The ResearchEd conferences organised by teacher, TES columnist and "behaviour guru" Tom Bennett and attended by prominent teachers, journalists and academics, notably from the Twitter community, have attempted to raise the status of research in teaching. "What works?" is the question. How do teachers get beyond what they perceive as Ofsted expectations or fashionable classroom approaches?
There has been considerable debate about the value of research. It is well known that empirical research in the social sciences is problematic. In terms of classroom research, the variables involved make research difficult: teacher, school, students, social factors - all of these make it hard to pin down scientifically which classroom approaches work best. Long term ("longitudinal") studies comparing different approaches are particularly hard to carry out.
In short "what works" in one context may not in another.
In our subject area research has failed to demonstrate unequivocally which language teaching method is best. The eminent linguist and teacher trainer Brian Page* once wrote that we shall never have a clear, provable model of how second language learning works best. In these circumstances, most teachers rely on their own experience, what they learned as pupils and what they were taught during their teacher training.
A further difficulty for teachers who would like to take advantage of the latest research findings is the fact that it is difficult, and sometimes costly, to access research journals. It was with this in mind that I put together a list of online research sources for second language acquisition. It can be found on my frenchteacher.net site (http://www.frenchteacher.net/research-hubs/). My own brief forays into research articles have been unproductive: articles are often esoteric, small scale, poorly conceived and of little use to the practising teacher.
A question being asked right now is whether research should be made much easier to access for teachers. I am sure this would be a good idea, but would teachers actually study research if it were more accessible?
My guess is no. My experience of language teachers is that they are generally far more interested in practical ideas and resources for lessons than in methodological issues and research. Furthermore, they are too hard pressed to spend time on reading research which may, in any case, be inconclusive and irrelevant to their particular context.
The idea of "research champions" for schools has been put forward. Each school would have a designated teacher whose job would be to keep up with latest evidence and to disseminate it across the school. This may be useful in terms of generic teaching issues, but would mainly be irrelevant to language teachers. As an example just think of what research may have taught us about questioning techniques: most of it is of little relevance to language teachers who use target language questioning in a very specific, often artificial, way to develop language skills.
There may be more mileage in each modern languages department having a teacher whose job it is to keep up with research and who could organise training sessions based on it. The role could be passed round and would make an excellent performance target for interested teachers. I might add that such a role may fit well wIthin the Head of Department's job description. If that role is partly about fostering a consistent approach across the department, then the Head of Department would do well to have the clearest ideas possible on methodological issues and the evidence of research.
* For more on Brian Page:
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