Bridging the ELT Theory-Practice Gap

I believe the purpose of this blog is to help connect research and practice in TESOL. It is my understanding that most people contributing to this blog are practitioners, who are working toward this goal. As an education researcher, I feel a sense of duty or obligation to have my work and similar works benefit the teaching profession, which ultimately benefits the learners. I am currently working on a research project that looks into the research-practice connection, and Tavakoli (2015) study has been one of the more recent inspiring papers I have read.

Research Questions

  1. What are ELTs’ views on the relationship between teaching and research?
  2. What factors do they hold responsible for contributing to the divide between research and practice?
  3. What do they suggest can be done to help bridge the divide?
  4. What role do they consider for teacher education in promoting research engagement?

Tavakoli brings up the research questions because her literature review revealed that there was little evidence to demonstrate that ELTs engage as part of their regular routine. However this phenomenon is not unique to ELTs. She also states that there is not enough evidence to examine and highlight this problem. One quote that jumped out at me was Simon Borg’s: “Teacher research remains largely a minority activity in the field of teaching” (2010, p. 391). Further on in the literature review, the author described four efforts to bridge the research and practice divide:

  • Stenhouse’s Curriculum project (1975)
  • Allwright’s Exploratory Practice (2003, 2005)
  • Burns’ action research advocacy (1999, 2005)
  • Responsibility of teacher education (Freeman & Johnson, 1998)

Wenger’s (1998) Community of Practice theory is used as the framework for this study. It has been widely used for qualitative research on teacher groups for professional development.

Methodology

She interviewed 20 ELTs in the United Kingdom in various contexts, including university language centers, state-funded further education (FE) colleges, and private language schools. They were recruited through emails sent to their respective institutions. The interviews were semi-structured and conducted face-to-face. The three sections of the interview were as follows:

  1. Their “views on the relationship between teaching and research, the divide between the two, and the main reasons for the persistence of the divide” (p. 44)
  2. Suggestions for bridging the gap
  3. The role of teacher education

Interviews were transcribed, coded, and themed. The themes were compared with the aspects from the communities of practice theoretical framework. A third-party expert in the theoretical framework analyzed the data separately. Differences in analysis were then resolved between the author and the third party.

Findings: Answers to the research questions

#1 – Her participants’ views on the relationship between teaching and research showed an interdependence of learning, practice, and identity. They reported developing identity through practice and experience in their community of practice. Furthermore, ownership of knowledge was the key factor for their professional identity.

#2 – The biggest factor they held responsible for contributing to the divide between research and practice was that they perceived researchers and teachers as two different communities of practice.

#3 – They suggest participating in mediatory organizations (e.g., the British Council and the UK’s National Research and Development Centre) can help bridge the divide.

#4 – They imply that teacher education take on the sociocultural perspective in promoting research engagement. Most of the participants found experience more valuable than education in terms of professional development, but their views were divided on how essential research is to teachers.

Discussion & Conclusion

These findings help the author to claim that interacting with others in a community of practice, in addition to teaching, helps teachers form and develop their identity. Two areas which bridged the theory-practice gap were the participants’ commitment to the principles of Reflective Teaching (Schon, 1983; Wallace, 1991) and Exploratory Practice (Allwright, 2005). Tavakoli recommends future research to investigate how these principles remain embedded in their professional learning practices. She also suggests that the research community should acknowledge and value more intensely teachers’ knowledge and experience, which can be observed in their communities of practice. Finally she argues that there is a strong need for researchers and teachers to create joint enterprises bridging research and practice and encourages the enhancement of a research environment in teacher education programs.

Takeaways

Although the findings are interesting and the conclusion strongly supports the purpose of ELT Research Bites, I argue readers who are not so familiar with research to be cautious in interpreting this toward practical purposes. I believe it is a step in the right direction, but this is only one study. Furthermore, it had a low number of participants (20) in a specific context: primarily teaching adult students in one country (UK). Research like this needs to be reproduced in several contexts and with a larger number of English language teachers to produce more generalizable or transferable results. In the spirit of this paper, I would encourage researchers to find willing teachers and teachers to find interested researchers to team up and expand upon studies like these.

References

Allwright, D. (2003). Exploratory practice: Rethinking practitioner research in language teaching. Language Teaching Research, 7(2), 113-141.

Allwright, D. (2005). From teaching points to learning opportunities. TESOL Quarterly, 39(1), 9-31.

