Practical Project Design > Part 2 > Unit 2

What Counts as Research?
-- Towards an Integration of Researching into Teaching


1. Introductory remarks

We, as language teachers, do many things a day: prepare for tomorrow's class by adding notes on the margin, designing extra exercises, and giving references; marking yesterday's assignments; and when the time has come, rush to the noisy class, calm the crowds down and start shouting at the top of our voice. The list only embraces a fraction of our daily chores --- students' questions, telephone calls, emails, the school master's orders, admin meetings, etc., etc., etc. What is frustrating and making our life nothing short of a drudgery is the fact the things we do --- all the things we do, are not counted as research. And to make things worse, our promotion crucially depends on research and publication! "Publish or perish" seems to be not just an American phenomenon, but a Chinese one as well.

One may say that the picture I have drawn is unwarrantedly depressing. Well, this is my strategy of presentation, perhaps. I start with a negative note just to take sides with teachers in the trench. Now I want to tell them that the grooming situation is very much a result of our own making. As the English proverb would say, we make our bed wet and have to lie on it. But we can make our bed dry and lie on it, too. The crux of the matter lies in the fact that we unwittingly pit teaching against researching. We must become aware that teaching and researching are not necessarily conflictive by nature. Teaching process can be turned into a researching process, and once your teaching task is carried out, your research is simultaneously being implemented. Killing two birds with one stone can be literally true!

But how? Indeed, how! This is the theme of my talk. I hope that by the end of my talk you will be convinced that the two can be fruitfully integrated, and cannot wait any longer to have a go yourself.

2. What counts as research?

Let's start by taking a closer look at the notion of research. In everyday parlance, when we see someone search for books in the library, or do some serious reading with a pile of reference books beside him or her, we have no doubt that he or she is doing research. And sure enough, he or she may feel proud of informing us that he or she is preparing a paper. What makes reading or searching for books in the library count as research, whereas what we do in a classroom packed with students is counted as non-research or research-less?

Well, think about it and we may soon realize that what makes doing something count as research or not depends on a larger framework of which doing something plays a part. In other words, reading or searching for books and teaching in the classroom can all be counted as research, and can all be regarded as non-research. It depends on what we do it for, and the way we do it.

So what counts as research depends on multiple factors:

1) Do you want to solve a problem?
2) Do you want to prove a hypothesis?
3) Do you want to testify that what is assumed to be true is in fact wrong?
4) What methods are you going to adopt in order to achieve your goal?
5) Are you well informed of what others have done to your problem, your hypothesis, and your testimony?
6) What are the specific actions you have to take in order to achieve your goal?
7) What are the arguments and evidence you are going to produce to convince people that you are correct or doing the right thing?

These are the things that jointly make up what I have called "a larger framework". Within this framework you may do a lot of things. Each individual thing by itself is just a thing, and it makes little sense to ask if it is research or non-research. But once we look at it from the perspective of the larger framework, and do each individual thing as a bit of contribution to the overall framework, we are doing research, no matter if it is reading or searching for books, or shouting at the top of our voice to a crowd of students.

Let me emphasize my message again: what makes our doing count as research depends on the larger framework in which our doing plays a part. Once this notion is established, we come to see that whether teaching counts as researching or not lies in the framework we are going to put it into. This is the issue we are going to examine in the next section.

3. Towards a research-oriented mind plus a researching eye

Research is nowhere and everywhere. This is an oxymoron worth pondering over. If you are not ready looking for research, there will be no research. If you are ever ready for research, research exists everywhere. This is what I call "a research-oriented mind". Well, some of you may say: "Oh gosh, that's exactly what is missing with me. I don't have a research-oriented mind. How can I develop one?" My response is that you are absolutely wrong. Even a one-year old baby has a research-oriented mind: Whatever it does not know, it wants to know. Whatever it sees, it wants to touch it. Whatever is in its hand or within its reach, it sends it to its mouth! One of the saddest stories of human cultivation is to kill or at least suppress the inborn research-oriented mind.

It is often the case that we teach our students the way we were taught. It is also often the case that we take this state of affairs for granted. This creates an inertia for non-action, and kills a research-oriented mind. To get out of the vicious circle, we need to adopt a reflective model of teacher development, as graphically shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 Reflective model of teacher development (based on Walace 1989)

You may read the figure in this way:

1. You start with your existing view of what "teaching" means to you. For example, you may think that --

Teaching means "teach students things they don't know";
Teaching means "prepare a lesson at night and teach it the next morning";
Teaching means "the teacher passes his or her knowledge onto students";
Teaching means "give a series of lectures on a particular topic";
Teaching means "help students to learn";

2. You then do some reading or attend some classes on the theory of teaching, etc.

3. While doing the reading, you bring your past teaching experience into your reading. For example, the book you are reading may say something like: It is counterproductive for a language teacher to talk all the time in class. This prompts you to review your own teaching experience. "Did I talk all the time in my class? Is it really counterproductive? But my students seem to like it."

4. Through reading and reviewing your past teaching practice, you then find some problems which are worth exploring. To solve the problems you design something new (e.g. a project) and start teaching in a fresh manner.

5-6. While you are teaching in the new way, you constantly monitor your own teaching, looking for strength as well as weaknesses. You go on in this loop project by project, or term by term, until you reach a high level of professionalism -- a model teacher, so to speak.

The figure 1 in fact represents a larger framework of research for a language teacher. You probably already realize that, if you do your teaching by putting it into this framework, your teaching process is also a research process. Once your teaching is finished, your research is at the same time done.

