Sunday, April 13, 2014

IATEFL Harrogate Online: Russell Mayne (Pseudo Science)

During the IATEFL conference in Harrogate, I noticed that Russell Mayne's presentation was mentioned a lot on various social media channels. Russell, who is behind the Evidence-based EFL Twitter handle and blog of the same name has now also written about the buzz his talk created in a lively blog post. As you will understand, the subject of his talk is disruptive (you could describe it as edupunk, if that term hadn't already been used to describe something else), and with rock n' roll analogy being a particular theme of the conference this year, I suspect this presentation will be looked on as the ELT equivalent to the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall. Fortunately, the presentation was recorded and his presentation is also available to download, so we can all make the claim 'I was there' while chatting at the bar in future conferences. 

The focus of Russell's talk, A guide to pseudo-science in English language teaching, was "on aspects of English language teaching which have little or no scientific credibility" and he examines practices such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), learning styles, multiples intelligences and brain gym

Russell started with an explanation of pseudo-science: "something that looks like science...but, lacks the crucial ingredient of science,which is evidence." Often called brain-based learning, critics refer to this as neuromyths (Anderson and Reed, 2012: Buch, 2014Geake, 2008; Swain, 2008) 

How much support for neuromyths is there in TEFL?
There is surprisingly a lot of support for neuromyths in our field. Russell gave as an example: the CELTA, which promotes different learner styles, and the British Council's TeachingEnglish website has a lot of articles on NLP. English Teaching Professional was set up by a neuro-linguistic programmer. Humanistic Language Teaching run courses teaching you how to teach using multiple intelligences and NLP, articles have appeared in the ELT J and IATEFL Voices. There are talks about NLP at the IATEFL 2014 conference and Mario Rinvolucri has written a book on using NLP in teaching and is an NLP master practitioner. Herbert Puchta has written a book on multiple intelligences. Marjorie Rosenberg, coordinator of BESIG, has recently written a book about learning styles and is interested in NLP. Jim Scrivener includes it in his book on classroom management, although Russell points out that "he does say that we should take them with a pinch of salt". Jeremy Harmer has been a fan and Brian Tomlinson suggests thinking about students' learning styles when materials are written. Richards and Rogers also include sections on multiple intelligences and NLP, although "they are somewhat critical".

Why are they so popular?
Russell believes because "they sound intuitive and plausible...learner-centric...and they seem personal, in the same way that horoscopes do." There are also few people who are critics in the TEFL world. Russell mentioned Philip Kerr and Scott Thornbury and Hugh Dellar as exceptions. People also believe what they want to believe. 

What's the harm?
It is a waste of time. Students could be pigeon-holed. Our professional credibility and standards can also be affected. Bad practice can also be spread. With all that in mind, Russell has created a 'baloney detection kit', a series of questions you can ask: 

Q: Does it sound too good to be true?
For example, Brain Gym "can help students to...learn anything faster and more easily" and "reach new levels of excellence" among other boasts. NLP's claims are even more impressive. In medical science, Russell says, this type of claim would be called "a panacea, or
cure-all...and something touted as a cure-all usually cures nothing."

Q: Does it make illogical or impossible claims?
As an example, Russell mentioned  the '5 senses' mentioned by NLP/learning styles enthusiasts (see slide left), although "in actual fact human beings have many other senses, such as the sense of pain, sense of temperature and a sense of time and sense of taste. 

Brain Gym also boasts that it helps us use more of our brains than we normally use, promoting the myth that human beings normally use only 10% of our brains, debunked by cognitive scientists, but still believed by many people. 

Q: Does it make claims that are vague or hard to test?
Pseudo-scientific claims are often deliberately vague and hard to measure (improve creativity, raise student self-esteem, etc). 

Q: Does it use a lot of confusing "sciency" sounding terms?
Learning styles and their instruments (convergers, divergers) is an example. The very name of Neuro-Linguistic Programming is "particularly interesting" as "it has nothing to do with neuro-science, nothing to do with linguistics and nothing to do with computer programming." It also uses a number of sciency-sounding terms. 

Q: Does it have little or no scientific credibility?
Russell illustrated this with a number of citations from academic researchers stating that learning styles had "no credible evidence", etc. NLP has also been continually attacked, and yet continues to be popular in some circles. Multiple Intelligences has been criticised by many people too. The most interesting of these is Howard Gardner (who invented the theory). He is not happy with how the theory has been adopted in teaching and has said:

"In one video after another I saw youngsters crawling across the floor, with the superimposed legend ‘Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence’. I said, ‘That is not bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, that is kids crawling across the floor. And I feel like crawling up the wall." (Gardner, 199:142)

Q: Is contrary evidence ignored by supporters?
An example Russell gives is from the ELT Journal (Hatami 2013:2), which basically stated "there is no evidence that these work, but we feel good when we use them, so let's use them anyway." Jeremy Harmer is also quoted saying that although there is no evidence that NLP or multiple intelligences work, "they both address self-evident truths"  so we should use them anyway (Harmer, 2007:93). 

