02 2012

I have discovered the joys of physical exercise and have been spending more time than is good for me in the gym. With the consequence that I am now three quarters of the man that I used to be. If you noticed a slightly muscular shadow in the gloom, that was me – like Grendel. Your kind comments have been noted though and you will be spared when I descend upon the banqueting hall…

19 02 2012
Adam Simpson

I always find your posts interesting, Scott. This one I truly enjoyed.

I find it reminiscent of your article from about a decade ago in ELT Journal, ‘The unbreable lightness of ELT.’ I’d recommend that as a follow up to this to anyone who can get hold of a copy.

20 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Adam. Yes, there is a connection with the article that you mention (The unbearable lightness…) in that I argue there that the embarrassment that the ELT profession suffers about its relative LACK of a professional foundation has driven it in search of validation in (I would argue) dodgy areas – such as the phony ‘scientism’ that Diarmuid alludes to above. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could show the world that language learning is predicated on a systematic and methodical sequence of interventions by exhaustively trained and highly skilled practitioners using materials designed according to rigorous scientific standards? (Maybe they would pay us more).

20 02 2012

As always interesting reading, Scott.
The comments do not disappoint either!

You wrote, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could show the world that language learning is predicated on a systematic and methodical sequence of interventions by exhaustively trained and highly skilled practitioners using materials designed according to rigorous scientific standards?”

My first thought was, “Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t (feel the) need to?”

I have a long standing discussion/friendly argument with a friend here in Korea about the importance of training and development. My point is essentially that it is often not all that important given the jobs/roles that teachers are asked to perform.

I find myself wondering how we can prove/validate the incredible work that some in the field do without resorting to dodgy science.

21 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

“I find myself wondering how we can prove/validate the incredible work that some in the field do without resorting to dodgy science.”

Arguably, external validation (in the form of proof, recogniton or compensation) may be a chimera, and the best validation of all is the intrinsic pleasure in doing your job well, which in turn is reflected in the rapturous expressions on the faces of your students. (I’m assuming that’s the kind of response you typically get, Mike 😉 ).

19 02 2012
Scott C

Thanks again.

This also makes me think of the perennial question from student services/marketing, “How many weeks until X can move to Upper Intermediate?”

As so many language schools (I work for a private one in Melbourne) are businesses, which need to make profits and have marketing staff generating students for us, there is obviously something that needs to be sold. A structured course, course book and number of weeks are all easier to sell than, “Well, we have no idea what you will do in your classes. It depends on who comes in that day and how the conversations goes as to what your dogme-loving teacher does. As for moving up a level, we cannot predict the future. 90% of that really depends on you and so many other complex issues that few fully understand.”

I may not agree with it, but I can see why courses and books are sold the way they are. I guess attitudes will change over time with the help of discussions like this!

Scott C.

19 02 2012

Which begs the question (which has been raised here before) of why bother with ‘levels’ at all. In my experience all students try to do is subvert them anyway, as they simply lead to ego and one-up-manship in the form of “my English is better than theirs”, or “but if I am in the advanced class then my English will be better”.
If levels are only a means to administration (doling students out in some way) or sales (courses with labels that are nondescript and meaningless – ‘upper int’? Try explaining that to a student who dares to ask what that actually IS), why not try something new, as a point of difference? One that may be a little more honest.

20 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Nicely put, Scott C. And the popular perception that languages can be learned ‘step-by-step’, and in unison, is perpetrated in the marketing of courses (particularly online) that claim that language learning can be ‘delivered’ in the shortest possible amount of time.

19 02 2012
Jason West

A lot of valid research exits that clearly illustrates how human beings acquire first and second languages. Unfortunately for the world the gatekeepers of the industry decline to apply it. Autonomous learners don’t come back.

19 02 2012

Despite being against Grammar McNuggets and discrete grammar syllabuses that take no account of the students’ own need, I know many non-native English teachers who frequently tell me they learned it in classrooms where the grammar translation method was used or picked it up from the old Headway series.

