M is for Mediation

23 04 2017
county agent 02

The county agent (North Carolina State University)

“Teachers don’t read research.”

This would seem to be a fairly uncontroversial claim, but it generated a fair bit of heat on social media when I made it at last month’s IATEFL conference – see for example, the Dynamite ELT blog.

Why don’t teachers read research, as I claimed? Simon Borg (2009) reports that lack of time and accessibility, combined with a perceived lack of relevance, are often cited as reasons. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that the researchers don’t write with teachers in mind. As Tom Farrell (2016, p. 352) suggests:

When the word “research” is used in any publication, readers have particular expectations about what they will read in terms of the language that is used in the publication. In most cases, such publications in education are written with a particular audience in mind that for the most part is academics.

Mark Clarke (1994, pp 12-13) goes further, in suggesting that what underpins the ‘dysfunctional discourse’ between researchers and practitioners is an issue of power: ‘Given the hierarchical nature of the profession and the higher status of theorists […] the voices of teachers are subordinated to the voices of others who are less centrally involved in language teaching.’

In sum, as Nat Bartels (2003, p. 737) concludes, ‘studies of teachers’ consumption of and attitudes towards academic research articles show that such articles do not seem to function well as a mechanism for communicating information for teachers.’

So, how is information communicated to teachers?

This is a question that I have been grappling with in preparing the new edition of An A-Z of ELT. I raised it again at the ELTRIA Conference in Barcelona this weekend.

It is the same question that John Carroll engaged with, as long ago as 1966 (p. 98): ‘How is the researcher going to communicate with the consumer of his [sic] research? Does he even know what his audience is and what his audience wants?’

Carroll answers his own question by arguing that the researcher is unqualified to ‘speak’ directly to practitioners. Instead, mediators are needed to ‘translate’ research into its practical applications – or to ‘particularize’ it, in Clarke’s (1994) terms.  Carroll likens this mediating role to that of the ‘county agents’ who functioned in the US as a bridge between agricultural scientists and actual farmers in their fields. ‘There could be an analogue of the county agent in education: the individual who makes a specialty of communicating the findings of research to the potential consumer, the teacher, teacher trainer, educational policymaker, or prepare of instructional material.’ And he adds, ‘the major problem that would be encountered… is the shortage of persons qualified to do this kind of educational liaison.’County-agent-Ammons-Ruth-O-Kelly-1925

What would qualify a person to take on this mediating role? And what qualifies me? In attempting to answer that question, I approached four other ‘county agents’ in our field – i.e. writers of well-known, globally marketed methodology texts —  and asked them a number of questions about the way they achieve ‘educational liaison’, including this one:

  • How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?

Interestingly, their answers varied considerably:

A. Imperative! Teachers need to ground their teaching in research-based findings and assumptions. And, more importantly, teachers themselves should not shrink from engaging in their own classroom-based “action research.” It’s an all-important interaction.
B. I simply fail to understand people who deny the role of research in helping us understand our practice and improve it. Research is, after all, what all good teachers would do if they had the chance.
C. It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.
D. I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti-research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching.  … I more often look at the literature to see if it can help me understand what I have already noticed myself.

Which raises the question: Would you consult/recommend/approve of a methodology text that made little or no reference to published research? And would you expect the writers of such texts to be established researchers in their own right?

References

Bartels, N. (2003) ‘How teachers and researchers read academic articles’. Teacher & Teacher Education, 19.

Borg, S. (2009) ‘English language teachers conceptions of research.’ Applied Linguistics, 30/3.

Carroll, J. (1966) ‘The contributions of psychological theory and educational research to the teaching of foreign languages.’ In Valdman, A. (ed.) Trends in Language Teaching. New York. McGraw-Hill.

Clarke, M. A. (1994) ‘The dysfunctions of the theory/practice discourse.’ TESOL Quarterly, 28/1.

Farrell, T. (2016) Review of Teacher-Researchers in Action, by Dikilitaş et al (eds.) ELT Journal, 70/3.


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61 responses

23 04 2017
roberttaylorefl

I’d certainly disagree with D. It stinks of cherry picking and risks perpetuating outdated practices, such as (drumroll) learning styles, and behaviourism.

I wonder if D takes the same approach to research that conflicts their methodology as to research that supports it. I also wonder how capable these writers are of interpreting and critically analysing research.

23 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

For some reason, this jumped out at me when I was reading a review in the London Review of Books on the plane today. It was about Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, whose discoveries using the microscopes he made in Netherlands in the 17th century turned him into an international celebrity “…with princes and savants making detours to his townhouse. It was Leibniz who, having paid such a pilgrimage, remarked that ‘I care more for a Leeuwenhoek, who tells me what he sees, than a Cartesian, who tells me what he thinks.'”

Is there a connection?

23 04 2017
roberttaylorefl

I’d say a case could be made for the methodology writer encapsulating the spirit of Leewenhoek or Descartes. I’d also say not to trust anyone who decides what they think then refuses to see anything that contradicts those thoughts.

I’d also say that it is solely Leibniz’s role in influencing the greatest piece of fiction in European history (Candide) that makes him more meritable than the Cartesians.

