Paleontology and Fossil Gathering

A brontosaurus diagram from the 1880s. Factually inaccurate.

I was involved in a serendipitous exchange today on Twitter, that started with my friend James musing about yetis possibly being a kind of undiscovered polar bear. I said that given the evidence of polar bear distribution of polar bears and yeti sightings it would be unlikely but not impossible for it to be a kind of bear. One of his followers, Helen, joined in and said something about dinosaur skeletons being reassembled in weird ways to make monsters and it got me thinking about Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and language teaching.

SLA is a relatively new science, much like paleontology. We know some things from observing evidence (if how people appear to learn or not in SLA; of typical anatomical arrangements in paleontology) and making hypotheses to test in order to go on and construct theories.

We also have language teaching. Some language teaching is informed by SLA and some is not. Some fossil gathering is done by people who read up on paleontology and some is done by people who are interested in finding cool stuff, and some is done by accident.

What’s the point? Well, have you ever heard of a brontosaurus? Of course you have. It’s a massive thing with a long neck and a long tail. And the wrong head for years. And endless debates about whether it is the same as an apatosaurus. There is mainly scientific agreement to say the brontosaurus is a kind of apatosaurus. There are still some who say it warrants a distinct genus.

There are plausible ideas in language teaching. Grammar can be learned in a linear way from simple to complex, that massive exposure leads to massive gains. Unfortunately the evidence doesn’t hold up. Grammar (or actually morphology) appears to be learned in a sequence of acquisition with a lot of gaps in the evidence, rather like the allegorical dinosaur skeletons. Some people will go with what we know from science and hold out for the gaps to be filled before making bold claims. Others may try to put a pile of bones together to make a “Harryhausen Cyclops” (thanks Helen) and hoping it’s so, despite a lack of evidence or even overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

There’s also overplaying what science says and making conjectures look like fact. What colour are dinosaurs? Green, yeah? Lizards are green. But not all. There are lots of different coloured reptiles. The skin colour of dinosaurs is conjecture, based on evidence, but taken as fact, per se. Babies are exposed to loads of language, babies get fluent in a language therefore exposure equals acquisition? Perhaps, but there are more factors than that, as any migrant language teacher knows from colleagues who are exposed to the local language but never acquire it (and often never bother to try and learn it).

So what? Well, I think that, no shit Sherlock, getting more SLA literate and informed would help the profession to be less like would monster makers but more like people putting a stegosaurus together. Or having a collection of ammonites, which, while not sexy, are important to natural history.

On stuff about research and conferences

Happy New Year everyone. I am not going to do a yearly reflection because 2017 was a mixed bag and quite stressful.

On ELT Twitter and across ELT blogs there is some murmurings about research (usually on teacher beliefs) and hidden in a paragraph somewhere is a mention that this is in preparation for an IATEFL talk. This got me wondering about whether people would do such research if they didn’t have a conference proposal accepted. I suppose what I am trying to say is that if you had a rejection, at least one person thinks your idea matters (you), and the big conferences are not the only way to get such research out. Local teachers associations and chapters of them want speakers at meetings. If that doesn’t work, it might even be useful as a magazine article or blog post. For all the hand wringing about teacher research, it would be a good idea to follow through on a good idea without needing a conference committee to say something is a good idea.

Speaking of conferences, how many of them are affordable for people without research budgets? Seriously! JALT’s conference is quite expensive for four days (without considering the fact that most working teachers in Japan can’t take Friday and Monday off). IATEFL is expensive, too. Pretty much anything with ‘International’ in the name of the conference is expensive. When ExcitELT came to Tokyo, it was cheap. There were no tote bags filled with university press-branded pens or anything but that’s a weird thing to want from a conference. Could we have more for less? Easy, if commercial entities don’t join in and demand their perks.

I suppose what I am saying is ELT doesn’t have to be a spending spree. What the CPD could be is a lot cheaper, a lot more grassroots and perhaps more relevant. Let’s see more of this from this year.

3 home truths about research evidence in TESOL

Research doesn’t affect anything except practice among some university teachers or a small number of school teachers. It does not affect materials to a degree significant enough to affect teachers’ general classroom practices. This is OK; those of us with lab coat envy can feel good about our principles while others can feel good about being in touch with teaching realities.

However slavishly you believe that you follow a method or approach, you’re probably following your interpretation of it rather than something the developer would regard as a practice they prescribed. This is fine because it is also informed by judgment of how the people in the classroom would respond to your methods.

We can talk ourselves blue in the face about IATEFL, but I have met approximately two members of that organisation in the time I have been teaching. For most teachers, IATEFL has as much bearing on our professional life as Paris Spring Collection has on the clothes sold in Topshop. You can choose to enthuse or dissent about points of view expressed there there but your enthusiasm or dissent is irrelevant to most teachers. It is your own, and it affects mainly your own practice.

The Personal Side of Evidence-Based Practice

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My classroom after laying Post-Its to track where I went and who I monitored.

“Evidence based”. It’s so trendy, it’s science-tastic, you the forensic teacher in CSI (Classroom Sciencey Instruction). How many research papers we have found Open Access, through Sci Hub or requests hashtagging #ICanHazPDF!

It’s not all about reading research. Sometimes it’s more about doing very small-scale research to see what happens. Sometimes using recording media, sometimes just paper and pens.

 

A lot has been written about Action Research by much better brains than me. Anyway, this is a guide to what I might do in a personal action research project.

Gather thoughts

Research for the sake of it is just making work for yourself. What might be better is having a think about what you’d like to understand more about in your classroom(s). Write it down, and keep asking yourself probing questions, for example:

What about this could be a problem?

