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THE ROLE AND VALUE OF RESEARCHERS FOR TEACHERS: FIVE PRINCIPLES FOR MUTUAL BENEFIT
Masatoshi Sato, Universidad Andres Bello, Santiago, Chile
Shawn Loewen, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA
YouJin Kim, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA


Masatoshi Sato


Shawn Loewen


         YouJin Kim

The Issue

“Teachers don’t use my research!” is a long-standing complaint by second language (L2) researchers. “Researchers don’t know the reality of classroom teaching!” is a typical concern expressed by L2 teachers when asked about their use of research findings in their teaching. The issue here is the use (or lack thereof) of research evidence in practice. Starting from medical research, researchers have been debating the research-practice relationship for over 50 years. In the L2 field, research publications focusing on “transferability” of findings to instructional contexts have been prolific, especially in the field of instructed second language acquisition (ISLA). Despite researchers’ debates, the issue persists. For example, L2 researchers have been recommending for the past 40 years that L2 classes be communicative where students use the L2 for meaningful purposes. If you looked around, however, many classes follow traditional teaching methods which often emphasize explicit grammar teaching, and, at best, students develop receptive and decontextualized linguistic knowledge.

We argue that the so-called research-practice gap partly derives from how researchers and teachers approach each other; that is, what Sato and Loewen (forthcoming) call the epistemological clash. In the current status, there is a tendency for (a) researchers to stay inside the research community where they share research findings among themselves (i.e., the ivory tower), and (b) teachers to reject research findings, or researchers as a profession, as a potentially useful pedagogical resource. As a result, researchers may conduct “pedagogical” research that is irrelevant to teaching, and teachers may follow their own experiences and intuitions that may not be the most effective pedagogical practices. Most problematically, the gap can result in students not getting closer to their learning goals. In this article, we hope to raise awareness of issues facing both researchers and teachers and, hopefully, contribute to narrowing the gap between research and practice. While we believe it is researchers who can and should take initiatives for narrowing the gap, we also believe that it is necessary that both sides put concerted efforts in approaching each other.

Parameters

Before discussing how researchers and teachers can approach each other and create a dialogue between them, we define the parameters of our discussion.

Not All Research Should Be Expected to Directly Contribute to Teaching

Responsibilities of educational researchers are twofold. On the one hand, a researcher’s job is to discover how a specific type of knowledge (e.g., L2 knowledge) is developed. Theoretical research advances our understanding of the L2 learning process. On the other hand, educational researchers are expected to improve the quality of education. To do this, some researchers endeavor to arrive at pedagogical recommendations for teachers, via practically-relevant research. Although we (the authors) value and conduct both types of research, the focus of this article is on research that is intended to impact classrooms.

“Practitioners” Include a Variety of Professions

The term “practitioner” involves different professions and roles, such as policy makers, program directors, textbook writers, educational bloggers, and media content producers. All are stakeholders in the relationship between research and practice and potentially influence pedagogical decision-making at the national, institutional, and curricular levels. However, our focus is on the practitioners who make pedagogical decisions every day, often on-the-spot during teaching, while facing actual pedagogical issues; that is, teachers.

Action Research Is Great but…

We support action research in which teachers conduct research by themselves, often with guidance from researchers. Despite many benefits of action research, it is dependent on a teacher’s motivation, effort, time, and resources. Consequently, the research-practice dialogue can be established only between a particular teacher who personally decides to conduct research and a researcher. In the current article, we focus on a framework in which knowledge exchanges between the two professions are facilitated, regardless of teachers’ ability to conduct research themselves.

Some Researchers Assume the Roles of Both Researcher and Teacher

Some researchers are L2 teachers at the same time. They may be teaching an ESL or an academic writing course at their universities. We acknowledge that conceptualizing researchers and teachers as completely independent professions runs a risk of ignoring those who assume a dual role concurrently.

Institutional Support—From Universities for Researchers and Individual Schools for Teachers—Is Necessary

Some obstacles in the research-practice dialogue exist at institutional levels. From researchers’ perspectives, if a university does not value researchers’ practice-focused efforts, they would not only be demotivated to conduct pedagogically useful research but might be systematically detached from classroom teaching. For teachers, if a school (or even a university) does not subscribe to research journals, teachers do not have access to research even when they are interested in approaching research. For another, teachers need financial support for attending conferences and participating in professional development workshops.

Five Principles

So, with those parameters, we list five principles with a hope of (a) revisiting perceptions of the professions of researchers and teachers, (b) reducing the epistemological clash between the two professions, and (c) developing a collaborative mindset.