Also, speaking of Dickens, here’s an extract of one of my student’s recent emails to me on how he learned his – very proficient – English:

“When I lived in the UK I had 1 to 1 English lessons with a retired English teacher, a rather old-fashioned lady with no experience with TESOL. So we read Dicken’s Hard Times out loud and did
a lot of essay writing with loads of feedback. Judging from your evaluation of my article, it seems that her effort has come to fruition.”

Naturally, we can’t know all the complex factors/variables that played a part in their learning; nevertheless, accounts such as this seem (at first glance at least) to fly in the face of a critical pedagogy arguing against narrow, structural syllabuses, passivity, rule following etc.

20 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Wes – I don’t doubt that many many learners achieved remarkable degrees of proficiency using methods, procedures and materials which are now largely discredited (although witness the ‘return’ of translation in recent publications and conferences). But many also did not. And it’s possible that those who succeeded did so – not because, but in spite of the fact that the language had been nicely packaged for them.

In fact, the case of the student who learned English through reading Dickens would seem to argue, not FOR the step-by-step syllabus, but against it.

20 02 2012

Thanks, Scott. You’re right of course about many learners being failed by those methods, procedures and materials I referred to, hence their being largely discredited. Only, it’s a source of puzzlement (and wonderment) to me how such people became so proficient under such conditions.

The one thing I’m not sure about is this:

“And it’s possible that those who succeeded did so – not because, but in spite of the fact that the language had been nicely packaged for them.

Surely, that’s one thing – frustratingly – we can’t really ever know. Who’s to say whether those learners would have succeeded to such an extent in a dogme environment. Maybe they would have progressed even further, but then again, maybe they wouldn’t have thrived at all. That’s the thing that bothers me. We all want to teach using procedures, techniques etc. that are “maximally effective” with a range of different learners, but it’s worrying to me to think that by using one approach – however enlightened and justified we perceive it to be – we might actually be holding certain students back who would have benefited from a more ‘old-fashioned’ approach (as my student described it).

Also, point taken about the student who learned English through Dickens arguing *against* a step-by-step syllabus. I mentioned it only to highlight how effective such an approach – which I think few ELT professionals would advocate using nowadays – seems to have been with that particular student. It’s fascinating really.

21 02 2012

Wes & Scott, you seem to have touched on the ‘elephant in the room’, namely that vast numbers of people not only survive but flourish & thrive whatever we do (on condition that some rapport is established; sometimes even without that!). Where that leaves us with all our theorising and navel-gazing, I’m sure I don’t know. That said, as a tribe, we TEFL people do have fascinating navels…

21 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Yes there are always more variables than it’s possible to factor in: as I said in another comment on another post (about whether and how explicit knowledge becomes implicit):

As with anything related to both language and the mind, the answer is bound to be provisional, inconclusive, and contingent – that is to say, so much will depend on a) the language item in question; b) the learner; and c) the learning context. Thus, for learner A, learning item X, in context β, explicit knowledge may become implicit, but for learner B, learning item Y, in context α it will not. Which doesn’t really help the teacher much, does it? (Let alone the coursebook writer).

19 02 2012
Matt Ledding

Great post, Scott… you touched a nerve that is wide open.

Facts, ( from the latin facts, meaning done deed, there is my single fact, the rest is rampant opinion.) are huge problems right now.

1. There are more scientists creating information alive than have existed since the beginning of time. Despite paywalls for academic writing, information is incredibly available. We need higher level skills to filter,find, and apply it appropriately, or failing that, very serious mnemonotechnic training to avoid, in the words of Dan Pink, training today’s kids for our past.

2. Facts don’t tell us anything. Facts are. The interpretation, the ability to connect the dots are what counts. Testing doesn’t encourage that. It seems more as an enabler for Lewis Caroll’s “Humpty Dumpty”.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. ‘They’ve a temper, some of them — particularly verbs: they’re the proudest — adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs — however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!’
‘Would you tell me please,’ said Alice, ‘what that means?’
‘Now you talk like a reasonable child,’ said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. ‘I meant by “impenetrability” that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.’

Most “back to basics” education, and sadly, many things beyond it, consist of knowing who Humpty Dumpty is and how he has connected the dots. (And Humpty did at least make the effort of asking Alice what she meant to do, unlike many positivists.) Positivism doesn’t encourage playing with facts and making things with them. I suspect it works more as a vaccine against learning than an actual method.