24 04 2017
Emilia Siravo

Google defines cherry picking as, “selectively choose (the most beneficial or profitable items, opportunities, etc.) from what is available.” With that, I wonder, what’s wrong with cherry picking? Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing – picking the research/method/technique we think is best for our students/ classrooms?

24 04 2017
roberttaylorefl

Cherry picking is a problem as it often entails ignoring data that doesn’t support what you already believe, or want to show.

D seems to be looking at data that confirms what they are doing. So, of course, their methods are always going to be data-driven, even if plenty of data says otherwise.

28 04 2017
Rob Sheppard

Not when there are many people out there operating under misconceptions. It’s confirmation bias.

23 04 2017
geoffjordan

Good plan! Since at 2 successive conferences your own answers to this question have been so lame and unconvincing, ask your fans! No doubt they’ll give you enough material for a good entry in Edition 3.

23 04 2017
Jill

I think we should leave ad hominem atacks out and try to keep debate civilised, reasoned and productive.

23 04 2017
roberttaylorefl

I feel duty-bound to address this, as I’ve seen the ad hom charge used so often and so oftenly incorrectly, but insulting or attacking someone is not ad hominem.

Rejecting Scott’s position on the grounds that he has a vested interest in methodology writing (and must therefore have a fear of being seen to stand against methodology writers) would be ad hominem.

Calling his conference presentations a waste of time, whilst harsh and lacking in civility, would not be ad hom.

As you were, chaps.

23 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Ah, but don’t you see, Geoff: if I told you what I think then there would be no discussion! 😉

24 04 2017
geoffjordan

OK master, I think I get the rules of the game. If I do, I congratulate you on this deliberate attempt to throw us off the scent. Grasshopper.

23 04 2017
Scott C

A famous quote from many teachers.**”I’ve been doing it this way for years and it seems to work.”

**No research was carried out to form this view 🙂

Scott C.

23 04 2017
Justin Willoughby

Upon recently completing DELTA modue 1 and now undertaking module 2, I have been forced to read up on research. I have found Lyster and Mori’s theories on error correction to be very useful as well as Richard Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis. I am currently working on a Listening background assignment and have to read up on listening theories. I guess in short, reading up on research for a practitioner helps you to understand why you are doing a particular activity at any given time. For example, we are searching for catenation and elision in a tapescript to assist leaners with bottom up processing of listening text. Off hand, I am reading John Field now and I would appreciate any recommended reading anyone might be able to give me. Thanks. Also both this blog and an A-Z of ELT helped me pass the module 1. I was actually cramming madly 2 minutes before the test about deictic referencing from the above.

23 04 2017
roberttaylorefl

Don’t rely too much on the research. Module 2 lessons are exercises in conformity and box ticking.

23 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Justin. Your comment raises the perennial question, though: ‘Do we look only for research that confirms our intuitions? Or should we be looking for research that challenges them?’ And, further, given the human disposition to seek confirmation rather than refutation (the so-called ‘confirmation bias’), are the methodology writers that we admire simply those that confirm rather than challenge?

24 04 2017
Justin Willoughby

Thank you Scott. I agree. It is reassuring to read something that at least tells you that you are doing the right thing and often I might actively look for approaches and methods that fit with what I am actually doing in class. Mind you, after reading about Lyster and Mori’s Counterbalance hypothesis while studying for the DELTA module 1 exam, I found out the most effective type of immediate correction during a fluency activity was an ‘echo’ and the least was actually a ‘recast’ (based on student uptake from the research). I discussed it with my students and fellow teachers on the DELTA course and most (actually some) agreed. Since then, I make an effort to ‘echo’ errors as oppose to ‘recast’ them during fluency activities, however I am well aware after a few months that it is by no means a silver bullet. I think then, regardless of whether it’s challenging or vindicating, research can help you to make more principled choices in the classroom.

23 04 2017
Olga

I do agree that most of the research seems to have limited relevance to actual teaching. Moreover, as a teacher I am increasingly feeling the need for challenging, thought-provoking, engaging materials. Coursebooks seem to be built around predictable (or irrelevant) topics and issues and as a teacher of adult students who are upper-intermediate and advanced I have to put a lot of effort into turning run-of-the-mill (or bizarre) things into something that will capture my students’ interest. Hence, I would most definitely approve of a methodology text with little reference to published research if it offers me some fresh insights into organizing work on language skills and systems. The question I often ask myself is not only: ‘Do researchers ever write with the aim of seeing their findings work in the classroom? but also ‘Do coursebook writers ever think of how students and teachers will respond to what they are offering?’

24 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Olga writes: ‘The question I often ask myself is not only: ‘Do researchers ever write with the aim of seeing their findings work in the classroom? but also ‘Do coursebook writers ever think of how students and teachers will respond to what they are offering?’

This is what Kumaravadivelu refers to as a ‘pedagogy of particularity’, i.e. the idea that pedagogy needs to be sensitive to its particular contexts of application. Mark Clarke (in the 1994 article I cited in my post) goes on to argue that:

It should be the responsibility of theorists and researchers to establish the “particularizability” of their work for teachers. The important question to ask is “To what extent can this information be made usable for particular teachers?”’

