The Culture of ELT Blogs

max-ernst-6

Max Ernst’s disturbing image above is, I hope you agree, magnificent. My son calls it “awesome”, an adjective which, through overuse, has almost lost its force, but surely applies here. What I love about this print is its force: it demands attention. Max Ernst was part of the Dada movement whose aim was to shock society out of its complacency. I want to suggest just one thing here: ELT blogs are part of an online philistine culture where complacency is encouraged and robust critical discussion is frowned on.

Apart from what you might read here, it’s very rare indeed to come across articles in ELT blogs which criticise the arguments and opinions of leading writers and academics in the areas of ELT and applied linguistics. If you Google “Top ELT blogs” you’ll get lots of lists, and what’s striking is that, in the thousands of posts and pages that the Top Blogs contain, there is an almost total absence of critical content.

One noteable exception is Russ Mayne’s Evidence Based EFL blog , which has done much recently to effectively explode a few well-established myths. But it’s an exception to what seems to be an unspoken rule among ELT bloggers to avoid criticism. It’s as if everybody’s signed some protection charter which lays out strict, stifling rules of eitiquette designed to ensure that the sensibilities of the nervous, tethered sheep who are presumed to make up the readership of the blogs are not upset. There might also, I suppose, be some kind of pact among bloggers to the effect that “You don’t criticise me and I won’t criticise you”.

Whatever the explanation, there seems to be a fearful aversion to saying anything “bad” or “negative” about anyone in an ELT blog, and a general lack of appetite for, or engagement in, critical exchange. To the extent that this is the case, it surely indicates an underlying anti-intellectual, uninquisitive and undemanding culture which reflects badly on the ELT online community. I should make it clear that I’m not recommending the practice of insulting members of the ELT establishment, although, IMHO, most of them deserve more insults than they get. But a culture which eschews critical debate and fails to regularly and enthusiastically subject its own current beliefs and practices to critical evaluation, is, in my opinion, both weak and philistine. Russ Mayne quotes Wilton’s remark: “Anyone who has any experience debunking legends or pseudoscience knows that the task is often an unappreciated one. People do not like to have their beliefs questioned or to have good stories spoiled”. Quite so, but as both Russ and Wilton appreciate, this debunking activity is necessary if we’re the slightest bit interested in understanding what we do as language teachers.

Nobody knows how people learn a second language, and, partly as a result, nobody knows the best way to learn or to teach a second language. And yet it’s common for leading lights in the ELT community to talk as if they knew exactly how SLA happens and how ELT should be done. The fact that these know-alls often completely contradict what they said 10 years ago suggests that you shouldn’t take what they say at conferences too seriously or trust their books any further than you can throw them. Unless we adopt a critical stance to what we’re told, we are very unlikely to improve our understanding of second language learning and teaching.

It’s not just MA students who should be encouraged to think critically and to question those who speak with “authority”. Everybody who is confronted with assertions, claims, arguments, theories, etc., should apply the two litmus tests of logic and evidence. Here they are:

1. Is this logically consistent?
2. Where’s the evidence?

This should be the default attitude of all those who like to think for themselves rather than allow others to think for them.

Of the many issues in the field of ELT and applied linguistics which deserve our attention these days, I suggest that these are among the most interesting:

• What is the current most widely-accepted explanation of SLA?
• Why are classroom materials not locally made rather than provided for by multinational companies?
• What is the current thinking about the role of lexis in describing English and in ELT?
• What is “English”? Is Jenkins right to argue that it’s a Lingua Franca? How would English as a Lingua Franca actually work? How would it be taught?
• What’s happened to Dogme? After the clever sequence of side-steps in reply to criticism made by its founder, what’s left?
• How can we pin down constructs like “motivation” and “aptitude” in sociolinguistics in order to better study them?
• What are the essential principles of Communicative Language Teaching?
• What is the role of extensive reading in ELT?
• Why is there so little action taken against the worldwide discrimination against “non-native speaker” teachers of English?
• In the multi-billion ELT industry, why do a tiny minority of people get rich while the vast majority of workers stay poor?

