More Thoughts on Bridging the Research-Practice Divide

I wrote the following piece on October 22, 2012, a few days after reading Penny Ur’s article. Reading the tweet from @TESOL _Assn about an excellent response (“Bridging the Gap between Research and Classroom Practice“) to Ur’s article on the TESOL President’s Blog, written by Dr. Deena Boraie, which pinpointed the critical issue about the accessibility of TESOL research, prompted me to share this piece.

For those who have been working toward bridging the theory/research and practice divide, Ur’s article (published in the Guardian Weekly on October 16, 2012), while reiterating the time constraints that ELT professionals face and providing some sensible reminders to ELT professionals to be critical of the research they read, missed an important opportunity to move beyond the commonly perceived “status quo” of the research-practice divide in such an important global forum.

The statement that “There remains the problem of teachers’ unwillingness and inability to read the research regularly” may be an overgeneralization. As stated in an article I wrote titled, “Action Research,” I have had the good fortune to meet many inspiring ELT professionals at conferences and on the Twitterverse who are committed to professional development in ways that go far beyond “reflection on classroom experience.” They are not those teachers portrayed in the article, nor are they passive consumers of research; these practitioners are actively seeking information to inform their teaching, are reflecting critically about their classroom experiences, and have developed and are engaged in their personal/professional learning networks. Such practitioners are the role models for the practicing and future ELT professionals with whom I work; these practitioners need to be acknowledged for their efforts.

The statement that “employers often convey the message that they would rather their teachers did not ‘waste their time’ on conferences and reading when they could be in the classroom” is perhaps an unfair characterization of many administrators’ viewpoints. The administrators of various English Language Centres with whom I have spoken over the years, seem also on the side of recognizing the importance of providing time and funding for professional development. Granted, such practices may not be the norm or rank high on some institutions’ priority lists for various practical reasons, but we can all seek ways to work toward moving our professional community in the direction of recognizing the importance of professional development in concrete terms – through participating in informal professional gatherings; attending or presenting at conferences; engaging in the scholarship of teaching and learning, and so on.

The English Language Centre at my institution, which regularly holds its own professional development conference, is a case in point. The fact that our Learning and Teaching Grant increased from $500 in 2006 to $7,500 in 2010 and the Teacher Inquiry Group Initiative recently launched by the Association of B.C. Teachers of English as an Additional Language (BC TEAL) are both encouraging signs of such progression.

The statement that “researchers are not practitioners. Many have very limited or nonexistent teaching experience…” may be another overgeneralization. Like Ur, I was and still am an active ELT professional, and also have experience in university-based teaching of language methodology and pedagogy. As discussed in my article, “Whose Priorities Are We Working For?“, my decision is rooted in “my conviction about the ways that teaching and research nourish and enrich each other, about the need to guard against doing research and discussing its pedagogical implications without walking in a teacher’s shoes, and about the importance of establishing connections between research and practice.”

Most of my graduate students had extensive classroom teaching experience before deciding to embark on research, and their experience clearly informs the research topics they choose to pursue. In my work training future teaching professionals, developing students’ abilities to be critical consumers of research, to navigate the selection and reading processes, to engage in productive discussion with peers about research articles, and, most importantly, to consider pedagogical implications and the ways findings can inform practice are major components of the training that can be fostered at an early stage.

Finally, claims that “research relevant to ELT relates almost exclusively to language acquisition” and that “many studies are not directly relevant to a specific teaching context” are outdated and neglect to recognize the extensive amount of work engaged in by those researchers who care deeply about their work’s pedagogical implications and are genuinely committed to sharing their findings in ways that can promote transferability to other learning and teaching contexts.

Putting those unsubstantiated claims aside, perhaps the more critical point to raise is that it is important to reconsider how researchers can also communicate their research in an accessible communication style that reaches beyond the scholarly community to ELT professionals. In addition, there is a need to pursue research that considers the need for ecological validity on topics relevant to natural classroom settings and addresses topics that not only serve researchers’ interests, but also have practical or pedagogical significance. With all the talk by granting agencies about scientific outreach and the push for knowledge mobilization that transcends traditional journal publications, the current climate and demands afford opportunities for researchers to connect with practitioners and to reconsider their contributions to the field, not only in the scholarly community, but also for the professional community and society at large.

Most of all, at the institutional level, as I have argued here and many before and after me have cautioned, institutions and academics must be more thoughtful about how they evaluate and value work. I was recently told (but respectfully disagree with the comment) that the mobilization of knowledge at the local and provincial levels is “at the expense of international dissemination which work of this importance deserves.” As the president of the American Society for Cell Biology pointed out in his must-read column on “Evaluating how we evaluate,” “An initially high-flying paper might be largely forgotten a year later, while important educational/institutional activities could have influential ripple effects decades later” (Vale, 2012, p. 5). If the narrow-minded definition of what constitutes “impact” does not change, and publications aiming to benefit both scholarly and professional communities are not respected, years from now, we will still be having the same conversations about the same issues regarding the knowledge-practice gap or the research-practice divide.

The process of making TESOL academic research useful and relevant requires effort, involvement, and commitment from all: current and future ELT professionals, teacher trainers, researchers, and administrators. While we, as fellow teachers, researchers, and administrators, continue striving to reach the common goal of enriching and informing the work of ELT professionals, let us not forget to acknowledge, celebrate, and support the many ELT professionals who are setting great examples and whose work serves as reminders of our reason for being part of this professional community.

About Li-Shih Huang

Li-Shih Huang
Li-Shih Huang is Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics and the Learning and Teaching Centre Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Victoria. Since her first language-teaching job in 1992, Li-Shih has garnered extensive instructional and curriculum design experience in Canada and overseas. She was also the recipient of TESOL’s Mary Finocchiaro Award for Excellence in Development of Pedagogical Materials. @AppLingProf
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4 Responses to More Thoughts on Bridging the Research-Practice Divide

  1. Huw Jarvis says:

    Thanks for these useful insights. My primary concern about restricted practitioner access to research. Top quality jounals such as TESOL Quarterly or ELTJ are simply not available to many. This issue was a key driver in setting up http://www.tesolacademic.org but I recognise that it is a limited and partial solution and it’s still the publishers who “own knowledge”.

  2. Great response, Li-Shih! I attended Penny Ur’s session at TESL Canada, which you may have also attended, where she talked primarily about this research attitude. Although I came away largely agreeing with the sentiment–everyday practitioners could do by reading more research-related articles in our field–I noted to myself some of the issues you mention, not the least of which is:

    …perhaps the more critical point to raise is that it is important to reconsider how researchers can also communicate their research in an accessible communication style that reaches beyond the scholarly community to ELT professionals.

    I’ve so often been turned off by the academic-ese in many journal articles during my MA studies in particular and can very much see why not more of us are that informed by research.

    • Li-Shih Huang Li-Shih Huang (@AppLingProf) says:

      Indeed, Tyson! How can practitioners be expected or encouraged to be informed about research that often is not communicated with them in mind? The issue points back to my question about “whose priorities are we working for?”

      I am really glad that the response resonated with you, Tyson, and thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me and with the TESOL community.

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