However, there are many researchers who would disagree, saying that it for the teacher to decide if a research study has relevance, and how ut might best be applied. There are simply too many contexts (as Greg Hartley points out below) for researchers to be able to ‘particularize’ research. Moreover, as Han (2007) argues, it is not necessarily the case that research has any practical pedagogical application at all: ‘In the domain of SLA, not every topic (or study, for that matter) is relevant to second language teaching.’ The pressure to compel authors of research articles to state practical applications may therefore be ill-conceived.

Writers of methodology books, therefore, need to be able to cut a path through these thickets of obfuscation, selecting only those studies that do have some fairly widely generalizable applications. The question is, I guess, do they?

Han, Z. (2007) ‘Pedagogical implications: genuine or pretentious?’ TESOL Quarterly, 41/2, p. 392.

23 04 2017
Luiz Otávio Barros

It seems that teachers’ decision making in class is informed by their own tacit teaching theories – their “sense of plausibility” (forgot who phrased it this way) – which in turn is shaped by their experience as language learners, staffroom culture, the “ethos” of the school and early + subsequent teacher “training”. Hard to tell how much of this training, regardless of how grounded in SLA research it might be, finds its way into the classroom and how it translates into behavioural change. It seems that even when teachers are willing to take research on board, it’s (inevitably) interpreted in the light of their own personal theories of teaching. I’m kind of rambling here, but I think the point I’m trying to make is that there seems to be relatively little interface between SLA research and everyday teaching. Also, it seems that a lot of what has been researched and discovered in the past 30 years is at odds with what teachers are expected to do in class. So, SLA research can keep telling teachers – till it’s blue in the face – that linear syllabuses, grammar mcnuggests and controlled practice with a view to proceduralization don’t work… The whole educational system is set up in such a way that these claims are hard to embrace. To make things worse, a lot of teachers don’t know enough English to read and understand methodology texts, let alone Rod Ellis and company.
I’m glad you’re back to blogging, Scott. 🙂

23 04 2017
Arizio Sweeting

Well said about training Luiz. My research investigates teachers’ attitudes towards pronunciation and it seems that it is hard to change people’s minds towards new approaches when it comes to CLT. However, I have achieved success with this when I engage teachers in experimentations in both initial and post-initial training. They might like the sound of the theory but it is the practice that they respond better too.

23 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thank you Luiz (and lovely to be communicating with you again!) If I may quote Penny Ur here (an excerpt of which I used in my talk), because it seems to chime with your own sentiments:

“The bottom line has to be that for the ELT practitioner the main source of professional learning is classroom experience, enriched by discussion with colleagues, feedback from students, and – for those teachers with the time and inclination – input through reading, conferences and courses, of which research is one important component. Research is not the primary basis of ELT knowledge for the practitioner, but it is a valuable supplement.

Research relevant to ELT relates almost exclusively to language acquisition. It only very rarely deals with pedagogical issues such as classroom management and discipline, homework, teaching heterogeneous classes, using the coursebook, exams and so on. Yet it is these issues that determine teachers’ decisions on procedures and materials, far more than empirically demonstrated methods of facilitating language learning in controlled conditions.”

Ur, P. (2012) ‘How useful is Tesol academic research?’ The Guardian. TEFL: Learning English.
https://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/oct/16/teacher-tesol-academic-research-useful

24 04 2017
geoffjordan

There’s a lot of research on teaching pronunciation, teaching vocabulary, teaching with coursebooks, teaching the 4 skills, and on exams and assessment which people like Penny Ur would be well advised to take more notice of.

It’s also wrong to infer that teachers need not concern themselves with questions of “language acquisition”. Surely teachers should take an interest in understanding how people learn languages because surely one’s view of how people learn languages is relevant to how to teach, isn’t it? And surely you’d agree that there are some robust research findings that have important pedagogical implications, wouldn’t you?
Does not your own understanding of how people learn languages lead you to criticise ELT based on the presentation and practice of McNuggets, and to recommend a Dogme approach?

24 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

I do believe that there are robust research findings, although not so robust that they don’t get rewritten regularly, or re-interpreted, perhaps. Take cognitive learning theory, for example. When I wrote How To Teach Grammar (1999) I was heavily influenced by the then current cognitive paradigm (Schmidt, Long, Rod Ellis, Robinson etc). It was all about input, intake, noticing, automaticity, etc. While I haven’t entirely disavowed that position, I don’t think that a purely de-socialized account of language acquisition is any longer sufficient. I woud love to be able to re-write that book, taking into account developments in the last two decades, especially social-cultural theory, theories of situated and embodied cognition, emergentism, etc.. which (to my mind) offer a much richer and more textured account of what happens in classrooms not to mention the real world. But my publishers (may their granules turn to dust) are not interested.

At the same time, I expect I will read this post in ten years’ time (god willing) and smirk/blush/grimace at my failure to have embraced the latest new theoretical kid on the block.

23 04 2017
Emilia Siravo

Even though I am a self proclaimed ‘research lover’ I must admit the more ELT research I read, the more I realize we have NO CLUE. ELT research is, at best, inconclusive (at its worst, it is misleading). There are alternative facts in ELT too. The problem with ELT research is that we are dealing with too many variables; namely, humans. Also, the research subjects are often not composed of a ‘random mix’ which invalidates the said research’s credibility.

