IATEFL 2017 Part 2: Thornbury The Apologist

One of the worst presentations I saw in the BC’s coverage of the IATEFL conference was Scott Thornbury’s Writing methodology texts: Bridging the research-practice gap.

First, it was a sales pitch.

Thornbury starts off by praising his publishers for the frantic efforts they made to get his books ready to be sold at the conference. This is just one example of the commercialisation of the conference that Steve Brown discusses.

Second, it was devoid of critical acumen.

Thornbury has a good idea: ask a few writers of “How to Teach English” books a number of questions:

  1. How did you get into writing methodology texts?
  2. How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?
  3. How have you kept/do you keep abreast of new developments in research, e.g. SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?
  4. Given that most research is somewhat inconclusive, how do you select from – and prioritize – the research findings that inform your texts?
  5. Do you feel you have an ‘agenda’, i.e. a bias towards a particular theoretical (or a-theoretical) position? If so, do you think this matters?
  6. If not (or even if so) do you attempt to be balanced/impartial/non-prescriptive? How do you achieve this?
  7. Does it concern you that you might be ‘dumbing down’ or otherwise misrepresenting research findings? How do you guard against this?
  8. To what do you attribute your success? (Don’t be modest!)

He gives samples of their responses such as

PU: It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.

JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti- research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching.

JS: Mainly, I think I write what I do and what I see other teachers doing. Informed ideas that may or may not work for others. These need to fit in with my own internal schema for how I think people learn, study, behave etc.

Then he summarises his findings:

  1. Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.
  2. Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
  3. Methodology writers are sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends, while, at the same time recognizing their inherent weaknesses.
  4. Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’.
  5. Methodology writers present options rather than prescriptions.
  6. Methodology writers adopt a voice that is non- academic and practitioner-oriented.

He concludes that their responses are a good guide to how teacher professional development should be carried out.

No critical assessment, not one word of criticism. Everything’s fine.

Look at Conclusion 2:

Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.

In other words, methodology writers cherry pick, looking for stuff that supports their own biases. They ignore the minimal criterion for a critical appraisal of evidence, a criterion which they hypocritically impose on those doing the teacher training course they all run.

Thornbury’s data show that those who write methodology books pay scant regard to research into how people learn languages. They “filter” research findings; they rely on Twitter or on what somebody told them; and often, well, they just haven’y got time to read the research. They “present options rather than prescriptions”, i.e., they refrain from any critical evaluation of conflicting methodologies.

Thornbury’s data is disquieting, to say the least. It turns out that the books which are recommended reading for the hundreds of thousands of people studying to get a qualification in ELT are based more on the authors’ biases, intuitions, feelings and what somebody else told them, than on any serious attempt to critically assess what research findings tell us about how people learn languages.

And this, says Thornbury, is a good model for professional development in ELT.

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8 thoughts on “IATEFL 2017 Part 2: Thornbury The Apologist

  1. Hi, Geoff,

    I warned Scott about this. He seemed to think I was joking. He was mistaken.

    I’ll start with some general thoughts, then move on to address your critique of Thornbury’s talk.

    I’ve claimed elsewhere that every person argues from or within a framework, which determines the conclusions they are likely to draw and the positions they are likely to start from. I think this maxim applies very much to your case. The SLA researcher has a notably different modus operandi from the language teacher. It would be easy for me to say that the researcher is only concerned with one aspect of what happens in the EFL/ESOL/ELL (hereafter simply ‘EFL’) classroom, whereas the teacher must adopt a more holistic approach. It would also be simplistic, so I’m not going to do that.

    There is definitely, however, a problem for the teacher in accessing and making practical use of research. Partly, this is down to language: the typical EFL teacher (again, I’ve argued so elsewhere) is not properly trained to access, interpret and critically evaluate research. However, there is also far too much research for the teacher to make use of, even if they are able to interpret it. This rather obvious problem wouldn’t be so great if teachers knew, if not how to interpret research, how to recognise which studies are relevant to their context. I don’t think I need to know, for example, being in the UK, how forced introduction of strong CLT into large classes in Japanese universities can cause short-term spikes in affective filter amongst students and Japanese EFL teachers.

    However, it is disingenuous to draw from that that teachers can or should get on without research. I partly agree with the idea of an intellectual mediator, but if the teacher and researcher cannot reconcile their differences, and the mediator is the only means of bridging that gap, I think we’re just shooting scores of Zeno’s arrows into the air – if the mediator fails to bridge the gap, what do we do then? Add a mediator to mediate the mediator? And one for that one? And again? And so on? Researchers and teachers need, together, to put a bit of effort into building that bridge themselves, so the mediator can cross it
    —————————-

    “Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.”

    In other words, methodology writers cherry pick, looking for stuff that supports their own biases. They ignore the minimal criterion for a critical appraisal of evidence, a criterion which they hypocritically impose on those doing the teacher training course they all run.