Working teaching tech through CLIL, which supposedly is teaching concepts, but tends towards discrete skills, it has nonetheless been amazing to see the different, and even opposite, stories that kids come up with over a spreadsheet of data. (scraping a cheesy vanity fair article of the top 40 salaries of Hollywood to determine whether the film industry is sexist.) Some stories are more plausible than others, and some students argue better than others… but there are a lot of stories from one dataset.

I hope this leads my students to be more interested in looking at the underlying models of information that they are given.

Unfortunately, these models are seldom shown. Just the carefully selected “facts” that experts have come up with, which often mean exactly what Humpty wants them to.

20 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

We are all guilty (me not the least) of selecting and interpreting the results of emprical science to suit our own ends. But if we do so with sufficient candor as to the values and beliefs that motivate our choices, and with copious hedging (it might just be the case that…) then yes, perhaps ‘some stories are more plausible than others’.

And I wouldn’t want to dismiss facts out of hand, either. After all, it is the failure to acknowledge the existence of hard evidence that fuels the madcap arguments of creationists, and global warming deniers. ‘Look at the facts’, we urge them. Nevertheless, the attempt to shoehorn language into an organised structure analogous to mathematics, and then to teach it accordiing to that structure, seems to be another case of superstition triumphing over reason.

19 02 2012

So as well as countable and uncountable nouns, we also have countable and uncountable teaching and countable and uncountable learning. But hopefully countable learning is not more accountable for than uncountable learning?

20 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Nice juxtaposition of concepts, Neil: countability and accountability. They certainly tend to be conflated in the neoliberal discourse of education-according-to-market principles: teachers are held accountable to what the testers can count.

19 02 2012

Sitting on the couch after breakfast, I remembered I hadn’t yet checked Scott’s blog for “The Sunday Post”. What could it be this time? How does he keep it exciting? Surely this one can’t top the last one… But he’s done it again, hasn’t he!

Interesting that Diarmuid mentions paeans. Greek paians were hymns of thanksgiving to Apollo, and Paeon “became an epithet of Apollo as a god capable of bringing disease and propitiated as a god of healing.” (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paean ).

Haven’t positivist theories in ELT, a reflection of the culture of positivism at large in Western society, become a similar epithet to Apollo? That which is celebrated as helpful to learners, under closer scrutiny, turns out just the opposite.

As Diarmuid reminds us, the holistic work of sharing power and knowledge with learners – and being open to learning from the people in the room – is truly cause for celebration.

The fundamentalist mind clings to step-by-step approaches and tidy buzzwords because of an alluring security, to which Catherine alludes. But the new conservatism adopted by education reformists on both sides of the (political) aisle would have us sacrifice our humanity – along with the Humanities.

For better or worse, we rely less on institutions and more on our individuality in modern society. So it is down to each of us to make a difference. The classroom is as good a place to start as any. Of course you’ll need to keep your head, and more importantly, your heart, in working order.

“And if it’s proud to have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts,” Miss Jenny struck in, flushed, “she is proud.” – “Our Mutual Friend”, Charles Dickens

Wishing you the best that money can’t buy,

19 02 2012

Thoroughly enjoyed the post and the comments today!

I’m wondering if the positivist approach could be thought of as focusing on the process of teaching, while the naturalistic approach is about the process of learning. Superficially, these may seem to be the same thing, but the perspective informs the approach.

The architecture of many schools and school systems was designed to support the process of teaching. In recent decades, the merits of communicative learning have come to light. But (from what I’ve seen in the two or so years that I’ve been teaching), attempts to implement this have consisted of updating textbooks to include communicative activities and training teachers to write “student-centered” lessons. The framework itself hasn’t changed at all. It’s still a process of teaching system with communicative activities pasted into lesson plans. We still look for gains, which is a measure of how well specific items (the ones on the assessment test) were taught. We still strive for good retention (students’ staying in a program) because students who don’t stay don’t get gains.

