A missive from Cambridge
So I finally got a reply from Cambridge ESOL last week -- as I had suspected, my message had been lost in their automated email inquiry system. Luckily, Monica Poulter who is "involved in the production and delivery of Cambridge ESOL's teaching qualifications" came across my plea for some communicative activity and wrote a very nice response. I'll be returning to Monica and that response after a bit of a digression...
Fads and fashions...
Back in February, when I wrote the "Teachers Should Know How to Teach" editorial extolling the virtues of the CELTA (or RSA Cert as it were when I were a lad), I assumed that a qualification with the backing of Cambridge University would have been subject to some formal research into whether students learnt more quickly with teachers who had the CELTA than with those who had no training at all. I mean, my beloved CELTA couldn't be a course informed by fad and fashion, guru and grant, without any concern as to evidence for its efficacy, could it? Or could it?
It was true that I had often had discussions about ELT that felt similar, I imagined, to homeopathic practitioners discussing the most effective way to do violence to vials of water. Plenty of discussion of thumping technique but little discussion regarding research into the effect of such imaginatively and skillfully-executed thumping...
Bloodsucking leeches and Uri Geller
Of course, the making of claims unencumbered by evidence is hardly limited to ELT or homeopathy. Experts have historically asserted all sorts of dubious things based on intuition and "insight": the virtues of bloodletting with leeches for fevers and using mercury for scraped knees being just a couple of relatively recent and less barbaric examples that spring to mind. And people easily bamboozle themselves and others... I think it was after reading, back in the early 90s, the magician James Randi's expose of everything from horoscopes to levitation to spoon bending (Flim Flam!) that I realized that an insistently intuitive or emotional approach to beliefs wasn't kind of quaint (as I had previously thought) but potentially quite harmful, especially when that approach touched on issues that affected other people. Issues like health... and education.
In promoting the CELTA without any compelling evidence of its effect on learning outcomes, was I putting myself in the same camp as the proponents of homepathy, reiki, astrology and magic crystals? I felt like I was, and it wasn't a camp I wanted to be in...
Teachers in Britain and Bad Science
In his brilliant book, Bad Science, the British medical doctor and Guardian journalist, Ben Goldacre describes (amongst many other things) how British teachers have fallen for a modern snake oil called Brain Gym:
"Children are routinely taught -- by their teachers, in thousands of British state schools -- that if they wiggle their head up and down it will increase blood flow to the frontal lobes, thus improving concentration; that rubbing their fingers together in a special sciencey way will improve 'energy flow' through the body; that there is no water in processed food; and that holding water on their tongue will hydrate the brain directly through the roof of the mouth."
If teachers, schools and education authorities could be duped in this way perhaps I shouldn't take it for granted that academics in ELT knew what they were doing...
A quick flip through the index of Richards' Approaches and Methods... nothing under "research"... maybe "evidence"?... nope... How about A–Z of ELT ? ... nothing there... Hold on... Nunan and Bailey have a newish book on this... Exploring Second Language Classroom Research...
And here is where I really started to worry. Nunan and Bailey's book on research pays a substantial number of pages of lip service to formal experimental research -- you, know, the type that has led to the most astonishing improvements in the way we live. It's not long though before we see where their hearts truly lie, first noting that for researchers like Larsen-Freeman "insight rather than proof should be the standard of research" (I can feel those leeches now...) and then quoting the slightly more engaging:
"If you study grains of sand, you will find each is different. Even by handling one, it becomes different. But through studying it and others like it, you begin to learn about a beach."
Well, that is certainly one approach that will keep a lot of academics in academic activity for the rest of their tenure... You could alternatively, of course, study the way beaches behave as a whole, define representative types of beaches as samples to study, make hypotheses about how they might behave, falsify the hypothesis, renew your hypothesis, study again, and iterate until you've got something that is difficult to falsify and works in practice, that, for example, allows us to do something useful or at least build hotels, ice cream stands and piers on beaches. Of course, if studying every grain of sand on a beach can get us there too, I'm all for that, as well. Let us know when you're done.
