A Long Ramble on Evidence and Change. No, really, it’s long. 

I read with some interest a post on “Six Useless Things Language Teachers Do.” I like this sort of thing, and it’s why I read Russ Mayne’s excellent blog not to mention several other blogs, and numerous books around a general theme of evidence based practice, and on the theme of challenging sacred cows. I particularly enjoyed the “six useless things” post because it challenged some of my own holy bovines: recasts, for example, being largely ineffective. This error correction strategy is something we teach on CELTA, although not, admittedly, as a key one, and it’s definitely one I apply. I think that if I do use it, mind you, it’s as an instinctive, automatic response to a minor error, rather than a planned or focussed technique. 

More of a challenge for me was the second point: not so much the dismissal of direct correction of written errors, as this more or less chimes with my own stance on this. I’m not sure it’s totally useless, as the piece suggests, but I certainly don’t think it’s much good. The challenge to indirect error correction (using marking codes, etc.) is more of a tricky one. I agree, for sure, that students can’t be expected to know what they have done wrong, but I wonder if there are perhaps one or two errors that a student can self correct: slips, silly spelling mistakes, “d’oh” moments which they know on a conscious level but perhaps forget when focussing on fluency (present simple third person singular S for higher level students. I mean you). I wonder, as well, if there is a pragmatic aspect here. Most teachers are working with groups of students, not individuals on a one to one basis, and using an indirect marking strategy, combined with making students do something about it inside class time, means that you, as a teacher, are then freed up to go round supporting students with the mistakes that they can’t self-correct. Context also counts for a lot here: a groups of beginners is radically different from a group of high intermediate students not only in their language level, but also in their meta-language level. Often, but not always, high level students have been through the language learning system a bit, have an awareness of meta-linguistic concepts,  and, crucially, are used to thinking about language. 

I could go on, but this isn’t about trying to pick holes, or a fight! It’s a naturally provocative piece, with a title like that, how can it not be? It’s also, as far as I’m concerned, correct in many of the other points, learning styles, of course, learning to learn, etc., although on that latter one I’d be interested to know how much time should be spent focussing on learning strategies: I’ve got 90 hours, tops, to help my students gain a qualification. How much of that time can my students and I afford to spend on it? If a one of session is minimally impactful, then I think I probably won’t bother.

What this shows you, and me, however, is that as a teacher I am terribly, horribly biased. I come to the job now with many years of courses, teacher training, reading, research, conference workshops, observing teachers, being observed, getting and giving feedback, in-house CPD, and, of course, a bit of classroom experience. This is bad. Bad bad. Because I have developed a set of routines, of practices, of “knowledge” which are, in fact, very hard to change. Oh, I may make lots of noise about research, about innovation, about challenges and being challenged, reflective practitioner, blah blah blah, but a lot of it, I worry, is so much hot air. 

Take one of my favourite bug bears: SMART targets for ESOL learners. Now let’s imagine that some university somewhere funded some formal research into SMART targets. And they did a massive study of second language learners in a multilingual setting which showed, without question, that students who used SMART targets to monitor their learning achieved significantly higher levels of improvement when compared to those who did not. Let’s imagine that a couple more universities did the same, and found very similar results. In fact, there developed a significant body of evidence that setting SMART targets with students was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a good idea. Pow! 

Now, in our fictional universe, let’s also imagine that I read these reports and am struck by the convincing nature of the evidence which runs entirely at odds with my opinions, beliefs and understanding. I have to wonder that even, in spite of this, I would be able to make the massive mental leap of faith and accept that I am wrong and the evidence is right. Could I do it? On a similar vein, if it turned out the evidence was all in favour of learning styles; that technology is, in fact, a panacea for all educational challenges; and that there is a fixed body of objective Best Practice in Education which works for all students in all settings all the time, if all this turned out to be true, could I align useful with all this because the evidence told me so? 

Probably not. 

For one, if all these things turned out to be true, I’d probably have some sort of breakdown: you’d find me curled up in a ball in the corner of a classroom, rocking backwards and forwards muttering “it can’t be true, it can’t”. More importantly, however, what this shows is that evidence and facts can say what they want, but the pig-headed stubbornness of a working teacher is a tough nut to crack: it would take a long time for me to adjust, to take on the changes to my perceptions and to work them into what I do. It might not even happen at all: even in the best case scenario, I think I would probably want to cling on to my beliefs in the face of the evidence. 

Unless something chimes with our beliefs about our practices, unless we agree in our professional hearts that something should be true, then short of a Damasecene epiphany in front of the whiteboard, it’s going to be extremely hard to embrace it. Let’s not beat ourselves up about it, mind, because that’s not going to help. And don’t let’s beat up others either: we are, after all, only human, and I have a suspicion that, regardless of our politics, one of the things that professional experience leads to is some form of professional conservatism. How do we get past this? 

Expectation, probably, would be a good place to start: it’s too easy for leadership and policy makers to declare that a new practice, with an evidence base, of course, is good and should be enforced. How effectively that gets taken up depends on the size and the immediate visible impact of that practice. When I am leading a training session, I start with a very simple expectation: that everyone go away with just one thing which they can use with immediate and positive impact. It’s u realistic to expect more, and if an individual takes away more than one thing, then that’s a bonus. To expect more than this from any kind of development activity is probably unrealistic, and actually, so what? If someone takes on a new idea and puts it into place, then that’s a success surely? We can apply this also to evidence based practice: make small changes leading up to the big change, and the big change will much more likely happen. This is often not good enough for some leadership mindsets, who demand quick, visible changes, but that is a whole other barrier to teacher development which I’m not going to explore. 

Time, of course, would help, but given that FE in particular is financially squeezed and performance hungry, this time will need to come at the teacher’s own expense. No time will be made for you to read, discuss and understand research (and God forbid that you attempt to try anything new during formal observations) so that time must be found elsewhere. Quite frankly, however, even I would rather watch Daredevil on Netflix of an evening than read a dry academic paper providing evidence in favour of target setting. (Actually, I think I would read that paper; so, you know, when you find the evidence, do let me know: because I’m sure that ESOL manager and inspectors have seen this evidence and are just hiding it for some random reason. After all why would such a thing be an absolute requirement?)

Deep breath. 

I’m sorry this has been such a long post: it’s been brewing quietly while I’ve been off and I’ve been adding bit by bit. But there’s a lot that bothers me about evidence based practice. Things like the way learning styles hangs on in teacher training courses, and therefore is refusing to die. Things like the rare and to easily tokenistic support for teachers in exploring evidence and engaging with it. Things like the complexity of applying a piece of evidence based on first language primary classrooms to second language learning in adults. Things like the way the idea of evidence based practice gets used as a stick (“You’re not doing it right, the evidence says so.”) while at the same time being cherry picked by educational leaders and policy makers to fit a specific personal or political preference. Not to mention the way that the entire concept of needing any evidence can be wholeheartedly and happily ignored by those same stick wielders and cherrypickers when it suits them. An individual teacher’s challenges with evidence which runs counter to their beliefs is a far smaller one than when this happens at an institution or policy level. A far smaller challenge, and an infinitely less dangerous one. 

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