Myths, Beliefs, and Truth in ELT – Alexandra

Believe in Your Students, not in Myths
Alexandra Chistyakova

Alexandra Chistyakova

Myths, biases, and misconceptions seem to accompany almost every aspect of human life. Some of them are based on preconceived opinions, some stem from misinformation or distorted facts, while others are formed in a slapdash manner simply out of laziness.

Teaching is no exception to this rule: it is also surrounded with myths and beliefs. As many of us have been through some educational institutions we have some certain ideas and notions of the educational process. Certainly, our ideas are largely based on our own first-hand experience and depending on how successful or not our experience has been, we hold various, sometimes opposing beliefs about teaching and learning. Also, our views depend on the roles we play in the process. As learners, we tend to look at learning, teaching and our teachers, in particular, from one perspective, while, as teachers, we see the other side of the situation. Not surprisingly, learners and teachers’ perspectives do not always match. Rather, far too often, teachers and learners are found on the opposite sides of the barricades.

However, the fact that there are so many various and sometimes contrasting ideas about teaching and learning is only beneficial as it helps all parties involved to reflect on and reconsider their attitudes and practices, thus making education more efficient. However, when some ideas are spread around without decent critical examination, they may turn into myths. This is especially alarming when such myths take root in teachers’ minds and influence teaching practices. That is why, these are teachers who not only can but, in fact, should look at the educational process from all perspectives and try to be open-minded and flexible as possible.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes, teachers are inclined to look at the learning process mostly from a teacher’s standpoint disregarding students’ views and wishes. Such one-sidedness is a trap because it leads to a biased opinion of learners and the teaching profession, in general. In other words, one-sidedness breeds myths.

Among all possible misconceptions and false beliefs teachers might have about learning and learners, there is one I particularly feel strongly about. This is a belief that there is no use worrying too much about what learners take from your lessons because they won’t retain what you taught them anyway.

I remember being told this by one of my colleagues a couple of months ago. I also remember that it made me absolutely stunned and literally speechless. I didn’t know what to say in response, but I immediately knew that this idea was totally wrong.

A teacher is someone who does care. This is someone who is there to help learners to move towards their learning goals and ambitions. And while in teaching, it takes two, the teacher and the learner, to tango, this is the teacher who should outline and create the most favourable conditions for learning to occur and thrive. If learning doesn’t happen, especially consistently, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to stop and reflect on what is not working, what is standing in the way and what should be altered or improved.

If your learners take little if anything from your lessons, is it solely the learners’ fault? Should learners be blamed for the absent-mindedness, lack of motivation and indifference? Are the learners the root of this problem? Unfortunately, some teachers are convinced in this myth.

This is extremely upsetting to see teachers stick to such limiting perception of their learners. Such attitude undermines the very nature of teaching. How can teachers keep on giving and sharing if they do not believe in their learners? How can teachers truly invest in their learners if they depreciate the learners’ potential by default? How can students succeed in learning if teachers themselves do not believe in their success?

Ironically, this myth maintains itself quite easily. Teachers who hold it find the confirmation of it in their everyday practice: they see poor results, they feel discouraged and frustrated, but instead of trying to reflect on the real causes of low grades or mediocre outcomes, teachers put an accusing finger at learners’ unwillingness to learn. This way, the myth is cemented. However, what really happens in such situations is that once teachers lose faith in their students and stop taking care of the learning outcomes, they build up a wall between themselves and their learners. This, in turn, leads to the growing feeling of dissatisfaction and detachment in learners. Thus, there are low grades and slow progress.

To dispel this myth and break the vicious circle of mistrust and poor results, teachers should never lose faith in their learners. Teachers are here to strike a spark and ignite students’ desire for learning. This initial impulse and genuine care are all that is needed to secure successful learning. And trust me, once students are awakened and engaged in learning, they will take care of their learning themselves just fine. This will happen because insatiable curiosity is in the human nature. I strongly believe in this.


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Myths, Beliefs, and Truth in ELT – Chris

Myth, Belief, Truth
Chris Mares

Chris Mares
The words myth, belief, and truth are all very powerful and evocative.  They connote many different things and are also quite confounding.  After all, I may know what a myth is, but what do I believe? And, what do I know to be true?

After several lengthy dog walks in the woods near my house mulling how these words relate meaningfully to my teaching, I have will start with a simple definition of each, an example of each, then a rumination on qualitative truths:


Myth – A widely held but false belief or idea

It is a myth that there is a single best way to teach language.


Belief – Something one accepts as true

I believe all students can be inspired to learn.


