Research, truths, difference, and butterfly wings.


May 22, 2012 by Willy Cardoso

Here’s a snippet of what I may or may not say in my talk at

IATEFL Teacher Development & Learning Technologies SIGs Joint Conference, in Istanbul this weekend.

If you take a thorough look at research in SLA (Second Language Acquisition), especially across (if you’re able to spot) their covert epistemological stances which have been kind of taken for granted lately and work across them, you’ll see that there are very few ‘truths’.

For example, some researchers have found that the more active a student is the more they will learn, but then years later another researcher found that less active students benefit from their more active colleagues and perform equally or better. So reading the data and findings backwards, we could say that proficiency leads to more participation, and not necessarily that participation leads to proficiency. The inherent problem I see here is the constant search for a cause-effect relationships; something to overcome perhaps. Did the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?? We’ll never know because, ultimately, causes can’t be fully tracked; therefore, explanations of consequences are inevitably incomplete. That’s at least the view of complexity thinking, which tries to see the network more holistically, instead of isolated variables. But more on that later…

Back to research in SLA, another example is error correction. After decades of research, generating various dichotomies and widely accepted ‘best practice’, someone no other than Stephen Krashen comes in a webinar and says rather convinced and convincingly hey, research now shows that error correction leads to nothing, just make your students read and read, for pleasure of course, and they’ll have better results in tests [he didn’t use these words, of course, but that’s the gist]

And then I think, wait a minute, are you freakin’ kidding me?

But in the end, I realize one of the problems is as much mine as it is theirs. In a way, we’re all trying to find a grand narrative that will solve all our problems of difference by finding a way to teach more effectively and efficiently. A way that works across cultures (so you can teach the whole world by having one TEFL certificate), that is fool-proof (so you can have low-qualified teachers following proved techniques), or simply like me sometimes, to spend less time thinking about lessons and just use the same material with everyone. What traditional research tries to give us is what we’re trying to find: a universal way of teaching that flattens out difference.

But isn’t it through difference that we learn?

– title of my talk:

Tech-knowledge: complexity, philosophy, web2.0, postmodernism, interdisciplinarity, unpredictability, and the work of teachers.

abstract and more at:


11 thoughts on “Research, truths, difference, and butterfly wings.

  1. phil3wade says:

    Yes, yes, yes. I recall spending whole days in cafes reading my huge pile of books I used to carry round. Being a very ‘say what I think’ person and having little patience I am not really suited to reading countless contradictory pieces of research and also ‘codswallop’. I would read some of these findings and just burst out laughing and still do. Come on, if we were to take every new research’s findings as the new gospel then we’d be running round chasing whatever the researcher decided to point us at.

    Like you say, there are MANY other variables at play and try as they might it is impossible to control them even in a laboratory setting. We must also not forget the intentions and reasons behind research. Teachers/professors get funding ie they are paid. They won’t earn money for adding support, no they will get more praise and esteem if you disprove something. So we go round and round and round.

    For us poor folk who study or have studied SLA we come to understand that we and the profession are still lost. We do have lots of models to argue over and ‘teach’ to people but then we spend weeks criticising them and go “hey, we still don’t have a clue”.

    Going back to my cafe situation, I would often shout ‘tosh’ or ‘have you EVER taught’ or even ‘hmmmf’. I got to the point that I just skimmed the suggested reading and went online to find modern and just more substantial articles, papers and conference talks..I also got lots from blogs and the comments.

    One thing that makes me chuckle is the amount of unis that have SLA study groups and projects.

    • In a way, Phil, even though we know there’s more influence on research results than analysis of hard data, I still think it’s good for teachers to every now and again read some bits of academic papers. At least as food for thought, you know. I started to pay attention to so many things in my lessons after I started to read research papers, because they do help in terms of providing frameworks within which to think (or not to think), vocabulary to explain our practice, and when really well-done some philosophical background to the whole thing, which is really my cup of tea. Like you, I don’t really trust research, but I get motivated when I come across a well-articulated argument with well-thought philosophical considerations, e.g. Allwright, Kramsch, Lantolf, etc.

      • phil3wade says:

        But approaching them with a critical mind so that we don’t just take them as gospel. I’ve found I learn a lot more from disagreeing or taking ideas and then developing them. There’s no such thing as perfect research so there are always flaws but there is always something there that can inspire you. I agree that it’s definitely good ‘food for thought’ in one way or another. I know that some I just disagree with but they fuel me to prove why they are wrong or others may list recommendations for further research and that is what we should be doing. There’s no point reading old papers, research is continual and people are constantly building on it. If you can read enough and get ‘up to speed’ then you can start investing in your own research at whatever level but based on the current level of knowledge and thinking. That’s what’s going on over on many blogs, I think!!

  2. ahh, btw
    I forgot to mention I only wrote this post because I was reading something really interesting:

    Breen, M. P. (2001). Navigating the Discourse: on what is learned in the language classroom. In Candlin, C.N. & Mercer, N. English Language Teaching in its Social Context. London and New York: Routledge

    I recommend it.

  3. Willy I agree with you. Research can be a way of improving our teaching because it enlightens us on things we may have not thought about. It’s never easy when you have your nose right up on something to understand it well. It can do some good to pull back and read some research papers that may shed the light we’re looking for. That’s what being a teacher is – constantly questioning and searching for new ways to make sure learning is taking place no matter what the setting ie. classroom, workplace….Teacher that grows and is successful is one that is open to suggestion.

  4. I would say that reading academic papers can broaden our horizons but at the same time some teachers fell at lost when reading this kind of material. Too much jargon, too vague language… The issue is that as we are dealing with minds (how languages are acquired) it’s difficult to follow a pattern that fits all contexts. Luckily, people are different and the way they respond to the stimuli we provide will, consequently, vary from individual to individual. But, as you said, theoretical studies can serve as a compass for teachers to see where they want to reach, how far they have convered and how much they still have to go.
    Readings will always be beneficial for our profession. However, there’s got to be a great deal of willingness, time and open mind so as to understand, reflect and retain what we read.
    Funnily enough, I made a quick search on google and searched for “reading academic papers” and most of the entries were “how to read an academic paper” – maybe that’s a sign…
    Take care”

    • Thanks, Bruno.
      Jargon and all are present everywhere. Very often I see pre-service trainees confused by stuff like ‘eliciting’ ‘concept checking’, etc – not to say the infinite grammar terminologies. In the end, they make sense of it somehow, mainly by actually doing it, I’d say. So, I don’t worry much about jargon; there isn’t a profession without an acknowledged body of jargon, it is in fact what makes it a profession in a way.

  5. Celebrate difference – oh yes!!!

  6. Alex Case says:

    “We’ll never know because, ultimately, causes can’t be fully tracked; therefore, explanations of consequences are inevitably incomplete. That’s at least the view of complexity thinking, which tries to see the network more holistically, instead of isolated variables.”

    I don’t know anything about the thinking in other fields, but in physics and mathematics the more accurate statement would be “in complex systems (meaning systems that can be mathematically modelled to show that a small change in initial variables leads to very large changes in result) causes can’t be fully tracked…” rather than “causes can’t (ever) be fully tracked (in all/ most systems)”. And in fact in science the main reason that causes can’t be fully tracked is usually simply because it is impossible to get rid of “noise” in the results rather than systems being (mathematically) complex.

  7. […] can find an interesting take on ESL/EFL research at Research, truths, difference, and butterfly wings, a post at the Authentic Teaching […]

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