One of the worst presentations I saw in the BC’s coverage of the IATEFL conference was Scott Thornbury’s Writing methodology texts: Bridging the research-practice gap.
First, it was a sales pitch.
Thornbury starts off by praising his publishers for the frantic efforts they made to get his books ready to be sold at the conference. This is just one example of the commercialisation of the conference that Steve Brown discusses.
Second, it was devoid of critical acumen.
Thornbury has a good idea: ask a few writers of “How to Teach English” books a number of questions:
- How did you get into writing methodology texts?
- How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?
- How have you kept/do you keep abreast of new developments in research, e.g. SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?
- Given that most research is somewhat inconclusive, how do you select from – and prioritize – the research findings that inform your texts?
- Do you feel you have an ‘agenda’, i.e. a bias towards a particular theoretical (or a-theoretical) position? If so, do you think this matters?
- If not (or even if so) do you attempt to be balanced/impartial/non-prescriptive? How do you achieve this?
- Does it concern you that you might be ‘dumbing down’ or otherwise misrepresenting research findings? How do you guard against this?
- To what do you attribute your success? (Don’t be modest!)
He gives samples of their responses such as
PU: It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.
JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti- research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching.
JS: Mainly, I think I write what I do and what I see other teachers doing. Informed ideas that may or may not work for others. These need to fit in with my own internal schema for how I think people learn, study, behave etc.
Then he summarises his findings:
- Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.
- Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
- Methodology writers are sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends, while, at the same time recognizing their inherent weaknesses.
- Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’.
- Methodology writers present options rather than prescriptions.
- Methodology writers adopt a voice that is non- academic and practitioner-oriented.
He concludes that their responses are a good guide to how teacher professional development should be carried out.
No critical assessment, not one word of criticism. Everything’s fine.
Look at Conclusion 2:
Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
In other words, methodology writers cherry pick, looking for stuff that supports their own biases. They ignore the minimal criterion for a critical appraisal of evidence, a criterion which they hypocritically impose on those doing the teacher training course they all run.
Thornbury’s data show that those who write methodology books pay scant regard to research into how people learn languages. They “filter” research findings; they rely on Twitter or on what somebody told them; and often, well, they just haven’y got time to read the research. They “present options rather than prescriptions”, i.e., they refrain from any critical evaluation of conflicting methodologies.
Thornbury’s data is disquieting, to say the least. It turns out that the books which are recommended reading for the hundreds of thousands of people studying to get a qualification in ELT are based more on the authors’ biases, intuitions, feelings and what somebody else told them, than on any serious attempt to critically assess what research findings tell us about how people learn languages.
And this, says Thornbury, is a good model for professional development in ELT.