How to engage with research talks at the IATEFL 2014 Conference

This morning at IATEFL Harrogate I shared some at the Research ’How to’ session.

Here are my notes and a few of my slides:

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The purpose of this session is to share some ideas with you about how you may want to engage with talks on research at this conference. The original title that IATEFL asked me to use was “how to reflect on research talks” but I’m not sure I can do that because I can’t quite get inside your own minds and make you think this or that way.

Any reflection on your part will be the result of a desire to engage with research itself so what I will try and do is frame some questions and issues that I find important, to me, as an early-career researcher, that might awaken that desire in you.

Let me give you a quick background of myself, I’m just finishing the second year of my own doctorate. This blog is about my discovery of the world of research. The core of my own research is on the shift towards English as a Medium of Instruction in France.

I think that so much of what you take away from a talk is related to who you are as a person and as a teacher and a research talk shouldn’t be about you bending to the will of the researcher and trying to force your thoughts into a difficult space but to take the difficulty or whatever’s unresolved into your own space, try to understand, make it your own, and in doing so, have your understanding transformed by it.

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This painting has some importance in the history of science as it’s the first painting I believe that depicted science in almost religious terms. It’s called An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump and it was painted by a certain Joseph Wright, in 1768, who lived down the road from Harrogate, in Derby.

It’s important because it marks a shift in the perception of science to one reverence, previously reserved for historical and religious themes. And this notion of mystery and reverence is still pretty powerful in research today. I hear so many people separate research as a sort of other state, another space and often in a dichotomous definition of practice; its’ research or practice, research and practice- could research be practice? And this notion of mystery in science seems to have remained, along with the wizardry of “stand back we’re gonna perform science” remains even in the world of academia, with all its hierarchies.

Why is research ‘the’ authority?

So the question this all raises is ‘Why is research considered to be the authority’? Who decided that it was the voice that would validate what we do? and is it even the voice that validates what we do?

When viewed from the outside research appears to be this very complex world that is full of big chunky words that, to an inexperienced ear, just sound big and chunky. But essentially I feel that the evolution of research thinking can be presented on a timeline, a continuous timeline where each idea facilitates and feeds the next idea and have all contributed to making the world of education research carry the richness that it does today.

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The early 19th century saw the birth of the scientific method, some credit a lot of this to the sociologist Auguste Comte’s use of the term positivism, which basically means that which is imposed on the mind by experience and this idea of making concrete experience, experiments, and with it the attendant formalised protocols similar to the natural sciences and the impact this had on formalising and further revering what happened in research, in thinking, in academia

About a hundred years later came another important historical moment when Verstehen theory came into being and this gave us the dimension of human phenomena being thoroughly unlike natural phenomena, you cannot analyse a child’s behavior only with a microscopic lens and expect to fully understand the reasons for such behavior, human beings cannot be studied in isolation from everything else they experience.

If you look at these two very broad areas of thinking and attempt a gross oversimplification of the tools that they employ you might say that one leans towards the fact that numbers speak louder than words (I’m avoiding the word quantitative on purpose by the way) and in the other words speak louder than numbers (I am similarly avoiding the use of the word qualitative here).

Is research all about statistics?

The reason I’m branching out my thoughts like this is because just this year I attended three ELT talks where the speakers equated research with statistics and part of the research discovery is represented as a slightly technicized notion of decoding statistics. No.

Crunching numbers and extrapolating theories that subjugate entire populations is just one side to the story, and it’s not even where the story begins.

A researcher’s isn’t and shouldn’t be defined by the relationship they have to statistical measurement tools.

Tools are tools and the minute they start replacing thinking, the intellectual process fails.

So, to go back to my initial question: what expertise do you bring to the situation and how can you gain something from the researcher presenting his or her research talk?

What abilities do you bring to a talk to ask questions and to think about how questions are asked?

The very essence of research is the questions researchers ask and the potential that those questions have. It isn’t a thick amassment of a fixed body of knowledge but a porous and ever-absorbing structure that facilitates the growth of knowledge- for everyone, and not just the researcher.

So this brings me to the problem of gibberish and why it is that academic language seems so inaccessible to practitioners, why we still make a distinction between the ivory towers and those at the chalk face.

Well, quite simply because a lot of them are inaccessible, a lot of them are highly jargonic and in wanting to portray an awareness of the complexities of situations and ideas, there is such an overuse of complicated sentence structure, big words when there could be small words and I think it’s alright to ask for clarifications in simple English, I certainly do quite regularly when I listen to researchers.

What are the kinds of questions you can ask in a research talk?

What exactly is the research question, what does it raise for me?

How was the study carried out, what can I learn about conducting studies?

What kind of data is it? Why is this kind of data useful?

What doors do the conclusions open? How might I want to engage further with the subject?

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that’s clear, simple and wrong” H.L.Mencken

So what we sell as hard-headed and pragmatic and clear is just dressed up oversimplification; in the name of cutting through detail we forget centuries of scholarship and learning for the so-called sake of practical understanding

With any research talk- look for the research question and relate it to your own practice, your knowledge, your reading and your teaching.

As with any talk or lesson or workshop, there’s nothing more important than the people in the room.

And you are the person in the room.