As engaging as Scott Thornbury is, you can’t help but head into his talks with a sense of deja-vu, mostly because he’s been trotting out similar stuff on methodology for the last few years. This talk, though, was different. Perhaps even revealing, not particularly about himself but about some of the others who (whether they like it or not) make up our de facto pantheon, i.e., Messrs Harmer, Scrivener et Brown, & Mme Ur.
Thornbury started off by declaring that teachers’ don’t read research. He cited three reasons for this: irrelevance, inaccessibility (both in terms of actual access to the research and the ability to understand it), and lack of time.
‘A lack of time is the predominant reason cited [for not reading research]… A perceived lack of practical relevance was also a common hindrance, as was the inaccessibility, both physical and conceptual, of published research.’
Borg, S. 2009. ‘English language teachers conceptions of research.’ Applied Linguistics, 30/3, p. 370.
He went on to suggest that research articles don’t seem to be a good means of communicating insights to teachers.
‘Studies of teachers’ consumption of and attitudes towards academic research articles show that such articles do not seem to function well as a mechanism for communicating information for teachers.’
Bartels, N. 2003. ‘How teachers and researchers read academic articles.’ Teaching & Teacher Education, 19. p. 737.
He asserted that this trend wasn’t unique to ELT. Of the 1.5 million peer reviewed articles that appeared (I think he said last year), 82% of them never got cited in subsequent articles, and only about 20% of articles in the humanities are ever read. He added that SLA research was often inconclusive or didn’t fit teachers’ ideas of plausibility.
He then quoted Penny Ur who also believes research plays second fiddle to classroom practice.
‘For the ELT practitioner the main source of professional learning is classroom experience, enriched by discussion with colleagues, feedback from students, and – for those teachers with the time and inclination – input through reading, conferences and courses, of which research is one important component. Research is not the primary basis of ELT knowledge for the practitioner, but it is a valuable supplement.’
Ur, P. (2012) ‘How useful is Tesol academic research?’ The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/oct/16/teacher-tesol-academicresearch-useful
So how does the researcher communicate with the practitioner or consumer? An idea borrowed from agriculture is of a country agent who mediates by bringing news from the science establishment. In our context, methodology books take the place of the county agent. Thorbury stated that this mediation was influential therefore imbuing it with some responsibility. To explore, this he posed eight reflective questions to Ur, Harmer, Scrivener and Harmer.
Now these responses were mighty revealing. Have a look at what Scrivener has to say in response to the question ‘How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?’
JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “antiresearch” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching. My teaching is not applying linguistics. Rather, it is about tuning in to people and attempting, moment by moment, to help create a space where learning can happen. I more often look at the literature to see if it can help me understand what I have already noticed myself.
And have a dekko at what Ur has to say in response to the question ‘Do you feel you have an ‘agenda’, i.e. a bias towards a particular theoretical (or a-theoretical) position? If so, do you think this matters?’
PU: I really try hard in my own writing to be as objective as possible. The problem arises when a researcher’s data seems to contradict my own experience-based opinions: so then I have to read the research very carefully, re-examine my own experience, and try to decide who is right, or how they might both be.
The responses make for a fascinating read – the presentation can be accessed and downloaded from this link.
Thornbury makes a number of conclusions but two really stood out for me:
Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.
Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
This throws up some critical questions: how much of what we read in books that we consider seminal in our field are the products of confirmation biases and lenses with a particular world view? And what impact does this have on our practices, beliefs and development as a professional community?