Language teachers and research – Of growth seekers and I-know-best autocrats

Please note: this post was written in collaboration with Dylan Vinales of GIS Kuala Lumpur

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In my teaching career I have come across four main categories of teachers (please note that some teachers may be a combination of more than one type):

  • The growth-seeking inquirers – These are teachers who actively seek ways to improve their students’ learning by keeping their mind open to and by experimenting with ideas, approaches and techniques. They do so in the belief that there is pedagogic knowledge out there worth tapping into which has the potential to enhance their teaching. These teachers value training, sharing, collaborating with peers and reading educational research. The best classroom practitioners I have met fall into this category and so does the majority of my regular readers. Yes, this attitude is kind of reminiscent of Dweck’s Growth mindset…;
  • The ‘I-know-best’ autocrats – These are highly autonomous teachers who believe that they do not need to look elsewhere for enlightenment, inspiration and knowledge. They think they do not need educational research as they believe no educational research is conclusive enough to justify change. They may be ambitious and are convinced they are accomplished teachers; hence they do not feel they need workshops, insets, research or their peers in order to improve. They justify their closed-mindedness and reluctance to embrace pedagogic innovations which would entail changes in their practice dismissing innovations as useless ‘fads’, unnecessary top-down coercion. Some of these revel in adopting rebellious and iconoclastic stances against the Establishment (the government; SLT, etc.) and are quite vocal in their criticism of the growth-seeking inquirers. Carol Dwecks would possibly label these specimens as Fixed mindset champions but I wouldn’t as I know several of them who are indeed self-reflective practitioners who strive for excellence. They simply do not feel the need for others to help them improve as they perceive other-advice as ‘patronizing’, ‘telling them what to do’ and often not as good as their own judgement;
  • The nine-to-fivers – These are the teachers who see teaching as a job like any other which they do with varying degrees of conscientiousness and professionalism. They are not particularly passionate about it although they may enjoy it. Many of them are ‘good’ or ‘solid’ teachers but they are not often prepared to go the extra mile for their students or colleagues. They do not mind collaborating and sharing but they are not highly proactive in this department;
  • The downers – fortunately, these are a minority, but you find them in every school. Teachers in this category are often drawn to the autocratic I-know-best type. Like the latter they criticize every single imposed theory and methodology and dismiss innovation as useless, especially if it comes from the powers-to-be. I have met many gifted ‘downers’ with the potential to become excellent practitioners. Sadly, though, they lack ambition and professional stamina and very rarely fulfill their potential, often lingering in this state of rebellious inertia until retirement.

Both as a Head of Department and more simply, as a colleague, I have always preferred to work alongside the growth-seeking-inquirer type – , I have also enjoyed the challenge, though, of attempting to inspire the other three types to adopt a more inquisitive and reflective attitude in their teaching.  Sadly, I cannot say I have always succeeded. One of the barriers – not the biggest, though – has always been their lack of interest for research.

Many teachers in the (b), (c) and (d) categories reject research or are only very  marginally interested in it, even when it is not presented to them as a rationale for any envisaged change in policy or practice, but purely as part of the normal process of sharing ideas and resources (e.g. in a department meeting). Whatever the rationale they provide to justify their lack of interest in research, the truth is that many perceive it as a threat. If they are autocratic ‘I-know-bests’ it is a threat to their ego (you mean, there are methods out there that are better than mine?). If they are ‘nine-to-fivers’ it is a threat to their balanced work-load eco-system. Finally, if they are ‘downers’, reading research epitomizes exactly all they they stand against.

What the type (b), (c) and (d) will always assert is that research must be clearly and irrefutably evidenced; that it must be conclusive or it is worthless. But in so doing they miss the whole point. As I wrote in a blog not too long ago, hardly any educational research is conclusive and irrefutable. In that blog I even gave ten powerful reasons why one should not trust it. However, research in language acquisition and pedagogy is valuable not for its truths, but for how it ‘cues’ us – so to speak – to the truth; the avenues it opens and seeks to explore; the questions it asks.

If I read that journal writing improved the written fluency of thirty students in a study in Colombia, twelve in an experiment in California and twenty in an investigation in Italy, I can choose to react negatively by looking at the flaws in the design; the small size of the groups; the statistical limitations : etc. and conclude that the evidence is weak; hence, no point trying journal writing out. Or, I can decide to take a closer look at the approaches, techniques and resources the researchers/teachers used in those studies, examine their recommendations, adapt them to my teaching context, discuss any ideas with my collleagues and try them out in my classroom to see if they work. My colleagues and I do this a lot in my school. It is interesting and I have personally learnt a lot in the process.

The problem is that in education teachers often associate research with the top-down imposition of a new policy or methodology. This is because governments or educational establishment regularly use research – and not often of the reliable kind – to justify unwanted and often unnecessary transformational change. And let’s face it, a lot of the imposed changes implemented in the last thirty years have not massively enhanced classroom practice. Hence, over time the teaching community has become cynical and in some quarters even hostile to L2 research and its claims.