That said, would I recommend a methodology book with no reference to research? Probably not. While I often think the research is either wrong (according to scientific principles) or just ‘not there yet’, I think researching is an important first step to observing what may happen in a classroom. We can take that research- think about it- disagree/ agree and then keep observing. If an author fails to account for at least some research that is not his/her own- be it he/she agrees or not, I feel the author is missing an important step to classroom observation.

What’s the point of researching? I think it’s to strive for truth- to fight against those alternative facts. Perhaps, we’ll never find the truth, but we can learn a lot trying.

23 04 2017
roberttaylorefl

Your post seems incoherent to me. It makes hasty and unsupported generalisations about research then jumps from ‘a lot of research is wrong’ to ‘research is an important first step’

Why would we expect anyone to base their methodologies and practices on wrong research? How are we fighting alt facts if our weapons are the cause of many alt facts?

24 04 2017
Emilia Siravo

Thanks, Robert. I should have said – ‘even though a lot of the research is inconclusive or wrong, we should continue researching’ (thanks, Scott for this distinction).
ESL research (the product) IS often inconclusive. The research studies I’ve read often don’t have random or large enough sample groups, have difficulty controlling input variables (especially when the research is done in a real classroom and not in a language lab), don’t have clearly defined terms and aren’t longitudinal.
Despite these potential problems, the research has the tendency to seep into methodology books as something is it not – truth.
As for your question/point – ‘How are we fighting alt facts if our weapons are the cause of many alt facts?’ Not sure – I think, firstly by admitting we have no clue, then meticulously observing and continuously questioning.

28 04 2017
Rob Sheppard

Here I think is where it becomes essential to distinguish between types of studies and conclusions. I think I see what you’re getting at, Emilia, in that the vast majority of research papers out there do not leave the teacher with any clear implications for their day to day teaching, but this is sort of the nature of research broadly. It’s not generally an individual study that leads to the widespread adoption of a new medical procedure or acceptance of a theory of physics. The practice is something that emerges from the growing body of studies.

However, there are still some very real and consequential conclusions that we can come away with thanks to research that, without formal research, it would be impossible to know. For instance, arranging a bunch of grammatical structures in what seems like a logical order is not going to make your students acquire those structures in that particular order. This is a finding of great consequence that is still largely ignored.

28 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

“… arranging a bunch of grammatical structures in what seems like a logical order is not going to make your students acquire those structures in that particular order. This is a finding of great consequence that is still largely ignored.”

Well articulated, Rob. And I would agree with you – that the research seems pretty convincing. But then we have to deal with the legions of learners who somehow managed to learn a second language having been frog-marched through a syllabus of grammatical structures and fairly mechanical practice – I’m thiking about a generation of central Europeans (Poles, Czechs, East Germans, but also many learners in Russia and China.) – to a degree of proficiency that suggests that there are factors so powerful that they override whatever syllabus is being used. In your words, ‘this is a finding of great consequence that is still largely ignored’.

23 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that well argued comment, Emilia. This is where we perhaps need to draw a distinction between ‘researching’ (the process, and preferably practitioner initiated) and ‘research’ (the product, almost always other-initiated). As a means to professional development, maybe we should be more invested in the former rather than the latter – for all the reasons you adduce.

23 04 2017
Kyle Dugan

In answer to your question “Would you consult/recommend/approve of a methodology text that made little or no reference to published research?”:
I’d say it depends where I was on my own learning trajectory. As a pre-DELTA teacher I probably couldn’t have cared less. Anybody offering advice or sharing experience that resonated with but expanded on my own experience would have been enough.

It’s different now (I expect you methodology writers to cite — if not do — research), but I still feel the nagging bias toward any methodology writing that confirms my own experience — and classroom preferences.

So maybe a related issue is: to what extent do we act on research-based findings that don’t conform with our preferred teaching style?

And thanks for the mention of our blog!

24 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kyle. Regard to ‘acting on research-based findings that don’t conform to ou preferred teaching style’, I’m trying to think of examples that might apply in my case. Let’s take intonation – which I’ve alwasy claimed is unteachable (see I for Intonation in this blog, for example). Yet in her plenary at IATEFL recently, Jane Setter cited some of her own research which suggested that (if I remember correctly) the teaching of tonicity (i.e. the correct placement of the nucleus within a tone group) did show significant improvement in (the relatively small group of ) learners compared to a control group.

Am I inspired to put my doubts aside and try it? I’d probably want to look at some other studies first – I’m not sure how generalizable her results really are. But I guess there’s no harm in trying it out. The beauty of language teaching – unlike, say, brain surgery – is that no one dies if you mess up.

24 04 2017
pbarret

It’s frustrating and intriguing to read these. Classroom teachers like myself (retired now) might be interested in research but we want to know how to engage our students in a way that permits the learner to use L2, proficiency, we call it. When I read Butzkamm and Larsen-Freeman and so many others (and I’ve put reviews of these in my blog (http://Barrett.Lang-Learn.org), they really do get away with utter nonsense like “it seems reasonable to think that…” Rod Ellis’ SLA had things in it that should have made teachers toss all their conjugation sheets and cute exercises, but none of them have time to read anything like that b/c they are busy grading papers and satisfying the dept head. Only when someone puts up a few million dollars will we get worthwhile research that will decide once and for all if people learn a language by using it or by studying it. It’s a no-brainer to me after over 65 years of sampling people who’ve studied a language.

