IATEFL Webinar – “Research is for teachers? You must be joking!”

I have a geeky liking for research so my interest was piqued by the title of this IATEFL webinar by Richard Smith of Warwick University, so I decided to attend. It was an interesting way to spend an hour on a grey Saturday British winter’s afternoon. Here is what I managed to catch with my ears and fingers: 

Richard aims to offer positive solutions to the research – teaching gap. He wants to advance the claim that there can be research for ELT Practitioners but we need to rethink how we think about research in some ways. He wants to focus on teacher research.

Background:

There have been articles recently and last year in the ELT journal stating that research is largely irrelevant to teachers. Richard did a poll for what we think from strongly agree to strongly disagree 1-5. It can’t be denied that there are many teachers that would agree with this. R isn’t going to go over all the arguments in the articles by Medgyes and Maley. Teachers say researchers just talk to one another, research isn’t accessible to teachers, we have to pay for access to them and even then they are written in a language we can’t understand, while researchers say they need to be precise, use a precise language, hedge, show the complexity of issues. The argument can go back and forth, with quite a lot of heat. If you look at the articles to Medgyes and Maley, you will see there some good responses, some supportive and some against.

Richard thinks there is a lot of truth in the idea that a lot of research is not so relevant to teachers but there are some quite bad stereotypes regarding what research is, imagining it as positivistic and experimental, but also imagining that researchers are very far from teachers. Smith sees himself as a teacher, a teacher educator and a researcher, and this is how he has always seen his role. He feels that in his work he relates what he is doing to how he was as a teacher and how he is now as a teacher, and that other researchers do too. He thinks we need to find a middle way where we are not stereotyping or dichotomising researching and teaching.

He did a poll regarding “not all applied linguistic educational research is relevant to teachers”. Which was mostly agreed with. He said that suggests that some research IS and shifted the focus to that more positive direction. He showed us this:

In this book, Palmer was trying to set up something like applied linguistics, a research field of study that would help teachers to found their teaching or base their teaching on firmer foundations. In the book is a lot of complex jargon but also it’s an explicit attempt to link science and language teaching. 1917 is considered the beginning of a scientific period in language teaching that went for at least 50-60 years, and you could argue still continues now. How can we improve language teaching through reference to background disciplines? A past example is the audio-lingual period, based on ideas that linguistics can provide answers to language teaching in a very direct way. There were also things going on before Palmer:

Non-native speakers in France wanted to use phonetics, something from linguistics, in the classroom, as something helpful for language teaching. The indispensable foundation for language teaching according to Henry Sweet.

According to Palmer, we don’t lack method, we lack the basis for the  method. He wasn’t a dogmatic methodologist, he believed that we needed research to have a rational basis for decisions regarding what is good in different contexts. For different kinds of classes or students. Prabhu, in India, has said the same thing – that there is no one best method, we need different ways of teaching to meet different needs. However, this has not always been the case, there have been plenty of people with attachment to one particular method or another, in a quite dogmatic way. Palmer says we don’t just take from background disciplines, we have to as practitioners confirm and justify these principles by putting them to the test of actual and continual practice. As a teacher, in Belgium, he explored the possibilities of various methods, one after another, adopting and discarding one or another as the result of research and experience. He was an action researcher. In 1922 he went to Japan and founded the Institute for Research in English Teaching.

This institute involved many Japanese school and university teachers and was like a teacher association. There were annual conferences. They issued “The Bulletin”. He also put out books e.g. English through actions.

It was just one way. There were different ways, and the idea was for the teachers to pick and choose.

Michael West was another person who worked in a similar way, in Bangladesh, producing especially reading materials. He and Palmer were both active in the development of extensive reading, and reading material for teaching a foreign language language e.g. graded readers. Palmer’s materials influenced Hornby’s approach (situational language teaching).

<My internet died briefly at this point so some more information along this vein is missing. I pick up with the return of my internet below:>

1970s – there was a golden age of good links between theory and practice, in terms of applied linguistics in the UK. This was when communicative language teaching was developed. Smith says it was perhaps unfair of Maley to say there was nothing coming from research to teaching. There was a lot of good linkage but nevertheless there is a perception that the two sides have grown apart again. The ‘problems’ regarding English language teaching are now ‘bigger and wider’, maybe?

