Changing Tack

Anderson’s new blog post The myth of a theory-practice gap in education makes the following argument:

1. When researchers and academics talk about a theory-practice gap in education, including language teaching, what they are usually referring to is a gap between their beliefs concerning how teachers should teach, and how teachers actually do teach.

2. Research on teacher cognition has established beyond reasonable doubt (e.g., Borg, 2006; Woods, 1996) that all teachers also have theories, either explicit, espousable ones, or the implicit “theories in use” that govern our actions (Argyris & Schön, 1974).

3. Thus, the notion of a theory-practice gap is a myth. There is no theory-practice gap, just a gap between the beliefs of practitioners in two very different communities of practice: academics and teachers.

This all looks very obvious, but what’s the point of it? Well, the point seems to be to reassure teachers that they shouldn’t worry if academics’ theories challenge their teaching practices. If this is the point, then I suggest that it’s wrong and, in any case, Anderson’s remarks do nothing to address the ongoing issue of what teachers can learn from SLA research. Anderson says that researchers and academics are usually referring to a gap between their beliefs concerning how teachers should teach, and how teachers actually do teach, but that’s not actually true; researchers say little about any such gap. To “prove” that the notion of a theory-practice gap is a myth by making it about teaching practice and then pointing to teachers’ own theories is an empty bit of rhetoric which fails to address what is, in fact, the very important gap between what academics know about language learning and what teachers know. Current ELT practice is dominated by the use of coursebooks which implement a synthetic syllabus where the L2 is treated as an object of study, and where the focus is on learning about the language. Such practices contradict the wide consensus among academics that learning an L2 is predominantly a matter of implicit learning; learning by doing, learning by engaging in meaningful use of the language. The clear implication is that current coursebook-driven ELT is inefficacious and that analytical syllabuses, such as those used in TBLT, Dogme and certain types of CLIL are more efficacious.

This is the issue that Anderson ignores. I have argued in many posts on this blog that ELT has become commodified because of the enormous commercial interests involved. These commercial interests, I suggest, explain why the gap between what most teachers know about the way people learn an L2 and what academics know is so wide. Teacher educators (who are often coursebook writers) have vested interests in coursebooks, teacher education programmes like CELTA and high stakes exams like IELTS. They are naturally biased against research findings which challenge the foundations of their approach to ELT, and they use the disagreements among academics to minimise the importance of research findings. Yet, despite all their disagreements, academics studying SLA agree on the fundamental principles which underly L2 learning. While academics would not dare to tell teachers how they should implement a syllabus or make ongoing peddagogic decisions during a lesson, the core findings of SLA research which explain the very special process of learning an L2 can – and IMO should – be taken into account when designing courses, materials, and tests in ELT.

Anderson has previously published a number of articles which cite SLA research in attempts to defend current ELT practice. One such article is Anderson (2016) “Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the ppp paradigm in language teacher education”  I replied to his article with a post “Does PPP really make perfect sense?” Anderson here changes tack in his ongoing role as defender of the faith. His new message to teachers is: Never mind about the academics’ theories, use your own and just keep reciting this empty syllogism: academics have theories about education, teachers have theories about education, thus, the notion of a theory-practice gap is a myth.

7 thoughts on “Changing Tack

  1. Hi, Geoff;
    I was a bit surprised to hear that coursebooks treat the L2 as an object of study. That certainly has never been my impression, although I haven’t looked at a coursebook in years. In fact I can’t imagine anyone in the field taking that position. (Come to think of it, even the old Lado-Fries kinds of texts avoided teaching about language.) And implicit learning is not the same thing as learning by doing; I would have thought it’s more like learning by not doing.

  2. Hi Kevin, The syllabus of a coursebook consists of focusing attention on successive bits of the L2. One unit looks at the past simple tense, another at one or two conditionals, another on comparatives & superlatives, and so on. A lot of space is given to descriptions of the language in grammar and vocabulary boxes and a lot of time is spent talking about the L2.

    “Learning by doing” is shorthand, here, for learning by doing tasks where the focus is on meaning and where learning formal aspects of the L2 is done mostly implicitly.

  3. Hi Mura,

    I think it’s an excellent suggestion. I remember seeing this article, but I’ll have to read it properly. Thanks for the tip.

  4. Argyris and Schön’s problem isn’t with a theory/practice gap, it’s with a research/practice gap, which I take to be your enduring problem, Geoff. They are interested in research that contributes to the improvement of practice, not just to the description of it. Robinson makes a similar argument in:

    Robinson, V. (1998). Methodology and the research-practice gap. Educational Researcher, 27(1), 17–26. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X027001017

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