Publish (quantitatively) or Perish

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.

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10 Responses to Publish (quantitatively) or Perish

  1. Imdad says:

    Dear Simon,

    Many thanks fro sharing your experiences from China. As you have also worked on a similar project in Pakistan in which I participated as a research trainee, I think you would agree that there are quite a few similarities between the situation in China and Pakistan in terms of the challenges that the teachers face in becoming reflective teachers engaged in small-scale qualitative research in order to improve learning in their teaching context or to enhance their understanding of it.


    • Simon Borg says:

      Dear Imdad

      Thank you for your comments. Yes, I agree that there are parallels between China and Pakistan. In fact, I used China as an example of what I think are more general issues relevant to our field, although in that particular context the need for teachers to publish seems stronger than in other settings I am familiar with.

  2. Wen Qiufang says:

    Dear Simon,
    Thank you very much for posting your reflections and comments on what you have understood the current situation in China for English teachers. It’s true the current promotion system is based on the number of papers pulished in the prescribed list of journals. However, the situation is changing, though slowly. You see, the Ministry of Education has recently issued a new system of evaluting the performance of researchers. What is more, increasing number of leading scholars and leaders have realized the research done by teachers should be more related to their own practice and to the problems emerging in their teaching. I am a researcher who always promotes the linking of theory with practice. Therefore, most of my research projects belong to this kind. And I also spend a lot of time running workshop for teachers to learn from each other research methods, including quantitative, qualitative and mixed method. I hope we will have more collaboration with each other.
    Thank you again for your concern about our teachers and teaching!
    Best regards!

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thank you Professor Wen for taking the time to comment. It’s good to hear that the situation is slowly changing. Does the new system mean that teachers who do good quality classroom-based pedagogical research will be able to have this recognized for promotion purposes? That would be a big step forward.

  3. maamar missoum says:

    Hello Professor Borg and colleagues everywhere,
    I am glad this issue of ‘institutionally acceptable’ research paradigm has been brought up. Whatever the context (country), a careful analysis will help uncover ways of doing research (and all other things) which have become something close to dogma not to be questioned. It is strange that academia where open-mindedness is expected the most, researchers who explore valid alternatives of how research is done cannot be recognised or even tolerated.

    I have been teaching undergraduate courses of research methodology and I find myself obliged to remind my students (would-be EFL teachers) that their supervisors and academic boards in Algeria have certain expectations that can’t be justified on other grounds than ‘habitual ways’ for doing research. I urge them to be ready to make a strong case and justify any unexpected research method or procedure they choose to use. To change mindsets in my own context, I have recently started informal conversations with research supervisor in the English department at Blida 2 university, Algeria. I mainly ask questions about the current research tradition. I am exploring ways for change and at least raising the issue.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thank you for your post. Changing mindsets is really central to the issues we are discussing here. I am not suggesting that quantitative research is not valuable – of course it is and some of my own work reflects this approach to social inquiry. The problem is, though, as you indicate, that quantitative research is seen as the only legitimate form of inquiry. Individuals who teach research methods courses are well placed to shape the mindsets of those they work with; your conversations with research supervisors should also be useful in helping you to understand their perspectives.

  4. Xinmin ZHENG says:

    Dear Simon,
    Thank you very much for sharing us with your keen insight about a prevailing academic issue that is manipulated by administrative bureaucracies, particularly in Chinese higher institutions. What the bureaucracies concern is not the quality of the publication, but the quantitiy of the publication. As a matter of fact, this phenomenon reflects a concept that government seeks an instant benefit(i.e. they are short-sighted), for example, the government is very much interested in gross domestic product(GDP), it seems that the higher GDP they obtain, the happier people are. Naturally, when this philosophy is coming in a big way, teachers become bewildered. In my opinion, to address this issue, firstly , educational leaders should change their research evaluation concept and system;secondly, universities should encourage teachers to do more classroom-based research, with mixed methodology(i.e. both quantitative and qualitiative);thirdly, teachers should learn and improve their own research capabilities, as described in Simon’s passage.

    I will invite my PhD students to read your blog and hope they will contribute their thoughts.

    Best regards
    Xinmin Zheng

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thank you Professor Zheng for your comments on this issue – your local insight is valuable. Changing the views about research held by educational leaders is, I agree, critical. Universities do, I am sure, encourage teachers to do classroom-based research – however, teachers may be reluctant to do so when they know their efforts will not receive official recognition. This why the higher-level changes you refer too are so necessary.

  5. Maoying Xiang says:

    Dear Simon,
    Thank you for sharing your ideas about language education research in China. I quite agree with what you said about why teachers seem to have great interest in research. I have been refused to be promoted twice mainly because of lack of papers which should be published in certain journals.
    Recently there has been a little change in promotion standard. Take our university as an example. Those teachers who are regarded as good at language teaching can also be promoted. Of course, they should also meet certain standard (e.g. winning prize in provincial or national language teaching contest, coming out top in the teaching evaluation list, etc.). However, only a very small number of teachers can be pomoted in this way. For most teachers, they have to publish papers.
    In my opinion, one of the problems for teachers to do classroom-based research is that they have not received enough research method training. For example, many don’t know how to design questionnaires, how to use SPSS, etc. Maybe this is one reason why many teachers have great interest for such workshop.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thank you Xiang for adding to the discussion. It’s good to hear promotion is not entirely dependent on research publications, although as you say that continues to be the main route for most teachers. The point you make about lack of research training is I think central too – and my experience supports what you say about teachers being very enthusiastic when such training is available.

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