I have been waiting for some time to share this post, but I am finally pleased to announce that a research project I have been working on, ReaLiTea, is …well, a reality. The acronym ReaLiTea is short for Research Literacy for Teachers, and it describes a collaborative international project that aims to help language teachers become more adept at using and producing research that is relevant to their practice.
The ReaLiTea project team
The project is led by Prof. Caro Blume (Technische Universität Dortmund | Dortmund Technical University). My associate Chryssa-Xeni Ntai and I represent the University of Thessaly. In addition to us, the research team includes scholars and teacher educators from the Universities of Stavanger (Universitetet i Stavanger), Stuttgart (Universität Stuttgart), Vienna (Universität Wien), York (University of York), and the Ankara Social Sciences University (Ankara Sosyal Bilimler Universitesi).
Here’s a list of the entire project team (an impressive line-up, though I say so myself):
- Caro Blume (Dortmunder Competence Center for Teacher Education & Educational Research – DoKoLL)
- Raúl Enrique García López (Dortmunder Competence Center for Teacher Education & Educational Research – DoKoLL)
- Kenan Dikilitaş (Universitetet i Stavanger | University of Stavanger)
- Emma Marsden (University of York)
- Julia Hüttner (Universität Wien | University of Vienna)
- Julia Pittenauer (Universität Wien | University of Vienna)
- Achilleas Kostoulas (University of Thessaly)
- Chrysa-Xeni Ntai (University of Thessaly)
- Aysel Saricaoglu Aygan (Ankara Sosyal Bilimler Universitesi | Ankara Social Sciences University)
- Yela Schauwecker (Universität Stuttgart | University of Stuttgart)
- Saskia Schabio (Universität Stuttgart | University of Stuttgart)
teacher research literacy
There is pervasive discourse, among teachers, about the disconnect between language teaching and language teaching research. This is sometimes amplified by unhelpful dichotomies, which place teachers at a distance from university-based researchers. At its most extreme forms, such discourse takes the form of aphorisms, such as Péter Medgyes’ proclamation that “teachers can do well without outsiders’ intervention” (2017, p. 491).
I have generally found that such dichotomous thinking is unhelpful in almost anything about education. In this, I find myself echoing Diane Larsen-Freeman, who has long advocated for replacing ‘either/or’ thinking in language education with a ‘both/and’ mindset (1997). A strong demarcation line separating research from teaching seems especially out of place in a profession like language education that has, at its very core, a mindset of building connections: connections between languages, between cultures, between people with different perspectives and roles. In the paragraphs that follow I will try to explain, in some more detail, why I think that the decoupling of teaching from research is problematic.
drives knowledge forward
Education (not just language teaching) is more than the accumulation of knowledge. The education project is a political act, one that enacts our commitment to improve our collective future. And a commitment to improving means constantly challenging our givens. Education systems, on the other hand, have an unfortunate tendency to operate within the safe space of normative practice. All too often, we teach in ways that are dictated by authority or suggested by past practice.
This is what makes the role of research important in education: At its best, research is about unsettling existing knowledge and suggesting different, and occassionally better, ways of understanding what we thought we knew. One well-known example, from SLA research, would be the teachability hypothesis, which (at its time) questioned the traditional ways in which language learning syllabuses were organized. A more recent example would be advances in assessment theory, which call into question various forms of standardized testing.
Developing at least some familiarity with such developments is an important part of research literacy. But research literacy involves more than just that. It is also about developing an inquisitive attitude towards all the ‘givens’ of education, a readiness to seek out evidence for what works best, and an ability to produce the kinds of contextually relevant knowledge that is most beneficial to guiding practice locally.
pushes back against
When writing that the education project is a political act, I am aware that this axiomatic statement will not resonate equally with all readers. The reason is that in recent decades education has been transforming into a commercial and technical activity. In this perspective, teachers roles are reduced to the efficient delivery of content. In the case of ELT, this ‘content’ could refer the development of communicative skills, using materials, methods and assessment methods that are developed by ‘experts’. What we define as ‘content’ is not that important. The locus where this is produced, on the other hand, is crucially relevant.
