Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Steven Taylor at 24

"By signing his new five and a half year deal to stay on Tyneside," wrote The Mirror's Simon Bird, "Steven Taylor now has a chance to elevate himself above the ordinary, and cement his place in the history of his home town club", though I suspect the writers of Leazes Terrace spoke for just as many fans when they tweeted 'Traffic warden Steven Taylor signs new 5.5 year deal at Newcastle - 5.5 more years of pointing at players instead of marking them.'

Taylor had it in him to be an excellent centre-half but, after 175 appearances, he still makes too many of the kind of basic errors which saw him outmuscled by Henrik Pederson in his full debut for the team, giving away needless free kicks in dangerous positions, failing to mark his man, or allowing attackers to advance unchallenged, his puffed out chest compensating for a tackle.

"I have no doubt Shola Ameobi will be a top striker at this football club," Graeme Souness said of our much criticised centre-forward in 2005. "Our supporters have to understand that there is a player in there waiting to come out". The same could be said of Taylor. Question is, how long do you wait?


Frosted snow lay all about the garden. "It's coming down again," my dad said, parting the blinds, but it had stopped by the time we'd opened our presents. I got three pairs of socks, a box full of books (literally, given the size and shape of Crystal's Encylopedia of the English Language), bottled beers and a 12-year-old Glenfiddich, two DVDs and a hat which made me look, or so my sister insisted, a bit like this year's X-Factor winner.

My final present came on Boxing Day morning. Australia 98 all out, England 157-0. Merry Christmas indeed.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Football in Japan

A couple of pieces I've written this week for In Bed With Maradona and The Seventy Two.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day

Seagulls and slush covered the paving stones in King Street. A few shoppers, bundled up in scarves and wooly hats, sipped coffee at outdoor tables under the cover of an awning. "Morrisons is closed," a woman complained in a strong Birmingham accent, walking towards McDonald's.

The boating lake was frozen over at Marine Park and the miniature train tracks were wrapped up in snow. At the seafront, most things were closed and those that weren't were mainly dead. Two ships crossed just ahead of the pier, slate-coloured waves knocked on icy sand, and black matchstick shapes slogged along the beach like figures in a Lowry sketch, dogs bounding on ahead.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Ashley Out

"I don't think you can afford to be bitter. It's a wonderful club and I had a fantastic time there over three years" - Chris Hughton.

With disheartening speed, the protests against Mike Ashley appear to have fizzled out again. Boycotts, walkouts and direct action at Sports Direct stores have all been mooted but, with minor exceptions, to next to no avail. Ultimately, as was the case in 2008 and 2009, too many supporters waited for others to act instead of themselves.

In the long-term, Ashley isn't likely to win - disillusionment with his running of the club, the continuing recession and, above all, public sector job losses will result in falling attendances, making it even more difficult for him to see a profitable return - but our football club will almost certainly lose. From Keegan to Kinnear, Shearer to Dennis Wise, a relegation season to the sacking of Chris Hughton, Ashley and Llambias have shown time and time again that they are inadequate to the task at hand. "I tried my best, but I accept that my best was woefully short," Ashley said in 2008. Nothing has changed to alter that view.

I can put things no better than the fan who contacted Sky Sports on the evening Hughton was dismissed. "Wanted: one owner with experience of running a football club."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Abroad

"Christmas makes me think of oranges," a student in the Czech Republic once told me. "During Communism it was the only time of year you could ever get them." My Czech Christmas meant carp and cold beer, and an afternoon train from Roudnice to the market in Prague, where I wandered aimlessly around the city centre along with several thousand tourists. In South Korea, I had Christmas dinner in a shopping mall chain restaurant, served by waitresses in Santa hats, and was back to work the very next day. I was a fortnight too late to celebrate in Sicily, and always left too early to see it in Japan.

Prague, Christmas Day 2005.

And Daejeon, South Korea, in 1999.

Merry Christmas everyone, wherever you are.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

MA Assignment 1 (Critique for BNU)

1. Introduction

The following paper will critically review a journal article entitled Understanding class blogs as a tool for language development, authored by Doris de Almeida Soares and published in ‘Language Teaching Research’ (2008; 12; 517-534). The study described in the article was carried out over a three month period at a private language school in Brazil using practitioner research into learning activities and includes the results of an online survey of teachers who used blogs in different contexts around the world. The paper evaluates both the positive and negative aspects of the article and is divided into six main sections. The first, which analyses the literature review presented by the author, is followed by the rationale behind the study. Subsequently, there is an analysis of the methods used to carry out the research, including the participants and sampling techniques, the instruments used to collect data, and the way in which the data was analysed. The fourth section considers how the findings are presented, whether the conclusions drawn from the study can be justified, and how important they are to the wider field of research. Next, attention is given to the author’s use of references and appendices to support her findings. Finally, there is an evaluation of the study as a whole.