While all of these questions have been critically discussed in journals such as ELTJ, Modern English Teacher, Applied Linguistics, Forum, TESOL Quarterly, etc., I’ve seen very little critical discussion of them in blogs. Why so?

Why is robust criticism met with silence? What explains the uncritical culture of ELT blogs?

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13 thoughts on “The Culture of ELT Blogs

  1. [Note: I did check with Geoff before I posted this comment. I wanted to make sure he had a chance to view it in case he felt I overstepped my bounds. He graciously agreed to these comments unedited. To me, that speaks well of him.]

    I agree with you that all people, particularly teachers, need to be critical of what they are doing and how they are doing it. There has been a lot of banter about being more ‘evidenced based’, but I don’t think there is a lot of action as of yet. I am quite willing to give people the benefit of the doubt here since I don’t think it is solely dependent on them. There are a number of factors that cause people to make the choices they do, notably that of a lack of time or understanding. I am one that chooses to see people for who they are, rather than by their actions. Yes, actions do speak volumes, but it doesn’t always speak the truth.

    That is why I choose to give you the benefit of the doubt, even though your ‘actions’ (i.e. your posts) seems to say something quite differently. I am one of those who is not very impressed by your tone and language. I understand that you are just trying to make a point, but I feel you are confusing being critical with being harsh. I also understand that I am the type of person you feel is being too soft. Well, I have been accused of much worse. Yes, I am careful in what I choose to say and how I say it. An example of that is this response. I have tried very hard to make sure I am not judging you as a person since I do not know you other than through the lens of what I read on this site. I suspect you are much more than what is written here and I may even be surprised of what I find out about you. That is why I am only commenting on your words, not you as a person.

    To say that only one person has been so bold as to be critical of others on their blog I feel is being very narrow on what it means to be critical. Some choose to keep their ‘attacks’ to themselves and will find other ways to express their feelings in regards to what they see and problem areas in their profession. I read a number of ELT blogs and while some only post simple class exercises or what is happening in their day, that does not mean their beliefs and knowledge about what is happening do not come through. Sure, they don’t always lay it out as clearly as some, but when you examine what they believe through the content of what they are posting, it is often there.

    Chastising people who are taking risks to give sometimes complete strangers access into the success and failures of their profession will only cause people to become unmotivated and will drive them away from the discussions. The small percentage of teachers who take an active role in joining in the global conversation should not be the target of attack. Guiding, mentoring, encouraging, and helping them discover things on their own is what we strive for with our students. It should also be what we look for in a colleague.

    I actually do apologize if I have been harsh. That is not my intention. I have a hard time reading your blog at times since the way it is written causes me to miss a lot of the content. I do sneak back from time to time because I feel you have a number of good things to say, I just wish the attacks weren’t so personal. That is my two-cents worth. Thanks for listening.

  2. Hi Nathan,

    Thanks very much for taking the time to make this sensitive, well-considered comment.

    I appreciate that my writing sometimes offends you, and I’m sure that you speak for many.

    I hope that it’s mostly a question of style and that “beyond” the style you can judge for yourself the main points I’m trying to make. So, for example, if I call Jeremy Harmer a witless idiot, that doesn’t stop you judging my main point, which is that he very frequently talks rubbish.

    • I hear what you are saying and I am able to read between the lines. Unfortunately, I disagree with you when it comes to personal attacks. Your Jeremy Harmer reference is a good example. I don’t see Jeremy as a ‘witless idiot’ since he is neither without any wits or an idiot. I may or may not agree with his content, but I am quite certain he does not appreciate the personal slander and nor should he. If you said the same thing to me, I would be personally offended. If you riled against what I had to say about a subject, I would hope that I could be far more accepting since I know I am not perfect and I have a great deal to learn (so very much). Your ‘style’, as you put it, comes across as very personal and I feel is completely unnecessary.

