* Four Funerals and a Wedding

The postman’s just delivered the 3rd edition of Richards and Rogers “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching”, first published in 1986. I’m surprised to see that Multiple Intelligences is in the “Current approaches and methods” chapter, and that the chapter on all those crazy 1970s methods is still there, after all these years. I think it’s time we said goodbye to them all, so allow me a few nostalgic words before we commit them all to the worms or flames.

Funeral 1: The Silent Way

Have a look at this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85P7dmPHtso

Pretty spooky, eh? Galeb Gattegno invented this method in the late 70s. I heard about it in 1982 when I went to a Silent Way demo in Barcelona. The teacher taught us a bit of Polish, and what I remember most about the session is that we, the students, were utterly exhausted after 20 minutes. It’s an incredibly demanding method! The three vaunted tenets of the approach are: 1. Learners must discover (rather than remember or repeat); 2. Learning is aided by physical objects; 3. Learning is problem-solving. Well, maybe, but the crux is this: the teacher stays as silent as possible throughout the class.

Language is taught by working with sentences which are sequenced grammatically from easy to difficult. Materials consist of special phonetic charts, a pointer used with the charts, and Cuisenaire rods (small coloured blocks of varying sizes). Each new item of the language is introduced by the teacher who clearly models it once (and once only!) and learners are then guided in using the new item and incorporating it into their existing stock of language. For example, the teacher says “Give me the blue rod” pointing to each phoneme on the charts as she says the sentence. Then, pointing to the phonemes again, she gets everybody to practice the sentence. Then she indicates to a student to say the sentence to her. The student says the sentence and the teacher gives him the blue rod. Then students can practice among themselves, pushing out to incorporate other pronouns, other colours, make the negative and interogative, make Wh questions etc. After I don’t know how long, you get to practice the present perfect (“I’ve given Jim the blue rod.”) as they were doing in the YouTube clip.

The few teachers I met who actually practiced the Silent Way were rather like people I’ve met who practice Scientology: weird, hyped-up fanatics. Despite having a few grains of truth mixed up in its mad methodology, the basic flaw in the Silent Way is the silent bit. Any ELT method based on the assumption that a teacher is capable of remaining largely silent when in charge of a class is obviously doomed to failure; it’s as naive as assuming that politicians will remain largely honest when given power. The method also assumes that learners are willing to suffer prolonged mental and emotional stress; that learning a language doesn’t need any real communication to take place in the classroom; and that utterances such as “If I knew it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have come” can be acquired via an approach which doesn’t seem equipped to go beyond the basics of the language.

Caleb Gattengo’s funeral was in 1988, and I reckon his method passed away at about the same time. RIP.



Funeral 2: Suggestopedia.

Suggestopedia is, without doubt, the weirdest approach ever. The trouble is, very few people have any first-hand knowledge of it; so, like the Ordo Templi Orientis, or Wittgenstein’s book club, we, the profane, have little to go on. In Spain, rumours about Suggestopedia were swirling around at about the same time as the Silent Way zealots were poking learners eyes out with their pointers. The version I heard was that a crazy Bulgarian educator called Georgi Lozanov was attracting nine hundred people every Saturday afternoon to Theatre 199 in Sofia, where he hypnotised them and they staggered out onto Rakovski Street 5 hours later speaking perfect English. Slightly more reliable information was available in the mid eighties when somebody close to the grand wizard managed to dodge the secret police, the searchlights and the snarling dogs, escape from Bulgaria, and set up a Suggestopedia Center in New York. The claim then was that Suggestopedia made it possible to learn English as a foreign language in 50 hours, compared to the 600 class contact hours the British Council claimed were needed to get to FCE level.