2. Literature Review

The literature review describes previously published overviews of how blogs can potentially be used to aid language learning. It provides clear definitions of what a blog is and presents the three different ways they can be used for pedagogical purposes while listing some of the potential advantages and disadvantages of each in turn. However, the review could be criticised as being overly descriptive rather than discursive. The literature is quoted at great length without any critical comment on its strengths and weaknesses, such as an acknowledgment of the fact that none list empirical data or classroom research to support their conclusions or the fact that they present merely “an overview” (Stanley, 2005) or a “brief introduction and overview” (Bartlett-Bragg, 2003). Some claims, notably that blogging makes the learning experience “more fun and concrete” (p.520), are not hedged, supported by the author’s personal experience or substantiated by reference to research.

Soares could have formulated questions on topics which required more research or related the literature to the research questions posed (Taylor & Proctor, 2008). For instance, do class blogs actually facilitate project-based language learning? (Campbell, 2003) Or, as Soares herself speculates, could self-study links foster learner autonomy? Nor does she explicitly state the rationale for choosing a class blog, although she does later write “My aim was to foster student autonomy and independence” (p.522).

3. Rationale

In her abstract Soares presents two main research questions:

“a) did my students see our blog as a learning tool? and b) what was blogging like in other language teaching contexts?” (p.517).

They emerged as a result of classroom activities and the author’s observations on how the learners were using the blog, in accordance with the principles of Exploratory Practice outlined by Allwright (2003), who called for teachers to make use of puzzles (in this case, why the learners were not using the blog in the manner the author initially expected and to what extent this behaviour was found in other contexts too) in order to work towards a greater understanding of classroom events.

4. Method

a. Participants and Sampling Methods

The author conducted her Exploratory Practice with a class of nine pre-intermediate teenage learners, raising potential ethical concerns and the risk of a halo effect (Mackey & Gass, 2005: 114) in the learners’ actions and responses, particularly as they were “gaining extra marks for course involvement and participation” (p.524). Soares also admits that she decided on both the platform and type of blog to use before suggesting to her students that they create a blog (p.521). Mackey & Gass (op. cit: 51) warn of the unintentional influence authority figures can exert on students in recommending courses of action. Although information is provided on the learners’ age, language proficiency and previous experience with blogging as part of classroom work, the author does not relate if all of the students had frequent computer access at home, a fact of crucial significance in their ability to work autonomously.

The author does observe the ethical standards of Exploratory Practice advocated by Allwright (2005) by involving her learners and working to bring people together. She also maintains participant anonymity, although it is not stated whether the learners had given informed consent to the listing of their blog’s URL address within the published article.

The sixteen participants in the online survey were chosen on the basis of a convenience or opportunity sampling (Dornyei, 2007: 98) from among an online community of practice which the author had previously joined. Significantly, although one of the questions specifically referred to the attitudes of students, no attempt is made to sample the learners themselves.

b. Data Collection and Analysis

The author uses two “Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activities ” (p.522) to gather data from the learners, which, quoting from Allwright, she defines as being “useful for data collection purposes without losing their value as learning activities” (ibid). She presents contributions from all of the learners together with her own commentary, although some conclusions are high in inference and could have been followed up by further questioning of the students involved. This is illustrated by PEPA2, when the author does not query the reported increase in motivation to use the blogs at home.

An online survey was administered to gather data about the use of blogs in other contexts. The author does make some attempt to describe the individual questions, but fails to state whether the survey was administered in English alone or with an accompanying translation, whether it had been piloted beforehand, if any statistical procedures had been used on the data, or if the results were analysed by the author alone. These are particularly important given the small size of the sample and the existence of distinct sub-groups such as the teacher of vocational studies and the two teaching English as a mother tongue (Dornyei, 2007: 100).

Furthermore, as the link provided to view the survey online is no longer accessible, it is not clear if open- or closed-ended questions were used. It may have been more helpful to include a copy of the survey as an appendix, along with a more comprehensive statistical analysis of the results.

As argued by Wilson & Dewaele (2010), the validity and reliability of data in self-report surveys cannot be assumed to be wholly accurate. Following the advice of Birnbaum (2004), the data could have been improved by comparing the results against a similar non-web based study or by analysis against separate demographic variables such as age and teaching environment.

5. Conclusion

The author recognises some of her failings in setting up the class blog and makes recommendations for improvement such as the need to trial different blogs before selecting a permanent one. Given the fact her initial aim was to foster student autonomy, it is perhaps strange that she does not suggest how this could have been better achieved. For instance, the author does not consider how her decision to correct students’ mistakes may have impacted on their motivation to use the blog independently.

Soares makes some attempt to describe the contexts of the respondents to her online survey, but there is no recognition of how either they or the sampling technique used might have affected the results. Dornyei (2007:99) recommends the limitations of non-probability samples be described “in detail” while Mackey & Gass (2005: 140-141) state researchers must “make an argument about the representativeness of the sample” before results can be considered generalizable. In this light, if the author believes her sample to represent, for instance, a form of a criterion sampling (Dornyei, 2007:128), she does not provide any grounds for the reader to consider it so.

It could further be argued that the research question itself is problematic, in that the contexts are too broadly defined to enable them to be measured successfully. Perhaps a more meaningful comparison could have been drawn with respondent 14 alone, whose learners shared some apparent similarities in terms of age and linguistic ability. If a similar form of Exploratory Practice had been used this may also have provided a degree of triangulation for the author’s data.