      I guess we will agree to disagree on this. I don’t want to end on such as negative note, so I want you to know that I think you are extremely knowledgeable and I appreciate your desire to move people into becoming more critical. Maybe some day I can buy you a cup of coffee and get to know the ‘real’ Geoff.

  3. Hi Nathan,

    I would love to meet you and shoot the breeze, tho I’d insist on a good shot of Polish vodka with the coffee. If you’re ever in northern Spain, do please come and see us. That’s a genuine invitation.

    Your care for the sensibilities of others is surely uncontroversial; where we disagree is to what extent those who get rich and famous from talking rubbish deserve protection from insults. It’s only, I stress only, a question of style. I’ve never called Jeremy Harmer a witless idiot, but let me say here, again, that I think he talks rubbish most of the time, and that what he says needs exposing as badly-informed, pumped up platitudes. Harmer’s published work is badly-written, unoriginal pap, and his appearances at conferences confirm that he has nothing (sic) original to say.Whether or not he’s a decent human being I neither know nor care, but I insist on my right to give my opinion about all the crap that he says and writes.

    And that goes for most of the stars in the dim galaxy of ELT. They all frequently talk nonsense, and it behoves us to say so. Of course, there’s the matter of how we say so; I choose to be more “direct” than suits your taste, and I appreciate your concern. But in the end, Nathan, I suggest to your good, compassionate self that those who rule the roost in ELT are part of a self-serving elite who don’t deserve the respect that they’re given by uncritical teachers. We can say that they’re a pack of nasty bastards, or, more “politely”, that they don’t always maintain the highest intellectual and moral standards. Let’s agree that their work deserves more careful scrutiny than it gets.

  4. Hi Geoff,
    I see what you are saying here, but at the same time criticising people isn’t the same as criticising concepts. I think there’s an increasing amount of critical analysis of key concepts in ELT on a number of blogs. I like to think I’ve done a fair amount of this myself recently, and I’m planning to do a bit more of it in coming weeks.
    Anyway, critically analysing a concept or questioning the validity of an approach doesn’t necessarily mean you have to slag off individual people. I really like your blog and some of your ribbing of TEFL celebrities can be quite entertaining, but I am more interested in the points you make about language acquisition than your examples of Harmerballs.
    The fact that most bloggers seem to be very supportive of each other is perhaps a good thing because it means we are more likely to say what we really think. If everyone was conscious that anything they said might end up being jumped on and ripped to shreds, they’d be less likely to say anything in the least bit controversial.
    Maybe we can be critical of each other’s ideas but continue to be nice each other?
    Steve

  5. Hi Steve,
    Thanks very much for this. There are 2 different issues here, are there not? First, the lack of posts on ELT blogs which critically evaluate the work of leading writers and scholars in our field. I did a quick search though more than 50 popular ELT blogs and found less than 1% of the content dedicated to such posts. Related to this is the way that readers respond to posts which highlight weaknesses in current widely-accepted theories and practices. Even when no personal attacks are made (see my posts on Krashen, Emergentism, Michael Hoey, the “Lexical Approach”, Rod Ellis, Celce-Murcia, Larsen-Freeman, for example), I suggest that there is a reluctance among readers to endorse, or to comment on, what is perceived as “negative” content. That’s the main point I was exploring: Why is there such a culture in ELT blogland?

    The second point is that, as you say “critically analysing a concept or questioning the validity of an approach doesn’t necessarily mean you have to slag off individual people”. Of course, I agree. What’s more, I (slightly reluctantly) have to agree with the majority, who think that we bloggers shouldn’t slag off individuals, and I’ll renew my efforts to avoid doing so. I appreciate your point about the blog community spirit and the value of not intimidating anybody. So yes, we should be critical of each other’s ideas but continue to be nice each other, or failing that, at least not be nasty.

    Have a wonderful, rich, meaningful weekend Steve. See: I’m really not much good at this “nice” stuff :-)

  6. In his typically polite way (encouraged by my own example, no doubt) Mike Griffin sent me this to publish if I thought it was OK. I’d have published it whatever it said, but, in the event, I’m very pleased to re-produce it below.