Truth – That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality

It is true that students will learn despite what I do.

I will take these three statements as my call to action.  If there is no single best way to teach language, then the door is open!  There must be more, two, three, four … lots.  If this is the case then I should find out more, experiment, take risks, and see what I can discover.  By the same token, if I believe that all students can be inspired to learn then I must take each student individually and find a way to inspire them, accepting that not all students will be inspired in the same way, but that one or more way will inspire them.  And finally, if it is true, and it is, that students will learn despite what I do then this, like the myth that there is a single way to teach language, is also a tremendous permission to get creative.

There are more truths, though.  These truths are the ones that come to us over the course of our time as teachers.  I feel these experiential truths, which cannot be quantified, and therefore are not empirical, are still valid and I shall explore ones I feel are significant for me, and perhaps for you, too.


All students deserve the teacher’s attention

It is easy to respond to the students who raise their hands, who answer question, who do their work, and are clearly interested, and enthusiastic.  But there are other students, who, for whatever reason my not be as engaged or as clearly interested.  These students deserve the teacher’s attention, too.  It may not be as easy to lure them out, or inspire them, or get them focused but it is our job to do this.  For all our students.  It takes effort on behalf of the teacher and a sensitivity to what may lie behind the seemingly passive or disinterested face.  However, one of the great rewards of teaching is to get a disinterested learner interested.


No two classes are ever the same

I used to teach large university classes in Japan and would often be using the same course book with two or more classes.  Many times I taught the same unit to three different classes in one day.  After a while I noticed that a unit I had successfully taught to one class would fall flat in another.  It struck me as odd that the same lesson plan could work with one class and not with another.  It took me a while to realize that the variable I had forgotten to factor in to my planning was the particular chemistry of the class itself as well as the individual members of the classes.  My automaton approach was focused on the lesson plan and the material to be covered, and not on the students themselves and how the material may have needed to be modified or presented differently according to the specific class being taught. It’s always about the students.


There will never be a class in which all students are ‘the same level’

In my early days of teaching I craved classes where all students were at the same level.  I found it constantly frustrating that this was never the case.  Then, inspired by Adrian Underhill, I turned my ‘low yield’ response to a ‘high yield’ question.  My response had been, ‘If you guys were all at the same level, then my life would be so much easier.’  My question then became, ‘In what way could I change my teaching in such a way that I could reach all of you?’  This was a moment of profound realization that changed my approach to students and teaching in a wonderfully rewarding way.  It made me ask the deeper questions.  Rather than stating to myself, ‘Well that didn’t work,’ I would reflectively ask myself, ‘How could I have done that differently in a way that would have been more productive or interesting for students?’


Teaching is an art

Successful teaching requires the balancing of a complex set of variables that are often in a state of flux themselves.  To be able to achieve a balance that results in efficient teaching and meaningful learning is an art.  It takes time to achieve competency and longer to achieve mastery.  Moreover, risks must be taken and mistakes made.  This is how we learn our craft.  Our art.


A lesson plan is a guide not a contract

Teachers are often trained to plan lessons in terms of goals and objectives and to frame classes according to time spent on presentation, practice, and production.  This is understandable, especially when working within the constraints of an imposed curriculum.  Teachers are less often trained to look for moments of serendipity when a chance occurrence may lead to the possibility for temporarily abandoning the lesson plan when a teaching moment occurs.  To view the lesson plan as a guide and not the be all and end all is a healthy perspective to take as it allows for creativity and also a degree of unpredictability.


Trust is the key

In order for students to improve mistakes must be made and it is important to encourage students to take risks with new language.  In order to do this students must feel safe which means they have to trust that their teacher is there to support and guide them and not to penalize them for making mistakes.  Positive reinforcement in a trusting atmosphere leads to efficient learning which is what we are after.


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Myths, Beliefs, and Truth in ELT – James

Separating Myths, Beliefs and Truths in the Classroom
James Taylor

James Taylor

A couple of years ago, I gave myself a new self-description to go alongside the already existing “teacher”, “football fan” and “music lover”. I started calling myself a “sceptic”. Simply put, a sceptic (or skeptic, if you’re from the US) is “a person inclined to question or doubt accepted opinions”. I became interested in skepticism, the movement of activism and engagement that has emerged in the last couple of decades due to my love of podcasts, somehow stumbling across both the Skeptics Guide To The Universe and Skeptoid, two shows that investigate the world with an open-minded, inquisitive but demanding set of criteria centred around one key premise – what’s the evidence?

