by Denise Kirkpatrick - (Past) Research and Projects Coordinator
for the Australian Assocation for the Teaching of English
Last year, as I was preparing for the AATE Research breakfast, I came across an early issue of English in Australia which featured an article by Warwick Goodenough entitled, 'Current Research in Teaching English'. In 1965 the annual meeting of AATE Executive had commissioned an investigation into the nature and scope of research on English teaching, and this article presented the results of that enquiry. The findings of the report were summarised in the following manner:
It seems that present research in this area is haphazard, peripheral and perfunctory. That this is so results initially from the lack of demand for research from those professionally engaged in the teaching of English. It may be that there is no real need for research. It may be that teachers are professionally apathetic about the need for information and increased skill in their professional work. It may be that teachers are ignorant of the research resources that should be available to such a large professional group, one of the largest professional services in Australia. (Goodenough, 1966: 3)
It was believed, in short, that nothing was happening in the way of full time research in English teaching in Australia, and that little had been done to relate overseas findings to local conditions. AATE Executive's response to Goodenough's report included the suggestion that practising teachers could not be expected to produce much in the way of new insights and persuasive evidence. 'A teacher today barely has time for reflection, none for protracted research.' (1966: 4)
I asked myself: what would constitute an appropriate response if such a claim were made in the late 90s?
The Situation Now
Today the level of energy and commitment reflected in English teachers' involvement in state and national professional activities, as well as the lively debates of critical issues at conferences, hardly suggest the apathy which Goodenough apparently saw around him. Nor does the AATE Executive's response to Goodenough's report (as reported in the 1966 article) seem in tune with existing conditions: their belief that teachers had no time either for reflection or research suggests, in fact, a different view of the role of reflection in teaching from the views we hold today.
None of us would suggest that today's teachers have spare time or are not overworked as they deal with the imperatives of national curriculum frameworks, student outcome statements, and the rapid proliferation of new technologies and the accompanying new literacies. Times have changed and with them our expectations about the role that professional associations will play, our role as teachers and how we go about performing our jobs. As I thought more about the role of professional associations and English teachers in researching English teaching today, I was confronted repeatedly by significant differences between what constituted research then and what constitutes research now.
Goodenough's comments about the state of research into English teaching could not be applied to research in English teaching in the 1990s. A quick glance through the Australian Education Index, Dissertation Abstracts, successful internal university research grants, ARC grant applications and various websites reveals a wide range of relevant research projects. It seems that now there is a challenge in finding out about the wealth of research projects that may be of interest and use to English teachers.
Consideration of the research into English teaching that has been published in English in Australia alone over the past thirty years shows a cycle of common research foci as well as a shift in both research methodologies and those who conduct the research. The recent experiences of NPDP projects throughout Australia have produced a range of research outcomes and experiences. Many teachers have discovered that they can research, that research is not the province of academics in Ivory Towers or postgraduate students. The increase in postgraduate enrolments and subsequent research projects and dissertations has been matched by an increase in the number of classroom practitioners who are actively engaged in researching their own or others' teaching. Teachers have discovered their own research skills often through action research and are becoming more sophisticated and critical consumers of research literature. The proliferation of websites, discussion lists and the easy web access to research publications has opened a range of information sources to teachers.
Another factor which has impacted on the nature and extent of research in English teaching is the loss of research officers from central Education Department offices, along with the reduction in centrally provided professional development. This has had significant impact on research efforts and outcomes, particularly in relation to curriculum issues and has implications for the role of professional associations at state and national level. This lack of centralised, funded research has made professional association involvement an imperative. While there is great interest in researching English teaching it isn't going to be done for us. We need to be doing something ourselves. Our responsibility may involve the actual performance of research, collaboration in research, being the site of research, identifying research topics and facilitating others in investigating questions that are central to our lives as English teachers.
Teachers' reflection and reflexion are an integral part of teaching life, both individually and through association membership and involvement. There is a need for research in teaching: to make suggestions for changed practice and to develop theoretical foundations for thought and practice. It could even be argued that the demands that teachers now face create an even greater need for research that helps us deal with changed policy, curriculum and assessment requirements, as well as providing guidance on ways in which we can teach more effectively (and arguably more efficiently).