24 04 2017
hartleyg

Hi Scott

Interesting questions you put forward, and ones I have been trying to get my head around for a while now. First up, I would answer no to the first, and yes to the second. I’m more in line with what ‘county agent’ A said.

For me your questions are about trying to identify what counts as legitimate practice within a field. The problem, of course, lies in answering the question, ‘What is the field?’ I suspect if I was to ask my colleagues, most would agree that English Language Teachers can be said to fall under the umbrella term ’professionals’. However, I also understand from experience, that the ‘field’ of ELT is so diverse that perhaps this may not be the case in many ‘ELT’ contexts, and perhaps rightly so. I think the important thing for teachers, in whatever context they are working, is to be able to understand what counts as legitimate practice within that context.

This is the question for me then. For example, in more academic contexts (EAL) it is reasonable to expect teachers to be engaged in reading research and ‘doing’ it. For one, teaching hours are usually less than those in private language schools, and teachers working for academic institutions also usually have access to academic journals. Teachers in these contexts could then be expected to be developing ‘professional’ knowledge characterized by stronger levels of semantic density (more academic/ theoretical knowledge) along with stronger levels of semantic gravity (contextualized, practical knowledge/ informed practice) (Maton, 2014).

I’m not suggesting that it is only teachers in academic contexts that develop ‘professional’ knowledge, nor that ‘professional’ knowledge is the only type of knowledge that can lead to someone else learning a language. However, ‘professional’ knowledge does imply more academic practice along with practical ‘know-how’. As opposed to theoretical knowledge with low levels of contextualization, and practical knowledge with low levels of theoretical knowledge. I would suggest though that ‘professional’ knowledge has a greater chance of achieving principled practice as it would imply both practicing theory as well as theorizing from practice.

Reference
Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education. London, Routledge.

27 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

“What counts as legitimate practice within a field?” My short answer to that, Greg, would be: ‘What practices have the practitioners in the field legitimated?’ That, at least, would be my starting point. Then I would attempt to discover on what grounds they had done so – e.g. mindless, ritualized tradition, or responsive, reflective (re-)invention? And everything in between. As a last resort, I might go to the men in lab-coats, and ask them to run some student-rats through a classroom-maze.

24 04 2017
Margaret

I find it very difficult to keep up. I often read research but then don’t seem to find the time or the context to change my teaching strategies. I often have a very short preparation time and sometimes trying new ideas means an investment of my own time, which I am reluctant to use.

However, in my opinion, one of the easiest ways to pass research onto Teachers is either via blogs – which give Teachers an opportunity to discuss and interact directly with others and maybe the researcher her/himself or through the teacher’s book. I would expect textbook Writers to be up-to-date with research and be able to pass this information on to other Teachers and show how it has been translated into exercises/activities in the materials that they will be using.

25 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Margaret. Apropos of blogs that pass research on to teachers, I would recommend this one: http://www.eltresearchbites.com/

24 04 2017
Laura Patsko

Both this post and all the subsequent comments have really livened up my Monday morning! Thanks to all.

In my job, I spend a lot of time trying to reconcile what teachers and researchers do, working out how their respective insights can inform each other’s practice. My own feeling is that often, findings from academic research are simply communicated in a way (or in a place) that is inaccessible to teachers. I’m currently working on a blogpost series that addresses this, with each post suggesting a different way in which people who do research (whether teachers, academics, students or anyone else) can share it, *besides* the conventional journal article. The first post went up this morning: https://laurapatsko.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/pop-up-1-pronunciation/

Another important thing to remember is that published research studies often relate to very particular teaching/learning contexts or conditions, so it’s not always easy to generalise their findings. Just like teachers, researchers (who themselves may, of course, also be teachers) are often prompted to investigate something very specific based on a particular experience they’ve had in their own past or current practice. Thus, other teachers who read these reports might be left feeling that they’re irrelevant to their own contexts.

But even if this is the case, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can learn from such reports. If we as teachers also consider ourselves learners, and if we want to improve our own and our students’ experience, we can always reflect after reading some research: what is it that makes me think this study is (ir)relevant to my own context? Why did they pursue those particular research questions? What were they trying to find? Could I take a similar approach in my classroom? Why (not)? It may be that the original researcher’s experience doesn’t resonate with our own, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can learn from it.

And one last comment – of course, there are people out there studying teachers’ more ‘mundane’ issues, such as homework, class management, etc. But if these studies are conducted locally by ‘ordinary’ teachers and not published anywhere, we may simply unaware that they’ve happened – and therefore unable to consider how their approaches and insights might be similar, different or useful to our own.

Laura

25 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Laura. Apropos your last comment, David Block, in an article titled ‘Revisiting the gap between SLA researchers and language teachers’, makes the point that those who embark on the more localized action research route ‘will almost inevitably find that no matter how interesting their results, their studies will never have as much of an impact on the field as those produced from research carried out by professional researchers. Until such issues are resolved in different teaching contexts around the world, I do not see action research as a viable way of bridging the researcher-teacher gap’ (p. 138).

Block, D. (2000) ‘Revisiting the gap between SLA researchers and language teachers’. Links & Letters, 7.

