"The Teacher Is the Method"

Michael Fields interviews Thomas S. C. Farrell, editor of TESOL's Language Teacher Research Series. See Farrell's Out of the Box article, "A Place for Teachers in Research," Essential Teacher, March 2007, pp. 14-16.

Michael Fields (MF): When and how was the Language Teacher Research (LTR) Series conceived?

Tom Farrell (TF): It began to develop when I was leaving Korea for Singapore in 1997 and was working to establish a PAC (Pan Asian Consortium of TESOL societies) Journal that would focus on action research and reflective practice carried out in Asian settings. Unfortunately, after the first issue, the PAC Journalceased to exist. So I was looking for a forum to share the wonderful research that I knew was happening in various Asian settings, research carried out by teachers themselves in real classrooms.

These teachers were not waiting around to be told by outside experts what they should be doing in their classes; rather, they took action themselves and researched, and reflected on, their own practice. This became the central focus of the LTR Series and distinguishes it from other series: research by practicing teachers and not research on teachers. The series initially included volumes covering Asia, the Americas, and Europe and was later expanded to include volumes on the Middle East, Australia/New Zealand, and Africa. (For publication information, see http://iweb.tesol.org/Purchase/SearchCatalog.aspx.)

MF: In Language Teacher Research in Asia, three countries, China, Japan, and Singapore, tend to dominate the volume, while the countries of Southeast Asia are barely represented, and Korea, where English is extremely popular, is not represented at all. Why is this?

TF: In my opinion, this is not unusual. First, the call for papers appeared only on TESOL's Web site. This automatically restricts the contributions to those who have Internet access. The three countries you mention are all technologically advanced, and this led to the huge number of contributions from each country. I received contributions from other countries, but most seemed to be from researchers researching other teachers' practice, not teachers researching their own practice.

MF: What have been the major challenges in preparing this series?

TF: One of the greatest problems was which papers to choose and how much input to give, and I do not have a simple answer for this. I had to choose from among thirty-two contributions, a very difficult task when one considers that I usually had three, and sometimes as many as five, papers on the same topic. When I read a paper initially, I tried not to let language problems interfere with my overall understanding, but if they did, I had a problem placing the paper. To tell contributors that their papers were not selected was the most heartbreaking chore I had to perform as editor. I could have had two volumes from Asia. I hope the authors whose papers I did not choose forgive me, but I had to choose based on topic, clarity of writing, and willingness to revise.

MF: What were you most surprised at about the chapters you received?

TF: The amount and quality of research that practicing teachers in the region are undertaking and the confirmation of my suspicion that they really do need more ways to share this research--perhaps a LTR conference in each region could highlight this research.

MF: Having edited this series, do you feel that language teachers themselves are qualified researchers of their own practices? What, in your opinion, has been the quality of the research submitted?

TF: Ah! The old separation of small r and large R! Of course, I think language teachers are qualified to conduct research on their own practice. I have stopped listening to academics locked in their ivory towers, hiding behind so-called objective research, and insisting that this is the only legitimate type of research.

I have spent my career in TESOL trying to promote reflective practice for language teachers because I know it is legitimate. There is a place for so-called experts to assist practitioners with research and research results and I think the practitioners themselves also have a role to play in advancing their profession by engaging in researching their own practice. For example, if an expert suggests that research results show that a top-down reading approach is best for promoting reading comprehension, a practicing teacher should say, "Hmm, let me see if this is true in my context" and then conduct research on his or her own practice to see if it is true. In this way, teachers take on more responsibility for teaching decisions and become proactive decision makers.

MF: What have you found to be some of the "hot topics" amongst the various regions? For example, is teaching in resource-poor conditions a theme frequently encountered in Africa?

TF: So far, one common theme is that many teachers at all levels seem to wonder how their students perceive their classes and how much they actually learn.

MF: How can a reader expect to benefit from the series?

TF: I hope readers will write to me and the other editors and tell me their impressions. I would hope that one of the greatest benefits is an affirmation of current practice by many teachers who read the research conducted by their peers and say something like, "Yeah! I am doing that, and it works the same for me. Maybe I will try some of my own research."

MF: What are some of the most striking revelations from contributions to the series so far?

TF: The most striking revelation for me is this: Language teachers are doing a professional job out there, and it is about time others found out about it. Or, as Jerry Gebhard said to me a long time ago, "The teacher is the method."

Michael Fields (mfields@hct.ac.ae) is editor of Compleat Links.