Last spring Patsy Lightbown and Nina Spada gave a plenary at AAAL 2019 on the “gap” between researchers and teachers, and the English Language Center at MSU hosted a symposium called “Mind the Gap” that addressed the same concerns. My students and I participated in the symposium virtually, watching the talks as webinars and keeping up a lively backchannel through chat in a Google Doc.
There and in print, Masotoshi Sato and Shawn Loewen (2019) have discussed their investigations of teacher engagement with research, but they have primarily commented on teachers’ willingness to read research, to apply it to their teaching, to open their classrooms to researchers, or to suggest topics of research. Simon Borg’s (2010) paper on engagement with research does go so far as to consider not only why teachers do not engage with research as consumers but also why they do not engage in research as producers.
In many cases, the experiences that have had the greatest impact on my students are the projects that involved empirical data collection, analysis, and articulation of results in the form of reports, presentations, and changes in their pedagogical practices. In other words, they all conduct research, and they remember it long after they leave the program. They conduct quasi-experimental studies in my SLA course, and they do a project involving ethnographic methods in my culture course. In my sociolinguistics course they record and analyze excerpts of spoken language from their own classrooms, in my language concepts (pedagogical linguistics) course they collect and analyze small corpora, in my reading course they do case studies of reading development over a period of months, and there are elements of reflective teaching that border on action research in every course. Many students, by design, go on to use the same methods in their Experiential Modules (the capstone project).
However, many of the projects they complete do not meet traditional definitions of research or standards for research that determine whether an article will be published or not. There are two sets of reasons for that: One is that this program is explicitly designed to develop master language teachers, not future researchers, so time and credits that other programs might devote to research methods are devoted to pedagogical issues and approaches.
The other is that the questions that drive their desire to conduct research are often so large and complex, with so many variables and stakeholders, that they exceed the scope of a dissertation, much less a master’s project. At the same time, the most valuable outcomes for them are not lengthy papers. They want actual improvements in the effectiveness of the work they are doing and the conditions in which they are doing them.
To mention a few clear examples,
- a student who recently became the chair of her high school foreign language department is collecting artifacts and data from her supervision of teachers in hopes of improving student outcomes, teacher retention, and her own leadership;
- a student who regularly participates in a program through her church that provides microfinancing in Central America collected authentic language in use and used corpus tools to analyze it so that she could build an effective training program for other translators;
- a student from China with a U.S.-born wife studied the way that his own daughter uses Chinese and English in different environments;
- a Japanese student in Tokyo carefully documented her own efforts to teach writing communicatively in her teaching practicum;
- a student who was born in Brazil and then served in the U.S. army has been studying the current Portuguese curriculum and collecting interview data and artifacts in order to re-design it to prepare soldiers more effectively for real-world language use; and
- a student in California who teaches both Spanish and ESL created a task that was intended to counteract some of the sociopolitical disparities her learners face and then documented and analyzed what she did and some of the outcomes.
Would any of those studies qualify as publishable research? The answer is that in their current forms, they probably would not. A few other studies that I have mentored clearly have been, but the student investigators still need my time and expertise in order to produce and submit a report. In none of those cases did the teachers fail to conduct publishable research because they were not asking interesting questions, not willing to engage with challenges, not able to access valuable contexts of learning and teaching, or not able to articulate their interest or outcomes.
Going forward, the MAFLT as a program intends to structure the way we present research methods and ethics in the form of modules that can be presented in courses and in conjunction with master’s projects depending on teacher-learners’ interests and needs. Also, I hope that I will be able to devote more bandwidth to mentoring students through the processes of design and implementation. The work needs to be done, and these graduate students who are also full-time teachers have the access and insights to do it.
References and Recommended Reading:
Borg, S. (2010). Language teacher research engagement. Language Teaching, 43(4), 391–429. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444810000170
Sato, M., & Loewen, S. (2019). Do teachers care about research? The research–pedagogy dialogue. ELT Journal, 73(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/ccy048
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.