In Bad Science, Goldacre sees the poor (often negligent) reporting of science by many journalists as a result of the media being run by "humanities graduates with little understanding of science who wear their ignorance as a badge of honour." As a non-scientist myself, I think this is too harsh -- but I was a little surprised by Nunan and Bailey feeling the necessity in a book "suited for candidates in teaching credential, master's degree, and Ph.D programs" to explain the word "hypothesis". Did they think ELT was composed of lots of anti-science humanities graduates?
In any case, it certainly doesn't seem that Nunan is in favour of doing much externally valid empirical research. In fact, Dr. Nunan has kindly written to me to say that he feels that formal experiments are "useless". Too many variables, which make them too expensive to do properly -- if, in fact, they can be done properly. How expensive? Well one estimate is around $100,000 dollars... Goodness, that is very expensive, indeed.
But now bear in mind that Cambridge University has ELT-related revenue of over $150 million dollars.
That's right. $150 million dollars. Annually. One might be confident that they had spent some of that money for some formal research into the efficacy of their courses.
Why should we care about evidence?
So, finally, I return to Cambridge ESOL and Monica. I actually care whether Cambridge ESOL are able to provide evidence that learners learn better with CELTA-trained teachers than with teachers who haven't been trained at all or have been trained by some dodgy diploma mill. (I could word that more precisely but you'd have to pay me $100,000 and I've gone on long enough already...)
And I want to show this evidence because:
1) I took the CELTA, I thought it was great and that it made me a better teacher (as defined by my students learning better), and I'd like to have my no doubt faultless insight backed up by some evidence, so I don't get accused of hypocrisy by my reiki-loving, "moon goddess" sister. Umm, bit selfish on that one...
2) There are too many people who mix up experience and expertise and believe that because they've been teaching for years they don't need to be trained -- and anyway they "know someone who never got trained and he's a brilliant teacher". (To these people, I would suggest that there are quite a few superb untrained mini-cab drivers in London but if you had to bet your house on getting to your destination, would you choose an unlicensed mini-cab at random or a licensed black cab with a driver who has done The Knowledge?)
3) When organizations like Gaba or AEON or the Japanese government consider whether they should employ trained teachers, I want to point out to them that students learn better with CELTA (or DELTA or Trinity) trained teachers. Right now these organizations feel perfectly entitled to hire untrained teachers, as there is no hard evidence that trained teachers are any better.
4) Those dodgy organizations offering training won't be able to imply: "we're just like the CELTA -- they don't have any proof and neither do we. And look we have an academic advisor!"
5) If the evidence is there, then more organizations, governments, and companies will hire trained teachers and -- most importantly, as a result, people should be able to learn English more effectively.
Sadly, Monica from Cambridge ESOL doesn't seem able to help me out, polite and thoughtful as she is. In answer to my question:
"Do learners of English learn more effectively (however defined) with CELTA-qualified teachers? What studies have been done to show that they do (or don't) ?"
"As far as I am aware, no comparative longitudinal studies with an equivalent qualification have as yet been undertaken, and given the range of variables involved in any dynamic learning-teaching environment, it is unlikely that such studies would be considered valid by the ESOL academic research community."
The ESOL academic research community. I see. Apparently unable to conceive of an acceptable study, properly controlled, properly funded, that would show, for example, that CELTA-trained teachers promote more effective learning than untrained, or dodgily-trained teachers. You know, in general. (Which would, by the way, tend to help validate a lot of the other current thoughts on methodology in ELT, given that the CELTA distills best practice and theory in its course.)
Are researchers too busy climbing academic ladders publishing articles about those grains of sand on the beach? Perhaps, but if "academic ESOL" (whatever that is) and Cambridge ESOL don't want to be accused of having houses built on sand, they should get their research houses in order, and start doing more studies that have practical value in the real world -- for learners, teachers, language schools and policy makers alike.