There is something exciting about taking a qualitative approach to understanding the experience of language teachers – exciting and troubling, that is. It is the realisation that, when it comes to methodology, we are making our way in largely uncharted territory. One can always draw on existing social science research manuals, but I think it is fair to say that their coverage tends to be too broad to be immediately useful for our specific needs. With only sparse advice available for the challenges of working with language teachers, the burden seems to be on us to come up with creative yet feasible ways to overcome these challenges without sacrificing trustworthiness. In this sense, much of what we do in this research community is about extending the qualitative paradigm and making it relevant to ELT.
Looking at my own research project, the usual difficulties are amplified by my own unique relationship with the research setting. I have privileged access to the management of the language school I am researching, and I used to work there in the past, at which time I was responsible –among other things– for staffing and syllabus development. Many research participants are friends of mine, which is great for obtaining access, and not so great for doing research or when sharing one’s findings. And among those who aren’t so close, some might find it difficult to believe that my role is that of a detached observer; in fact, I am not sure I am one myself, or that I want to be one.
Consider the question of generating data: What I need to do is to understand the experience of these language teachers in their own terms. Interviews are said to be ideally suited to capturing this experience in all its richness, while allowing for as much flexibility as possible. And yet, using interviews in this setting is not exactly straightforward. Is it really possible to ask ‘why’ questions without sounding judgemental? And is it not likely that some answers may be motivated by a desire to avoid challenging my own espoused beliefs? What I need, then, is a non-threatening framework of communication which will allow me to probe deeply in the participants’ way of viewing things, and I feel that standard interview formats might not be adequate to the task.
And then there is the question of ethics: My own connections to the research setting are such that I suppose it would be difficult for the participants to refuse any reasonable request that I made, even if it is not – strictly speaking – in their best interest to do so. This means the usual guidelines regarding voluntary informed consent are not sufficient safeguards for ensuring that my research is morally neutral. I believe that, at minimum, I need to find a way to make the research process more equitable. Ideally, this would involve research methods that are mutually beneficial: methods that would allow me to develop the understanding I need, while compensating the language teachers for the time and effort they donate to my project.
I think that an answer to both needs, or rather the beginning of such an answer, can be found in the notion of Co-operative Development (CD). There’s much more to CD than can be described in the space of this post, but it generally involves an exchange of non-judgemental discourse between collaborating teachers. In a typical CD dyad, a Speaker takes the initiative and elaborates on an issue of his choice, while an Understander facilitates this exploration by listening and reporting back her understanding of what is said. By listening to their views reflected back, Speakers probe more deeply into their experience and refine their personal theories.
As its name suggests, Co-operative Development is intended as a pathway towards professional development, but I think there are also implications in this for doing research. It should be possible to initiate a process of CD in the research venue, such that my research participants and I could assume the role of Speakers and Understander respectively. This would not only satisfy the moral imperative of helping the participants develop, but also give me access to the information I need, in the form of a mental snapshot of their beliefs at the time of the session.
Any such session, I think, will generate two trajectories of development: for the Participant/Speaker, a trajectory of professional development; and for me as Researcher/Understander a trajectory from Hearing through Understanding towards Theorising. At this point, I don’t really know if this idea will work in practice, either for the developing teachers or for my research. One needs to assume that it will – in which case it could make an elegant addition to our toolkit of qualitative methods for ELT researchers.