What Any Fule Kno

Here’s a recent Twitter exchange:

Me: (edited version) Why not use appeals to reliable evidence, and rational argument to discuss the design of a TBLT syllabus, rather than all this hand-waving rhetoric.

Scott Thornbury: Rational argument suggests there is no One Way to teach SLs, because learners, teachers, contexts, institutions, cultures & languages themselves are all different. Nailing a method (however evidence-based) to the cathedral door ignores this infinite variety. Ask me. I tried! 🙂

If you read the whole thread you’ll see that Scott stayed calm and I didn’t. No surprises there, then. I wrote saying sorry to Scott, who was as gracious as ever in accepting my apology.

To the issue, then. I’ve be irked (sic) that Scott’s reply has been “liked” and re-tweeted so many times. So irked, in fact, that I use my blog to repeat, everso politely, that it’s more hand-waving rhetoric. Scott implied that I was trying to persuade people that TBLT is the “One Way” to teach SLs, whereas, in fact, I was doing no such thing. The tweet ends with a particularly adroit rhetorical flourish: Scott knows just how wrong I am to do what he wrongly accuses me of, because he’s done it himself.

The analogy with Luther’s famous nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg is an apt one. Luther was challenging the abusive practices of the Catholic Church, a powerful body which in those days had almost as much reach as the ELT establishment (IELTS, British Council, Cambridge Assessment, Pearson, etc.) enjoys today. He was complaining about the selling of plenary indulgences, certificates signed by the Pope (or one of his approved representatives), which gave those languishing in purgatory a reduced sentence, or even, if the sum were big enough, got them out of there and sent them straight to heaven. Today, many of us (including Scott, if somewhat erratically) challenge the huge power of the ELT establishment, and their right to sell certificates which can have similarly dramatic results – albeit here on earth. And like Luther, we, the ELT rebels of today, demand the end to so much wrong-headed, self-serving interference with, and regulation of, our primary goal. Luther sought salvation through more direct access to God; we seek the rather more mundane goal of a decent level of proficiency through more direct access to holistic, unimpoverished use of the L2.

But, as Luther might have said, and as any fule kno, it’s complicated: there is no One Way. And not just, in the case of instructed second language learning, because “learners, teachers, contexts, institutions, cultures & languages themselves are all different”, but because we don’t know enough about the psychological process of learning an L2. Scott likes to stress the social factors; I think that although there’s still a lot we don’t know, the reliable results of psycholinguistic research should inform syllabus design. As I’ve often said, folllowing Popper, it’s much easier to be sure about what’s wrong than about what’s right, and we know that concentrating on the explicit teaching of items of grammar and lexis is inefficacious. In any case, it’s no more than a platitude to say there’s no One Way, and it’s no more than rhetoric to accuse proponents of TBLT of suggesting that they’ve found it. The argument for Long’s TBLT syllabus design is that it’s more efficacious than the syllabus implemented by coursebooks. Research in SLA supports this view. The fact that the research findings are largely ignored is explained, I suggest, by the influence of commercial interests that treat ELT as a commodity.

So Long’s TBLT syllabus makes no ridiculuous claim to be the One Way. It offers an alternative. It’s open to endless modification according to local conditions, and it’s the subject of on-going research among scholars and increasing discussion among teachers. I repeat: it should be discussed on the basis of the evidence and rational argument.

When Luther marched up to the church door, hammer, nail and inky parchment in hand, he didn’t have One Way in mind, he wanted reform. There’s a decent argument to be had that it made things worse. I hope we get the chance to see how TBLT fares, once it sweeps away coursebook-driven ELT.

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