In these ‘method talk’ postings I am sharing paragraphs I have recently been writing about issues to do with methodology and teaching. They are attempts to ‘call things as they are’ and to reflect both a ‘con-sensus’ and ‘common sense’ (though that always begs the question ‘common to whom?’)
I would welcome your comments (praise, perplexity, disagreements and brickbats equally!)
So here goes:
1 How helpful is research?
It would be extremely useful if we could simply read some research and know, as a result of it, how to teach and what methods would be most useful. We might then be able to say with conviction that method A is a better way of teaching than method B or that Technique C works but technique D doesn’t – and so on. But of course it’s not that easy. For as Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada point out “All of the theories…….use metaphors to represent something that cannot be observed directly.” (Lightbown and Spada 2013:120). We can not ‘see’ learning and so we try to find metaphorical ‘parallels’ to explain what we think is happening. The problem, of course, is that theorists don’t necessarily agree, whether their insights come from classroom research or from profound beliefs about what is going on. As a result “Educators who are hoping that language acquisition theories will give them insight into language teaching practice are often frustrated by the lack of agreement among the ‘experts’. (Lightbown and Spada op.cit:121). “There is,” writes Rod Ellis, “considerable controversy.” (Ellis 2014:32) In particular there seems to be little agreement in SLA research about the exact usefulness of focused instruction or even about whether corrective feedback works or not.
What should teachers do with the differing accounts of learning success that research offers them? One possibility is just to ignore it completely and go on teaching as before. However, that would be unfair not only on students who might not always respond to ‘as before’ teaching, but also on teachers themselves who benefit hugely from constant questioning and investigation about what they do. Furthermore, the constant demands of in-the-classroom teaching sometimes mean that we just don’t have space to think about what we are doing as much as we would like. Researchers, however, do exactly the kind of thinking that teachers would do if they had more time. And each account of the research they do is like another piece of some vast pedagogical jigsaw. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit, sometimes they do. But the thinking they provoke is the life-blood of the inquisitive and enquiring teacher.
This does not suggest that teachers should read theory uncritically, nor that theory should necessarily dominate teacher thinking. As we shall see, the ability to assess what theorists tell us is a vital teacher skill. But we might go further too and say that research that is divorced from teacher reality is not very useful. Indeed the kind of Action Research that teachers do is, in many ways, just as important as the (sometimes) more cerebral research carried on by SLA theorists. In an ideal world, therefore, there would be satisfying two-way channels of investigation between teachers and researchers so that what teachers have to say is valued as much as what researchers are trying to tell them.
Ellis, R (2014) ‘Principles of Instructed Second Language learning’ in Celce-Murcia et al Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language. Heinle Cengage Learning
Lightbown, P & Spada, N (2013) How languages are learned:4th edition. Oxford University Press