Co-operative Research?

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.


  • Julian Edge

    Yes, I did have an exchange of views with Achilleas on this topic, the main essence of which he has reported. As I feel a certain pressure to reiterate, I will do. This is, though, only my position, not one that has any kind of priority except by the persuasiveness of its argument. I don’t want to sound like some kind of judge or referee. :>)

    It seems to me that if an interviewer wants to understand what an interviewee thinks about something, then that interviewer may well want to behave in a non-judgemental, empathetic way in order to elicit that information and collect those data on the topcs that interest the researcher.

    To be an Understander, however, is to be part of a dyad committed to working on the Speaker’s development. The Speaker will choose what is to be worked on and will be committed not to reporing what they have thought thus far, but to developing their ideas in the direction of a plan of action. In complementary fashion, the Understander is committed not to finding out what the Speaker has thought thus far, but to helping the Speaker move that thinking along.

    A person being interviewed is not a Speaker. Without an aware, committed Speaker, there canot be an Understander. For a person to offer to be an Understander without declaring an interest as a researcher/ interviewer would clearly be unethical. It would be ethical for an Understander to be researching the developmental process of the dyad that the Understander has formed with the Speaker, or to wish to gather the data of the position that the Speaker had reached by the end of the CD session(s), but once again, the Understander could not, by definition, have had any influence on the topics addressed. What would make such work ethical would be the shared awareness of what was going on.

    So, there are possibilities to be explored, but no easy parallels between the research interview and CD. By the same token, an interviewer could set up the interview on an argumentative basis in order to ‘test’ the interviewees beliefs and opinions. I don’t think I’d want to go down that road myself . . . . . .

    I hope that some of this is helpful.



  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    I was kind of hoping that Julian might add his thoughts to this thread himself, but I suppose he won’t mind my reporting them on his behalf: Julian seems to agree that there is some affinity between CD and qualitative interviewing, but feels that this is little more than a happy coincidence unless there is an explicit agreement with the informants e.g. in the form of a deal that I will run CD sessions for their benefit and use the data for my research. He feels that unless a Speaker is consciously re-examining her assumptions as they are articulated and reflected back on her, then this is not CD in the way he understands the term.

    • Richard Fay

      I think he gave you some feedback on this line of thinking earlier in an email exchange, no? i.e. his feedback was an a version that pre-dated this blog …. but maybe I got that mixed up. Ask him 🙂

  • Richard Fay

    A final thought – what was Julian’s take on your CD thinking?

    Do you use CD in your supervision? I think Magdalena might have done so …

  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    Thanks for this Richard. It’s always a pleasure to read from you, particularly in this formative stage of my methodological thinking. To clarify and elaborate a little:

    When writing about the scarcity of usable recommendations, I was thinking more in terms of the fact that what advice exists in the usual methodology manuals tends to be pitched at a more abstract level, and that such abstractions are likely to conceal more than they reveal. You are probably right in pointing out the challenges involved in researching other social groups, and in this sense I agree with you that working with language teachers is not necessarily more challenging. My point is that it is challenging in a different way – that the challenges we might face when working with language teachers are not the same as those we’d encounter if we were to work with musicians, to use your example. I also think it is important to take into account how the language teachers’ identity is shaped by their professional role and how this relationship impacts the research, and I am not sure how extensively or well existing literature on research methodology has covered this relationship.

    Which brings me to your second point: what can be found in the literature. It was not my intention to belittle the many contributions that have already been made, and I appreciate your pointing towards promising new directions. But I think the point has been made elsewhere that all the work already carried out in the qualitative paradigm and, a fortiori, in ELT qualitative inquiry needs to be set against a much more robust and extensive (post)positivist research tradition. There are fields of educational research where one can just draw on an existing psychometric instrument, administer a survey to a new group of informants and make a more or less valid claim at originality. I’m not trying to revive the paradigm wars here, but what I am trying to say is that, despite all the good work that has already been carried out, our own epistemological niche seems rather less saturated – which is what I really meant when suggesting that we need to make our own way.

  • Richard Fay

    Geia sou Achilleas
    Some thoughts from me on this spring day here in Manchester.

    Para 1.
    “when it comes to methodology” – research methodology I presume?

    Given the amount of qualitative languae teacher research available is it really true that “we are making our way in largely uncharted territory”? I know it can feel like but …. “sparse advice” ? From all the TESOL dissertations and theses gathering dust …. and why is it that working with language teahers is any more “challenging” than working with any other group of professionals (with whom we may be closoely connected or not), e.g. counsellors? And can we not learn form the dissertations and theses and other research texts produced by researchers in allied professional fields? This is something I largely failed to do in my own thesis but have since found it rewarding to do so.

    Para 2. “privileged access” – I’m just writing about this very theme in connection with my ethnomusicological research beginnings in Greece. Your comments here echo many of mine but I have found myself exploring collaborative research with the musicians concerned in part recognising the complex realities of my relationships with them. I’m not sure how the examiners might feel about PhDs undertaken in such a collaborative spirit however …. A final thought, who really expects you to be a “detached observer” in this reflexive, qualitative research era?

    Para 4. Regarding ethics, I find it useful to distinguish what I do in order for my work to be seen to be ethical and for it to be approved / approvable (ie ethics approval processes) from my basic ethical stance in my research. The latter I summarise in terms of my ‘duty of care’ with whom I am working. Seen like this, informed consent guidelines are just part of the picture as I need to go further in my justfications to demonstrate that I really am honouring my ‘duty of care’.

    That’s me for today. Thanks Achilleas for a stimulating blog 🙂
    Hope my tuppence worth may add something to the mix.