Most of the issues that sceptics deal with are science based, and as someone whose background in the subject is limited to secondary / high school level, the main influence that it has had on me has not been my science literacy, although I’m sure that has improved. Nor has it been the welcome introduction of the word ‘woo’* to my lexicon. Rather, the main thing I have gained, I like to think, is a way of thinking, a more critical, nuanced, reflective and demanding set of cognitive skills.

Listening to sceptics go through their reasoning is a very valuable thing to observe. Us humans find it difficult sometimes to choose the correct, rational option, instead falling foul to one of many possible ‘logical fallacies’, as they are called. For example, we may be discussing a subject with a colleague who is more experienced than us and we find ourselves agreeing with them, based on nothing more than the fact that they’ve been doing the job for longer than we have. This is an example of the ‘argument from authority’ fallacy, where the assumption of knowledge due to experience is assumed to have more credibility than any other factor, including evidence to contrary.

By listening to the sceptics, we can begin to develop our own critical faculties and more accurately look at the world around us. Russell Mayne, on his blog Evidenced Based EFL, which is in his words is “dedicated to looking at language and language teaching from an evidence-based viewpoint” and is therefore essential reading for any with an interest in EFL from a sceptical point of view, recently asked for us to `ask for evidence.’ In his words, “the next time someone claims that ‘teacher talking time should be reduced’ or ‘grammar mcnuggets are bad for students’ or that ‘students have nine different types of intelligence’ politely enquire on what grounds the speaker makes those claims and be cautious of accepting ‘my experience’ or ‘it’s obvious’ as answers.”

As a sceptic, this obviously appealed to me. The questions he asked made me reflect on my own teaching. How much of what I do in the classroom, moulded from my years of experience, personal beliefs about how language is taught, and the training I have received, is backed up with research? The honest answer is that I don’t know. I’m trying to be skeptical in my day to day life, but right now I don’t feel I’m successfully bringing this into my teaching practice.

The central issue here, for me, is how can I make my teaching more evidence based? With all the will in the world, I can’t do the research myself. I would definitely encourage teachers to do their own experimental practice and investigate a particular area of their teaching, but we can’t investigate everything we do. If we want to access the research of MA students who are looking into all these areas, where do we go? Most research never sees the light of day after graduation, and if it does it’s published behind paywalls and in subscription only journals, which we can’t access and even if we could, would we have time to read them?

So I don’t have a satisfactory answer to this question. At this stage, I don’t know how I, as regular teacher, can separate the myths from the beliefs and from the truths, but this doesn’t invalidate the question. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from sceptics it’s that the absence of evidence doesn’t equate to evidence for the opposing view. Perhaps in time we will find a workable solution. Until then, I will continue to ask awkward questions of those who make claims about teaching English, and of myself. I am absolutely convinced that this makes me a better teacher, and I’m sure it’ll have the same effect on you.

*Woo’ is shorthand for pseudoscientific nonsense. For example, homeopathy? Woo. Healing crystals? Woo. Chemtrails? Woo. A very useful word!


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Myths, Beliefs, and Truth in ELT – Chuck

Be A Conduit of Possibility
– Chuck Sandy

Chuck Sandy
“I speak as a person, from a context of personal experiences and personal learnings.”   – Carl Rogers  (From On Becoming A Person )

I’ve seen it happen. A student gets it and her eyes light up. Someone who’s convinced himself he can’t learn does. The one who was going to drop out of school doesn’t. The class troublemaker becomes the class star. The stuck teacher gets unstuck. The village teacher who thinks he’s got nothing to offer becomes an internationally sought after mentor. The writer who believes she has nothing new to say turns out a beautiful piece of work. The teacher-trainer who’d given up after losing faith in just about everything recovers his faith and gets back to work.

How do those things happen?  I have no idea, and I’m not going to pretend that I do.

Even though I’ve played some kind of role in helping to nurture along the learning that’s led to those changes in behavior and belief, I cannot tell you exactly what that role was or exactly what I did to help it along. Therefore, I cannot tell you exactly how you could work those same changes in behavior and belief in the people around you. What I can tell you is that – based on my personal experience and learnings as a teacher – I know without doubt that such things do happen and that there are ways to increase the likelihood that they will happen. I also know you can do that, too.

I can also tell you that given the dramatic effect I’ve seen such changes have on a person’s life, I know without doubt that it’s worth tinkering with whatever combination of method, material, and approach might be available in in order to help spark its happening. I also know that if a teacher is willing to adopt an I believe learning is possible so I’m not going to reject anything that might work to reach this person mindset, then the sort of real learning that leads to changes in self-beliefs and behaviors within people becomes even more possible. The lives of the people I’ve seen this happen to while working with a teacher who’s adopted such a mindset is my living evidence of this. I am evidence of this myself.