    Dear Geoff,

    How are things? For some reason it feels strange to offer the standard praise one might offer when starting a letter such as this. Not because I don’t believe all the nice things I might say about you and to you but because it might read like bullshit. It isn’t. Let me just say I love your blog and your voice and I am very happy you exist and happy you share things on your blog.

    Blogging and blogs is what I wanted to talk about here, actually. In your recent post you critiqued the culture of ELT blogs. I wanted to share some thoughts and experiences on this. I am not sure I will be able to change your mind or convince you of anything but I think the value is in conversation so here I go. I knew I was going to respond to your post pretty much immediately. I noted that Nathan and Steve have covered much of what I hoped to say in the comments on your post, and far more eloquently than I’d hoped but since I already started this response I thought there might be some value in finishing it and sharing it. Please forgive me for the rambling and potentially incoherent nature of this response.

    To be honest, I occasionally wonder if people are too polite in the ELT blogosphere. Yet, I tend to think too polite is better than the opposite. Personally, I sometimes have disagreements and concerns with what people have written. Sometimes I do my best to engage and politely disagree. Sometimes I keep my disagreement to myself but what I read informs my thinking and teaching. Sometimes I reach out in a private channel (Google drive and email are my favorites here) to discuss things on a deeper level. Sometimes I just think about the issues on my own and then write a (semi) related post. Sometimes I talk about things with friends and colleagues. Sometimes these discussions happen in pubs. Often on Facebook. One thing I am trying to emphasize here is that just because there is no clear battles or records of things on blogs doesn’t mean there isn’t critical thought happening on the basis of what people are writing. Blog silence doesn’t equate to an absence of critical thought.

    With that word critical in mind, I think maybe we need to be clear on what we mean by this word. Maybe we are operating with a different meaning of the word but I feel like maybe your definition falls more on the “critique” or “be critical of” side of things. Does that sound about right?

    One confusion I had while reading your post was if you were advocating more criticism of the big names in the field or among bloggers to each other, or both. For me, these are altogether different matters. Just speaking personally, I don’t typically feel the need to trash another working teacher’s thoughts. Perhaps people are (justifiably?) reluctant to do so? When it comes to big names I don’t see the same reluctance, really. All the Mitra (admittedly not exactly an ELT person) posts in the aftermath of IATEFL come immediately to mind. I have the sense you were talking more about the lack of critical pieces about the accepted doctrines in field. Our lenses, perspectives, expectations, and definitions might be different but I feel like I see a fair amount of this type of critical post.
    I took the challenge you suggested and checked out a list of popular blogs and (from memory) I noted and remembered quite a few blogs and posts I’d consider to be critical of the status quo in this field. Perhaps, as above, we have a different standard of what that might mean or maybe we also differ on what a good or reasonable percentage of critical posts might be.

    Even if we disagree on the optimum level of critical blog posts (or even the definition of such) I think we can agree there are many blog posts out there that are not critical at all. Of course there is a lot of crap and, to borrow your term, pap out there. Personally, I am not a fan of the “7 iPad apps you simply must use on Monday morning or you are a bad teacher and quite possibly a bad person” type posts. Not a fan at all. I am, however, happy to say that such posts are fine for many people and just not up my alley. I am not sure if anyone or anything needs to or can be blamed for this state of affairs but if I had to place blame somewhere it would be on the working conditions and situations many teachers (read: blog readers) are in. I think many teachers are looking for easily digestible and applicable ideas online. I dare say many (most?) English teachers don’t have the luxury of time to grapple with more in-depth blog posts.

    I am not trying to defend all ELT blogs and bloggers but I think there is plenty of good and critical stuff out there. If there were more, I might not have enough time to keep up with everything! My contention is that ELT blogs are, or at least in certain pockets are, filled with critical thought. I’d suggest this ELT blogosphere is actually more critical than many other spaces. Could it sometimes be more critical? I suppose so.

