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.