What would the architecture of the process of learning approach look like? Would we be more like coaches, supporting and guiding students? What would we be teaching if it’s not a linear list of items? Language needs that are uncovered in the course of communication, of course. How about skills that help the student to become a self-determined and effective learner? Communication and collaboration skills? (When I mention focusing on things like that, I’m often met with “Oh, soft skills.” There’s nothing “soft” about being autonomous and empowered!) In a system such as this, we wouldn’t measure gains – so, what would assessment look like? Instead of retention, maybe we’d focus on persistence (students’ overcoming obstacles to reach their goals – even if it doesn’t include our program anymore).

Is this something like what the Montessori schools do? Is it something that could be applied to language acquisition? Is it being applied to language acquisition anywhere now? I guess in situations where English is taught to children within an existing school system, it would be difficult to make radical changes without changing the whole system. Is there evidence that the Montessori system (as a general schooling system) has benefits or drawbacks?

20 02 2012

Not that I’m an expert, but one criticism I have read about the Montessori schools (that wasn’t dismissively class-based!) was that they are so rigidly structured. Children are not allowed to play with certain toys until they have hit the right age etc. I don’t know how true this is, but if it were true, then I suspect that Montessori’s successors also fall back on their quack positivism.

In contrast, we have something like Neil’s Summerhill and the concept of free education (before the New Tories took over that label and changed its meaning altogether). In these communities, there is less focus placed on academic learning and more placed on learning how to operate within a community. As you say: communication and collaboration. I suspect -but have no way of proving- that these environments are more favourable to language learning than any other. If I won the lottery this weekend – something I have yet to check- I will have the means of testing my hypothesis.

If language use is all about constructing meaning in the world and projecting the self onto the world, then it strikes me that a learning environment that allows you the freedom to be yourself while offering you the resources necessary to help you interpret the world would be the best of all possible worlds. If language use is inevitably social, then it strikes me that the learning environment that focuses on the building of a society within which language is used for such a construction would be the best of all possible worlds.

So, I advocate a school where students can come and go as they please. They pay their money and they make their choices. If they want to go to class, they do. If they don’t, then at least as much attention has been paid to the social areas as has been devoted to the syllabus (which has thoughtfully been ignored in favour of the curriculum). Comfortable rooms with the resources necessary to support the construction of meaning and identity lie around – magazines, books, comics, the internet. Classrooms are comfortable and well-decorated. The wall decorations regularly change and the furniture is soft and comfortable. There is a writing board which runs around the classroom and no furniture which s obviously the teacher’s. There is a large home cinema on one of the floors and podcast recording studios on another. Classes are formed on the principles of Open Space Technology – i.e. students write up themes or subjects that they would like to convene people to discuss and sign up to those themes or subjects that most interest them. A teacher will be on hand to support the class and help it move forward if it seems to be struggling. All teachers are paid a decent living wage and are expected to devote as much time to professional development as they are to their teaching. So, in a 35 hour working week, no more than 17.5 hours can be given over to teaching.

The one rule that would be enforced would be the use of the agreed target language in all social areas. That is, there is nothing that would necessarily restrict the language of the academy to English, but if English were to be the language that most people were there to learn, then English would be the lingua franca in all social areas. The exception would be classrooms where students had agreed to change the target language to any other. In this event, a solution to the staffing demand would have to be thought of…

So, if there are any wealthy benefactors out there, I am willing to take your money and put it to use to form the Panglossian Academy of Language Learning. Sign up now while there are still places…

PS Given the amount of references to Voltaire in the above, the conclusion reached at the end of Candide seems apt to this thread: “Let us work without theorising – it is the only way of making life bearable.” Even back in the eighteeenth century, people had had enough of people ramming positivism down their throats!

20 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Fabulous, Diarmuid. Sign me up! (And your new-found physical fitness has clearly not been gained at the expense of your razor-sharp intellect. Mens sana in corpore sano!)

20 02 2012
Kathy Fagan

Sounds like an ideal environment — I would probably stay there all day! How about eliminating classrooms altogether and having gathering rooms of various sizes (or of variable size). All rooms, even the theater, have a writing board for spontaneous use. Students could be in charge of varying the decoration.

