Thursday, June 16, 2016

Why research on (pronunciation) teaching is often irrelevant to my method and my classroom

In 1994 Kumaravadivelu sounded what has turned out to be something of the death knell for the usefulness of much research on English language teaching for the individual classroom entitled: The Postmethod Condition: (E)merging Strategies for Second and Foreign Language Teaching. At the time, it seemed liberating from many perspectives, but the intervening two decades have often proven otherwise. A recent, very revealing article in Education Week by Tucker goes a long way toward explaining why: Why Education Research Has So Little Impact on Practice: The System Effect.
In essence, what Tucker argues, based on a piece by Kane in Education Next, is that a technique (or variable) generally cannot be judged in terms of effectiveness outside of the system in which it functions. And, most importantly, research that attempts to isolate one procedure and then generalize to multiple learner populations is epistemologically invalid (the wrong question!) For a range reasons which Tucker outlines, such as time, resources, tenure and culture, especially North American researchers do not (or cannot) evaluate a variable, such as ability in the context of the method or system in which it is embedded--or compare that system, with its isolated variable to another nearly identical system with only that variable affected. That is especially true when it comes to studying change over time.

Kumaravadivelu identified the last "system" in language teaching, the last prevailing method where internal changes could be judged in terms of effectiveness: the structuralist "Audio-lingual" paradigm. It has (thankfully) nearly disappeared today. Its problems with generalizability were legend, but something also was lost: a common method where individual variables and techniques could be credibly assessed for effectiveness. Tucker's argument speaks clearly to our problem today.

Problem? Well, maybe it is also an opportunity for individual instructors to maintain perspective when reading research studies focusing on one variable or technique before trying it out on students--and more importantly trying to figure out whether something worked or not. ("Research" has overwhelmingly established that it is always far more difficult to learn from our successes than our failures.)

What is the solution? My guess is that a new paradigm, a more iconoclastic method--for teaching pronunciation in this case--will emerge from the chaos. What would that look like? Like ALM, it will at least initially show promise to provide a highly systematic model, a more comprehensive and complete set of tools for a wide range of learning populations and classrooms.

At the moment I can (not surprisingly) only think of one . . .

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