27 04 2017
Clare

Hi Laura! Since you mentioned doing your own blog posts summarising research for teachers, would you like to get involved with ELT Research Bites? You can let us know you’re by clicking ‘Contribute’ http://www.eltresearchbites.com/#

24 04 2017
roberttaylorefl

Just a thought: we are surely bifurcating the issue deliberating over the current and ideal relations between teachers and researchers, aren’t we?

Doesn’t the syllabus designer or course provider, among others (materials writer, coursebook publisher) have at least as much, if not more, duty as the teacher to keep up to date with research? Why should it just be the teacher bearing the burden?

24 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

I totally agree, Robert, and that was the ppint of my inquiry – what are methodology writers doing to keep up to date? And what implcations might this have on teacher educators, materials writers etc?

Out of interest (and because it was not included in my ITEFL version of the talk) these were my concuding suggestions for those involved in mediating theory:

Choose only robust studies. ‘Pedagogical implications should be strictly limited to clear, substantial findings.…’ (Magnan, 2007)
Avoid dogmatism. ‘Pedagogical recommendations might be made in rhetoric that suggests informed questioning… rather than declarations…’ (Magnan, 2007)
Read macro-studies, state-of-the-art articles, and literature reviews in recent papers.
Enlist expert reviewers.
Curb your enthusiasms!
Fine-tune your crap detector!
Don’t presume … that your book matters…

24 04 2017
roberttaylorefl

Thanks for this, Scott.

I have to ask,

1. If you were aiming to generalise your findings to the general Methodology Writer set, why did you settle for such a small data sample? Is this a prelude to further research, or were you looking to attract attention (your study being the subject of two conference presentations) by only involving big names?

2. If this was a case study, what attracted you to these 4 people, and would you consider it worthwhile to repeat the study with 4 (or more) completely different types of MW’s (e.g. ones who are just starting in the field, or who advocate very different teaching approaches) to discern if there are threads common across the MW spectrum?

25 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Simon Borg has made the same point (personal communication) that the data base is not extensive enough to draw anything but very general conclusions. This is a preliminary study. Nevertheless, I would say that between these four writers, their books probably account for a huge proportion of the methodology books that are prescribed for both pre-service and in-service courses globally.Given this enormous impact, therefore, the rationale behind the choice of content in just these four books alone seemed worth examining – just as a researcher in comparative religion is more likely to start with the foundational texts of Christianity, Islam and Judaisim before opening the Book of Mormon. (Dont read too much into that metaphor!)

The informants were partly anonymized – if I had, as you facetiously suggest – really wanted to attract attention to them to serve my own self-promotional interests, I would have spelt their names out. I had their permission to do so, as it happens. But I chose not to.

25 04 2017
roberttaylorefl

Very well, consider my facetious comment retracted.

25 04 2017
Simon Borg

I heard Scott talking about these issues at a conference this past weekend and have a few thoughts of my own to add.

Firstly, I think that any claim that teachers do not read research needs to qualify who these teachers are – for example, if we think of teachers who have unattractive employment conditions and/or employers who do not support professional development, that is very different to teachers who are pursuing (funded) Diploma or MA studies and very different again are the many state school teachers around the world who teach English but whose own levels of English wouldn’t make reading research feasible even if they had access to it.

My second thought is I don’t think that claiming that teachers do not read research should be seen as a criticism of teachers. Research is generally not written for teachers and most teachers do not have access to research journals, even if they did want to read them. This has been recognised in education more generally for some time, and substantial investment has been made, in the UK for example, in using mediators to produce accessible summaries of research which teachers can access freely and process quickly. In this sense ‘mediation’ has a different meaning to that discussed by Scott, and while EFL methodology writers are mediators of a sort, I doubt very much that they are consciously trying to make research evidence accessible to teachers – their concerns are much more practical.

In my book ‘Teacher research in language teaching’ I have looked at these issues in detail (Chapter 4 in particular looks at how teachers engage with research) and I’ve also written about the role of research evidence in shaping what teachers do in a blog at http://simon-borg.co.uk/research-evidence-and-l2-teaching/.

Scott’s line of inquiry in exploring how methodology text writers see their role is interesting and need not take ‘teachers don’t read research’ as its starting point. Such inquiry would be enhanced I think if the interviews were accompanied by a critical analysis of the methodology texts themselves and of how they compare to more general contemporary views about effective teaching and learning which abound in the educational literature.

25 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Simon, for that useful comment. I certanly did not mean to imply that the fact that teachers don’t read research is a criticism of teachers. If anything, it is a criticism of the researchers (and the institutions that support them). I quoted Ellis & Shintani (2014) to this effect.: ‘The theoretical discourse of SLA typically makes no attempt to be accessible to teachers.’

But it does seem to support the case for some form of mediation – whether by methodology writers, teacher educators, or others capable of bridging the gap. I am more concerned about the fact that methodology writers don’t read research, hence I am interested in understanding why they might not feel the need to. There was no consensus on this question, as I pointed out. Like most research, my findings were inconclusive.

25 04 2017
Jason Renshaw

Interesting, particularly through an emerging policy lens in Higher Ed that research initiatives be evaluated in terms of coordination, cooperation with and ultimately applied value to the industries they claim to serve and inform. Perhaps some universities want their researchers to become better mediators of their own research?

