Systemic barriers to practitioner research

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.

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7 Responses to Systemic barriers to practitioner research

  1. Asif says:

    In Pakistan focus is on only on academic research. No room for practitioner research.

  2. Md. Eftekhar Uddin says:

    The situation is Bangladesh is different either. The academic research is confined to university only as it is a must for career advancement or promotion as a faculty. The idea of action research to improve teaching learning is almost non existent at university level. So research is promotion centered rather context improvement one. And in school and college the idea of research is still alien

  3. Iftikhar says:

    Academic research also has the tinge of practitioner research to a certain extent. It is not possible to have academic research without touching the practice dimension. Academic research has a direct impact on teachers’ practices. They cannot be considered two extremes of a continuum.

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks for these comments Iftikhar. As you say, academic research often has a practical dimension but the distinction I was making is more fundamental – it is about the primary purpose of the research, and here academic and practitioner research differ significantly. It is possible to combine both but this is rare. I think you will also find that many disagree with the view that academic research has a direct impact on teachers’ practices.

  4. Xiaoming Xun says:

    Thanks, Simon. I’m now doing my PhD study and it is about Chinese University EFL teachers’ research experience. Indeed, all these factors you mentioned are reflected in my result data, which makes me feel excited.
    I would agree with Iftikhar that academic research and practitioner research should not be considered to be distinct from each other. Why do we bother to try to distinguish them and what’s more interesting, why should there exist this tension between the two for Chinese teachers? Practitioner research is one form of academic research, only by the teachers, of the teachers, and for the teachers. It needs norms or criterion to help teachers ensure the quality and trustworthiness of their research so that they may have more confidence to apply the findings in their own pedagogical contexts.
    One thing in Chinese EFL contexts is that not all the research that university teachers are engaged is directly related to language teaching and learning and their research interests may vary, such as theoretical linguistics, translation, intercultural communication. Should this kind of research be excluded when we talk about the theme of teacher research?

    • Simon Borg says:

      Thanks for this information about your study. I’m pleased my perceptions are supported by your work. I would disagree though that practitioner research is simply one form of academic research. It can be, but generally when we talk about action research and other kinds of practitioner research academic concerns (such as publishing a research article) do not arise; rather, what matters most is the value of the research for the researcher’s practice. I do not want to promote unhelpful distinctions but in this case I do see a clear difference in purposes and priorities.

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