Is there simply a difference in personal values?

What would do I think is happening? Is this ideal? Is it definitely true?

This is likely to make your findings more compelling to you because they’ll be less superficial and you will understand already what the connections may be to other aspects of your practice.

Design your evidence capture

How you gather your evidence depends upon your classroom and the people in it. You might ask learners to help, or not. You might track your movement, or not. You can use post-it notes to stick in places, on items, etc. You can tally things on paper. You can record yourself on video, audio, or even log your steps taken with a pedometer. What and how you capture it is an important thing and you want accuracy but also ease of use if you don’t have a team (or peer) to help.

Check it before you forget it

You need the time to check your gathered data. Can it be interpreted in more than one way? Which way has most significance for you? It’s likely to suggest further action/intervention or continuing the action you were already doing. If it’s something different, you might need time to prepare and read up on how to do this, or get advice from someone who already does it. Also, keep your information somewhere you can find it. If your new action gets challenged, you want to be able to say why you’re doing it.

More data

As you take your new action/intervention, you may want to write down what happens when you do it, both positive and negative. It may be that any information is not strongly suggestive of anything: rather than stop, give it time or tweak it according to your intuition but write down what you did differently. You might find that the first way was the best way (or not). You might find that this intervention is not as good as what happened before. This is fine, because at least you know that this does not work for me/this class/this situation.

Decide what happens next

This could be a repetition of the same cycle, it could be that you feel you’ve finished it, it could be a return to the status quo. Keep your findings, though. It might be grist for the mill if you or a colleague have a similar train of thought in the future.

A sum up and an invitation

A picture of books

It’s been a good long while since I started this blog and in the meantime I have finished a Trinity DipTESOL and am close to finishing a MA Applied Linguistics & TESOL with Portsmouth University. My Dip was great for the phonology stuff I picked up, and OK for teaching practice (Trinity don’t let you use strong CLT approaches like Dogme or Task-Based Language Teaching with a Focus on Form. You are supposed to teach discrete language points). My MA has been great for access to ideas I might never have come across and, well, library access.

But next steps, Marc? Isn’t the title of this blog Freelance Teacher Self Development? It is. And there will be self-driven development. There are irons in fires and action research projects to fire up.

I have some bits and bobs to send to journals, but I think it would be kind of interesting and perhaps useful for the field of language teaching to have a bit of teacher-based research for teachers, on the internet, gates open, widely participated in. I know peer-review is all the rage, but I think that if we make our mistakes in the open, people can see the limitations of what gets done as well as any merits, and so it’s less a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes but more that jumper that was under some others at the back of the drawer. It’s not something everyone would necessarily be all ‘Wow! Amazing!’ about but perhaps ‘I don’t know if this would work in my setting but nobody would die if anything ended up disappointing me.’ I am a born salesman, I know.

So, here’s the bit I am kind of thinking about: after logging five random lessons starting in October 2017 with the same class, did you teach intonation? Why (not)? If so, how (explanation of method, explicit, differentiated or whole class, etc.) Blog your stuff and we can make it big.

Marc, why intonation?

I like phonology a lot and I’m just finishing something that I needed to think about lot of segmental phonology so suprasegmental is almost a break.

Marc, I want to do something about something else.

That would be fantastic. Let me know because I would be super interested in reading about it.

This is such a stupid idea. People don’t have time.

Maybe. How about people who have the time and want to do it, do it?

Anyway, hit me up in the comments.

Accessing Research When You Aren’t At University

One of my (many) bugbears is that rank-and-file teachers don’t often have access to research or academic documents when they aren’t enrolled or teaching at universities. Seriously, if SLA researchers and education researchers were keen to improve the lot of teachers on the front line then their findings would be made available to read, at least cheaply, instead of in the walled garden (hi Elsevier) that charges a fortune for a 48-hour reading period.

That said, there are little holes in the wall. Anthony Schmidt, Claire Maas and Mura Nava set up ELT Research Bites. There is superb stuff on here from a range of people. Also, Anthony has a lot of Research Bites on his personal site.A lot of academics are putting up papers on sites like Academia.edu and Researchgate.net. Not only that, but some people have publications on their own website or their university sites.

Researchers

Simon Borg – hat tip to Patrick Andrews.

Vivian Cook – Thanks Geoffrey Jordan

Zoltan Dörnyeí

Jim Flege – Phonetics and Phonology

Glen Fulcher – thanks Geoffrey Jordan

Stephen D Krashen

B. Kumaravadivelu

Roy Lyster

Paul Meara – thanks Marisa Constantinides

Paul Nation – thanks Jane Sabey

Norbert Schmitt – thanks Jane Sabey

Ian Wilson – Phoneticist

University content

University of Hawaii TBLT presentations – Once again, thanks Geoffrey Jordan

Open Access Journals/Publications

ELTED

English Language Teaching World Online – thanks Peter Watkins

Faculty of Language – an academic blog, again, thanks to Geoffrey Jordan

Humanising Language Teaching magazine. Not exactly a journal but not exactly a magazine. Very readable and not written in an ivory-tower style.

International CLIL Research Journal.

JALT Journal. Japan Association for Language Teaching’s main journal.

Journal of Second Language Teaching & Research.

The Language Teacher. Japan Association for Language Teaching’s magazine with some short research articles by members.

TESL-EJ – Thanks Geoffrey Jordan

Read more

This article by Jake Orlowitz points to even more resources.

This is Mura Nava’s list of repositories. He also says Sci Hub is useful.

This by Florentina Taylor on ELTJam.