I don’t know much about Montessori either, so I surfed around a bit. Some message boards reported the rigidity that you mention and others noted that levels of rigidity vary a lot from school to school. Another reported issue was that students from a Montessori school often have difficulty making a transition to traditional school environments. No surprise there! I found an interesting link describing and comparing three similar approaches, including some notes on how they assess. Just wondering if those attempts at systemically supporting naturalistic learning could offer insights to ELT practitioners, pro or con …


21 02 2012

Very interesting article, Kathy. As I read it, I found myself concluding that in the Panglossian school, the focus will be on promoting the philosophy of the school when recruiting staff – the philosophy being that in the right environment, language learning can take care of itself and teachers need to keep their professional development up to scratch in order to contribute to the right environment. Once recruited, teachers would be free to explore their own pedagogies within their classroom. So there would be no need to devise a fixed pedagogy that teachers had to sign up to. They would develop their own – supported by the school and by their peers. This in itself would be worthy of study and already I am wondering whether or not a House Pedagogy would emerge.

Unfortunately, my lottery ticket turned up only 2 numbers which means that the Panglossian Academy of Languages will have to be delayed by at least another week.


21 02 2012

“Unfortunately, my lottery ticket turned up only 2 numbers which means that the Panglossian Academy of Languages will have to be delayed by at least another week.”

It’s possible that a Good-Hearted Benefactor will be inspired to step forward before your next lottery purchase … I mean, as long as we’re fantasizing …

22 02 2012
Lao The Younger

I would be delighted to lead the Magwitch Academy of Teaching English (MATE) or perhaps the Magwith Academy for the Learning of English (MALE). Alternatives might be the Magwitch Academy for the Learning of Languages or the Magwith Academy for the Understanding of Languages.

The new coffee doesn’t allow me to think of any more. And that despite the fact that it claims to be a “6” on the strength guide (the equivalent of 11 in amplifiers…)

20 02 2012
Nicola Perry

It seems to me that a lot of coursebooks are written to enable learners to pass exams. This and the CEF, on which they generally claim to be based, both encourage this approach. This suits a lot of learners (and/or their parents). Passing exams in learning a language is not always the same as really learning a language but it is probably more measurable. People do love to be able to measure (quite a lot like our friend Mr Gradgrind)!

21 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nicola. Isn’t it amazing to think that Hard Times was published in 1854 and over 150 years later education is still beset by ‘Gradgrindism’! At least corporal punishment is no longer such a major issue (at least in some contexts).

20 02 2012
kevin stein

Hi Scott and everyone who has kept me up thinking about facts when I should be asleep dreaming about fancies,

Was just reading Dewey’s, “Moral Principles in Education,” and stopped at the following:

Acquiring information can never develop the power of judgment. Development of judgment is in spite of, not because of, methods of instruction that emphasize simple learning. The test comes when the information acquired has to be put to use.

Like Matt said above, it’s not the dots that matter, but how we connect them. But at the same time, my students love the dots. They want as many dots as possible in each lesson. So lately I try to include a process focused component to each exercise, a chance for students to think about the how as well as the what of learning English.

Thanks Scott for the post and everyone who commented and helped me connect up the scattered dots of my own ELT understanding.

21 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

That’s a great quote, Kevin, and shall go straight into my collection. Good old J.D.!

Another one of my heroes, Neil Postman, said something not dissimilar:

“If a nuclear holocaust should occur some place in the world, it will not happen because of insufficient information; if children are starving in Somalia, it’s not because of insufficient information; if crime terrorizes our cities, marriages are breaking up, mental disorders are increasing, and children are being abused, none of this happens because of a lack of information. These things happen because we lack something else. It is the ‘something else’ that is now the business of schools”.

21 02 2012

ELT in Japan also maintains this attitude towards teaching mentioned above. However, we must not forget of traditions or histories that come into the classroom. In Japan, we have a detrimental situation in which teachers just teach the way they were taught as well. Also, English education entered Japan to absorb other cultures in the past and the way to do it was through reading. Though that was about 200 years ago, the same persists. This could be because the people who make the curriculum are the college teachers that are not in the front lines but in their research labs reading and writing textbooks and teacher manuals. Have they even heard of people like S. Krashen? This might call for the importance of teacher training.

