15 comments on “Method talk #1: how helpful is research?

  1. When I was teaching on an MA in Linguistics and TESOL I looked at many of the original oft-quoted papers and was astonished at how small the numbers of students studied often were and the extraoridinary variety in learning situations. Many of the methods seemed pretty dubious, too; things like asking students to report on how they read a text, which seems so subjective as to be unlikely to produce anything on which reliable conclusions could be based. I found nothing concrete enough to justify any one particular method. My reliable conclusion: a lot of foreign language teachers would like to be academics, but most of us are not. We are classroom teachers.

    • Hi Jenny,
      thanks so much for commenting, and you put perfectly into words something that always concerns me: that a lot of research is small-scale in both the number of participants and the scale of what takes place.

      And yet….the experimenters are trying to understand things, and any evidence they can come up with is of interest? I do find all this problematic, but I do want people to try and measure things to see what happens.



  2. Very thought-provoking article. I believe that the best type of educational research is that which is carried out by teachers. Each school, each class, each child, each teacher is different and therefore it’s hard to make a generalisation but if a teacher can research his/her own practice (with a thorough theoretical framework to support him) then that is very valuable. Small scale empirical qualitative research in the classroom/school, can already provide fascinating insights into the processes at a school and is every bit as valid, in my humble opinion, as large scale more generalised research (such as you mention above). It just depends on what your (research) question is and the “problem” you are trying to describe/resolve.
    There, that’s my tiny wee opinion, at the end of an exhausting school year spent researching my own practice and reading about that of many others!

    • Hello Louise,

      that is the perfect defence/advocacy of Action Research I have seen for years!!

      As far as I can see , the ‘small-scale’ research about what we do in class is incredibly valuable and can dramatically inform our practice. Why does this work? Why doesn’t it? But/and of course a lot of written-up research straddles both AR and more detached research.

      But is Jenny (above) right? ‘Small-scale’ isn’t worth much?


  3. As with Jenny, I have read linguistics and Tesol papers and been shocked and disappointed with the sample size used, the lack of control groups, and the seeming lack of understanding of the scientific method. Coming from am academic background in biology, I can’t understand how they get through the peer review process and avoid being ripped apart by other academics. I’ve come to the conclusion that linguistics is a more friendly academic environment. Which is nice. Still, perhaps well-meaning research has not been carried out to such a way as to be accepted, so as teachers it tells us little about what method or methods to use. What we have is action research, trial and error about what works for us in our specific teaching situation.
    I’m not sure if this is a comment specifically about this post, but it was what came to mind on reading it and you did ask for comments :0)

    • Hi Kate,

      yes, I DID ask for comments and I’m very pleased by yours!

      Language teaching – language teaching theorists – would probably like to be scientific in the same way as biology can be – perhaps. But I guess it isn’t like that.

      ‘Which is nice’ you say a little bit sarcastically, i think! But our profession is a bit ‘nice’ and sometimes people make extraordinary claims on not too much evidence. But such people can talk us off into completely new directions and change the discourse completely. It may have something to do with ‘plausibility’ – we tend to respond to theory that we like, that seems ‘plausible’ to us.


      • Actually, the ‘which is nice’ comment was not meant sarcastically. I truly mean that it’s nice that linguistics isn’t so ‘dog eat dog’. But as you say, it does mean that people don’t question the research enough and accept it even if it’s flawed. It is probably that language is something everyone can do and so feel they understand unlike, for example, virus evolution. Teaching is something everyone has had experience of and thus has their own opinion of, and as you say, we think about what people report after research and accept what seems plausible, without questioning the method used.

  4. Interesting topic and comments. I would go along with the idea that every classroom is different and a teacher carries out their own tiny research with each group to find out what works for these very people or this very individual student. There isn’t an academic who can tell you what to do with your group unless they are present at least at one lesson. On the other hand, academics provide classroom teachers with ideas, information (which the teachers apply and implement according to their own research on each group) and maybe inspiration, creating hopefully a successful and fruitful collaboration to the benefit of students.
    This is my view of an ideal teaching world) I just wanted to say that we shouldn’t underestimate the role of research conducted by any side.
    Another idea is that we also shouldn’t judge the academics who don’t teach since I guess they might have some strong reasons for that as well as classroom teachers obviously can’t find time for a proper and big scale research or they just won’t be able to earn a living.
    I’m not saying that the situation as it is is great, maybe some changes would lead to the results of researches being closer to real life. I’m just trying to underline that we need to be careful judging and assessing the role of other professionals.

    Personally, I see the success in classroom teachers being conscious and thoughtful using any technique or activity in each group, keeping a record of what’s good and not good for them and using it approaching a new technique or activity.

    I might be not experienced enough for making a sound contribution, but it’s how I see it at the moment.

    • Hello Kate,

      you contribution is definitely ‘sound’ – and your blog http://iamlearningteaching.wordpress.com look great too!

      I agree that we should not ignore research, and we shouldn’t ‘trash’ researchers either. They are doing what they do as well as they can (mostly) and with interest.

