Evidence-based medicine is all the rage at the moment. While not lacking in critics and almost certainly leading to the dismissal of some brilliant mavericks and their ideas alongside the control of crackpots and incompetents, all the evidence seems to suggest that the process of asking doctors and hospitals to put data before instinct leads to huge statistical improvements in health. So, can we imagine a sometime in the future world in which everything we do in the classroom will have to be backed up by research? It’s possible, but TEFL will as ever be at least twenty years behind mainstream education, and there’ll have to be a huge increase in research funding. So, at the moment we should be in the clear position that we all know that we don’t know anything and all accept that virtually anything in the classroom can be backed up by quotes from books that are no more or less credible than the books saying the exact opposite. Right?
The position we are actually in is a complete fudge, most clearly illustrated by the influence of research on the Baby Bentley of TEFL qualifications, the Cambridge DELTA. In order to pass the DELTA you will need, it is true, to read and quote loads of books. Nowhere in the criteria does it say, however, that any of those quotes and books be based on actual research. A couple of opinions by the two opinionated Michaels (Swan and Lewis) plus at least one more, and one of your essays for the lesson observations is done. When I was doing the DELTA myself I launched into a ten minute rant during one input session on being endlessly told about and being told to reproduce who said what about what when, with not a jot of data behind any of those statements. The DELTA trainer’s reaction was a tired looking “Well, that was interesting” and back to another photocopy from 1982, and that seems to sum up Cambridge’s attitude also- including to the whole concept of outdated and up to date sources that would be important in virtually any other field.
You could say that all that is fair enough, because if there were any conclusions to draw on, they could tell candidates “Please, no more lessons on Cuisenaire Rods. They have been conclusively proved to be useless for learning” or at least “Candidates will be lose marks for mainly quoting references in support of their arguments when the consensus of research is quite clearly against”. Obviously none of us are in the position to say that, but what then is the use of quoting old issues of ELTJ- even if you do (and you do) have to compare that to your own experience? Is it simply to prove that you know what the ELTJ is in the same way that you must define terms that you already know that the person who is reading knows??
More on science and TEFL in the two posts below, and will give some links to interesting pieces elsewhere when I wrap it up with the next post.