To make things worse, L2 research is difficult to access cognitively and linguistically by the vast majority of teachers as most academic journals and other specialized publications are written in complicated jargon that you need a strong background in Applied Linguistics to be able to decipher. Very few researchers actually write with the average classroom practitioner in mind. This perception of researchers being somehow high-brow and pompous does not help.

Hence, most often teachers are acquainted with a highly diluted, watered down, oversimplistic and often distorted version of research which is passed on by educational consultants of questionable credibility. I have often attended CPD sessions were I was horrified by the way research findings I was very familiar with had been altered to suit the agenda of the facilitator or of the establishment that had invited them. Misrepresentation of research of this sort by educational consultants is rampant and often does more harm than good.

The time factor plays an enormous role, too. Difficult for busy classroom practitioners to find enough time to read L2 research literature. My current school has attempted to address it by giving teachers two hours every Friday afternoon which are used for professional development instead of teaching. My school is an exception to the rule, though. In most other secondary settings this need is not recognized.

Yet, as I discussed in my last three posts, the reality is that most teachers teach the way they were taught. They are more likely to make changes to their teaching – ‘real’ changes, not the ones one shows to their line manager or SLT during an observation or learning walk – because of the department micro-culture(s) or the influence of a charismatic colleague than as a result of an inset or workshop. This may lead to excellent teaching in some cases, no doubt. But, not always.

In many cases, however, teachers DO want to have a principled framework of reference to apply in their teaching. They want to know how to best teach listening, speaking, reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar, etc. Thirty or forty years ago, when research in language acquisition and cognitive psychology was in its infancy it would have been difficult to provide teachers with a sound pedagogic framework rooted in neuroscience. Nowadays Applied Linguistics is not an exact science, but thanks to tons of research, we have acquired a lot of very useful findings which can enhance modern language teachers’ practice.

I started to write my blogs because I felt that there was a lot of research out there that teachers could benefit from. The very positive feedback I had from my readers since I started to write in May has proven to me that teachers need, want and enjoy finding out what research has to say, especially when the implications for their classrooms are clearly laid out and theory is translated into implementable plans for action. This is, incidentally, the aim of the book that Steve Smith and I are writing, “The modern language teacher toolkit’. Blending theory, research, teacher experience and common sense to produce a principled guide to language teaching.

Research can be very useful and can greatly enhance teaching. Not simply the large scale, longitudinal studies which yield ‘irrefutable’ evidence, but also the small scale, quantitative or qualitative investigations interviewing a bunch of students or teachers. It is what teachers do with the research findings they read about that matters. Not the findings per se.

In conclusion, in an ideal world schools would invest more time and effort in this aspect of their teachers’ professional development as subject-specific competence can be highly enhanced by rendering teachers more conversant and reflective vis-à-vis current theory and research in modern language pedagogy. A culture of interest for and attention to research would be fostered through professional development and performance management. Most importantly, teachers would be allocated time to process, reflect upon and assimilate research in small subject- and non subject-specific professional learning communities

You can find more on this topic in the book ‘The language teacher toolkit’ I co-authored with Steve Smith and available for purchase at http://www.amazon.com

7 thoughts on “Language teachers and research – Of growth seekers and I-know-best autocrats

  1. Diolch yn fawr. Another very informative and helpful blogpost. As I am just starting out with reading and using research in my own practice, this has spoken volumes about keeping the right balance.🙂

  2. Thank you for your consistently interesting and challenging posts.

    My experience of classrooms in Scotland, at least, suggests that many of your “downers” are not just reluctant to change but are caught in a trap: their classroom control depends on bullying the weakest (easy to pick out among children) to keep all other students in fear of them being next. Such teachers, despite often being held up as positive examples of assured, if old-fashioned, pedagogy, are reluctant to abandon the control methods that have worked for them, albeit at the cost of one individual in each of their classes. Can they be helped to generate and adopt more humane methods?

  3. Hi, I am drawing your attention to the following article because it is part of my PhD study but more because it is the result of research I started when I was a secondary teacher of English in the Eastern Cape in South Africa.
    Some of my colleagues used to say “these kids are so dumb, they can’t even write/say a correct sentence in English”. All the students were native speakers of Xhosa as were most of the teachers. I questioned this assumption and this is where that questioning has taken me.
    Much of what you have written in this blog resonates so strongly with my experience in L2 teaching and I applaud your continuing efforts to encourage teachers to be open-minded, to experiment with their pedagogy and above all to believe in the autonomy of their learners’ minds so that when they appear not to have learnt what they have been taught they can be certain that they have learnt much that they have not been ‘taught’ and will continue to learn in classrooms where the teacher is sensitive and organised and focused on the ‘pleasure principle’. If the learners’ development is viewed through a lens that is not limited by the ‘correctness’ of their writing much will be perceived!!

    The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education
    ISSN: 1838-2959
    Volume 5, Issue 2, pp. 33-44
    August 2014
    The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 5(2) August, 2014 | 33
    Exploring evidence of higher order thinking skills in the writing of first year undergraduates
    Lynette Faragher
    University of Southern Queensland, Toowoomba, Australia
    Henk Huijser
    Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, Darwin, Australia

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