The research-practice gap

I’ve just read an article called ‘The role and value of researchers for teachers: five principles for mutual benefit’ which was shared on Twitter by Masatoshi Sato. The article was written by him, Shawn Loewen and YouJin Kim and published on 30th August 2021 in the newsletter of the TESOL Applied Linguistics Interest Section.

As I was reading, I felt like I wanted to respond to various points, and decided it would be best to do this in a blogpost, as then I can take the quotes and add my responses beneath them. It’s late on a Sunday evening and I’m writing as I read the article, so I hope it makes sense! Please read the full article yourself to give you the context for the quotes I’ve selected and to form your own opinions.

For example, L2 researchers have been recommending for the past 40 years that L2 classes be communicative where students use the L2 for meaningful purposes. If you looked around, however, many classes follow traditional teaching methods which often emphasize explicit grammar teaching, and, at best, students develop receptive and decontextualized linguistic knowledge.

This quote seems to assume that teachers access research directly and are able to apply it to their teaching, but this brings up a number of questions:

  • How do teachers get access to the research?
  • How do they know what research to choose to read? How do they know it will be applicable to their context?
  • How much of a ‘critical mass’ does research need to reach before teachers should pay attention to it? How do they know when it has hit this point?
  • How do they extrapolate from the research to work out how to change their practice?
  • What constraints do they have to their practice that might stop them from being able to apply the research? For example, institutional requirements?
  • How much time and money does this process require?
  • What happens when another piece of research comes along which contradicts all the hard work they put into adapting their practice to accommodate the findings from the first area of research?
  • How much of a role does the training teachers have received play in the methods which they use in the classroom?
  • What about the materials? How much does the approach of the materials contribute to the methods teachers can/do use?
  • Is it, therefore, the teacher’s fault if they are not following the research?

After 12 years in the profession, and a huge amount of professional development, including currently doing an MA, I’ve only come across minimal research in journals which is accessible (financially and academically) and/or relevant to my context. I’ve seen many other things at conferences, in methodology books, or in blogposts which I assume have been informed by research, but I wouldn’t necessarily know where to go to look at that research first-hand, even if I did have the time or the inclination to do so. There is so much to teaching that even just learning about one tiny aspect of it, for example how to best teach listening skills, can and does take entire careers. How do you know where to start?!

To be fair to the writers, the article is designed to suggest a way to overcome that gap, at least a little, but I feel this is an unfair stab at teachers who are not using research-based methods in their teaching – I don’t think the blame lies with them in the majority of cases, unless they are willfully choosing to ignore research they know about.

Most problematically, the gap can result in students not getting closer to their learning goals. 

I feel like this is somewhat exaggerated. In some situations, yes, students may not be getting closer to their learning goals, but I don’t feel that this is due to teachers and/or researchers not accessing each other’s work. Instead, this could be due to poor/ineffective/outdated/no teacher training, a lack of supportive management structures, ineffective management of wellbeing, precarity, weak classroom management, or any number of other issues. Research may inform any of these areas, but that’s unlikely to be the teacher’s first concern.

…the focus of this article is on research that is intended to impact classrooms.

Useful narrowing of the focus.

The term “practitioner” involves different professions and roles, such as policy makers, program directors, textbook writers, educational bloggers, and media content producers. 

Nice to see ‘educational bloggers’ on this list 🙂 They then go on to say that their focus for the article is on teachers.

They go on to talk about…

…a framework in which knowledge exchanges between the two professions are facilitated, regardless of teachers’ ability to conduct research themselves.

…acknowledging the role of action research if teachers have the time and motivation to do it, and the fact that some people are both teachers and researchers, rather than having separate roles.

They also acknowledge that support is necessary, both from universities for researchers and schools for teachers.

…if a school (or even a university) does not subscribe to research journals, teachers do not have access to research even when they are interested in approaching research.

This is true, but I don’t know of any schools I’ve worked in that would be able to afford to subscribe to research journals. There are also so many of them out there – how can you know that the one(s) you’re subscribing to are the most useful ones for your teachers? I don’t think this is achievable in the majority of schools.

…some researchers have the ultimate goal of contributing to student learning. Acknowledging the shared goal—student learning—would help researchers and teachers sit at the same table to engage in a dialogue with a common language.

I think the aim here is for researchers and teachers to be equal participants in the endeavour, though it’ s not completely clear even later in the article where the balance of power lies, and whose agenda will be followed. Also, do teachers really not believe that some researchers might have this shared goal with them? Is this actually an issue?

 Researchers and Teachers Hold Different Types of Professional Knowledge

I like this idea – that’s definitely important, and we can definitely learn a lot from each other if the pathways are open.

With [a teacher’s] responsibilities, it is unreasonable to expect teachers to spend extra time looking for, reading, dissecting, and incorporating research for their lesson planning and teaching.

Amen to that!

Knowing each other’s professional lives would help develop a dialogue in which researchers and teachers take distinct yet equally important roles.

I wonder why this knowledge is lacking? What aspects of each other’s professional lives might we need to know more about in order to develop this dialogue? I would like to see this point expanded on.

Research Can Be Both Scientifically Rigorous and Practically Relevant

It’s worth reading this whole section (point 5 on the framework) – I’m not going to copy the whole thing here.

