I’ve just attended a conference in China which focused on supporting teachers in becoming researchers. Most participants were university College English teachers and one issue I found myself reflecting on throughout the event was whether our concern was academic research (for publication and career advancement) or practitioner research (for professional development and enhancing teaching and learning). This was never quite clear to me and China is a great example of the tensions that exist for teachers between these two kinds of research.
Much has been written about the value of practitioner research (variously described as teacher research, action research and similar terms) as a way of helping teachers systematically study, understand and improve their work. I have promoted the idea for many years and continue to support it. It is, though, naïve to promote practitioner research without reference to the socio-cultural and educational contexts in which teachers operate. While as an outsider I want to be cautious in my analysis, my experience in China over several years suggests that there are many factors which actively discourage the kind of pedagogical, experimental, innovative, critical, small-scale, reflexive and often collaborative inquiry that practitioner research entails. For example:
• Teachers (at all levels but especially at university) are under pressure to publish in high-ranking academic journals;
• Quantity (of publications) is a key measure of success;
• Academic products matter more than the process of inquiry;
• The practical utility of the research teachers do is not a core concern;
• Teachers are trained in traditional research methods but not for practitioner research;
• Research is often equated with ‘writing papers’;
• Practitioner research does not further teachers’ careers;
• Mechanisms that facilitate the dissemination of practitioner research do not exist;
• Centralised curricula and assessments discourage experimentation;
• Time and other resources to support practitioner research are limited;
• A competitive environment can discourage collaboration and the sharing of ideas.
These factors are not in themselves problematic – they are clearly aligned with a policy to promote high levels of academic productivity among teachers. And some teachers, despite the challenges, have found ways of doing practitioner research and can provide inspiration to others. But, overall, the environment strongly favours academic research. It is no surprise at all, then, that many teachers understandably feel compelled to focus more on how to complete a publishable research project than on professional inquiry. And, given the current situation, while there may be value in creating an awareness of practitioner research, I am inclined in my continuing work with teachers in China to support them in doing well the kind of research they are required to do rather than to promote alternatives which currently may have limited perceived relevance or feasibility for them.
I’d be interested in comments from colleagues in China on my analysis and reflections from readers elsewhere who work in similar or contrasting language teaching contexts as far as practitioner research is concerned.