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?