    A few other considerations came to mind when considering your view of the lack of criticality in blog posts. I have already mentioned time issues above and I think these apply to both readers and writers. Next, this might sound like an excuse but I am not sure what sort of access most teachers have to journals and the like. I might also suggest maybe what the big names say is not as important or relevant to most teachers on a day-to-day basis as one might assume at first. How important is what Ellis (just for example) says to the average teacher? How important should it be? How much time do teachers need to spend rebuking things when they can go on with their teaching and reject or accept ideas from the experts in their classrooms. Of course, the question of to what extent teachers follow the experts is an important one.

    Just to give an example, while I tend to favor task-based learning at times, I don’t blindly follow (or particularly like for that matter) the Willis framework on this. Now, if I were to make a blog post based on what I do in class, I might not even mention the framework or the Willises (Willi?). I would likely just write about what I did in class and why I did it and how I thought it went. I think by not following accepted wisdom and sharing what happened I’m tacitly showing my take on their work. I don’t think I necessarily need to mention them by name and critique their work. I think at times the critique can be seen in the actions taken by the teacher.

    At the end of your post you shared some suggestions for blog posts. I am personally not sure how interested I’d be in a blog post on “What is the current most widely-accepted explanation of SLA?” Maybe I would. I am not sure. If you wrote it I would surely read it, though. I liked and appreciated the other suggestions and I will keep them in mind for a rainy day. I hope others do too.

    One final point, then. Part of the reason I was comfortable enough to respond to your post here is that we have developed a relationship over time and I trust that you will try to understand what I am writing in the way it is intended. If I didn’t have this trust I would have been unlikely to respond to your post. You mentioned Russ in your post. I have had some very critical discussions with him. I think part of this stemmed from building up trust and rapport and me feeling comfortable to dispute things he said (and vice versa, I hope and believe). My idea here is that both on and offline it takes time build up relationships to where people feel comfortable disagreeing and engaging in critical conversations.

    Thanks very much for reading this and also for your provocative post(s).

    Sincerely yours,

    Mike

    PS- Your post was the nudge Steve Brown needed to finish his excellent post on Globalization, so I thank you for that too.

    PPS-If my memory is correct, in the past you have mentioned blogs by Russ, Alex, TheSecretDOS, Carol, Hugh, and Rose as examples. These are all great suggestions for reading. I might also add Divya, Kevin, Hana, Willy, Tony, The TEFL Equity Advocates and lots more.

  7. Hi Geoff,
    Nathan, Steve and Michael partly expressed how I feel about your post. Having said that, there are one or two things I would like to quickly add and reiterate.
    As Michael said, I’m not sure whether more in-depth or critical posts is exactly what many teachers are looking for when reading blogs. We may argue whether this is positive or negative, but I think the reality is that many teachers would like to find quick solutions, activities and recipes to use in their coming classes.
    While I think looking at the ideas and concepts accepted as dogma with a critical eye is important, criticising or insulting somebody is a different cup of tea. As Nathan pointed out above, throwing insults at somebody because we disagree with their views is not the way to go – at least in my opinion.
    I do agree with you, though, that teachers should indeed be encouraged to question what the experts say when there is evidence to the contrary, try out new methods, argue and discuss. As Steve said, however, this is different from criticising individuals. For example, while there are certain points I disagree with in Medgyes’ discourse on NESTs and NNESTs (e.g. the strengths and weaknesses debate), I would never say he is a witless idiot, or anything of that sort. He might be wrong on certain things (and I have expressed my opinion on this on http://www.teflequityadvocates.com), it does not give me the power to insult him. And one should have the humility to acknowledge that my own views might actually be equally misled.
    Finally, I do think there is a healthy amount of debate in the blogging community. This was actually one of the reasons why I joined. The Mitra example given by Mike is a very good case in point. And so is the #ELT chat. I also hope that http://www.teflequityadvocates.com does bring in a bit of healthy discussion and critical thought into the mix.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, and to Nathan, Steve and Mike for writing some great comments.
    Best,

  8. Hi Marekkiczkowiak,

    Thanks for this. First let me say that I support the aims of your blog, I’m “following” now and wish you luck,

    Secondly, In response to Nathan, Steve, Mike, you and others, I’ve recognised publically more than once recently that insulting people on blogs is a poor way to argue one’s case and should be avoided. I’ve made insulting remarks in precisely 3 posts out of the more than 60 I’ve published (and never called anybody a witless idiot), so I hope that until you spot any further transgressions, you’ll let this particular matter rest. .