The approach is based on the idea that positive suggestion makes you more receptive and also stimulates learning. In order to achieve the relaxed, focused, optimum state for learning, Lozanov created an environment where the music, the chairs, the lighting, the colour of the wallpaper, everything contributes. So, when everyone is sitting comfortably, the lights dim, and in walks the grand maestro. When he’s centre stage, the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto ring out. Lozanov starts to read a long dialogue, taking both parts himself, allowing the music to be the protagonist, his voice acting as a counterpoint. He reads so that the rhythm and intonation of the text fits in with the rhythm of the music. After this first “concert reading”, a second, less formal reading is done, this time using a piece of Baroque music, Handel’s Water Music, for example. Next, Lozanov uses the text for more “normal” teaching purposes (don’t ask me what) and (don’t ask me how) everybody in the room memorises large chunks of the dialogues and “internalizes” them in such a way that they can use them to communicative ends. Go figure, as they say.

It’s surprising that Richards and Rogers include Suggestopedia in their historical review, given that nobody anywhere today is doing anything like the sessions Lozanov did, and there’s been no interesting fall-out either. There’s a looney bunch still working in New York (see Pearls World of Learning http://www.pearls-of-learning.com/suggest1_e.htm) who seem like a typical example of the “accelerated learning” programmes on offer, but these snake oil hustlers owe nothing to Lozanov’s reported sessions, and are certainly not based on his written work, most of which was confiscated by the communist thugs who ruled Bulgaria back then, and never released. Lozanaov was, by all accounts, a very singular man. He died in 2012 aged 86. RIP.



Funeral 3: Community Language Learning (CLL)

The guru of this method was Charles Curran, an American Jesuit priest, whose work in Counselling Learning was applied to ELT. Like the Silent Way, CLL had a band of devotees here in Spain who regarded their leader with something approaching religious awe.

Here’s how it works in ELT (adapted from One Stop English’s page on CLL). Students (12 maximum) sit in a circle. There is a tape recorder inside the circle. The teacher (the ‘Knower’ ) stands outside the circle. When a student has something they want to say in English (e.g. “Well, it’s Friday. What’s everybody doing tonight?”) they call the Knower over and whisper what they want to say, in their mother tongue. The teacher, also in a whisper, then offers the equivalent utterance in English. The student attempts to repeat the utterance, with encouragement and shaping from the Knower, with the rest of the group eavesdropping. When the Knower is satisfied, the utterance is recorded by the student. A student who wants to reply (e.g. “I’m going to the pub” or “Oh God! Do we have to talk about this?”) then calls the knower over and repeats the process, till there is a kind of dialogue recorded. The Knower then replays the recording, and transcribes it on the board. This is followed by analysis, and questions from students. In a subsequent session, the Knower may suggest activities springing from the dialogue. As the account in One Stop English puts it “Gradually, the students spin a web of language.”

The rationale for CLL is that it’s learner-centred and learner-controlled. Learners move from a stage of total dependence on the Knower to a stage of independent autonomy at the end, passing through 5 developmental stages along the way. The Knower provides a supportive and secure environment for learners, and encourages a whole-person approach to the learning.

The first time I saw a demo of CLL in 1983, I was very pleasantly surprised. A group of 8 adult business people at pre-intermediate level had an interesting, dynamic exchange of views about being a parent for about 45 minutes and the transcription of their conversation, once written up on the whiteboard, was exploited by the students and the teacher very well indeed. What was impressive (30 years ago!) was that there was no attempt to simplify the language and no attempt by the teacher to carry out any lesson plan: the students really were in charge, even when it came to analysing the transcript. I was so impressed that I decided to do a CLL class myself; inevitably, it was a disaster. The students felt silly and didn’t see the point; the tape recorder didn’t work properly; my Spanish wasn’t good enough to give a good translation; no real “topic” emerged; and when one of the students mentioned that she was divorced the whole thing collapsed into short and embarrassing exchanges in Spanish about what pigs men were. In the coffee break I had no defence against the students’ unanimous view that I’d let them down.

My own experience highlights a few of the problems involved in the CLL method. The teacher (Knower) not only has to be proficient in the language of the students, he/she also really needs counselling training. Generally speaking, if you wanted to be a CLL teacher, you had to be highly-trained, which unfortunately required a level of commitment (not to say faith) which most teachers, including me, were not prepared to give. Other problems with CLL are that It can only be done with small numbers of students; the students have to share a single mother tongue; it’s only suitable for adult learners, and, like the other methods discussed here, it focuses on the early stages of learning the new language.

