We need to talk

Posted: December 13, 2021 in Discourse, research
Tags: , , ,

In 1994, in a well-known TESOL Quarterly article entitled ‘The dysfunctions of theory/practice discourse’, Mark A. Clarke explored the imbalance in the relationship between TESOL researchers and English language teachers, and the way in which the former typically frame the latter as being less expert than themselves. In the last 25 years, the topic has regularly resurfaced, most recently with the latest issue of the Modern Language Journal, a special issue devoted entirely to ‘the Research-Practice Dialogue in Second Language Learning and Teaching’ (Sato & Loewen, 2022). At the heart of the matter is the fact that most teachers are just not terribly interested in research and rarely, if ever, read it (Borg, 2009). Much has been written on whether or not this matters, but that is not my concern here.

Sato and Loewen’s introductory article reviews the reasons behind the lack of dialogue between researchers and teachers, and, in an unintentionally comic meta move, argue that more research is needed into teachers’ lack of interest in research. This is funny because one of the reasons for a lack of dialogue between researchers and teachers is that ‘teachers have been researched too much ON and not enough WITH’ (Farrell, 2016): most research has not been carried out ‘for the teacher’s benefit and needs’, with the consequence being that ‘the result is purely academic’. Sato and Loewen’s primary focus in the article is on ‘classroom teachers’, with whom they would like to see more ‘dialogue’, but, as they acknowledge, they publish in a research journal whose ‘most likely readers are researchers’. They do not appear to have read Alan Maley’s ‘‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far?’ (Maley, 2016). Perhaps the article (and the Humanising Language Teaching magazine it is from) passed under their radar because it’s written for teachers (not researchers), it’s free and does not have an impact factor?

I wasn’t entirely convinced by the argument that more research about research is needed, not least because Sato and Loewen provide a fairly detailed analysis of the obstacles that exist to dialogue between researchers and teachers. They divide these into two categories:

Epistemological obstacles: the framing of researchers as generators of knowledge and teachers as consumers of knowledge; teachers’ scepticism about the relevance of some research findings to real-world teaching situations; the different discourse communities inhabited by researchers and teachers, as evidenced by the academic language choices of the former.

Practical obstacles: institutional expectations for researchers to publish in academic journals and a lack of time for researchers to engage in dialogue with teachers; teachers’ lack of time and lack of access to research.

Nothing new here, nothing contentious, either. Nothing new, either, in their argument that more dialogue between researchers and teachers would be of mutual benefit. They acknowledge that ‘In the current status of the research-practice relationship, it is researchers who are concerned about transferability of their findings to classrooms. Practitioners may not have burning motivation or urgent needs to reach out to researchers’. Consequently, it is researchers who should ‘shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility in this initiative’. This implies that, while the benefit could be mutual, it is not mutually proportionate, since researchers have both more to lose and more to gain.

They argue that it would be helpful to scrutinize closely the relationship between researchers and teachers (they prefer to use the word ‘practitioners’) and that researchers need to reflect on their own beliefs and practices, in particular the way that researchers are stake-holders in the research-practice relationship. I was disappointed that they didn’t go into more detail here and would like to suggest one angle of the ‘cui bono’ question worth exploring. The work of TESOL researchers is mostly funded by TESOL teaching. It is funded, in other words, by selling a commodity – TESOL – to a group of consumers … who are teachers. If we frame researchers as vendors and teachers as (potential) clients, [1] a rather different light is shone on pleas for more dialogue.