Borg, S. (2010). Language teacher research engagement. Language Teaching, 43(4), 391-429.

Burns, A. (1999). Collaborative action research for English language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burns, A. (2005). Action research: An evolving paradigm? Language Teaching, 38(2), 57–74.

Freeman, D., & Johnson, K. (1998). Reconceptualizing the knowledge-base of language teacher education. TESOL Quarterly, 32(3), 397-417.

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.

Stenhouse, L. (1975). An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann.

Tavakoli,  P. (2015). Connecting research and practice in TESOL: a community of practice perspective. RELC, 46 (1), pp.37-52. doi:10.1177/0033688215572005

Wallace, M. (1991). Training foreign language teachers: A reflective approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jeremy Slagoski on Twitter
Jeremy Slagoski
Jeremy earned his PhD in Teaching & Learning (Foreign Language & ESL Education) at the University of Iowa. He's currently working on ELT research projects on extensive reading, professional learning, social media, and teacher cognition. He lives in Carbondale, Illinois with his wife, daughter, and cat.

13 thoughts on “Bridging the ELT Theory-Practice Gap”

  1. “Furthermore, ownership of knowledge was the key factor for their professional identity”.

    I’d be grateful if you could tell us how Tavakoli defines “ownership of knowledge” and “professional identity”.

    1. Tavakoli did not define “ownership of knowledge,” however she uses Wenger’s definition of professional identity as “a way of talking about how learning changes who we are” and how it creates “personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities” (1998: p.5). This is from Wenger’s book on Communities of Practice. In Chapter 9 of that book, Wenger writes about ownership of meaning, but I’m not sure that’s what Tavakoli was referring to.

      1. So the key factor in developing personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities is something that you don’t have any definition of. Not very convincing, is it? How is this kind of waffle supposed to bridge gaps?

  2. I notice that my response to your reply to my question has not been “authorised”. Maybe that’s because I didn’t make myself clear. Let me try again.

    You report on a study where the data from 20 participants leads to the conclusion that “interacting with others in a community of practice, in addition to teaching, helps teachers form and develop their identity”. To be of any interest at all, this “finding” must explain HOW the interaction helps teachers form and develop their identity. In other words, what characteristics determining who the teachers are does this particular kind of interaction form and develop? How does this differ from interacting with others in, for example, a reading group or a football club?

    Following on from this, what does it mean to say that “ownership of knowledge was the key factor for their professional identity”? The meaning obviously rests on defining the two terms “ownership of knowledge” and “professional identity”, which is why I asked my original question. The definition you offer for “professional identity” is that given by Tavokoli, namely “a way of talking about how learning changes who we are” and how it creates “personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities”. Apart from the obvious fact that this isn’t a definition, it’s not even helpful. If we define “identity” as “the characteristics that determine who we are”, what personal characteristics determine our professional identity? How do they differ among professionals? How can a professional identity create a personal history of becoming? Can you create a personal history of becoming outside the context of a community?

    Since neither Tavokoli nor you can tell us what “ownership of knowledge” means, we end up with this:

    Something that remains undefined is the key factor in influencing change in professional identity. Professional iidentity is a vague term involving creating a personal history of becoming in the context of a community.

    The problem you set out to address is the gap between theory and practice in ELT. Who would disagree with the concluding injunction to “encourage researchers and teachers to create joint enterprises bridging research and practice” or even to encourage “the enhancement of a research environment in teacher education programs”? But how does this kind of report on this kind of study help?

    1. I understand your frustration with the vagueness of the last sentence of the first finding, and perhaps I should revise it. Your comments helped me realize that Tavakoli may be referring to ownership of meaning. After looking over the paper again, “ownership of knowledge” is never defined clearly. In fact in the discussion section she writes, “Answering the question of how teacher knowledge is translated to identity and in what ways it leads to ownership of knowledge lies beyond the scope of this paper,” which I believe will frustrate readers like yourself even more. Are you suggesting I add this type of commentary to help the readers of this blog understand that “ownership of knowledge” isn’t defined clearly? I’m considering following up with writing to the author about this term.

      In response to the paragraph in which you state, “To be of any interest at all, this ‘finding’ must explain HOW the interaction helps teachers form and develop their identity. In other words, what characteristics determining who the teachers are does this particular kind of interaction form and develop? How does this differ from interacting with others in, for example, a reading group or a football club?” the author provides a few quotes showing these teachers view their everyday experiences in the classroom as more valuable to inform their pedagogy than research.