4. What renders my research a good piece of work?

The message I wanted to drive home up to this point is that any thing we do can be turned into a part of research activity. It all depends on the framework we put it into. From this perspective, children can do research in the children's framework, adults can do research in the adults' framework, and we teachers do our research in the teachers' framework. The course Practical Project Design is specially designed to help our students, i.e. in-service teachers, to do research in their framework. Since frameworks are relative to what people do, research is therefore relative too.

So far so good. Now that we are all teachers of English, and we all do our research within the teachers' framework, does it still make sense to say that there are good research and bad research among us? This is the question to be dealt with in this section.

There is no simple and straightforward yardstick with which you can easily tell good research from bad one. Having said this, there are some general principles worth keeping in mind.

The originality principle

This principle demands that the research be original. Note that to say that the research is original does not mean the same thing as that the finding is original.

To say that the research is original means that the research is being carried out by none other than the researcher him or herself. It is not done by someone else, nor is it copied from someone else's work.

Whereas saying that the finding of the research is original means that the research is not only original, but also it contributes to new knowledge, that is, no one else in the world has ever reached the same conclusion before.

For B.A. and M.A. dissertations, original research, not original finding, is required. It is a doctoral thesis that demands originality both in research and in finding.

Note that original research does not mean that you choose a topic which has not been dealt with by anyone ever before -- "filling-in blank topic", so to speak in Chinese. B.A. and M.A. students in fact should not be encouraged to do so. Rather, they should realistically choose a topic which has been well researched. The originality of the research lies in its application of the existing theory to a new situation.

The honesty principle

This principle demands that you acknowledge and give credit to anything which is not yours, and that you must not manipulate the original data. By manipulating data I mean to tailor data to suit your expectation, or hide some crucial data which is in conflict with your conclusion.

Honesty will not make your research less significant. It only makes it more trust-worthy and reliable. Honesty is the best policy!

The data-driven principle

It is unrealistic to expect any theoretical sophistication from M.A. students, still less B.A. students. For B.A. students, if they can show a good understanding of what they have learned, and be able to apply, in a limited way, what they have learned to a new situation, they should be considered as good students, or in some cases, excellent students. For M.A. students, if they can show a masterly understanding of what they have learned, and be able to apply, creatively or even critically, what they have mastered to a new situation, they should be considered as being qualified for the degree.

Since theoretical sophistication is not expected, B.A. and M.A. students should be encouraged to do research that is data-based, rather than theory-driven. For example a student works on a topic entitled "Towards a model of semantic theory". This is theory driven. This topic is in fact too big for M.A. students. It is even unrealistic for a Ph.D. dissertation. Data-based research starts with an existing theory or analytic framework, and collect your own data to test the theory or framework. Your originality and creativity lie in the data collection, application of the theory or framework to your data, and the research process you go through.

We must not regard data-driven research as being trivial or unimportant. On the contrary, it can lead to substantial discoveries or even fresh evidence that can be used to overthrow the theory or framework we have adopted.

The standardization principle

Doing research is a very serious activity. It is often the case that its final result is a public product, such as a report, a degree dissertation, or a published paper. Since it has a public dimension, it has to be done in accordance with the public standards. However, we must not assume that there is only one and absolute public criterion. Public standards vary from discipline to discipline, and from culture to culture. They are hence relative to research communities.

In our case, the standards are negotiated and fixed by a committee of glasses-wearing professors from the two universities. If you ask me what the standards are, my answer is: Part I and Part II can be regarded as standard-setting documents. The six research procedures, the writing standards in English for Studying, and the principles in this lecture, are all dealing with standards.

The objectivity principle

If you write: "I like teaching a large-size class", you are making a subjective statement. It is subjective because you are describing your personal liking or experience ---- You are the only one who can testify that this statement is true or false. No one else will be able to verify it. For instance, the moment you are saying it, at the bottom of your heart, you actually hate doing it. No one else can find it out, except that you become conscience-stricken later, and let the cat out of the bag yourself!

However, you can improve the subjectivity by producing evidence to demonstrate that you really like teaching a large-size class. For instance, you show to the committee that you have been teaching such class for the past three years, and that you were not made to do so, but out of your own free choice. To make it even less subjective, you show to the committee that your students' satisfaction with your performance has been consistently high. Your public behaviour (i.e. actual teaching) and students' assessment are the objective evidence, or objective data, that verify your subjective statement, make it less subjective, or achieve objectivity.

Any research that has a public dimension, that is, research being carried out not for personal fun, but for public sharing, must be objective. Of course, one hundred percent of objectivity with research in social sciences and humanities remains an unattainable ideal. Objectivity is a matter of degree. Serious research requires a high degree of objectivity, and less serious research a low degree of objectivity. But there is no rule of thumb readily available to tell you which degree of objectivity is precisely required with regard to a particular instance of research. The hunches are: the more evidence you produce, the higher the objectivity, and the safer you become with your position.

Questions for you to reflect upon:

1. According to the author, doing something as an isolated action cannot be counted as research. Once it is put into a larger framework, it can be turned into a part of research process. Do you agree with him? Give an example or two to argue for or against this view.

2. What is a research-oriented mind? Is it true to say that according to the author, if a mind keeps asking some critical questions such as what, why, how, when, where, who, etc., this mind is research-oriented?

3. Why do you think that objectivity is a matter of degree? Does the author imply that subjectivity should be condemned?