Research can provide us with direction for what to teach, how to teach and why to teach. As all of us seek to do more, the sharing of experiences makes sense. The development of a community of reflective practitioners can provide us with professional and collegial support, and create opportunities for reflection and inspiration. By sharing our experiences, the processes and outcomes, we can inform ourselves and each other.
Research Supported by AATE
A number of AATE publications with which you will be familiar have developed from research projects. For example, At the Far Reach of Their Capacities stemmed from an AATE research grant to Marion Meiers and Peter Adams. Reconstructing Literature Teaching was the result of AATE commissioning leading teachers to contribute to a 'state of the art' publication on the teaching of English. The familiar But My Biro Won't Work and When It's Fun You Learn resulted from AATE support.
The extent and diversity of presentations of research at AATE and state ETA conferences and AATE research breakfasts attest to the scope of research currently being conducted in Australia. The Research Breakfast at last year's AATE conference showcased three different approaches to research. The first had received financial support from AATE and is an example of a collaborative research project between a classroom teacher and a university teacher. Wendy Morgan and Lindsay Williams described their experiences as they worked together to develop and trial a critical literacy curriculum project.
Michael McNamara presented aspects of his PhD research conducted with classroom teachers. David Lee presented the results of a collaborative research effort between primary and secondary teachers in a cluster project addressing issues of literacy and transition to secondary school. This project demonstrated that research does not have to be a hugely time consuming activity that can only be performed by 'experts', but that it can be a regular part of teachers' lives as they investigate real problems that they face.
AATE and Research Now
The current educational context encourages a broad view of research that embraces multiple approaches and a variety of research projects, and accepts a range of research methodologies. No longer does research have to be positivistic, 'scientific'and quantitative for it be considered legitimate. Case studies, action research projects, narratives, critical theory studies are among the forms that research may take. I believe that there is tremendous scope for AATE to support research into aspects of teaching English that have relevance for Australian teachers. I would like to see the research ventures of the association expand to support relevant research by postgraduates, individuals or teams of teachers, academics or others involved in English teaching. I also intend to encourage collaborative efforts.
To support this, AATE will be making available funds to support members in carrying out research that will be of use to other Australian teachers. I anticipate that research findings or the completed projects will be made available to members in appropriate forms, whether it be through the newly established AATE website, English in Australia, state journals, conference presentations or stand alone publications such as the new Interface series. AATE will support teachers' research with special attention to supporting projects that provide outcomes that are relevant to Australian teachers of English. This could be in relation to pedagogical considerations, policy development, interpretation or implementation or curriculum development and implementation. AATE would expect that funded projects would result in some outcome that can be communicated to members, although I do not believe that outcomes should necessarily take the form of conventional monograph publications. Alternative forms of presenting research findings may be articles in English in Australia or reports or summaries disseminated through the AATE website, teaching or curriculum materials available through the website or in hardcopy. Chatlines on the website will provide a forum for interested teachers to discuss research issues and share results. Perhaps some of you may want to collaborate with colleagues in other locations via chatlines on the web.
I believe that the research and experiences of teachers are important and provide useful esources and stimulus for others. AATE aims to encourage this sharing of ideas and practice. To do this the association provides support for teachers who wish to investigate some aspect of English teaching or develop resources or curriculum to support English teaching. If you have a project that you believe is relevant then contact me to discuss or apply for funding (an application form is included here on the Research and Projects Page of the AATE Web Site). If you have ideas about areas that need investigating but do not feel confident about embarking on a project yourself then perhaps AATE could put you in touch with a 'critical friend' who could act as a sounding board for your project. Alternatively AATE can contract researchers to follow up suitable projects. In addition we will be establishing a data base of current research in English teaching to make the names and interests of researchers available.
Goodenough, W. (1966). 'Current research in teaching English'. English in
Australia, 3, 3 - 11.