I am that teacher-trainer who’d given up after losing faith in just about everything. Although I cannot explain exactly how I recovered it, I can tell you that it’s possible. I’ve done it  so I know you could do it, too. Maybe seeing how I’ve not only recovered my faith in the transformational power of learning and teaching, but even deepened it would spark something in you. Maybe seeing that I’m not only back to work, but am now working in ways I would not have even considered a year ago would help you begin to imagine what’s possible for you. I’m willing to be that conduit of possibility for you, but I don’t want you to ever think that my way is the right way. My way is just a way, and  I want you to find your own way. Still, I’ll tell you about my tinkering.

This past year I’ve tinkered with just about every kind of learning I could find until I  settled into an evolving set of practices I built into a revised framework for myself. I kept combining this with that until something clicked. Then each day without fail I did those things I’d found to be helpful and I didn’t give up. Some months later, I woke up to discover that whatever had gotten blocked in me had become unblocked.

Something worked.

If you ask me what it was that worked, I might tell you more about the things I’ve done, the people I’ve talked with, the books I’ve read, and the courses I’ve taken.  After hearing all that you might end up thinking, “woo that guy is out there,” and that’s fine. The point of me telling you about what I’ve done would not be to  convince you that you should do what I did. The point would be to help you see that change is possible – in our learners and in our selves- if we are willing to first believe that is is possible, willing to use whatever tools are necessary to make it possible, and willing to keep trying until something works. I cannot and won’t claim any more than that. I speak only as a person, from a context of my personal experiences and personal learnings.

Meanwhile, while I love evidence and abhor false claims, I have come to believe that so much of what’s involved in learning and teaching takes place somewhere so deeply within us and is so complex that it’s even difficult to talk about  – let alone measure, quantify and package. I have also come to believe that a successful learning experience within one person cannot ever be fully replicated within another.

Therefore, I’ve come to doubt any claim that any method, any approach or any set of materials works beyond the context and within the people in which it seemed to work — for whatever complex combination of reasons it might have. Yet, I am not about to reject the idea that a method, an approach, or a set of materials I don’t happen to personally embrace or understand does work. If someone tells me they’ve found an approach that will change my life and help students learn faster or better, I will doubt it, but I won’t doubt that they’ve found something that works for who they are and the people they work with. I might even go on to learn more about it. I might even try it. Rejecting the possible and dismissing what’s beyond my understanding is not my job.

I cannot tell anyone how to teach any more than I can tell someone how to live. When someone tells me they’ve been learning or teaching  in a way I don’t  embrace or understand and asks how to get better at what they’re trying to do, they’re not asking me to say “What you’ve been doing is wrong. There’s no evidence to support those practices. Stop doing that and start doing this.” They are asking for help and that’s not helpful. My job is not to invalidate their experiences and discredit their practices.

My job is to listen carefully. Then, based on what I hear, I might be able to connect the person asking with people doing work that could resonate. I might be able to suggest a course, a book, or a tool that could be useful. I might  go off and learn more about the way they’re learning or teaching before asking, “Have you  tried ____”?  Then, later  I could  follow up with further resources and encouragement and questions and ask to be kept updated on progress. That’s my job. That’s your job. That’s our job as teachers.

Our job is to offer our students and each other our selves, our presence, and our attention. Our job is to be conduits of possibility – people who open up ways that can lead to learning that can lead to change. Our job is not about convincing others of our own rightness and their wrongness. We’re not here to fix each other. We’re here to help each other and there is no correct answer or any right way.

There’s only possibility and when we open up possibility for someone her eyes light up, the one who’s convinced himself he can’t learn does, the one who was going to drop out of school doesn’t, the class troublemaker becomes the class star, the stuck teacher gets unstuck, the village teacher who thinks he’s got nothing to offer becomes an internationally sought after mentor, the writer who believes she has nothing new to say turns out a beautiful piece of work, and the teacher-trainer who’d given up after losing faith in just about everything recovers his faith and gets back to work.

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Myths, Beliefs, and Truth in ELT

How does one separate the myths from the beliefs and get to the truth in ELT? In this issue Alexandra Chistyakova, Chris Mares, James Taylor, and Chuck Sandy tell the truth as they see in their insightful posts.

Alexandra Chistyakova
Alexandra Chistyakova
Chris Mares
Chris Mares
James Taylor
James Taylor
Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy


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