by Will Cardoso and Divya Madhavan
About two years ago, we finished the respective Master’s degrees we were doing – Will at Bath, Divya at Exeter. While we both enjoyed the relief of no longer having the research and writing deadlines, we also experienced the same rug-being-pulled-from-under-our-feet sensation of almost instantly losing our our journal access while being handed the diplomas with distinctions. Losing the logins that give one access to an intellectual community can make it quite hard to fully celebrate graduating from such a community. In the fields like education and philosophy, we graduate wanting to read more, not less.
The firewall has two sides; the fee-paying students and faculty members who have access, and the former ones (and the ones who never gained access in in the first place) who don’t. The wall paints a particularly poignant image in the case of teachers, like us, because most of us self-fund our studies and by extension, our professional development, often doing so alongside full or part-time employment. And so, there is a community of access and a community of non-access.
You’re perhaps thinking that this is going to be one of the many blog posts that depict the research – practice divide, that takes the usual bash at ivory tower academia and that ends with a call for more open source. Not really. Our problem is a little more navel gazing than that! Our problem is: how do we stay sharp? What are our real resources to continue developing as teachers and as intellectuals? The end of a degree is surely a starting point for independent exploration, equipped with a mindset that is ethically aware and intellectually responsible?
So, what’s behind this firewall that we’re feeling nostalgic about? Well you have articles, case studies, data, and other such Friday night fun stuff really. The authors of these things have gone through the necessary peer-review, some of them with more merit than others. What they write doesn’t really give us any practical knowledge to take into our classrooms on Monday morning. Some of what they write is also quite questionable. Which is good! Sometimes we actually don’t need any second-hand teaching idea, we need to read a good research question – we need to think, reflect, doubt. Sometimes we are not looking for a fun listening activity, we are looking for a word, a concept, a construct which will help us express what we see and feel in the classroom. But the thing is we don’t peruse research papers to find generalizable results, or to find out how we can change our practice per se. It’s more about a search for other ways of understanding our respective practices, and questioning it from perspectives we haven’t before taken, or been able to take because we didn’t know they existed in the first place.
Why are these things important to our professional development anyway?
Well, we work in a field which readily creates alleged dichotomies. Look at a big conference such as IATEFL for example, where every year there is an either-or buzz: coursebook vs unplugged; formative vs summative testing; lexical vs grammar syllabus; evidence-based vs practical experience and so on. We’ve often found ourselves wondering why the pendulum needs to swing between one voice of authority and another in this manner.
There’s no research-practice dichotomy to us in our day-to-day, as classroom teachers we want to consume and produce research (why wouldn’t we?). The discourse on research vs practice in TESOL mainly just swaps perceived legitimate knowledge (power) from academic research to, for lack of a better name, a TESOL elite of writers, trainers and methodologists. This filtering, reduction and often, oversimplification of what research is or does achieves little else than further disempowering the average classroom teacher by disassociating the gut feeling from the intellectual engagement. A gut feeling can be the result of intuition, intellect and experience – and is most often a combination of all three.
When studying to become researchers we learned about validity, reliability, authenticity, triangulation, epistemology, ethics, rigour, etc – to us, these things sharpen our thinking (and gut), they push us to be more responsible towards/for the knowledge base of our profession, that’s why we miss our access to research papers, and the opportunity to engage with research as much as we’d like to. And it might be that maybe, just maybe, it is because of these things that when we hear of remarks by certain ELT gurus telling teachers not to engage with research – we chuckle, in semi-outrage, but one which has become more a sign of being underwhelmed by the buzz.
And so we carry on from the other side of the firewall.