Number one for English language teachers

Teacher research: What exactly are we talking about?

Type: Article

Research is often promoted as a powerful form of professional development for teachers. This article by Simon Borg is intended to prompt debate around the topic of teacher research and even inspire you to think about how research could contribute to your own professional development.

Research is often promoted as a powerful form of professional development for teachers. But what does ‘research’ mean? I’ve been asking ELT professionals around the world this question – and what they have to say raises several interesting questions about teacher research in our field. Read on and explore your own views about what research is.

Research as professional development

There is much discussion in ELT about how doing research can be a powerful form of professional development. I support this idea. However, the feedback I’ve had from ELT practitioners around the world suggests very clearly that understandings of what this means in practice vary enormously. The overall sense one gets is of ambiguity, and if the meaning of ‘research’ is ambiguous to teachers, then this can only interfere with their efforts to engage productively in this activity (i.e. how can you do something well if you don’t understand it?).

A broader discussion, then, about the nature and definition of research is important as greater clarity on this matter can make it easier for ELT practitioners to do research in order to enhance their professional development. In this article, I highlight a range of ways that research is defined by ELT professionals and prompt you to compare these views to your own.

What is research?

In the last two years almost 3,000 ELT professionals – teachers and managers working in state and private sectors at all levels around the world – have told me what ‘research’ means to them. Overall, the picture to emerge is one of significant variation: ‘research’, for these individuals, covers a wide range of activities.

Let’s take the following example: to what extent do you think it is an example of research?

A university lecturer gave a questionnaire about the use of computers in language teaching to 500 teachers. Statistics were used to analyze the questionnaires. The lecturer wrote an article about the work in an academic journal.

Most teachers I ask about this feel strongly that it is an example of research; when I ask them to explain, teachers commonly refer to the large number of participants involved, the use of statistics and to the fact that it was published:

'This is classic quantitative research: large sample, statistical data analysis, and a very public report'. (Japan)

 

'Because the large number of teachers were taking part in the research and because of the feedback that was published'. (Slovenia)

 

'Using statistics also suggests that the approach was objective. I also assume, rightly or wrongly, that an academic journal would only publish results that were worthwhile'. (Switzerland)

Here’s another example: to what extent do you think it is an example of research?

Midway through a course, a teacher gave a class of 30 students a feedback form. The next day, five students handed in their completed forms. The teacher read these and used the information to decide what to do in the second part of the course.

In this case, the majority of teachers I have spoken to do not feel this is an example of research; the main reason they cite for this view is the small scale of the activity:

'The number of the completed questionnaires and studied by the teacher is too low'. (Slovenia)

 

'The data collection process is flawed (you cannot draw reliable conclusions from such a small sample)'. (France)

 

'I’m really sorry. This is definitely not a research. Data collection is invalid since they’re just five out of thirty'. (UAE)

Teachers’ comments on the two situations above illustrate the kinds of views teachers have of research; such comments suggest that for many teachers research is associated more with large-scale, academic inquiry than with classroom-based activities which are part of teachers’ daily professional practices. In fact, when I’ve asked teachers to identify the characteristics of good quality research, the commonly chosen criteria are:

  • The researcher is objective
  • Hypotheses are tested
  • The results give teachers ideas they can use
  • Variables are controlled
  • Information is analysed statistically
  • A large number of people are studied

Apart from the third item, this list reflects characteristics of more ‘scientific’ forms of inquiry. Such ideas clearly have a strong influence on teachers’ views of research.

How would you rate the above characteristics?

Having said that, for many ELT professionals, research is very closely related to classroom practice and professional development. One teacher, for example, explained that:

'I believe in teacher observation. That's my research. What works for my students, I keep doing; what doesn't work, goes out the window. I believe in trying everything. My kids need variety, as well as routine'.

And a group of ELT managers who I asked to describe examples of research which their teachers did suggested the following:

How many of these would you say are research?

  • Looking for teaching ideas on the Internet
  • Reading practical teaching magazines
  • Evaluating new coursebooks
  • Designing and trying out new tests
  • Giving a talk to colleagues about a new pedagogical idea or technology
  • Attending workshops organized by the school
  • Attending language teaching conferences
  • Collecting feedback from students at the end of a course
  • Doing a needs analysis with students at the start of a course
  • Reflecting on teaching
  • Designing materials
  • Reading theoretical books and articles
  • Trying out new teaching ideas
  • Observing colleagues and talking about the lesson afterwards

It is interesting that many of the activities listed here are ones that teachers can normally engage in as part of their regular teaching or professional development work. There is a clear contrast between these activities and the large-scale, academic form of inquiry which many teachers think of when they hear the word ‘research’.

Given the range of positions illustrated above, the key question we are left with, then, is the one we started with: what is research? One possible answer is ‘anything and everything’, but  - assuming that greater clarity around this issue is desirable - this is not likely to be the most productive way forward. As a field, we need to provide more guidance to the many ELT practitioners who are interested in doing research but who are hindered by initial uncertainties about what precisely it is they should be doing. This guidance probably needs to go beyond the generic advice on doing research which methodological textbooks provide; in fact, I suspect that the kinds of specific questions teachers are faced with as they think about doing research are rarely addressed in such texts. Finding out what teachers’ questions about research are, then, is a useful first step in providing the kinds of guidance that teachers actually need. 

We would welcome your comments and questions on the subject of teacher research so that we can continue this series by responding to particular issues suggested by our readers.

Further reading

Allison, D., & Carey, J. (2007), 'What do university language teachers say about language teaching research?', TESL Canada Journal, 24, 61-81.

Borg, S. (2006), 'Conditions for teacher research', English Teaching Forum, 44, 22-27.

Borg, S. (2007a), 'English language teachers’ views of research: Some insights from Switzerland', ETAS Newsletter, 24(2), 15-18. [available at http://www.education.leeds.ac.uk/people/staff.php?staff=29]

Borg, S. (2007b), 'Research engagement in English language teaching', Teaching and Teacher Education, 23, 731-747

Borg, S. (2007c), 'Understanding what teachers think about research'. The Teacher Trainer, 21, 2-4

Reis-Jorge, J. M. (2007), 'Teachers’ conceptions of teacher-research and self-perceptions as enquiring practitioners - a longitudinal case study', Teaching and Teacher Education, 23, 402-417.

'ELT managers’ views of research' – project website at www.eltresearch.co.uk  includes a summary of questionnaire findings and bibliography.

Some articles on teacher research from the Language Learning Journal are available for download at http://www.ittmfl.org.uk/modules/effective/6d/index.htm

Simon Borg is based at the School of Education, University of Leeds.

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