However, on the brighter side, at the moment most English teachers are linguists or do research in literature. Applied linguistic as a field is just starting out gradually changing the perspectives of ELT and the classroom. However, the deep decision-making seniority-based hierarchy prevents any new researchers to produce substantive change. Perhaps 10 or 20 years later there will be the change we need, hopefully without falling behind to next SLA research.

21 02 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, and the perspective from Japan. I don’t think, though, that the situation in Japan (where positivist educational values prevail) is so different from many other contexts, including Spain, where I live. In the unviersities here, for example, the default mode of instruction is still a ‘transmission’ one, with professors reading aloud their lectures (which are typically a succession of ‘facts’) and – if you can’t be bothered actually going to the lecture – they’re available as ‘notas’, i.e. in written form. Modern languages – including Catalan – are still taught as if they were Ancient Aramaic, which is ironic, given the widespread belief that such languages are threatened by the advance of global languages like Spanish and English.

22 02 2012
Lao The Younger

To which I would add that “even” the Anglo-Saxon model of educaion is woefully positivist. We pride ourselves on being ahead of the game despite the fact that due deference is always given to the experts and the professors and knowledge is only considered worthy of knowing once they have put their imprimatur upon it.

Positivism, as Scott and Giroux suggests, is a faithful servant in protecting existing hierarchies and the power structures that they sustain/are sustained by. This, more than anything else, is why it perseveres.

We can have all sorts of fluffy hands-on experiments and experiential learning activities, but if the experts are steering the ship or if the experts are deciding whether or not our discoveries actually matter, then I suggest that the stench of positivism is lingering in the air.

In place of positivism, the struggle is to consolidate an epistemology that recognises that knowledge is individually-owned but socially formed. The role of the academy and its incumbents is to help the researcher uncover their knowledge and to explore ways of testing it against validating criteria.

To the barricades!

26 02 2012

Interesting, though it does sadden me to know that the same is going on everywhere. I wonder what happens when schools will implement more and more technology into their classrooms. I also wonder why no one ever talks about teacher training when issues like these come up. I have always thought that if there were actual improvements in teacher training we would not have to worry about teachers just teaching the way they were taught, and finally see some real change. Or are universities afraid to admit they are not providing good education. I guess this is an issue to be taken up in anoother discussion though.

19 03 2012
Geoff Jordan

Hi Scott,

Let me begin by saying a warm “Hello” to you. I trust you’re well. The last time we met was at an IATEFL conference party and you fell over a sofa. Or was that me?

Good to see you keeping the flames of the bonfire of ELT ablaze! Throw on another few random twigs from a branch of something to do with the grand tradition of humanistic language teaching, why don’t you!

As usual, I’ve been too busy talking to dubious locals about the price of local wine to keep up to date with all the furore about your Dogme stuff, but I’ve just read your original Manefesto again, this time slowly. Chastity? No thanks!” There are times when I wonder about you, Scott (as your parents must have said) but your heart’s in the right place, and you have at least half a brain. There’s a spendid appeal which informs your tract, and I applaud it. We can’t expect any proper detail or any proper treatment of the issues you raise in it, but we might have expected rather more since. As far as I can see, your follow-up to this glorious cry to join you in some new nebulous Jerusalem has consisted mostly of back-tracking and modifications. Hardly surprising, I suppose,

Then I read the great Harmer blog and was unsurprised to learn absolutely nothing from his own long, anodyne appraisal, but was entertained to read the contributions of the lots of others who joined in the merry dance, to-ing and fro-ing to little effect.

Let me make a few points of detail before addressing the main issue.

1. Your account of positivism is ill-informed. Positivism was a school of philosophy that terminated in the nonsense (sic) written by logical positivists in their absurd search for their own daft idea of truth. Positivists were after the Holy Grail – read Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” for one of its leading members’ confession of what twaddle it all was. ike the Flat Earth view, it’s dead! There is no reputable philosopher, or philosopher of science who would defend postitivism, and there is nobody in the field of pure or applied linguistics who adopts positivist principles. Post-modernists, constructivists, ethnographers and other sooth-sayers use “positivism” as a straw-man argument against rationalists who think that empirical research is the best way to make progress in our attempts to understand certain phenomema, among them SLA. What, for God’s sake, would a “positivist approach to ELT” amount to? Russell couldn’t even agree with a five year old about whether “Is this a question?” made sense. I note that many of the replies to your blog use the term “positivism” as if they they had the faintest clue of what they were talking about. I’m not pulling rank here; I’m lamenting the use of a stupid label which does absolutely nothing to clarify important issues. That you interpret books for and about ELT as “positivist” – even if you borrow the term from some other idiot – does nothing but drag you down to their level of incoherent bollocks.

