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Pseudoscience in EFL

Russ Mayne demolishes some popular neuromyths

What kind of learner are you? Left-brained, or right? Visual, auditory or kinaesthetic? Musical, logical, verbal or existential? The answer is none of the above. Learning styles, multiple intelligences and Brain Gym, among others, which fall under the term ‘brain-based learning’ are seductive but have little or no evidence to support them.

The Gazette looked at a half-dozen articles on peer-reviewed studies in scientific journals, some of which took the trouble to examine previous meta-studies on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and critique the methodology of these. For example, the American Mental Health Counselors Association Journal’s ‘findings do not support previous neurolinguistic programming assertions’ on eye movement assessment. The Australia and New Zealand Journal of Pyschiatry concluded that NLP and other ‘new therapies ... show no evidence that they offer substantive improvements to extant psychiatric care, yet display many characteristics consistent with pseudoscience’. And a Journal of Counseling Psychology article claimed to have ‘demonstrated that research data does not support either the basic tenets of NLP’.

Neuromyths are everywhere in education. A recent study showed that large numbers of UK school teachers believe myths such as ‘We only use 10 per cent of our brains’ and ‘Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.’ ELT is no exception.

So how did this happen? Often interesting factoids come along and most teachers don’t have the time or the inclination to check the veracity of each of them. As long as they are interesting and sound plausible they’ll quickly get accepted.

Take the myth that states that communication is 55 per cent body language, 38 per cent tone, and only 7 per cent the words you use. Pseudoscience like this is interesting, slightly surprising and believable (38 per cent sounds so precise and ‘sciency’). But a few minutes of prodding tend to reveal just how unlikely this idea is. Learning styles and multiple intelligences likewise are also believable. Who would argue with the idea that ‘Everyone learns in a different way’ and ‘Everyone is good at something.’

Gardner’s multiple intelligences is basically just a rebranding of the word ‘abilities’. But by far the weirdest and most wonderful is the exotically named neuro-linguistic programming. NLP practitioners claim that using it can stop depression, help overcome phobias and cure dyslexia and allergies. A 1997 book on NLP in EFL tops even this with an activity which claims ‘live longer with this three-minute exercise’.

You might think no one actually believes this stuff, but head to Google and you’ll find EFL teachers listening to their students’ breathing patterns while watching their eye movements in order to work out what kind of learners they are. And NLP makes appearances in many popular teacher training books. The British Council teaching English website has articles on teaching with this (see www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/neuro-linguistic-programming-elt).

But is it fair to call these popular practices pseudoscience? Researchers can’t find any evidence that any of them actually work. For example, in tests students taught according to their ‘dominant style’ show no improvement over students who aren’t.

Bits of methodology that may call themselves NLP actually seem to work – such as colouring different parts of speech in different colours. Learning a language is hard work, and as the old saying goes, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.’