1. ISLA Researchers and L2 Teachers Often Share the Same Goals

The academic world, involving universities, publishers, and industries, is meticulously structured to reward publications as evidence of researchers’ success and fame (Compagnucci & Spigarelli, 2020). Consequently, researchers are under pressure to publish more and more. In this situation, researchers’ efforts to communicate with practitioners or conduct pedagogically-relevant research are rarely rewarded. Nevertheless, some researchers have the ultimate goal of contributing to student learning. Acknowledging the shared goal—student learning—would help researchers and teachers sit at the same table to engage in a dialogue with a common language.

2. Researchers and Teachers Hold Different Types of Professional Knowledge

There is a misconception that researchers are the knowledge producers and teachers are the end-users of that knowledge. Rather, the two professions are equipped with different types of knowledge. Researchers’ knowledge entails how things happen (e.g., how an L2 is learned). Teachers’ knowledge is about how to do things. This type of knowledge is useful for making on-the-spot decisions during teaching. In a successful research-practice dialogue, those two types of knowledge can serve to jointly solve pedagogical issues.

3. Researcher and Teacher Professions Come With Different Responsibilities, Expectations, and Daily Tasks

There is a perception that researchers’ main job is to research. Despite the image, they are in fact lucky if they can spend the majority of their working time on research. They need to teach courses, attend various meetings, and complete committee duties. Teachers are busy as well. In addition to many hours of teaching, teachers’ daily routines include preparations and evaluations, school activities, administrative duties, and communication with parents, to name a few. With those responsibilities, it is unreasonable to expect teachers to spend extra time looking for, reading, dissecting, and incorporating research for their lesson planning and teaching. Knowing each other’s professional lives would help develop a dialogue in which researchers and teachers take distinct yet equally important roles.

4. Researchers May Not Be as Detached From the Reality as They May Appear

L2 researchers may cross multiple boundaries. First, the majority of L2 researchers are (or have been) L2 learners themselves, which helps researchers understand issues that L2 learners face. Second, many researchers used to be (or are) L2 teachers themselves, which helps them understand the needs and realities of teachers. These boundary crossings can help facilitate the research-practice dialogue (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011).

5. Research Can Be Both Scientifically Rigorous and Practically Relevant

Conducting research that is publishable and pedagogically useful is methodologically challenging (Ortega, 2012). To this end, Sato and Loewen (forthcoming) proposed “practice-based research” (PBR)—a term juxtaposing evidence-based practice—whose objective is to produce valid yet useful evidence. In this methodological framework, a research topic is raised by the teacher and negotiated with the researcher. During the development and implementation of data collection, the teacher is fully involved so that the intervention aligns with what the teacher and students do during regular classes. Finally, the resulting pedagogical recommendations are tested by the original teacher. Pedagogical issues emerging from the evaluation stage are again taken up by the researcher in another study. This cycle is one way of ensuring scientific rigor and facilitating the dialogue between researchers and teachers.

Conclusion

“To know is not enough.” This is a phrase used by a handful of educational researchers who have come to realize that researching and understanding learning processes and products may be insufficient if they wish to impact practice via their research (Ball, 2012). We believe that it is largely researchers’ responsibility to take action in initiating and facilitating a dialogue with teachers. We need platforms to engage in a dialogue as well. The current platform (TESOL Newsletter: AL Forum) is an ideal venue for researchers and teachers to meet!

References

Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 132–169. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654311404435

Ball, A. F. (2012). To know is not enough: Knowledge, power, and the zone of generativity. Educational Researcher, 41(8), 283–293. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X12465334

Compagnucci, L., & Spigarelli, F. (2020). The third mission of the university: A systematic literature review on potentials and constraints. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 161, 120284. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2020.120284

Ortega, L. (2012). Epistemological diversity and moral ends of research in instructed SLA. Language Teaching Research, 16(2), 206–226. https://doi.org/10.1177/0267658311431373

Sato, M., & Loewen, S. (forthcoming). The research-practice dialogue in second language learning and teaching: Past, present, and future. The Modern Language Journal, 106(3).


Masatoshi Sato is a Professor at Universidad Andrés Bello, Chile. His research agenda is to conduct theoretical and applied research that facilitates the dialogue between practitioners and researchers.

Shawn Loewen is Professor in the Second Language Studies and MA TESOL programs at Michigan State University. His research interests include instructed second language acquisition and classroom interaction.

YouJin Kim is Professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics and ESL at Georgia State University where she teaches and conducts research on second language acquisition and task-based language teaching.
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