2. SLA hasn’t done that much to help EFL teachers do their job better, but it has established a few things, as you well know. The most significant findings are, as you know, that the route of interlanguage is pretty fixed, but the rate of acquistion is very variable. The implications for ELT have been spelled out, partly by you, but things like the value of direct grammar teaching; the use of simplified texts; the role of correction and, specifically, of recasts; the effects of extensive reading; process writing; drills (sic); the use of L1; teaching formulaic chunks; and, maybe above all, teaching listening skills are all being researched and some interesting results obtained. Not to mention affective factors, where, as, again, you know, Dörnyei, Skehan, and others are making good progress. In all these areas, the use of recording devices, audio and video playback, and new media for communication like Skype, Facebook and the rest can hardly be ignored. And as you know, yet again, SurveyMonkey is just one example of how we can gather data on our students and colleagues like never before.

Our aim as language teachers is to help our students get hold of a tool for communication as fast as possible, and gathering them together in some well-intentioned re-creaction of a 15th century warmly-heated hut ain’t necessarily the best way to do it. Sorry, Scott, that was a silly, low blow.

3. I’ve been working with a few students of mine who are doing post-graduate studies. One of the most interesting studies has to do with the use of authentic listening texts with lower-intermediate students. Very technical, all kinds of technology involved, but great results. But, the point is, against your manifest’s advice one might say, he uses recordings that have nothing to do with the class dynamic: he uses them for his own well-planned lesson, with a well-defined. long-term aim as his rationale.

Another has to do with using Second Life, but I’ll leave Gavin to defend all that stuff.

Another has to do with turn-taking, where members of an advanced EFL class in the UK are all fitted with recorders which are designed to record the time that elapses between turn-taking when they’re involved in group work. The researcher was trying to get a better take on the generally accepted view that Latin American students overlap, while Japanese students wait – less than a second – but with obvious results. Well we know that these kinds of cross-cultural problems exist, but why not use new, unobtrusive technology to explore them? And why not use such stuff in a normal EFL classroom, and talk about what the data says? I once did a class in Barcelona with John Faneslow and we used 4 video cameras in 1 classroom to record, among other things, what was going on with the students’ legs. It was fascinating, especially since we had John there to watch it afterwards and to make his utterly brilliant, original comments on it all. We played it back to the students, who were equally enthralled. Such, Scott, is one way that learning can take place.

And so, to my general view of your Dogme project. I think it’s great. It reminds me of the furore that Krashen’s book caused. His theory is riddled with holes, but he inspired teachers. I applaud your attempt to get teachers back to the nitty gritty and, more importantly by far, to stir things up. There’s nothing new under the sun, now is there, but there’s everything to be gained by intelligent, humanistic attempts to kick life into a tired old work horse.

See you under the sofa.



20 03 2012

A bit more about positivism.

Positivism refers to a particular form of empiricism, and the positivists were always, throughout the long history of the positivist movements, primarily concerned with the issue of reliable knowledge. Positivists were particularly concerned with Hume’s work on the limitations of empirical knowledge, and they saw their job as defending objective knowledge by establishing a reliable epistemological base. In his typically strict and unintentionally amusing style, Russell says:

It is therefore important to discover whether there is any answer to Hume within a philosophy that is wholly or mainly empirical. If not, there is no intellectual difference between sanity and insanity. The lunatic who believes that he is a poached egg is to be condemned solely on the grounds that he is in a minority. (Russell, 1961: 698)

The third wave of positivists continued the job of cleaning up science, and argued that true science could only be achieved by:

1. Completely abandoning metaphysical speculation and any form of theology. According to the positivists such speculation only proposed and attempted to solve “pseudo-problems” which lacked any meaning since they were not supported by observable, measurable, experimental data.
2. Concentrating exclusively on the simple ordering of experimental data according to rules. By so doing, science would eventually dominate the world of experience: it was only a matter of time before all the secrets of this world were revealed and became “an open book” to the patient scientist. This implies that scientists should not speak of causes: there is no physical necessity forcing events to happen and all we have in the world are regularities between types of events. Furthermore, the positivists rejected the existence of, and thus any role for, unobservable or theoretical entities.