It sounds like an interested way of approaching research, and of keeping teachers involved along the way. However, I still wonder about a few things:

  • How much extra work would this kind of work require of teachers?
  • What kind of compensation would they get for this?
  • Who would be responsible for this compensation? Would it come from the researchers’ budget? The university? The school?
  • What happens if institutions require teachers to participate in research in this way, but don’t adjust their workload to accommodate it?
  • Who decides on the intervention? The researcher? The teacher? Both?
  • Where are the results of the research shared? How accessible will they be? How many other teachers are likely to be able to learn from each individual teacher-researcher partnership?

We believe that it is largely researchers’ responsibility to take action in initiating and facilitating a dialogue with teachers. We need platforms to engage in a dialogue as well.

I’ll be interested to see where this discussion goes, and whether this kind of research is already happening out there somewhere. It’s interesting to see that researchers are being pushed to initiate and facilitate the dialogue, but again, I have questions:

  • How much time do researchers have to set up this kind of dialogue?
  • How much communications training do they have, so that they can speak to teachers who might not be fully able to follow academic language?
  • How will they make contact with the teachers to set up the partnerships? Will they have some kind of database? Or they approach them one by one? Or teachers apply to work with specific researchers (if they have time for the application process!)?

The article suggests that researchers and teachers could work in closer partnerships. I’m not currently teaching, but I am doing training – if any researchers are interested in working with me, please let me know.

5 thoughts on “The research-practice gap

  1. I’m so glad you spotted this as it would likely have escaped my attention otherwise.

    It’s not a new topic – Simon Borg, is one example, Lourdes Ortega (who Sato and the others mention) is another, and Action Research (also mentioned briefly) attempts to address the same kind of concerns, too – but it is nevertheless one I think is quite urgent.

    Many of the questions you raise in your response to the first extract are, to be fair, anticipated by Sato, Loewen and Kim, but I feel there’s a still more fundamental issue here which is their second point:

    There is a misconception that researchers are the knowledge producers and teachers are the end-users of that knowledge. Rather, the two professions are equipped with different types of knowledge. Researchers’ knowledge entails how things happen (e.g., how an L2 is learned). Teachers’ knowledge is about how to do things. This type of knowledge is useful for making on-the-spot decisions during teaching. In a successful research-practice dialogue, those two types of knowledge can serve to jointly solve pedagogical issues.

    Although this is the second of their five things, there is a fundamental error here, which – however well-intentioned they may be, and I do believe they are sincere on that score – is borderline insulting in its presumption.

    How is it possible for a language teacher’s knowledge to be “about how to do things” unless they also know – or at least have come to some working understanding of – “how things happen (e.g., how an L2 is learned)”?

    In other words, this is an entirely false opposition.

    A language teacher, even a novice trainee, is already acting as if they have an understanding of “how things happen (e.g., how an L2 is learned)” since without it they would be incapable of acting as if they know “about how to do things”.

    Yes, it’s true, many language teachers, not just novice trainees, may not be conscious of how what they are doing is ultimately underpinned by a grasp of how things happen; and yes, they may not be able to articulate that understanding of how things happen very clearly or – and this is important – using language deemed appropiate for doing so by the research community – but this does not mean that they do not have any such understanding or are incapable of articulating it in some way if asked.

    To me this seems to underscore the major flaw in Sato, Loewen and Kim’s (admittedly brief) summary of the issue.

    They are presenting reseachers, and the use of research, as offering to relieve language teachers of a burden they may not have been aware they had.

    Or put another way, this paints researchers as having come up with solutions for as yet unknown problems.

    They talk about a dialogue between researchers and pracitioners (teachers), but it seems awfully one-way for a supposed dialogue.

    Again, while I have no doubt they are well-intentioned, they need to rethink their messaging (in my opinion).

    Right now, it feels like one of those advertising messagers aimed at busy parents designed to make them feel guilty for not doing something they haven’t been doing, you know:

    [ Sad little girl in school uniform walking alone in the rain to a bus stop ]

    Voice: “Busy parents don’t always have time to give their children a proper start to the day … That’s why new Nutrilicious Grain Bars are scientifically proven to give your kids five a day!!”

    Only here it comes across as “We want you to have a dialogue with us about our research – and also hint that you should feel guilty for not paying enough attention to your learners’ needs if you don’t(!)”

    Anyway … thanks again for sharing this as it’s an important issue.

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    1. Thanks for the detailed comment. I particularly liked this: “They are presenting reseachers, and the use of research, as offering to relieve language teachers of a burden they may not have been aware they had.” I think the feeling of guilt you mentioned is also quite important – it often seems to be implied in pieces like this, including in the early example of communicative teaching in my first quote.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting discussion of a very important issue.

    As Bill VanPatten argued in his plenary at the BAAL 2018 conference, language teaching can only be effective if it comes from an understanding of how people learn languages. I think it’s unreasonable to expect teachers to keep up with this research by reading articles in journals – many of which are very expensive and require considerable background knowledge to make sense of. Teachers should be informed by good initial training, and then by participating in on-gong SLTE programmes, organized by their bosses, which properly address how people learn languages and the pedagogic implications. It’s regrettable that so many high profile teacher trainers and educators in ELT are il-informed about instructed SLA research, and prefer to promote coursebook-driven ELT, which they so often have a personal stake in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Geoff.
      However, it seems to lift the burden of keeping up with research from the teachers onto the trainers and bosses, who I think may well have the same issues of time and not knowing where and how to access research.
      The big issue seems to me to be how to break this cycle – how can you get the research into the hands of the people that need it as efficiently as possible? I know that’s the background to the whole article and one of the things the writers are trying to solve. Doing research with the full involvement of teachers is clearly important, but perhaps if we really want to get research into the hands of teachers, then researchers should be looking higher up the chain?

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