    *** This is a rather hasty and unfair challenge to level at them. I’m not saying it’s not true, but it’s a big step from Thornbury’s statement to your interpretation. Research has limitations. Quantitative research doesn’t provide much beyond the numbers, while qualitative research can be context-specific, and, even if trustworthy, a qualitative study in and of itself wouldn’t prove that current practices aren’t working. If a teacher has observed music lowering affective filter and improving exam performance for 35 years, and research then says that music raises affective filter and lowers exam performance, you can’t expect the teacher to just accept the research, even appreciating that the teacher is unlikely to have accounted for variables as the researcher does. There would be, I imagine, a cut-off point where research does trump experience and practice, but where would that cut-off point be? Somewhere between one heavily flawed study and Learning Styles?

    It would be no issue if methodology writers combine the findings of research with long-term, consistent observations from their own experience to determine what does and does not work. If the methodology writer is to act as mediator, they need a degree of expertise, in which case expecting them to use research to adopt new practices is placing too heavy a burden on them. Again, Zeno’s Arrow.

    “Thornbury’s data show that those who write methodology books pay scant regard to research into how people learn languages. They “filter” research findings; they rely on Twitter or on what somebody told them; and often, well, they just haven’y got time to read the research. They “present options rather than prescriptions”, i.e., they refrain from any critical evaluation of conflicting methodologies.”

    ***This, while true, is, again, not really fair. You’re painting the methodology writer as someone who deliberately ignores research to suit himself, or herself. Social media gives a strong indication as to what teachers are interested in, which itself indicates what people are likely to try out. It is, in other words, as good a place as any for the mediator to determine which studies are relevant insofar as knowing which studies teachers will want to know about. Granted, here, the mediator is perhaps leaning too far towards the teaching POV and too far from the research POV (Zeno’s Arrow, again), but the preference for teachers and methodology writers is always going to be what the teacher is currently interested in, currently practising, not what the researcher is looking to delve into next.

    “If Thornbury’s data is anything to go by, these writers are a disgrace. It turns out that the books which are recommended reading for the hundreds of thousands of people studying to get a qualification in ELT are based more on the authors’ biases, intuitions, feelings and what somebody else told them, than on any serious attempt to critically assess what research findings tell us about how people learn languages.”

    ***I think ‘disgrace’ is far too strong, here. I also think you’re being somewhat disingenuous tarring them all with the same brush. There was a definite spectrum between JS’ views and JH’s views, for example, with the latter favouring research and lamenting its absence from ELT (whether or not JH practices what JH preaches is a separate issue), and the former favouring personal experience (not, I believe, the same as anecdotal evidence) over research findings.

    “And this, says Thornbury, is a good model for professional development in ELT.”

    *** Though I’m not sure if it’s the model you take issue with or the choice of mediators. What if, for instance, the mediators were a mix of teachers, writers and researchers who closed that gap between teacher and researcher, or, at least, took swung the balance a bit more to the centre, rather than in the grasp of the untrained teacher?

    And apologies if this post is entirely incoherent. I am, still, juggling my thoughts about IATEFL.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Robert,

      Thanks very much for this. You’re right to pull me up for making too sweeping “accusations” but I’m afraid I stick by the argument, which should be more nuanced, that Thornbury’s data indicate a disquieting disregard for minimum standards of scholarship among the methodology writers who participated in his study. And that Thornbury should have made some comments about the data, rather than simply saying that they made a good basis for teacher training.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Say what you like about my talk, you can’t condemn it for being ‘a sales pitch’. It was flagged as such in the program. And it mentioned the title of the book I was pitching in the abstract. Those who are allergic to sales pitches (as I normally am) were fairly warned. They needn’t have come. Or watched the video. When IATEFL told me the event was to be filmed, I reminded them that it was a sales pitch. They didn’t seem to mind. I guess that’s what writers do: they promote their own books. I imagine Popper did the same. Or even Michael Long. Is there any harm in that?

    (If you want to see a truly dreadful sales pitch, watch the one sponsored by Oxford that preceded mine, also filmed).

    As for the content of the talk, well, that’s another matter If you’re interested in seeing a more ‘critical’ take on the same data, then come along to the longer version of the talk at the ELTRIA Conference in Barcelona later this month, where I will be sharing the stage with David Block, Simon Borg and carmen Muñoz (who also promote their own books) among others. Details are here: http://www.eim.ub.edu/eltria/index_en.php

    Like

    • Hi Scott,

      You’re right, and I meant to say that you’d made it perfectly clear that the talk was a sales pitch. You were absolutely up front about it.

      And I’ll certainly come to the ELTRIA conference, where I’ll sit quietly at the back, taking notes and nodding sagely. Not sure I’ll be able to maintain the good behaviour during David Block’s show 🙂

      Like

  3. Pingback: 2. Research and practice: the great divide – DYNAMITE ELT

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