Those of you who attend the IATEFL conference will know that one of the events there is a debate in which two well-known ELT figures takes sides on a controversial issue. A few years back the theme was teachers and research, and although I was not there I remember being told that some of the arguments made against the value of research for teachers were unfortunately reinforcing unhelpful clichés about the fact that one can be a perfectly competent teacher without any interest in research; I seem to recall too that another argument presented against the relevance of research for teachers was that very often those teachers who are interested in research are actually not very good in the classroom. These are problematic assertions yet ones that still persist, as evidence I quote in my forthcoming book Teacher research in language teaching shows. The book looks at evidence drawn from some 1700 language teachers and managers around the world and through which these individuals’ conceptions of, attitudes towards and engagement in and with research are explored. One chapter examines the relationship, as seen by these professionals, between teaching quality and research engagement, and the two arguments noted above surface again amongst those who were sceptical about the relevance of research to teachers. I will be talking about this issue at IATEFL 2013 in Liverpool and will not elaborate too much here, but what is clear is that such views are often based on particular beliefs about what research is. Most typically, professionals in our field who dismiss research as largely irrelevant to the practice of teaching are entertaining notions of abstract, theoretical, large-scale academic activity, disseminated in dense and lengthy reports published in research journals. This is, though, a very partial and limited view of what research is and can be in the context of professional practice. The key, then, in beginning to appreciate the relevance of research to teachers is not to view it solely as an activity conducted by others (typically others who are not teachers) but to (also) conceptualize it as an aspect of professional practice that all teachers can do themselves. When teachers take ownership (individually and collaboratively) of research as a professional development activity it inevitably becomes central to their work and a tool through which they can develop deeper understandings of what they do and of its effect on their learners; these understandings lead to informed adjustments to practice and through which learning is enhanced. From this perspective, then, research – as systematic inquiry that teachers do in their own contexts to enhance their work – is central to teacher professional development.
I have been lucky enough to see these processes in action in various projects I have been involved in. One example is taking place in Pakistan, where teachers of English at universities and colleges are engaged in classroom research projects through which they are exploring their own contexts. Many of these teachers had experience of research; however, their prior experiences had established the conventional views of research noted above; starting to think about research as a tool for their own professional development was a revelation to many of the teachers on this project and it has been wonderful to support them in putting this new appreciation of research into practice. Similar examples can be cited from elsewhere around the world (for example, the ELTDP project in Malaysia and the English Australia action research program both promote similar ideals). Teacher research, then, has clear potential to be a powerful transformative force in teachers’ lives. It does of course present challenges and the conditions teachers work in are not always favourable, which is why inspired school leadership also has a significant role to play in enabling teacher research to achieve its potential.
My focus here has been on teachers doing research. A separate matter is the role that reading published research can play in teachers’ lives, and that will be the subject of my next blog. This article provides a useful starting point.