Dear members, colleagues and friends,

This is my first Letter from the Chair, something I’ll be writing every month. I hope it’s going to be an informal communication about matters which could be of interest to all of us, though not necessarily about teaching and learning.

But this month, I am dealing with teaching and learning! I thought I’d comment on the final demise of brain-based methodology in language teaching since the debate has been simmering for a while. When I first started teaching, we were led to believe that right-brain left-brain differences could be harnessed to foster a higher degree of efficiency in learning, and also that different hemispherical activity could increase the likelihood that we’d do better in certain activities. We had James Asher (TPR) offering his own research in support of whole-brain learning; Neuro-Linguistic Programming (Bandler and Grinder) promising much in terms of the capacity to increase the power of our learning, and even Win Wenger hypothesizes that swimming underwater increases blood flow to the brain to strengthen our cerebral  capacities. Suggestopedia which, while not directly a brain-based method, promoted the idea that we can learn a language extremely fast through the media of music, relaxation and dramatically large amounts of input. Later we had Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, Brain Games and much, much more.

All of these brain-based ‘myths’ have been discredited now and once again we find ourselves rowing without a rudder – those of us who believed and adopted those ideas, that is. Indeed, I am guilty in that regard; for years I taught new teachers about the importance of balancing input so that the brain could do the best job possible: linear-logical versus creative-holistic, we might say. Well, we can’t really preach that message anymore since we know that it’s not valid! The brain will handle whatever we throw at it because that’s its job.

So that’s that, you might say… But no, not quite, at least I don’t think so!

Just because all of these ideas have been discredited, it doesn’t mean we have to throw them out! I think it means we have to stop focussing on them as immovable pillars of our approaches and start viewing them in the light of increased knowledge and critical assessment. So, for example, Learning Styles is not a ‘thing’ any more but we can still observe how our learners work and still respond to them in ways which are likely to encourage and support them; Multiple Intelligences don’t really exist and yet we can still help learners find success using whatever tools they like to use.
It’s axiomatic that some learners prefer to know the nuts and bolts of language (ectenic learners) and we know that some prefer less declarative detail or even none at all (synoptic learners) so while these are not learning styles, they are preferred learning tactics largely controlled by the brain and personality and ones to which we, as teachers can easily respond.

I think what’s really important is that we agree that approaches based firmly in the idea of brain function are not supported by research; they don’t hold the secrets to Second Language Acquisition, however, they can provide us with carefully considered tools for our toolbox if we can apply them sensibly and thoughtfully in the full knowledge that: nothing works and nothing doesn’t work!

Happy teaching and learning.

Steve Hirschhorn
Chair of Gallery Teachers Membership Committee.