      I do not believe these weaknesses makes the paper entirely worthless. As a researcher who is using the Communities of Practice framework for a paper in progress, I am intrigued by the second finding–the participants perceived researcher and teachers as are two different communities of practice. I would like to explore this more deeply; 20 participants is a small sample size for this type of conclusion. I’m a new researcher, so perhaps I may need more guidance with using this theoretical framework or perhaps I should use a different one. I believe this paper is worth sharing because I found it helpful, and that may not be good enough for this site.

      Or perhaps is your point that my summary is not helpful for teachers? Perhaps my summary of the findings left out too many details. I can work on that. Or are you implying a combination of the two, that this is a poor summary of a poor research article? I am open to removing this “bite” if others believe it is the wisest action to preserve the integrity of the website.

      1. Hi, Jeremy,

        I don’t think Geoff’s attack on your study warrants you taking it down. For one thing, the entire statement in contention is little more than an addition to 1 of 4 main findings. I do wonder, however, if you are taking the statement from elsewhere, and unable to define or explain it yourself (except, perhaps, beyond conjecture), you should quote and cite it, so we, as readers, can follow it back to its original context and infer for ourselves what may have been meant or may have been intended. If the statement is your own interpretation, it seems odd that you would be unable to convincingly define it.

        The whole idea of teachers and researchers operating within (potentially divergent?) communities which impact on and influence their knowledge or development within the profession is certainly of interest, and I suspect if Geoff does think the study is not interesting, he has in mind only the researcher, not the teacher.

        My inference from your bite is that teachers feel they benefit from being part of a professional network that facilitates their knowledge of teaching, and of best practice. Moreover, that teachers see observations from outside that community (e.g. from researchers) as a threat, particularly where those observations expose weaknesses or inconsistencies in teaching knowledge or teaching practice.

        Maybe there is value in recognising the presence of a teaching community, with its own territory that the researcher must learn to respect. This being the case (that teachers have a ‘territory’, and are thus territorial), bridging the gap between teaching and research is not merely a matter of making research accessible to teachers, but uniting the communities of teachers and researchers. The question is whether this means more teacher-researcher mediators, expanding the scope of ‘research’ or enabling and encouraging more teachers to be more directly involved with research.

  3. for my money the best characterisation i have read so far about so called research-practice gap is Lourdes Ortega on the difference between applying research knowledge to practice vs evaluating research knowledge for relevancy to practice (not got the links to hand but easily googable)
    another reading popped up recently which tried to address this by creating a shared discourse, that discourse uses the framework of dynamic systems theory [http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tesj.317/full], only had a quick read of it though. one thought is will imposing/using such a framework create an acceptable shared discourse?
    ta
    mura

  4. It’s great that this bite has prompted discussion – I think this is exactly what we’re aiming for with ELT Research Bites!

    I found it an interesting summary to read, and, as Robert pointed out above, I think it opens some doors for thinking more concretely about how the collaboration between these two seemingly separate communities of practice can be taken forward. I’m sure the resources Mura has mentioned will be helpful here, too.

    In short, I also don’t think the summary should be removed, since this kind of summary and discussion is something that can help the ELT profession develop in beneficial ways.
    Clare

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments. It is now clear to me that I need to contact the author on the term “ownership of knowledge.” I can interpret this term myself several ways, so I want to make sure this summary reflects the author’s meaning. I will clarify this issue as soon as I can.

  6. Hi Jeremy,

    Let me answer Robert’s comment first.

    1. My comments were not an attack on your study (you didn’t write it).
    2. I’m sure you appreciate the importance of “the statement in contention” (it’s the answer to RQ2 after all) even if Robert doesn’t.
    3. I fail to see the point of the second paragraph of his comment.
    4. The attempt to paraphrase parts of your text strikes me as a bit cheeky.

    I most certainly don’t think you should remove your summary. As Claire says, it’s interesting, and worthy of discussion.

    To the issues, then. I’m not exactly “frustrated” about the vagueness of that sentence, rather, I find it illustrative of too much (tho by no means all) qualitative research into teacher and student identity. The research I object to is couched in vague and obscure terms which make the studies difficult to evaluate, and which also serve to compensate for a lack of evidence. In the case of Tavakoli’s study, I think the findings are both flimsy and unsurprising, and the terms “identity”, “professional identity”, “ownership of knowledge” and so on look to me like stylisitic conceits which do little to explain anything.