This epistemology makes positivist science the only valid knowledge, to the exclusion of any other type of “understanding”. Apart from establishing a strict demarcation line between positivist science and everything else, the positivists shared the underlying pretension of achieving some kind of global unification of the sciences. Such a programme is obviously tremendously ambitious, and, many would say, equally arrogant. The approach was, to a large extent, a reaction to the Aristotelian approach in the middle ages, and more recently, it was against the idealism of Hegel and Heidegger. It represents, in my humble opinion, the biggest wrong turn philosophy ever took.

Positivism represents a radical form of the “generalised description” approach to theory construction: it is totally opposed to causal “explanations”, and to most forms of philosophical argument. I choose an almost random anecdote to serve as an example of the positivist attitude. Einstein remarks in his autobiography (1979: 168) that he was very struck by the “dogmatic faith” that Mach had in positivism, and that, in his opinion, the worst thing about Mach’s approach, as a faithful positivist, was the belief that science consisted in the mere ordering of empirical data, and the denial that imagination or creativity had any place.

The Vienna circle, which met in Vienna and elsewhere in the mid 1920s, represented the third wave of positivism. Comte is usually taken as the leader of the first wave, and invented the term. Comte argued that each branch of knowledge passes through “three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state; the metaphysical or abstract state; and, lastly, the scientific or positive state.” (Comte, 1830, cited in Ryan, 1970:36) At the theological stage, the will of God explains phenomena, at the metaphysical stage phenomena are explained by appealing to abstract philosophical categories, and at the scientific stage, any attempt at absolute explanations of causes is abandoned. Science focuses on how observational phenomena are related, and any generalisations are subjected to empirical verification. Mach, the Austrian philosopher and physicist, headed the second wave, which rooted out the “contradictory” religious elements in Comte’s work, and took advantage of the further progress made in the hard sciences to insist on purging all metaphysics from the scientific method (see Passmore, 1968: 320-321).

There is, interestingly, a fifty-year gap between each of these three phases of positivism: like a bad penny, it kept coming back. In the social sciences, biology, psychology and linguistics, it continued to have a powerful influence on research methodology right up until the nineteen sixties. The development of behaviourism was inspired by positivist ideology, by the desire to rid psychology of speculative thought and to put it on a sound “scientific” footing, and the predominant tendency for linguistics at this time to eschew “mentalist” models also has its roots in positivism.

The objective of the members of the Vienna Circle was to continue the work of their predecessors by giving empiricism a more rigorous formulation through the use of recent developments in mathematics and logic. The Vienna circle, which comprised Schlick (4), Carnap, Godel, and others, and had Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein (5), as interested parties (see Passmore, 1968: 367-368, and Hacking, 1983: 42-44), developed a programme labelled Logical Positivism, which consisted first of cleaning up language so as to get rid of paradoxes (6), and then limiting science to strictly empirical statements: in the grand tradition of positivism they pledged to get rid of all speculations on “pseudo problems” and concentrate exclusively on empirical data. Ideas were to be seen as “designations”, terms or concepts, that were formulated in words that needed to be carefully defined in order that they be meaningful, rather than meaningless.

Positivism was discredited first by Wittengstein, then the wonderful Gödel, then Popper, then Khun, and then Lakatos and Feyerabend,although that’s not strictly chronological. Anyway, let it be clear that modern science abhors the daft strictures of positivism, and never took much notice of it anyway. Positivism is like some ridiculous statue to Stalin; it has NOTHING to do with the way that those involved in modern research in SLA conduct their research, and has, as far as I know never had anything to do with ELT.

So just let’s stop talking about positivism as if it had anything to do with teaching practice.

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