Ecological validity

The jamboree of the Premier League has ended for another year (or another couple of months, anyway), and we are all the sadder for its absence – except that it hasn’t, quite. Sunday’s match between Manchester United and Bournemouth FC at Old Trafford had to be postponed after a ‘suspect device’ was found attached to a pipe in a public toilet. The ‘device’ included a mobile phone and some dangling wires, and it was destroyed in a controlled explosion.

It turned out that the ‘device’ was a dummy bomb placed in the toilet as part of an anti-terror training exercise, and then forgotten.

I have some sympathy, and not just because it is the sort of thing I could quite easily do. I have sympathy because whoever organised the training tested the ecological validity of their exercise quite literally to destruction, and that is something English teachers look to do on a daily basis.

Ecological validity defines the extent to which an experiment conducted in laboratory conditions is valid also for the real world. How far should real world mess and context be sacrificed for experimental clarity? The experiment should at least nod at the real world context which they seek to explain, but too much context will muddy the results and make them impossible to read.


Similarly, in teaching a language, structures need to be isolated, but not to the point where they become exercises in pure logic. Verbs should not be wrenched from context and operated on like so many squealing guinea pigs. To demonstrate the fine differences between perfect and simple tenses by constructing pure examples, and to disregard the mess of actual practice, is to create laboratory conditions and unrepeatable laboratory experiments.

And yet pulling phenomena, whether of the world or of language, into a clear conceptual space where they can be interrogated and poked and prodded and made to yelp in a consistent way is a natural tool of enquiry. We do it when we learn anything. We isolate the sub-skill and practice it, then slowly replace it in the wider skill. If you do not isolate a structure, you do not notice it. It becomes swamped by a thousand other considerations.

The organisers of Sunday’s dummy bomb perhaps wish their device had in fact been swamped in this way, but they certainly tested the ecological validity of their terror-alert procedures, and they seem to have worked quite well.