Smith says we can try to change the situation and this is the focus for the next part of the talk. He talks about a project that started in 2009, whereby British council recognised that real world concerns of practitioners not being addressed by research. So, they wanted to do a survey of ELT research. They were keen for the project to look for research that is relevant to English teachers. ELT research was defined as:

He did this with Sheila Rixon. They were interested themselves, as they didn’t know what research was going on that wold be relevant to teachers. The answer was, more than you might expect. The project has now finished, so the database is no longer updated but at the time a lot of research was going on around testing, much by Cambridge Assessment/CRELLA. There was also a lot of research being done by publishers to find out more about materials and target markets, but that isn’t published research. There was not much research into English for young learners. Which is a paradox as it is the most widely taught across the world. There was also not a lot of research into language teaching in developing countries except by visiting PhD students. Finally, there was also not a lot of teacher research published.

Positive ways for bridging the gap that Smith has seen:

  • TESOLacademic has recorded keynote speeches and made them freely available.
  • ELT research bites (E.g. Language Teaching in the past)
  • Blogs e.g. by Scott Thornbury, Geoff Jordan who mediate between research and teachers, making it more accessible.
  • There are also an increasing number of open access journals/articles/chapters.

However, there is a perception that research is still very much removed from teachers.

Smith argues that we should take the idea of ELT research further. Define it more strongly as research for ELT practitioners. He thinks it has started to happen in some ways. British council has started some research awards:

He puts forward something that sounds good in theory:

And says he has seen it in practice. E.g. researcher/teacher collaboration. Allan Waters was very keen on this idea. It doesn’t go on as much as it should but there are some positive examples. University/training college partnerships and teacher association research are other possible contexts for this. Encouraging teacher research is another form of this reconceptualisation of research.

Teacher research is:

In the context of these debates, teacher research has come up to some extent but could be addressed more. It’s quite common for teachers to say they don’t have time, researchers may look down on it. Smith doesn’t want to go into that today. Instead, he wants to share some of his own experience in introducing teachers to teacher research. He has come to see it as a useful and important way to address and solve (to some extent) problems. We need to address the images that teachers may have about research not being for them but for scientists, involving a lot of reading and report writing. We need more appropriate definitions, images and models of research.

Here are defintions that he has used with teachers:

If we use definitions like this, we can start to show teachers that research is something they carry out in their everyday lives.

This is something Smith does in his teaching fairly often:

Do we think it is research, he asks. Data is collected. Categorising is analysis of data. It’s useful for him. Does research have to be shared widely? Not necessarily? It’s also feasible for teachers to do.

Research is exploration, he puts forward. Feasible for teachers even in difficult circumstances. With a group of teachers he went through the following process: What are the problems? Turn the problems into questions. Try to answer the questions. Go away and try out some of the ideas put forward in the answers.

Exploratory action research – The Champion Teachers project in Chile. This was a more gentle introduction to action research, ensuring that the action would come from the exploration of the context. He didn’t have time to talk us through the example but you can read about it in British Council open access book about exploratory action research.

If you are interested in this topic and want to know more:

  • In January/February there is an Electronic Village online where there will be aClassroom-based research for professional development. The link to it is on the page of links here. It is free and gives you guidance on doing classroom based research. They will have 25 voluntary mentors. It takes place over five weeks from January to February.
  • There is also a Facebook group for Teacher research.
  • There is the Research SIG.

Here are some useful links that were shared in the “Links” part of the webinar platform by various people:

From the Q and A at the end:

Coming up with questions related to the situation – what is bothering you? Un-peeling the onion of the situation. Asking yourself questions and then finding the answers by collecting and analysing data. (Exploratory) Then you plan some change, try the change and analyse what happens (action research).

If it is so close to practice and what we do anyway, then why call it research? Is the word research itself the problem?

It does have the connotation of being far from teachers, reflected in the arguments that go on, Smith has been arguing that it shouldn’t be seen in that way. Research can be an empowering form of inquiry into what goes on in the classroom. ELT research can include teacher research and university researchers who work with the concerns of teachers, with a coming together in the middle. This goes back to the collaborations that he spoke of earlier. We should aim to find the middle ground.

If you attended (or are Richard!) and think I got anything down wrong, do let me know so I can edit it! Thank you Richard and IATEFL for a great webinar. 

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