Do teachers act on the findings of educational research?

The divide between research and application was brought home to me recently in a 2 day meeting in which a discussion of the role of grammar played a large role.

On the flight I lapped up parts two and three of Ellis, only to find that many of the issues raised were irrelevant to the practical nature of what we were discussing – a revision of a coursebook series. Ellis’s excellent discussion of the factors affecting the learnability of grammatical structures that had seemed so me, while on the plane, so central to what needed to be at the heart of the meeting, dissolved rapidly once we got down to business. There were too many debatable points – to many tastes to satisfy, and too many other considerations weighing down the agenda.

The final stage of ‘SLA Research and Language Teaching’ is vague, with no real workable conclusion drawn. The most frustrating thing throughout is the rather global use of the term ‘teacher’ which I would suggest could be more stratified.

Certainly I have found that most teachers do not actively seek out research – they would rather spend valuable time seeking tasks and activities and resources. But I think Widdowson’s talk of ‘deep mistrust’ is also overstating the case. It’s more a question of prioritizing time use.

What is perhaps missed is that between the researchers and the ‘teachers’ there is a middle ground of roles that, while still in the teacher camp, can and actually do serve to connect the two poles a little. That is the strata of teacher trainers, materials writers and editors, resource and methodology book writers and department managers not too handcuffed by admin. Along with this are the teachers whose articles regularly appear in more practical journals and blogs. And I think that this is where the findings of academic research do filter through. And it is perhaps this group to whom researchers should aim and target their findings.

So teachers may not always have a clear view of where an activity has come form – but the coursebook writer probably has, or the observer giving class feedback, or the trainer guiding the teacher in a certain direction. For example, I was a couple of years into teaching before I heard the term PPP (practice, present, produce long since out of fashion in theoryland), but the coursebooks I had been using would have all too well represented the approach in my lessons. I am brought to mind of Michael Lewis statement that he was ‘pissed off’ because the lexical approach was not filtering through. That is probably true if you interviewed most teachers who would not have read the main books on the subject, but are likely familiar to the collocation exercises that have become increasingly abundant in teaching materials.

It is filtering through even if that filtering includes dilution.

At the same time a number of teachers do attend conferences. More often that not it is the academics who have the plenary presentations. But I think there is an expectation on the part of teachers that they will be the ‘servicers’ of academic research via prescribed approaches represented in materials.

With regard to action research, there will always be a small core of teachers who see this as a natural part of their classroom role – but it won’t come out of nowhere and here I see the department head role as being vital to promoting small scale action research projects, stimulating interest and facilitating meetings to discuss findings and implications.