But, Teaching is an art!
In response to this, Russell quoted Michael Swan, who in 2000 complained about an article encouraging teachers to use crystals in the classroom: 

"Assertions - in both science and art - always need justification: you don't make things true just by saying they are"

Further Reading


  1. As so often happens, discussion about this has spilled over on Facebook - I'm recording it here so I'll have a record of it (it will be impossible to retrieve the discussion otherwise as Facebook is so ephemeral):

    PD: I'm glad you shared this. What do you think? Initially I thought this was an interesting session but on reflection I think a cheap shot. Any attempt to 'prove' how language is learnt through science is likely to be found wanting and that applies to this speaker as well - looking for proof. We all teach and learn through our belief systems - what ever they are and nobody can really say for sure how learning happens. There is no doubt in my mind - oh dear I'm stating a un proven belief!! how shocking... that ideas connected with NLP, MI, multi- sensory approaches can help contribute to understanding how learning happens and how we might reach learners in different ways from the 'typical' lockstep of the classroom. Has the speaker ever taught learners with special educational needs? Nobody who really understands multiple intelligences or Gardener's work would ever reduce his ideas to simple methodologies that can be crudely applied to teaching.

    JH: There has actually been serious research done on learning styles - he's wrong to discredit it altogether as an unfounded belief system. See Coffield et al for a very comprehensive study of the validity and reliability of over 70 different learning styles theories. Also Rebecca Oxford's work. I wrote an article a few years ago for RELC journal trying to apply Coffield's findings to practice in Teacher Education.

    GS: Do you mean this research by Coffield? The summary of the findings didn't seem to be very positive. For example, "None of the models we reviewed passed all of the ‘good test’ criteria of reliability and validity"

    JH: He found 11 theories as having significantly more validity and reliability than others as I recall. He did ditch a lot of the 70! My paper took the 11 theories and tried to make sense of the confusing ways they overlapped and used terminology in different ways.

    GS: The 2004 report by Coffield et al ( seems to be what you are refering to and yet the conclusions of this report seem to be that 'none of the most popular learning style theories had been adequately validated through independent research, leading to the conclusion that the idea of a learning cycle, the consistency of visual, auditory and kinesthetic preferences and the value of matching teaching and learning styles were all "highly questionable."

    GS: Since 2004, more research seems to have been done, building on Coffield's work (this report from 2011, or example: This report quotes Coffield as saying "“...our examination of the reliability and validity of
    their learning style instruments strongly suggests that they
    should not be used in education”

    GS: I don't agree with you here. With so much evidence mounting up against the theory of learning styles, for example, and explicit recommendations by researchers not to use them in the classroom, I'm with Geake: "“Basing education on scientific evidence is the
    hallmark of sound professional practice and should be encouraged with the educational profession wherever possible. The counter-argument only serves to undermine the professionalism of teachers, and so should be resisted” (Geake, 2008, p. 124).

  2. Facebook conversation (above) continues...

    JH: The report I read by Coffield (may have been a later one?) did say that 11 theories were more reliable/valid than the others. My own article was not uncritical - in fact at one point I call the prevalence of theories containing 4 ( why always 4?) a 'pizza-cutting approach to human personality'...

    GS: Is this your article? If so, as it' published in 2006 it's unlikely it was later research by Coffield

    JH: However I guess I am a bit biased. I saw my own daughter aged 9/10 completely transformed by the move from a one-size-fits-all model of UK primary education to New Zealand, where a thinking skills programme and a multiple intelligences approach is built into the curriculum in primary and secondary. Within quite a short space of time I saw a child who was school- apathetic ( Why do I have to go to school for people to tell me things I know already?) become an enthusiastic learner - I recall one piece of homework where she had to choose tasks based on learning styles. She couldn't wait to get the task sheet out of her bag, grabbed a highlighter pen and started underlining the tasks she wanted to do. Well, I know this is anecdotal not 'scientific' but maybe research should be done on kids in NZ schools!

    GS: Well, although anecdotal, something related what was done, seems to have positively affected your daughter. do you think it might have been related something else though? Perhaps moving and starting afresh in a new country or changing the actual teacher - I know that my own attitude to school and what I was learning depended very much on the teacher. There were subjects I loved that I started to dislike after a teacher change, and vice-versa

    JH: No, I think it was related to the valuing of individual difference.

    JH: There are 2 Coffield 2004 studies. Both enormous. I remember reading both - it was a long time ago though and I can't remember exactly what they said.. The one I refer to in the article did end up recommending six or seven theories. The two he preferred were a bit more related to learning strategies than styles, if I remember. He didn't consider MI I don't think and of VAKT I remember he/they disapproved of matching teaching style to preferred modality but found that multi modal presentations resulted in improved learning.

    GS: Well, there's nothing wrong with that I think. Treating everyone in class as an individual is bound to be a good thing and to make a difference on how they respond to learning. I'm sure that this is the case even if it is dressed up in the guise of 'learning styles' However, I am sure there are other ways you can treat learners as individuals that do not need to use pseudo-science

  3. Hi thanks for posting this, is there a link to the FB discussion?

    1. Just replied to you on Twitter, Russell - I think you have to be friends with the poster to read it - it's also now a week old, which is why I wanted to capture it here. Unfortunately, FB is very ephemeral

  4. Russell, there's a discussion about to kick off related to your talk on the IATEFL YLT SIG group - come and join us to help me defend your views‎

  5. haha I'll try...but you're doing a great job. :)

  6. BTW, who are JH and GS?

  7. JH - Jeremy Harmer / GS - Graham Stanley ;-)

  8. Graham - are you sure JH = Jeremy Harmer and not Jill Hadfield?