We here at ELT RRR are honoured to have Russell Mayne, aka @EBEFL. Russ’s blog has been called lucid, controversial, enlightening and a “damned good read.” It is highly recommended. He recently delivered a much talked about presentation at IATEFL this year. Aside from being praised for his honesty and courage his “sexy voice” was also noted. Russ was mentioned favorably in a few blog posts including Steve Brown’s “Never Mind the Bo**ocks-here’s the TEFL Skeptic” and “A Glut of Celebrity ELT Encounters” from Nicola Prentis. What follows below is an interview conducted over a 36 hour period on google docs. Please note: at one point in the interview Russell mentions a specific slide. The whole Powerpoint (including what some have called the bravest slide ever) can be downloaded from here.
Hello and thanks for much for stopping by. It is so nice to have you.
OK…First question. Why @EBEFL? What is your interest in this? How did you become interested in this? Why is it important?
Hi Mike, As you know my name on Twitter used to be “evidenced-based EFL.” I came up with the idea after reading, and loving “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre. It crystalised a lot of things I was thinking at the time. It’s a fantastic book and really funny. Go and read it! I think that was what started me on the road to skepticism. At the same time I was running courses in Taiwan and everyone kept talking about this method or that approach or whether A or B was better and I just kept thinking…How do we know? Has anyone actually looked into this? Is everyone just blagging?
Another factor was I learnt to speak Japanese to a pretty good level in about 4 years and when I looked at material and things we did in the classroom I just kept thinking “I never did any of this when I learnt Japanese.” So much of it seemed boring or artificial or just for the benefit of the teacher. Anyway it all came to a head when I started my current job. Ironically we were teaching a lesson from Marjorie Rosenberg’s book about learning styles (I didn’t know that at the time but only found out recently). The lesson just had students coming out as “multi-modal” and I’m couldn’t help thinking -hang on, does any of this actually make any sense? we also never seemed to do anything with the findings. Like, “OK, Chen you’re visual, now do the same course as everyone else.”
It wasn’t just this stuff though, skimming and scanning, guessing from context and loads of other stuff bothered me too. I thought I was going crazy but then I came across Michael Swan’s articles and felt like I’d found someone who was saying things I was thinking. A bit later I actually wrote to him to thank him for writing them. I wish I could meet him. He’s always replied to my emails and seems a really nice guy.
What sort of things seem to be for the benefit of the teacher?
This sounds like a dodge but I’ve got a series of posts coming out on this soon so….
Fair enough. We can be patient. Can you say more about your study of Chinese and Japanese and Japanese and how they are different from usual TEFL fare?
Haha I have a whole post written on how I learnt Japanese. It seemed a bit self-indulgent so I’ve left it for the time being. Basically my Japanese is pretty good, 1kyu level in 2004. I couldn’t be a translator but I I can watch movies/read books etc. My Chinese isn’t as good despite being married to a Chinese speaker. I think that’s really interesting too -as a one person case study. People say “Oh you have a talent for languages” or “Oh you have natural ability” but I if that were true wouldn’t my Chinese also be pretty good? The difference is A) motivation which leads to B) the amount of work you do.
Can you tell us about your talk at IATEFL? What did you talk about? How did it go?
Hahahahahaha. You know, I really thought there would be around 10 or 15 people, maybe some of the folks from twitter. My friend Louise from Leicester told me she thought I would be lynched. When they said they were recording it I thought it was just to stick online later. I didn’t know it would be live. That was terrifying. A lot of people have commented on my saying “oh god! at the start. I’m glad so many people came and I’m glad they enjoyed it. I do think I may have been preaching to the converted though….
Haha, I heard that “oh god” moment.
Yes, preserved for all of history…
So, what is it like to be famous?
(This question was brought to you from Anne Hendler)
Erm…I’m not famous. Not even TEFL famous. but the reaction has been pretty surprising for me. As one of the first people to follow me and as probably the person who has supported me more than anyone else, I’d say, you must be pretty surprised too? (your comment about ‘bands getting famous was really funny). I’ve been blogging about this stuff for about 2 years now and getting pretty happy to get a few hundred views. A few retweets was my aim but I think, as of yesterday I counted 50 retweets of the talk. That’s pretty surprising.
It was wild for me to hear, for maybe the second time, someone I’d been talking with online for about 2 years now. And yeah, I have to admit I was feeling a bit funny (but it was not at all surprising) seeing all the RTs. Like, “Where have you people been the whole time? The guy has been pumping out great stuff for ages.” Anyway, enough about me and my feelings. Back to the talk for a second. Is there anything you wish you’d said in the talk but didn’t?
