Teacher research in language teaching: A critical analysis

Simon Borg

To mark the publication of Teacher research in language teaching: A critical analysis, Simon Borg looks at the motivation for this book and its key messages for language teaching professionals.

In 2003 I read an article which I felt was unfairly dismissive of teacher research in our field and this stimulated in me an interest in the role of research in the lives of language teachers which remains strong today. Teacher research in language teaching: A critical analysis is the culmination of this interest and brings together a series of international studies I have conducted in order to provide evidence of what ‘researchteacher’ means to teachers, of how ‘research engaged’ language teachers think they are, and of the factors which influence the extent of such engagement.

Despite my commitment to the transformative potential of teacher research as a strategy for professional development, my argument has never been that all language teachers should read and/or do research. Rather, my position is that if we believe in the value of reading and doing research for teachers, then it is important that we understand teachers’ perceptions of these activities – in particular, why practising teachers are often not positively disposed to them. The research in this book provides the basis of this understanding by analysing contributions (via questionnaires, written comments and interviews) from over 1700 English language teachers and managers worldwide. A detailed account of the methodology between the various studies I draw is provided early in the book.

One key theme highlighted in the book is the variety of ways in which ‘research’ is interpreted – ranging from a highly formal and large-scale investigative activity on one hand to less formal pedagogical activity on the other. Many negative views about the relevance of research for teachers are in fact based on misconceptions of what it is and this is one issue the book sets out to clarify, working towards a definition of research which makes it a feasible yet rigorous activity for supporting the professional development of language teachers.

An ambiguity among professionals in our field about what ‘research’ is does in fact underpin many of the issues that emerge from the book. For example, while teachers report modest levels of doing and reading research, closer enquiry into the nature of their activities raises questions about their legitimacy; for example, searching online for learning materials or trying out a new coursebook, while important pedagogical activities for teachers, are not examples of research. ‘Reflection’ was another activity cited by many teachers when they were asked to give examples of the research they do. Clearly, while the research teachers do must involve reflection, not all forms of reflection constitute research. One of my goals in this book, then, is to explore these ambiguities in an effort to work to some consistent ways of thinking and talking about the role of research in language teachers’ lives.

Two other questions I examine are whether being research-engaged enhances the quality of a teacher’s work (unsurprisingly, here too opinions were strongly shaped by underlying views about what ‘research is – more on this in my Cambridge Signature Event talk at IATEFL 2013). And towards the end of the book I focus on the practical question of how to support teacher research. I do this primarily by examining teacher research projects I have worked on and reflecting on the conditions which have allowed them to achieve some success. The design of initiatives to support teacher research is not something we know much about and is clearly an area where further discussion of examples from around the world is desirable.

I hope readers enjoy the book – do contact me and let me know what you think!

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