    Your summary uses the terms “identity” and “professional identity” throughout without defining them. In reply to my request for a definition of “professional identity”, you say Tavakoli uses Wenger’s definition, namely “a way of talking about how learning changes who we are” and how it creates “personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities” (1998: p. 5). I’ve already said why I think that this is an unsatisfactory answer. I also said that the claim “interacting with others in a community of practice… helps teachers form and develop their identity” needs to be supported with an explanation of what “forming and developing identity” means, and with evidence showing precisely how that interaction “helps”. You say Tavakoli provides a few quotes showing that teachers find classroom experiences more valuable than research, but that’s hardly new or surprising, and anyway it doesn’t address the question of what “developing identity” means or how interaction with others in a community of practice helps. So I think that your summary echoes the vagueness of Tavakoli’s article, and is less critical than it should be, but I enjoyed reading it, and thank you for bringing it to our attention.

    I have a number of doubts about the Communities of Practice framework, but we can discuss them another day. They might form part of a general discussion about the value of qualitative research and the pursuit of sociolinguistics, where, hopefully, neither “positivist paradigms” nor “postmodern qualitative heuristics” will be mentioned. Dörnyei, among others, has shown that research into “identity” (where the construct is carefully defined and where both qualitative and quantitative research tools are used to collect evidence) can be well conducted and clearly reported.

    I look forward to reading your paper, to reading more summaries from you here, and I wish you the best of luck.

    1. Hi Geoff,

      Thank you for your kind message. Yes, I consider myself a qualitative researcher, but I don’t feel confident conducting studies on identity for the reasons you state. Although many studies on teacher/professional identity overlap with my research interests, I am not familiar enough with the concept to form a solid criticism. I’m at a curious yet skeptical stage.

      Additionally, I wrote to Dr. Tavakoli as promised and she kindly replied with a clarification of “ownership of knowledge.” She wrote:
      Many of the interviewees in my study challenged the idea of “knowledge of L2 teaching” to be owned by researchers and academics based in universities and research institutes. Throughout the interviews, several teachers argued that the idea of universities being the centre of advanced studies in L2 teaching and learning does not appeal to them simply because researchers live in their “ivory towers” or as some of them referred to “in bubbles”. They argued it is the teachers who own the knowledge of “how-to” and “what-is-best to” do in L2 classrooms. Right or wrong, many were convinced that researchers did not have valuable classroom experience and as one put it “they have not walked into a language classroom for 30 years”. The paradox is that many researchers may think they know better than L2 teachers, and therefore they “own the knowledge”.

      This quote could start another line of discussion in this comment thread as I can see arguments for both sides. Again, it supports my suggestion that teachers (I’m not sure all teachers yet) need a certain level of research literacy as part of their professional development. Additionally researchers (especially education researchers) should be open to collaborating with teachers. I’m in the process of composing a blog post on this issue, so my ideas and broader understanding of the teacher-researcher divide aren’t formed to the point for me to jump into this type of discussion yet.

    2. To clarify, (text crushed together as otherwise I can’t hit the ‘Post comment’ button)

      1. By ‘your study’, I didn’t mean to suggest that it was actually Jeremy’s study, rather, I meant the study Jeremy had summed up. Admittedly, I should have chosen my words better.
      2. Certainly I see the statement as important, just not enough for its contentiousness to warrant pulling the bite off the blog. Whatever problems or issues may be revolving round it, there are other aspects of the study that render it worth leaving up.
      3. I inferred, falsely I think, that you did not find the study per se interesting because of what you had already discussed. I also inferred that the study alludes to an ‘us vs them’ mentality that has reared its head in a few different places (c.f. Tavikoli’s clarification of ‘Ownership of knowledge’. Given the rift between many teachers and researchers, exploring this ownership of knowledge is, I hope, valuable in helping to bridge the gap between the two groups.
      (I will also add that the researcher, perhaps, is less affected by this rift as the teacher, as the researcher doesn’t have to plan, prepare and teach lessons based on a seemingly infinite range of teacher-education workshops, curricula, syllabi, coursebooks, CPD sessions etc, etc, etc, that may or may not have any grounding in research (and can leave many teachers wondering if what they’re doing is having any positive learning impact).
      4. Not sure what you mean here. It is cheeky of me to attempt to paraphrase, or the paraphrase itself is cheeky?

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