In this post, Achilleas Kostoulas discusses his perspective on the goals of the ReaLiTea project:
A couple of days ago, I was asked to proofread a medical article for a family member, who is a practising doctor. This article was like nothing we publish in language education or applied linguistics. In no more than two pages, it contained a brief history of a patient, a description of the examinations that took place where the author pointed out some atypical and easy-to-miss findings, a walk-through of the doctor's thinking with some references to the literature, a differential diagnosis and the final diagnosis. This was followed by two pages of X-ray images and a short list of references.
The fact that different disciplines have different ways of communicating ideas is perhaps a trivial observation. But what I found interesting was that such communications, by practising doctors, appear to be greatly valued in the medical community, they are actively published, and they seem to be widely read by medical researchers and by professionals who wish to keep up-to-date. This point of difference with the practices in language teaching is something that I found rather striking, and it provides me with a starting point for the thoughts that follow.
There are, of course, valid reasons why the articles we write in language education and its informing disciplines are so different from the medical article I have described. For one, people working in medicine have their ontological and epistemological questions resolved. For better or for worse, this is not the case in our field(s): we still struggle to understand exactly what language is (both in the general sense and when thinking of specific languages). In addition, education involves the transmission of language, values and knowledge structures that keep shifting. I would not argue that we need to fix these in place for teaching to take place more efficiently. Dealing with such challenges means that a lot of scholarly work requires a certain degree of methodological specialization and a division of labour that keeps part of academic work away from day-to-day teaching.
The way I see it, the ReaLiTea project is not about closing that gap. That is to say, our aim is not to force teachers to engage with those aspects of scholarship that seek to define language, or to understand psychological constructs such as language anxiety or motivation and so on (not that interested teachers should shy away from such work). Rather, what we aim to do is to highlight the often-neglected part of research that is most directly relevant to teaching. Such a recentering would very likely show that the 'teaching-research gap' is not quite as wide as it is sometimes imagined --or if it is, that this need not be the case.
If we deconstruct research to its essentials, it involves an inquisitive attitude, an ability for structured engagement with information, and a desire to create new knowledge. Such qualities, I would argue, are qualities that are core to teaching as much as they are to research. Teachers are constantly confronted with problems that require well-argued answers, and a great part of our job when we teach involves observing our students, trying to understand their behaviour and trying to predict the outcomes of our, and their, actions. Good teachers and good researchers, I would further suggest, both apply themselves to making positive change happen and to challenging unjust orders of things.
If there are still differences between those of us engaged in teaching languages and those of us involved in understanding how languages are taught, other than differences in role, it is important not to see this gap through a deficit perspective. This means that we should not aim to train teachers to have the same skills as researchers just because the latter are viewed as more ‘prestigious’ than the former. When we try to develop research literacy, what we aim to do is give teachers access to those concepts and methods that help them resolve questions that are relevant to their practice. We should aim to develop a common vocabulary that helps us to see the commonalities of work in teaching and in research, and should aim to develop shared spaces where we can explore these commonalities together.
Returning to the medical article I mentioned earlier: Practicing doctors are not expected to run clinical trials or use ultra-sophisticated machinery. Their role in the health system is differently specialized. But no one would ever argue that medical research is irrelevant to their needs, and nobody challenges their ability to contribute to the knowledge landscape of their profession. That is an example from which we can learn.