YES! I really wanted to say something but I forgot. I wanted to say , in the second slide, that teachers who try to use these neuromyths, in my experience, are often the most hardworking teachers. They want to give their students as much help as possible and these kinds of things could seem to give people an edge. I never hear lazy teachers say “I’ll check their learning styles” and I think that’s important because it shows how well motivated teachers’ good intentions can be perverted. Imagine if that energy was turned toward something that might work.
That is a really nice point, and maybe one that might help protect you from your potential attackers. Something I have been wanting to ask you for a while now is this…Learning styles is, of course, nonsense. So what?
Don’t you think it’s interesting? Something so common that’s essentially groundless? And that some people have been saying that for about 30 years?
Sure, I think it is interesting, but what do we care if others believe in it? What is the harm?
See slide 5 ;)
Is it possible it has given a net positive effect even while being utter bullshit?
Of course it’s possible. In fact I was asked something similar at IATEFL. the problem really is what comes along in the package with that. If you say “Oh well NLP is nonsense but they have this really great technique…” which they may well have, “…so let’s use it anyway” then how do you distinguish the ‘good’ NLP from the ‘silly’ NLP? Isn’t it easier just to use techniques, like rapport building etc. etc. and dissociate them from NLP? They’ll still be as effective right? But you won’t be giving legitimacy to pseudoscience.
Well said, and I think there is room for us to go back on forth on this one for ages.
For now in this interview, however, we have reached the lightning round, where random questions and their answers come fast and furious.
Do you believe in ghosts?
No. I don’t see how they could work, or why they have clothes on? Why would a ghost have clothes? And if it can float through walls how come it can stand on the floor? All very odd.
If you were in a band what kind of music would you play?
I used to be in a band hahaha. I had really long hair and we played Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins covers.
Excellent. I think EBEFL is a pretty cool name for a band.
Keeping with the lightning nature here, can you please define/explain ‘woo’ in 140 characters or less?
‘Woo’ such a lovely word. Woo is pseudoscience. I think ‘the amazing’ James Randi came up with the term, woo-woo. I think it’s great cos it sounds like someone making a ghost noise “wooooooOOOooooOOOO” It’s a kind of handwaving thing isn’t it? “How does homeopathy work?” ”We don’t know, it’s magic” -woo. Am I making any sense?
You are making sense but you are well over the character count. I will let it pass.
Moving on…Choose 1. Green tea or onsens.
Onsens every time.
Tell me 1 absolute truth about teaching English.
To quote Ellis 2004
“It can be claimed with confidence that, if the only input students receive is in the context of a limited number of weekly lessons based on some course book, they are unlikely to achieve high levels of L2 proficiency” (Ellis 2005:218)
Boom. Nice one. Tell us 2 posts of yours you’d most want people to read.
“It’s a man’s world.” I just can’t make sense of the current situation and also….erm….I dunno, any you liked?
I like them all, Russ. I celebrate your entire catalog. Really.
Please share 3 books not by Ben Goldacre to recommend.
Although not a TEFLer, Tom Bennet’s “Teacher Proof” would probably be of interest to a lot of teachers. It has some problems IMO but it’s entertaining. I actually have a list on my blog
Thanks. Next, 4 research studies you think English teachers should read.
Start with Swan’s most recent book on ELT. It’s pure gold.Not particularly research based but he backs up his arguments and is well-considered. You’d probably enjoy the one about why we need textbooks, Mike. ;)
This is a pretty good overview (2005).
Next I would probably look into what area interests you personally and start digging around. There are so many different flavours of teacher that it’s hard to say “this book is the one”. There are also more journal articles and books, in the field of TEFL alone, for anyone to reasonably read. What do you want to find out about? Then head to Google Scholar and use the icanhazpdf http://www.altmetric.com/blog/interactions-the-numbers-behind-icanhazpdf/ hashtag to get hold of the articles.
Alternatively ask people who know. A lot of academics and TEFL bods are on twitter. Wanna know about the lexical approach? Ask Hugh Dellar or Leo. Wanna know about identity in SLA? Ask Florentina Taylor. Julie Moore might answer your corpus questions. There are tons of people on there now and many of them blog.
Thanks so much for taking the time. That was fun. I can’t believe we didn’t even touch on the use of quotation marks on the term native speaker. In any case, it was great. Thanks so much! It was also nice to share the fruits of a google doc collaboration with the world. So, thanks again and best of luck with all, including the woo hunt.