This displacement of ‘expertise’ outside schools is deeply concerning for at least two reasons. At its simplest, the lack of research literacy among teachers means that they become facilitators for the consumption of products that produce profit for the ELT apparatus but little value to learners. The rise and fall of fads such as learning styles, the mounting pressures to expand ELT provision to increasingly younger learners, and the aggressive promotion of crude and dubious science such as mindsets and positive psychology in language teaching are just a few examples of how the ELT apparatus exploits the inability of many ELT professionals to meaningfully engage with research.
There are, however, even more nefarious consequences to the decoupling of research from practice. When teachers limit their empirical horizon to the spatial and temporal boundaries of their classroom, what they are really doing is surrendering decision-making power. We can only accept responsibility for decisions when we understand their consequences. The willing surrender of responsibility and power upwards, the concentration of decision-making authority to few individuals and the manufacturing of ignorance are all precursors of totalitarianism, and they need to be named as such, understood for what they are, and resisted.
What does this mean?
This is not to say that one can resist the ongoing assault on democracy simply by reading research articles or doing an action research project. But being research literate is more than just engaging in performative data aggregation or developing surface-level acquaintance with the current research buzzwords. It involves understanding how meaning emerges within ecologies of ideas and holding knowledge production and use accountable for its effects. It also involves developing a mindset that interjects, between an instruction and its execution, a moment of critical thought for evaluating evidence. More than anything esle, it is about fostering praxis, a form of thoughtful, empirically informed practice that is aware of its ethical consequences.
How will we support Research Literacy for Teachers?
But despite my axiomatic commitment to praxis (the fusion of research and teaching), the uncomfortable fact remains that many teachers seem sceptical about the value of research and / or may not feel confident in their ability to engage with it. There are many reasons for this (e.g., 1, 2), but my focus here is on seeking ways towards addressing this problem, and increasing research literacy for teachers.
In the ReaLiTea programme, we aim to help teachers engage with scholarly output in five interlinked ways.
Creating learning opportunities
We will design a series of blended learning and self-instruction modules to help teachers develop research literacy. These modules will address competences and skills which are relevant to research-related practices, whether this is about ‘consuming’ or ‘producing’ research.
We will pilot these resources in universities and schools that participate in the ReaLiTea project, but we intend to make these broadly available as open educational resources so that anyone can use them.
Tracking personal development
We will develop measures of research literacy, which ELT professionals can use to structure their personal growth. We envisage a framework of development categories and benchmarks, which teachers can use for self assessment, and identifying priorities for development. In addition, we expect that this framework will teacher educators to align their teaching with measurable criteria.
We will develop and foster an online space as a hub for a digital ELT teacher community of practice. We hope to see this develop into a space for international collaboration aiming at the production of classroom-based knowledge.
Making research available
Building on existing expertise (e.g., the OASIS project), we will produce plain-language summaries of existing research in ELT. These research digests will help teachers access high-impact research, which is often inaccessible due to publisher paywalls and challenging language.
Sharing research outputs
We will create and curate a corpus of research outputs that are relevant to ELT. This is likely to include research articles, reflective reports, conference presentations and other types of output that can provide insight into teaching practices.
Read more about ReaLiTea
You can find out more about the ReaLiTea project by clicking on the button below. This is a temporary webspace, pending the development of our official website.
Or a beginning?
As you might have inferred, I am quite excited about ReaLiTea. This is, of course, due in more than a small part to the prospect of working with an international team of people whose work I value. But in addition to that, it is also because it is a project that aligns well with my core beliefs about teaching: this is a project about broadening the horizon of what is possible in class, it is a project about empowerment and about challenging perspectives that limit us. Ultimately it is a project that builds educated hope.
I’ll keep posting updates about this project in this blog (not too regularly, judging by past experience), so if you want to keep up with developments, feel free to subscribe. Also feel very free to contact me if you’re interested in getting invovled.
Achilleas Kostoulas is an applied linguist and language teacher educator at the University of Thessaly in Greece. He has published extensively about the nexus between theory and practice in language teaching.
About this post
This post was written in October 2023. The content of the post are personal and do not represent the views of the University of Thessaly or the ReaLiTea group. Images from Adobe Stock are used with license.