    Best,

    Geoff

  9. Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for the great and thought-provoking post. I agree with you that: ELT blogs are part of an online philistine culture where complacency is encouraged and robust critical discussion is frowned on. But this happens almost everywhere on the globe, not only in the blogosphere (and it is a sociological issue for a broader discussion).

    Critical thinking is very important and it leads to questioning, skeptical reviews and critical discussion – and these, in turn, lead to new ideas … It is essential, in my opinion, for every intellectual to doubt and question everything, contrast ideas and express her/his opinion freely. I think that being polite and nice are good qualities, but I do not think that conflict is such a bad thing. I really love people to be intellectually curious, honest, and direct. I would not like you to change anything in your style, be yourself, be direct, and even harsh sometimes when it is necessary to make people think and move from their complacency.

    Critical reflection and critical discussion are very difficult, and demand a lot of knowledge, good reasoning and eloquence. And you have it all. I find your posts very insightful, and I am really happy to have the opportunity (and I would not have it if there were not for the Internet) to learn from you.

    Ljiljana

  10. Hi Ljiljana,

    Thanks VERY much for this heartening comment.

    “To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact.” Charles Darwin, More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol 2

  11. Hi Geoff,

    This post, and it’s rich comments, have made me think a lot about how to respond.

    See, I have to agree with Nathan when it comes to being turned off by name-calling and more personal attacks, but I’ve also been deeply engaged with many of your posts where you discuss ELT theory in a very critical way. While I don’t feel like I have read, discussed, and taught as much yet to be able to criticize many theorists (yet), I’ve enjoyed reading your comments and keeping them in the back burner for the future.

    Like Mike, I appreciate the fact that there is a level of politeness in ELT when it comes to discussions. Often times we don’t know who that other person online is and we share a lot about what we do and why. One of the characteristics that makes this online ELT community so appealing to me is that I feel that what matters most is what we do and how, not people’s degrees, published work, fame, egos or attacks on others. Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of that from professors at universities I’ve worked at -not so much online in our community.

    I’ve read many blog posts that are thought-provoking and critical about very tangible everyday teaching situations any one can relate to. For example, Divya Madhavan’s (http://divyamadhavan.com) posts on action research. I wish she would have been close when some coworkers who don’t really want to be English teachers (frustrated novelists or anthropologists) were putting down AR, calling it “fake research”. The Secret DOS blog posts criticizing English language levels is another good example, especially considering this is the norm and an unquestioned “truth” in the world of TESOL.

    I think you raise many great points when it comes to talking about questioning materials made by multinational corporations instead of locally and NNEST discrimination (just to name a few). I would also love to explore some of the questions you ask, and your post has motivated me to put them on my writing list for this Fall. However, I think it’s not accurate to say bloggers are not critical. Some of us are very new to blogging and, in my case, have decided to blog as a way to reflect on personal practices. Sometimes, like Mike said, the more critical comments happen outside of blogs, but I can’t say that’s because anyone is afraid of the repercussions. If I had to guess, the fact that there are more blogs about lesson tips, for example, has to do with priorities. At least where I’ve worked, most teachers of ESOL are preoccupied with everyday teaching scenarios and less with theory and its relevance to practice. I wish this weren’t the case, but there are many reasons why this is a reality in our field. Reasons that go beyond this reply, but perhaps would make a great blog post, so there you go.

    Now off to read your interview!

    Laura.

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