Why is TEFL research so easy to ignore?

A few things have come together this week to make me ask this question.

First, I received the usual update email about the latest edition of TESL-EJ, had a very quick scan of one article because it was about Japan where I work, and then pressed delete.

I then turned to the update email from EL Gazette and after spending a lot longer looking at what is (for ordinary teachers like me) basically irrelevant industry celebrity news, I suddenly wondered why the one kind of current TEFL affairs that wasn’t covered was a round up of the relevant research from ELT, Applied Linguistics and such like research-based journals.

And finally, after spending about the same amount of time reading the even more irrelevant (if much better written) Times Higher Education, I noticed that the last page was a full-page ad for IATEFL research scholarships, suggesting even IATEFL has less than complete faith in the TEFL research community.

That was just one week, but the rest of my career also proves that the research arm of our profession is easy to live without. Why might that be so?

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6 Responses to Why is TEFL research so easy to ignore?

  1. I think part of the reason is that research seems ‘woolly’ and common sense. We also suspect (I do anyway) that the students used as test subjects where atypical or at least not anything like the students I teach or will ever meet.

    I tend to put more faith in my powers of ‘reasoning’ or just a plausible theory advanced by a big name who impressed me once a long time ago.

    In the end – we teach in a way we can manage and the students will actually participate in. There may be a wonderful piece of research well supported that doing XYZ will help students learn faster – but if it will bore the teacher or students or is too much like hard work for them or us – it will not happen or not more than once anyway.

    There is also the fact that most TEFLers are academic failures who never got beyond their undergraduate degree and even then by the skin of their teeth. TEFL is very much the career choice of second chancers. People who took the wrong path after uni or no particular path and fell into a job that didn’t really feel like working.

  2. alexcase says:

    I’d agree with all but the last one. Not because there aren’t many TEFLers like that, but because they aren’t usually the ones publishing the research – it’s much more likely to be three Iranian PhD students whose academic career was just fine but whose English is a bit dodgy…

  3. Sure – those TEFLers aren’t the ones publishing – but they are apt to ignore the research.

  4. alexcase says:

    Good point, I thought you meant that the research was crap because of the researchers’ background, hence my comment.

  5. I can see how you thought so from my sloppy writing!

  6. martinmcmorrow says:

    I don’t think TEFL teachers are unique in ignoring research, though. Couldn’t the same be said for teachers in general? Or indeed for most other professions? Having said that, I think there’s a reasonable sized minority of teachers who do take an interest in professional development – and come across research-based findings and applications through magazine articles, websites, workshops and conferences. And I think some of these ideas do slowly take hold in classroom teaching and discredited classroom activities gradually fade.

    Over the thirty years I’ve been involved in ELT, I’ve noticed, for instance, that drilling and explicit correction have become less prominent and there’s been more of a focus on tasks in contexts where I’ve worked – clearly, this is related to research in these areas. Other classroom practices (such as practice in skimming and scanning) still seem pretty entrenched despite a couple of decades of critical research – probably, I think, because they serve a need (e.g. making reading seem teachable / learnable and, hardly like reading at all).

    Anyway, there certainly is a lot of research out there, so maybe there is a space for more summaries of interesting / relevant findings – not only for busy teachers, but for busy researchers, who don’t have time to read the estimated 1500 published journal articles in our field every year.

    By the way, that figure comes from Russell Mayne’s entertaining blog ‘Evidence-Based EFL’ – the most recent entry is a brief critique of the new edition of ‘Approaches and Methods’ – which includes a whole chapter on ‘Multiple Intelligences’, but only two paragraphs on Dogme. Russell gave an entertaining talk at IATEFL and hopefully his criticisms of some of these issues are finding an audience with classroom teachers.

    Martin McMorrow, Massey University, New Zealand

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