The first step, Sato and Loewen claim, towards achieving such a dialogue would be ‘nurturing a collaborative mindset in both researchers and teachers’. And the last of four steps to removing the obstacles to dialogue would be ‘institutional support’ for both teachers and researchers. But without institutional support, mindsets are unlikely to become more collaborative, and the suggestions for institutional support (e.g. time release and financial support for teachers) are just pie in the sky. Perhaps sensing this, Sato and Loewen conclude the article by asking whether their desire to see a more collaborative mindset (and, therefore, more dialogue) is just a dream. Back in 1994, Mark Clarke had this to say:

The only real solution to the problems I have identified would be to turn the hierarchy on its head, putting teachers on the top and arraying others-pundits, professors, administrators, researchers, and so forth-below them. This would require a major change in our thinking and in our behavior and, however reasonable it may appear to be, I do not see this happening. (Clarke, 1994: 18)

In 2017, ELT Journal published an entertaining piece of trolling by Péter Medgyes, ‘The (ir)relevance of academic research for the language teacher’, in which he refers to the expert status of researchers as related to the ‘orthodox and mistaken belief that by virtue of having churned out tons of academic papers and books, they must be performing an essential service for language education’. It is not hard to imagine the twinkle in his eye as he wrote it. In the same volume, Amos Paran (2017) picks up the bait, arguing for more dialogue between researchers and teachers. In response to Paran’s plea, Medgyes points out that there is an irony in preaching the importance of dialogue in a top-down manner. ‘As long as the playing field is uneven, it is absurd to talk about dialogue, if a dialogue is at all necessary’, he writes. The same holds true for Sato and Loewen. They acknowledge (Sato & Loewen, 2018) that ‘researchers’ top-down attitudes will not facilitate the dialogue’, but, try as they might, their own mindset is seemingly inescapable. In one article that was attempting to reach out to teachers (Sato, Loewen & Kim, 2021), they managed to make one teacher trainer, Sandy Millin, feel that teachers were being unfairly attacked.

The phrase ‘We need to talk’ has been described as, perhaps, the most dreaded four words in the English language. When you hear it, you know (1) that someone wants to talk to you (and not the other way round), (2) that, whether you want to talk or not, the other person will have their say, (3) that the discussion will almost certainly involve some criticism of you, and this may be merited, and (4) whatever happens next, it is unlikely that your relationship will improve.

References

Borg, S. (2009). English language teachers’ conceptions of research. Applied Linguistics, 30 (3): 358 – 88

Clarke, M. (1994). The dysfunctions of theory/practice discourse. TESOL Quarterly, 28: 9-26.

Farrell, T. (2016). Reflection, reflection, reflection. Responses to the Chapter:  More Research is Needed – A Mantra Too Far? Humanising Language Teaching, 18 (3) http://old.hltmag.co.uk/jun16/mart.htm

Maley, A. (2016). ‘More Research is Needed’ – A Mantra Too Far? Humanising Language Teaching, 18 (3) http://old.hltmag.co.uk/jun16/mart.htm

Medgyes, P. (2017). The (ir)relevance of academic research for the language teacher. ELT Journal, 71 (4): 491–498

Paran, A. (2017). ‘Only connect’: researchers and teachers in dialogue. ELT Journal, 71 (4): 499 – 508

Sato, M., & Loewen, S. (2022). The research-practice dialogue in second language learning and teaching: Past, present, and future. The Modern Language Journal, 106 (3)

Sato, M. & Loewen, S. (Eds.) (2019) Evidence-Based Second Language Pedagogy. New York: Routledge

Sato, M. & Loewen, S. (2018). Do teachers care about research? The research–pedagogy dialogue. ELT Journal 73 (1): 1 – 10

Sato, M., Loewen, S. & Kim, Y. J. (2021) The role and value of researchers for teachers: five principles for mutual benefit. TESOL AL Forum September 2021. http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolalis/issues/2021-08-30/email.html#4


[1] I am actually a direct customer of Sato and Loewen, having bought for £35 last year a copy of their edited volume ‘Evidence-Based Second Language Pedagogy’. According to the back cover, it is a ‘cutting-edge collection of empirical research [which closes] the gap between research and practice’. In reality, it’s a fairly random collection of articles of very mixed quality, many of which are co-authored by ‘top scholars’ and the PhD students they are supervising. It does nothing to close any gaps between research and practice and I struggle to see how it could be of any conceivable benefit to teachers.