Once again, high inference is drawn from some of the responses to the survey, not least the author’s view of the importance of linguistic accuracy to teachers who include blogging as part of their curriculum (p.525). Dornyei (2007:99) argues that non-probability samples provide negligible scope for generalisation, while Mackey & Gass (2005:96) outline the frequent inability of questionnaires to provide a complete view of individual contexts. These views are shared by Bannen (2005) in considering the potential limitations of quantitative methods as a whole.

Given these factors, the author’s final conclusion that her blogging experiences are shared by practitioners “all over the world” (p. 532) can not be fully justified.

6. References and appendices

The author presents an alphabetical list of references at the end of the article and uses quotations from Allwright effectively in support of her use of Exploratory Practice. When citing published work, however, it is not always clear whether she is expressing a personal view or using direct quotations. This is illustrated in the literature review when she states:

“…the tutor blog usually restricts students to writing comments on the subject the teacher has posted” (p.519)

Despite the lack of attribution, this quotes directly from Stanley (2005).

As previously noted, appendices could have been used to present the author’s results in full and to ensure that data such as the online survey questions were available to all subsequent readers. Without access to all of the results and comments generated, the potential for anecdotalism in the responses selected by the author cannot be discounted.

7. Overall Evaluation

Overall, the author does provide some original evidence of how class blogs may or may not function as a language tool, supported by comments from learners and her own observations, although she does not always recognise the potential shortcomings of her approach. However, the previously mentioned flaws with the online survey and the conclusions Soares subsequently draws from it, mean the results can not be considered as generalizable to the extent claimed by the author and minimises its importance to the understanding of how blogs are used in contexts other than her own.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


The plane touches down before the sun has risen over Belfast. The Christmas lights are up and the trees outside the terminal building glow white in the icy wind as we shelter inside a rain-spattered screen waiting for the bus that will take us into the city centre. "Welcome onboard," says a pre-recorded voice. I rub the window with the sleeve of my coat but it's hard to see much further than the edge of the road through the mist and early morning damp. "Lot warmer than Newcastle, isn't it?" says a man across the aisle. His partner looks at him, and smiles.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Monday, December 06, 2010

An Englishman Abroad

Born in Washington, Jimmy Hagan was arguably Sheffield United's finest ever player. He managed Peterborough United into the Football League, West Bromwich Albion to the League Cup, and a Benfica side including Eusebio to three titles in a row. You can read more about one of English football's greatest forgotten exports in this article I wrote for the marvellous Les Rosbifs.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Why England Lost The World Cup

"We were equal top of FIFA's own technical assessment of the four bids. We were top of an independent assessment of the best commercial bids and our presentation on Thursday was widely acclaimed as the best of the 2018 and 2022 bids," said acting FA chairman Roger Burden. "I am struggling to understand how we only achieved two votes".

He shouldn't be. Viacheslav Koloskov, FIFA vice-president from 1980 to 1996 and a member of Russia's victorious organising committee, had already revealed how unimportant technical assessments are: "I know from my own experience that ExCo members work with little information. The inspection reports are enormous, so no one reads them." Ahongalu Fusimalohi, suspended from the vote after a Sunday Times sting, had given the FA an even bigger clue: "England don't strike deals...It is corrupt – but only if you get caught."

"All the fish is sold," Vladimir Putin had said, while the British press obessed about his failure to turn up in Zurich. England sent David Beckham, a prime minister and a future king, who spent 48 hours lobbying the 22 committee members - and got one extra vote other than their own (from Issa Hayatou, African federation chief, repaying England's support for his unsuccessful 2002 attempt to unseat Blatter).

Somehow, the English bid contrived to be arrogant, naive and incredibly stupid at the same time. A bit, you might say, like the men they chose to spearhead it.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Al Front!

"Blue boys, blue boys, what you gonna do? What you gonna do when they cut you too?" - Topshop protesters taunt police in Brighton.

"Only one political course is left to those who are disenfranchised and whose ruin is announced on a government spreadsheet," John Pilger wrote last month. First the students, now UK Uncut - "the Big Society's Revenue and Customs" - have taken up the call. In 2005 Sir Phillip Green paid a £1.2 billion dividend into his wife's Monaco bank account, saving himself almost £300 million in taxes. (Tax Research UK estimates this kind of "avoidance and planning" costs the UK £25 billion in lost revenue each year.) Despite the Lib Dems' pre-election pledge to "close loopholes that unfairly benefit the wealthy", no sooner was Nick Clegg elected than he acquiesced in the appointment of Green to head a review of government spending.

"I will give this efficiency review my very best effort knowing how hugely important it is to the recovery of the country," Green (Britain's 9th richest man with an estimated fortune of over £4.5 billion) said at the time of his appointment. He could have started with a few simple calculations - his £300 million tax dodge is enough to pay for 13,000 new police officers, 20,000 NHS nurses or 121,000 student EMAs.

This afternoon protesters forced the closure of Topshop and Vodafone stores in London, Brighton, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle. Tonight students are occupying buildings at more than 20 different university campuses. "There is no other way now," Pilger wrote. "Direct action. Civil disobedience. Unerring."