25 04 2017
pbarret

Exercise: take either the yearly salary of a fl teacher OR the amount of funds given to his department on a yearly basis, then divide the average cost of a yearly subscription to a professional journal, even one like Hispania that appears geared somewhat toward classroom teachers, and use the result to see how many journals would sit on the shelf of the typical teacher or department for their leisurely perusal by teachers during the generous professional growth time allotted them.
We really are in Disneyland here, aren’t we?

26 04 2017
Patrick

As a teacher/school manager myself I do read a lot of research, possibly too much for my current role. I’d like to make a few points, sorry If they’ve already been mentioned somewhere above…

– teachers have far more experience with students than researchers have

– a reflective teacher is always conducting action research, no matter how informal and undocumented

– the huge growth of research in the last few years has been driven by MAs, which are usually pursued for career reasons rather than a burning desire to conduct research, and much of that research is consequently iffy

– the discourse style of much ELT research seems to be designed to fill up the word count required by TESOL MAs rather than to assist clear plain English communication

– even some of the core classic oft-quoted research is subject to so much revision and other conflicting research that it’s often inconclusive

– a huge amount of the research is not relevant to most classrooms, and some of the core research seems to be completely irrelevant to any ELT classroom

– much of the research in ELT is by its nature not replicable.

A light-hearted piece of research I’d like to read would explore the disproportionate influence of antipodeans in ELT!

26 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Patrick. I would tend to agree that there is a research industry that has proliferated as the demand for MAs and even doctorates has grown (it would be interesting to see some statistics on just how many MAs in TESOL are now offered compared to, say, 25 years ago). It’s not entirely clear to me if the number of questions that teachers need answered has grown at a comparable rate. And/or that the questions they need answered are generalizable beyond the walls of their immediate classroom.

Nor is it clear to me that the writer of methodology books who ignores the research but bases his/her book on their own experience as a teacher and as an observer of teaching is any less equipped to make methodological recommendations than the writer who bases his/her book entirely on the results of (a personal selection of) other people’s research studies. Put another way, can there be a book on methodology that is even remotely impartial?

26 04 2017
Patrick

Scott, you raised the question “Would you consult/recommend/approve of a methodology/text that made little or no reference to published research? And would you expect the writers of such texts to be established researchers in their own right?”

It’s a fair question, and obviously leads the findings in a certain direction (as does all research).

But I’d like to raise a different question “Would you as a teacher consult/recommend/approve of a theory that has been put forward by a researcher with no/little/less relevant experience than you?”.

In reality, the leaders of research in ELT (ie ELT professors/lecturers on MAs and such) are usually happily ensconced in 1st world universities, and have little or no recent experience in EFL teaching, some even have none in ESL.

27 04 2017
Lee Knowlton (@lee_knowlton)

This is a fascinating topic, Scott.

First, to your question…yes, I would absolutely “consult” a methodology that made little or no reference to published research. While research has the potential to inform pedagogy, the opposite is possible as well. it would be foolish to dismiss the methods of an expert teacher just because they have yet to be proven empirically. Nassim Taleb’s aphorism comes to mind…”Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

I don’t feel like this is that controversial of an idea. Perhaps I’m missing the point?

27 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Is it a controversial idea, Lee? Seemingly, yes. The very suggestion that methodology books needn’t quote chapter and verse from the SLA research canon always generates a lot of heat. More heat than light, as they say. Having said that, I – personally – would prefer to know that my own pedagogical recommendations are supported by research. But, at the same time, I know how fragile and unstable the research evidence is, and how it can be so easily crafted so as to serve a particular ideological agenda. You like teaching grammar explicitly? Here are ten studies that support that point of view. You like the idea of experiential learning of grammar? Here are another ten. Meanwhile teachers carry on doing what they have always been doing – and the good teachers will always defy the predictions.

I was in Palestine this week and met many teachers and a good number of students. None of the latter had ever been out of Palestine but their English was impressive. I guarantee that not one of them had been exposed to anything but very traditional teaching, following a grammar syllabus and subjected to a transmissive, teacher-centred methodology. It’s unlikely, moreover, that their teachers were regular subscribers to Studies in SLA or TESOL Quarterly . It’s also unlikely that any of the researchers who presented at the AAAL conference in Portland this year, or at the Task-based learning conference in Barcelona last month, had ever set foot inside one of those classrooms. Go figure.

28 04 2017
Lee Knowlton (@lee_knowlton)

Thanks for the reply, Scott!

Your example of the teachers in Palestine is exactly what I was referring to. And you also make a great point about research being able to support a particular ideological agenda.

In my own case, I think the amazing complexity of SLA is why I am not overly-reliant on research citations for methodology ideas. The prescriptive waters tend to get muddy rather quickly. Many of my own “rule of thumb” takeaways from research have been very helpful in the classroom, but these could just as easily been taught to me by an expert teacher.

Reading through Rod Ellis’s summary of “The SLA Canon” and its inconclusiveness made me think of weightlifting. Through empirical observations we know that lifting heavy weights increases muscle size, but the actual biological mechanic seems to still be under debate (with past theories being proven wrong). Because of this, I personally would feel fine consulting an expert coach’s opinion on building strength even if it didn’t religiously quote from research.

