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The Myth of Method

This is the first of a short series of blog posts about what has been called the “post method” era of language teaching. This first post is a summary of part of Chapter 8 of B. Kumaravadivelu’s 2006 book about language learning and teaching entitled Understanding Language Teaching: From Method to Postmethod (ESL & Applied Linguistics Professional Series).

Kumaravadivelu’s main point is that language teaching has largely moved beyond an attachment to any one method and he aims to examine what a post-method era might mean. This general point of view appeals to me as someone who is suspicious of “methods” and who believes that effective delivery of an eclectic approach probably makes sense in most contexts.

In his chapter, from Part 3 of the book, having made the distinction between “method” (“an expert’s notion derived from an understanding of the theories of language, of language learning, and of language teaching”) and “methodology” (what the teacher actually does in the classroom to maximise learning), he goes on to list nearly twenty separate methods, some of which in reality overlap, such as audiolingual, CLT, Direct Method, Oral and Situational and the Lexical Approach.

He then goes on to explode a number of myths about methods.

Myth 1. There is a best method out there waiting to be discovered.

This is doomed to failure, he writes, despite our common belief that what is new must be better than what went before. The pendulum swings, we believe we have found a better or best way only then to be disappointed. Pseudo-scientific claims are made for the latest method, but then it proves impossible to compare one method against another because there are simply too many variables at play for serious scientific analysis (including language policy, teacher beliefs, individual learner variations and needs).

He quotes the last major attempt to compare methods, the Pennsylvania Project in the 1960s (comparing audiolingual against cognitive methods) which needed in failure. As one scholar, Prabhu, put it “objective evaluation is so difficult to implement that all attempts in the past have resulted in a wider agreement about on the difficulties of doing an evaluation than on the resulting judgment on methods.”

Myth 2: Method constitutes the organising principle for language teaching.

When a new method comes along textbooks embrace it and attempt to organise teaching based on its precepts. But any method is too inadequate and limited to explain the complexity of language learning and teaching. Any one single method also ignores learner perceptions, cultural contexts, institutional constraints such as the exam system, and teacher cognition (“what teachers know, believe and think”, as Borg puts it).

Myth 3: Method has a universal and ahistorical value.

The search is always on for a method that works anywhere, but again, this ignores the realities of classrooms where there is so much unpredictability and variation. Students may be learning for different reasons and be following different paths. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that works in all times in all places.

In addition, we cannot ignore all the local knowledge picked up over the years in different countries, the cultures of which may not benefit so much from a Western research base. (Think where most second language acquisition research is done and who the dominant writers are.)

Myth 4: Theorists conceive knowledge and teachers consume knowledge.

There is a large gap between theory and practice which can be likened to that between the producer and consumer of a marketable commodity. This results in a degree of mistrust between teachers and theorists (and, as we know, most teachers rarely read research).

Teachers rarely follow a method by the book because they think experience allows them to know best. They see the limitations of any single method and adapt it, often considerably. Indeed, teachers claiming to follow different methods often do very similar things in the classroom. They often craft detailed sequences of tasks which follow no one theoretical method at all.

Myth 5: Method is neutral and has no ideological motivation.

Kumaravadivelu, here, and elsewhere in his book by the way, is at pains to note how language teaching methods can reflect ideological biases, in this case the dominance of Western thinking and, furthermore, the bias against non-native professionals as well as women (he puts forward the notion that men are seen as conceptualisers and women as practitioners). Those of you who work in the EFL field may know what an issue the native versus non-native speaker issue is - in the MFL world the perception is not the same in my experience.

One particular way ideological factors may have an effect is in the attitude to target language use. Methods which favour extensive TL use work against non-native speakers who may, nevertheless, have very good declarative knowledge of grammar as well as native (L1) language skills which can play a useful role in the classroom. This has been labelled the “monolingual tenet of L2 pedagogy.”

In addition there are commercial interests involved in employing large numbers of monolingual (usually anglophone) in EFL courses around the world. It may not be surprising, with this in mind, that modern methods favour great use of the TL and very little if any L1.

In the next post I’ll summarise and reflect on what Kumaravadivelu has to say about what he calls “the death of method.”




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