Monthly Archives: September 2017

Teachers, research and evidence: a happy marriage?

Written by Amy Lightfoot, Assistant Director – Academic, English for Education Systems, British Council India

Do teachers make enough use of evidence to inform their classroom practice? This was a key underlying theme of the International Association for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL) conference, held earlier this year in Glasgow. It’s a growing topic of conversation in education circles generally, including English language teaching. Some excellent initiatives are underway to try to promote more informed teaching in the classroom. For example, ELT Research Bites aims to present research findings related to ELT in an accessible and ‘easily digestible’ way. The relatively new Chartered College of Teaching in the UK has made access to the EBSCO research database a cornerstone of teacher and associate membership. The inaugural issue of their journal series focused on impact and evidence. 

But what do we mean when we talk about ‘research’ and ‘evidence’? For some, the word ‘research’ has negative connotations; it might suggest an outsider view on what is taking place on the ground, or it might be assumed to be impenetrable or inaccessible – aimed at other people, not at me. But research in the broadest sense can be defined simply as asking questions and looking for possible answers or explanations. In other words, research is the process through which we look for evidence which can support (or refute) decisions about what to do in the classroom.

Evidence can come from a wide range of sources. These include external sources considered to be particularly trustworthy, such as peer-reviewed academic journals, but arguably just as useful are reflections from fellow teachers on what seems to be working (or not) in their classrooms perhaps via blogs or shared more informally. With all of this externally-sourced evidence, John Hattie suggests that the individual teacher still needs to be the final judge of its relevance and applicability to their own context. What works (or doesn’t) for one individual or group of individuals is never fully guaranteed to work for another when we’re talking about the social sciences, regardless of how robust the data is.

With this in mind, there is a growing movement within education communities around the world to encourage teachers to undertake research for themselves, within their own classroom settings. Again, in its simplest form this involves the framing of questions (or a question) and seeking answers. This approach is being actively promoted through a network of professionals working in English language teaching who have established the International Festival of Teacher Research in ELT. This aims to bring together details of events happening around the world and highlight the benefits of and approaches to teachers undertaking research. So far, affiliated events have been held in Turkey, the UK, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, online through the TESOL Electronic Village and in India, with over 1,500 participating education professionals globally.

Most recently, the All India Network of English Teachers organised a two day conference in Nagpur, central India, to provide a platform for teachers across the country to share the results of their small scale, classroom-based research. A key feature of the event was a series of presentations by teachers and teacher educators who have been participating as mentors in British Council India’s Aptis Action Research Mentoring Scheme (AARMS). AARMS seeks to develop a network of 14 mentors, working directly with two of the leaders in the ELT teacher research field – Dr Richard Smith from the University of Warwick and Dr Amol Padwad of AINET. The mentors work with more than 80 teachers across India to develop their skills in conducting relevant, classroom-based research related to English language teaching. This Nagpur conference was closely followed by a four day workshop at Gauhati University, also supported by the British Council and the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG, with Dr Smith and Dr Padwad introducing the principles and practices of exploratory action research to 30 teachers and teacher educators.

The benefits of classroom research shared through these conference events and from those involved in the AARMS scheme are clear. External research is all very well, but teachers’ reflecting on their own practice, setting their own research questions and actively seeking the answers is the surest way to improve classroom teaching in a way that is contextualised to and appropriate for individual learners’ needs. Martyn Hammersley from The Open University has talked about ‘the privileging of research evidence over evidence from other sources, especially professional experience’: there is no doubt that the former is important, but teachers need to take ownership of the research process and actively find evidence that applies directly to their own classroom.

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