      Success = being ‘conscious and thoughtful’? Yes, I think that’s it. But is consciousness an enthusiastic welcoming of research or a somewhat jaded disapproval? (See Jenny and Louise above)

      • Thank you for answering and paying attention to my blog. That’s really pleasant to hear you like it.

        Saying ‘conscious and thoughtful’ I meant not just applying every new idea straightaway but deciding whether this very activity or framework or something will work for these very students, whether it is possible to modify and tailor it for this very group to reap even greater benefit.
        I don’t like taking sides in general because every situation is special as Louise said in her comment.
        It may occur that the results of a big-scale research don’t work in all my groups apart from one, but the results we achieve in this one group due to this reserch might be amazing.
        Eventually, I can say I’d rather welcome research but again weighing up pros and cons (or just deciding on advantages) of applying it in each group.

        To add to other comments, I agree that the greater the number of participants is the better especially if the research is carried out in groups with different educational backgroud, native language, age etc.

  5. I think it’s quite right that there should be ‘considerable controversy’ among experts, just as I feel it is entirely understandable that there should be a variety of different teaching styles and experiences among teachers, derived from their conscious or intuitive understanding of theories, methods and approaches.
    Although there is disagreement among ‘experts’, there is now perhaps more agreement than there has hitherto been regarding how we learn, how languages are learnt and therefore with implications as to appropriate ways and means for teachers to manage an (as opposed to the) effective teaching process. There is surely, among teachers at least, a general consensus regarding the various linguistic, sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic processes at work in language learning: that children and adults learn as a result of through interaction with our environment and a process of assimilation and accommodation (Piaget), by interacting with others (Vygotsky), that language promotes learning and vice versa (Vygotsky and Piaget), the crucial role teachers can play in scaffolding (Bruner) and mediating (Feuerstein) the learning process, along with an appreciation that we take in information and transform this into personally meaningful knowledge in various ways (Gardner, Kolb), and that the learner has a pivotal role in the learning process, such as in noticing (Schmidt) and in determining learning goals. Not to mention the impact that culture plays in learning and language.
    Indeed, it is culture and historical context that have formed the bases of many of the theories, methods and beliefs that teachers subscribe to today, either in the implemenation of political ideology prevalent at the time (social interactionism in Russia), or as a pendulum-swing reaction against a particular method (the Audiolingual Method in contrast to the Classical Method of grammar-translation). And the fact that the Classical Method is still widely (and effectively) used in some parts of the world, despite the apparently more obviously ‘sensible’ and ‘effective’ so-called Communicative Approach says something about learning and teaching contexts, cultures and expectations of teachers, learners, caregivers, education providers – not necessarily that ‘they’ are wrong and ‘we’ are right, but there is a need to cut the coat according to the cloth.
    What should teachers therefore do about differing accounts of learning success that research offers them? As you, Jeremy, and other contributors have suggested: carry out some small-scale action research. This can be undertaken in the form of peer and self-observations, INSET sessions, from which teachers can then share reflections, claims and findings with writers and researchers such as yourself. In this way, practice hopefully informs research and helps form theory. Actually, I think this does happen anyway (eg TBL from Jane Willis). And to play devil’s advocate, theory which isn’t necessarily derived from meticulous classroom research is not ipso facto to be dismissed; consider the huge impact Michael Lewis’ The Lexical Approach has had on many teachers’ core beliefs about what and how to teach and how to get students thinking about their learning.

    • Thank you so much, Diana, for your fantastic comments. So much to think about.

      There is SOME consensus about some stuff, you are right. And methods of all kinds work in different places. But you mention Jane Willis and TBL and the evidence, research, core beliefs and opinionated comment – they all feed into people’s beliefs about Task-Based Learning. There is no consensus there, and even teachers who are apparently are task-baased often aren’t!

      We live in a funny profession where belief and opinion are just as powerful as evidence-based research. Don’t we? I find it confusing!!


  6. I’ve come to a similar conclusion to the negative views above on research in our field (I have a Physics background myself). I have also learnt about myself that I can usually find research that supports what I wanted to do anyway and find reasons like those mentioned above to ignore all the rest. My approach is therefore nowadays to ignore everything until it reaches the latest edition of Lightbown and Spada.

    • Hi Alex,

      thank you SO much for making me laugh (your Lightnown & Spada comment)!

      I think there os a danger that we tend to respond well to research that chimes with our own beliefs. But is that ALL it is? I finds myself charmed and informed by some of the stuff I read in ELT Journal, TESOL Quarterly etc. And challenged.

      Challenging us to think is what research is for? Perhaps?


      • If you take research as a prompt to experiment in your classes, then it is definitely a good thing. However, that doesn’t really depend on how good the research is, just on how much inspiration it gives you, and recently I find just simple brainstorming is much more useful as a prompt for experimentation. Although I did ham it up a little, in the last few years I’ve become absolutely serious about ignoring all research until it becomes mainstream.

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