Curran himself died in 1978, but from what I remember, CLL hit its high point in the early 90s when it was the buzz word at TESOL and IATEFL conferences; I could be wrong about that. In any case, it’s all over now, and I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to know that I’ve just held a quick funeral service for it in the garden, attended by 4 bemused dogs who happened to be nearby. RIP.



Funeral 4: Multiple Intelligences

Richards and Rogers discuss Total Physical Response as the fourth looney tune from the seventies, but I prefer to at least try to bury Multiple Intelligences (MI) which, (shame on you lads!) appears as a “current” approach in their book. We have Russ Mayne and his modest but hugely-influential talk at this year’s IATEFL conference, A guide to pseudo-science in English language teaching, to thank for highlighting the need to bury this nonsense once and for all. Actually, Russ didn’t have time to say how MI and the related NLP and learner style theories are used in ELT, but what he did do very well was say what’s wrong with them: there is no evidence to support them, they use poorly-defined pseudo-scientific jargon, and their claims are impervious to empirical tests. He also named and shamed the big shots who promote or at least condone MI and NLP and suggested that teachers take a more critical view of so-called expert opinion.

Gardner’s MI theory, which has undergone quite a few revisions, says there are various distinct intelligences, including linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal sense of self, naturalistic intelligence, and, most recently, “mental searchlight intelligence” and “laser intelligence”. The point of this is that most teaching, including ELT, is said to concentrate exclusively on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, thereby ignoring the need for teachers to expand their repertoire of techniques, tools, and strategies. Gardner defines a skilled teacher as “a person who can open a number of different windows on the same concept”. This has proved influential on its own, but has also played a part in the development of theories of learner styles and NLP. It’s extraordinary to see Richards and Rogers not saying unequivocally that MI has no support whatsoever from research findings, and maybe not surprising, but still depressing, to see the British Council website making no critical comment whatsoever on its website page devoted to NLP, to see Mario Rinvolucri of Pilgrims offering teacher training courses in MI and learner styles, and on and on. Just to be clear: there have been no published studies that offer any evidence of the validity of the MI, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe a word Gardner or anybody else says about the efficacy of aiming one’s teaching at learners’ bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Lynn Waterhouse gives a good review of MI in her article “Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review Published online: 08 Jun 2010. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4104_1

Of course, in order to have a funeral service for MI, we need to nail it in its coffin. Russ has whacked a few nails in, and I hope this will help, but I’m not very confident when I say RIP this time.



The Wedding

They haven’t actually named the day yet, but everything indicates that the Process Syllabus (Prosylla) is finally going to hitch up with The Task-Based approach (Tasba). They’ve flirted with each other for over twenty years now, but Prosylla always had a tough time making friends, while Tasba never lacked for partners. But Tasba’s been reading Paulo Freire, Peter McLaren, Shirley Steinberg, Alexander Neill, Rose Bard, Michael Breen, and also, curiously enough Richards and Rogers. It comes to him, like an epiphany, that if there’s one thing we can learn from all these 1970s methods which have passed away, its that there’s something undeniably right about learner-centred classroom teaching. It’s much more demanding, it’s much easier to make a mess of, but, in the end, it’s the only way to go. Ever since her dad, the great Michael Breen, presented her to the public in 1984, Prosylla’s been insisting that learners should call the tune, while the billion dollar coursebook industry has made sure that everybody who wants to go to the ELT ball dances to the robot product beat, and Prosylla’s effectively sidelined. She’s been waiting for a really strong partner to take her to the ball and now Tasba’s had this flash, he’s fed up with bossy partners leading him through the same old predictable, lock-step shuffles, so he’s tweeted that he’s ready to ditch teachers and tie the knot with Prosylla. The prenuptials make it clear that Tasba will hand over the choice and sequencing of his tasks to Prosylla, ensuring that the learners, not the teachers will own their classrooms. I feel a song coming on. “There may be trouble ahead, But while there’s moonlight and music, And love and romance, Let’s face the music and dance.

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