Reassuring if it does? Perhaps. But necessary for consultation? Not in my opinion.

28 04 2017
chrisfrybarcelona

Maybe, there is another aspect of the disconnection between research and teaching practice via the mediation of teacher training courses and books (and plenary conference speakers) that hasn’t been mentioned. Namely, that teacher trainers, methodology writers and plenary conference speakers themselves rarely teach students enough to be able to try out new ideas suggested to them by their own reading of research. Thus, they can’t really provide the mediation that many teachers depend on.

Research certainly suggests alternative and putatively better ways to teach, but who will try putting these ideas into practice as a necessary preliminary step before providing the mediation that teachers need? This is basically action research and it can only be done by practising teachers. However, they would need the support of the schools they teach in to have the time and facilities to encounter such research and carry out the action research and access to suitable channels of communication to provide mediation for other teachers.

Which schools are likely to be prepared to provide the necessary support? Not many that I know of, I’m sad to say. What channels of communication might be suitable for the subsequent mediation? In-service training sessions, articles in journals, blog posts and speaking at conferences seem the obvious ones, but probably best when the teacher-mediator and the teachers she/he is addressing work in similar situations. How many people would this reach?

How optimistic are you that all of this will change? Will some of the few undisputed findings of research become mainstream one day?

My personal preferences would be to see extensive reading re-introduced everywhere and to see the use of language, particularly spoken language, begin to outweigh the importance given to learning about the language. But you see, I’m just cherry-picking what fits in with my pre-conceived ideas!

28 04 2017
pbarret

No, Christy Barcelona, you are edging into the territory we all need to go to. My only demur to your statement would be “spoken language” would be restricted to the teacher; the student would not be expected to produce forced output.

29 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Chris. You are of course right that (to paraphrase the adage) ‘those who can, teach; those who don’t teach, write methodology books’. To be fair, though, the methodology writers in my (admittedly small and possibly unrepresentative sample) spend a lot of time in classrooms, if not actually teaching, then observing others (possibly more skilled than them) doing it.

28 04 2017
Victor Virginio

Teachers are always putting (at least) one theory into practice – whether they know it or not. Theories should serve to pose a reflection upon our practices. Our practices should also serve as a test to theories as well. In the classroom, we hypothesize about the best way to do teach something, what variables are relevant, what makes a lesson better than the other. Once you are doing these things you are putting theories into practice, whether you know it or not, whether this theory has been described or not.

28 04 2017
Rob Sheppard

You’ve got a whole lot of comments on here and I didn’t make it through all of them so I apologize if this is addressed elsewhere. Most of the conversation seems to be fixed on whether teachers do/should read research, but the title here is focused on the notion of a “mediator.”

I really appreciate the questions posed here and the conversation that has emerged from them, but I take serious issue with the notion of mediator as you’ve left it here, Scott. You focus on who is qualified to be a mediator and what makes them qualified to be a mediator, but the implications of this are kind of shockingly Confucian and paternalistic. We’re educators in 2017. We know better than to worship authority and to see knowledge as residing in some gurus, but that’s sort of the logical conclusion of talking about mediation in terms of a “who” and a “why.”

The way this ought to be framed is in terms of “how.” This is why we developed a scientific method that turned science from a pastime of the elite to a fundamental tool of democracy. Who can mediate between research and classroom practice? Anyone, provided they translate that research into practice by a valid process.

Now, I’m not in a position to put that process into words. Someday I hope to be. But until then, let’s ask the right questions.

28 04 2017
Scott Thornbury

Yes, Rob, you are right to suggest that there is a popular perception that ‘gurus rule’. But there is nothing in that original Carroll analogy (of the ‘county agent’) that suggests a necessarily top down, paternalistic conduit of knowledge transmission. It is equally plausible that the motivation to bridge the research-practice divide was driven by the farmers themselves, urgently in need of workable solutions for real problems, such as pest invasions. They were heavily invested in the ‘how’. I like to think that the county agent (and the methodology writer) are channelling a dialogue that is going in both directions.

30 04 2017
naztko

Regarding your comment, “how fragile and unstable the research evidence is” “…You like teaching grammar explicitly? Here are ten studies that support that point of view. You like the idea of experiential learning of grammar? Here are another ten. Meanwhile teachers carry on doing what they have always been doing – and the good teachers will always defy the predictions.”
    Not all students do well with one particular method of teaching. A few are so brilliant that they can read and teach themselves on their own with the teacher actually functioning as a jovial placebo instructor spouting gibberish. For each method there is a success story and a spectacular failure. The failures are thrown away.
    There is a simple experiment that can be done to solve this issue. First, fire all present teachers. Second, raise starting teacher salaries to $5,000,000 and hire the most successful people in the fields they teach. There would be one small condition, however. All the students in the class would have to pass standardized tests in the subject being taught. If any of the students failed, the teacher would be executed with a combination of a 72-hour marathon reading of Shakespeare, an overdose of Champagne, and bullets to the head and to the heart by a firing squad, supervised by the Lord High Executioner with a list, leading a troup of soldiers presenting “Pagliacci”.
    Some teachers would choose to spend half their salary buying their worst student a house and a tutor, or a Tudor house, or whatever it would take…

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