Comments
  1. eflnotes says:

    thanks Philip very droll : )

    there was an interesting relevant example of this fraught tension you bring out between researchers and teachers – some tweets of a couple of teachers were used by a researcher (from a UK educational national body) in a powerpoint to make a point about teaching phonics systematically versus ad hoc; apparently this use was misrepresenting what the teachers were saying;

    further the powerpoint notes had things like : “There are loud voices on Twitter and busy teachers who are searching for definitive answers may be inclined to follow the strength of the voice.” : 0

  2. One reason that teachers might resist or otherwise ignore research findings (and one not mentioned by Medgyes inter alia) is the suspicion that researchers are not being entirely candid about their own beliefs, values and dispositions, as if their findings were bleached of any subjectivity and immune to any personal bias. The researcher ‘voice’ does not encourage or even tolerate statements of the kind ‘I’m not ashamed to admit a preference for…’ or ‘I ought to declare an interest in…’, or even ‘I’m not a great fan of …’. So it takes quite a lot of experience reading research articles to learn how to sniff out the ideological sub-text, and detect the whiff of a bias towards one theoretical paradigm or another. This is perhaps easier in the case of linguistics, where a glance at the bibliography is enough to establish whether the researchers are ideologically aligned with Chomsky, or Halliday or Langacker, or whoever. It is less easy, sometimes, to identify an SLA researcher’s affiliation, but once you do, it is not hard to see how the thrust of their research leans towards endorsing their particular orientation, e.g. cognitivist learning theory as opposed to sociocultural or emergentist theories. When I see the term ‘corrective feedback’, for example, or ‘focus on form’, I can predict pretty well where the researcher is coming from, and where the research is heading. Another researcher, coming from a different ideological base, might draw quite different conclusions from the evidence. It seems unfair, therefore, to accuse teachers (aka practitioners) of stubborn allegiance to ‘folk theories’ of language learning when the researchers are just as ideologically positioned, even if they won’t necessarily admit it. If researchers were a little more candid about their own biases, we might pay them more heed.

  3. Marc says:

    It’s always nice to see researchers saying teachers need to read more research, or even saying researchers need to write more for teachers. What gets utterly ignored is that a lot of teachers actually do research, especially when masters degree students.

    Perhaps one thing that makes teachers reluctant is that results seem to be opaque. What is a worthwhile t, R², z value? And what does significance mean? A lot of it expects to be taken at face value, but then one reads something with an effect size of very slightly above, and statistical significance and it then becomes a ‘significant positive effect’. It is, however, ignorance or self-aggrandisement.

    I suppose the tl;dr here is “applied linguistics research does itself no favours”.

    • philipjkerr says:

      It would be interesting, I think, to do some research into the extent to which statistical analysis in SLA research has changed / expanded over the years. Think of the fun that could be had in establishing the statistical significance of statistical significance!

      • Marc says:

        Indeed. I also notice that I failed to write “effect size slightly above zero”. The evidence being that people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones at their own windows.

  4. […] the former typically frame the latter as being less expert than themselves, ’We need to talk’ https://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2021/12/13/we-need-to-talk/ There’s a good set of references at the end, […]

  5. ELTdanbuller says:

    This makes important points about communication breakdowns between researchers and teachers, especially about what researchers and teachers want from this relationship. The question this post raised in my mind is which researchers have effectively communicated findings that changed practice in ELT? In other words, who has done this well on the researcher side?

    Krashen comes to my mind, whether one agrees with his emphases is a bit separate from this point, because he has communicated his points in such a way as to affect change in practice. My impression is that many people learn languages with more emphasis on comprehensible input than might otherwise have been the case. And he makes it clear that he’s trying to change practice. Paul Nation also communicates findings in vocabulary effectively and works hard to make research comprehensible to interested teachers. Who else has communicated findings effectively?

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