In November I spent two weeks in China teaching research methods and running workshops around the theme of research in language education. In this post I reflect on my experiences.
There is currently enormous interest in language education research in China, and the reasons for this and the challenges it has created for teachers are worth considering. Firstly, promotion is determined quite significantly by publication. This applies not just to university professors but to secondary school and college English teachers too. Naturally, then, teachers need to publish (this does not, though, mean that they all want to do research). Second, only certain publications count – those which are journals listed in the ISI, or its equivalent for Chinese journals, the Chinese Science Citation index. Thirdly, in education and applied linguistics the dominant paradigm in China remains a quantitative one, and the gatekeepers (i.e. editors) of these journals often (I am told) have little time for papers lacking hypotheses, representative samples, statistics, and generalizability. The collective result of this situation is that many teachers feel compelled to do research in order to advance their career; they are also pressured to do quantitative work; and they are less likely to conduct smaller-scale qualitative research into their own practices, opting instead for more conventional models of research which involve the study of others. It is indeed a difficult position for the teachers to be in, and the kind of research they feel is required of them is rarely that which is productive in helping them understand and improve their own classroom practices. To compound the situation, systematic research methods training for teachers is not generally available.
One common element in my research training workshops and courses is a focus on inclusivity – the idea that research can take many forms and that it is our responsibility as researchers to be aware of these and their respective strengths and weaknesses. In defining what research is (i.e. planned, systematic, empirical inquiry that is made public), exclusive references to particular methodological positions (i.e. experiments), types of data (i.e. quantitative) and analysis (i.e. statistical) are unhelpful and reflect narrow understandings of the possibilities that social inquiry offers. When I talk about these issues in China, teachers understand what I mean, but shackled by a powerful tradition, they struggle to accept the idea that not all research must have a hypothesis and a statistically representative sample. As a teacher at a recent workshop asked, ‘If you don’t have a hypothesis, how can you do research?’. Teachers also cannot escape the dilemma that while qualitative pedagogically-oriented research has much to offer, it is unlikely to be valued by the local journals they seek to publish in.
It is all rather unfortunate. My experience of working with Chinese teachers is that they are very motivated to develop professionally and to learn about different ways of doing good quality research. Many would too, I am sure, enjoy using research as a way of exploring their own teaching practices (e.g. through action research). The pressure to publish certain types of research in certain journals, though, and the lack of recognition for less conventional approaches to inquiry, mean that most are unable to experience research as a form of professional development which derives from and feeds back into their work in their classroom. As noted above, a general lack of educational research methods training (apart from conventional statistics courses) is another factor that exacerbates the problem.
It could be argued that making publication a criterion for promotion encourages more teachers to be research active. The reality, though, as some evidence from a recent study published in TESOL Quarterly (here is a summary) suggests, is more likely to be infrequent instrumental activity conducted without broader concerns for its pedagogical purpose, value and impact. I do not see any problem in linking teacher career advancement to research activity, but as I have discussed in my book Teacher research in language teaching, the notion of research that is promoted should not be one that restricts teachers or which makes research an administrative task. With appropriate support teachers can conduct high quality, impactful, small-scale studies in their own classrooms on topics which are of broader interest; at present, though, in China generally there is neither support nor reward for such work. I am aware of some interesting initiatives being led by Professor Wen Qiufang at the National Research Centre for Foreign Language Education, where teachers are forming research communities, researching their contexts, and disseminating this work. But such enlightened activity seems to be rare. Key questions relevant to ELT in China are not only how to make such activity more common but also how to make its value more widely and officially recognized. I suspect the same questions are relevant to many other ELT contexts where conventional views of research continue to limit the potential that teacher research has for supporting professional development and innovation. It is perhaps difficult to expect teachers themselves to challenge the systems they work in, and so the initiative for such change needs to come from leading researchers and teacher educators who are able to exert influence on policy makers – on those who decide, for example, what kinds of research activity are acceptable for teachers’ promotion.