A Personal Introduction: Making Connections

Dick Allwright, Lancaster University

Dick Allwright is a senior lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Lancaster University, UK. His visit to JALT is sponsored by the British Council.

It is very unusual to have an opportunity to try to whet the appetite of prospective conference-goers like this. It is also unusual for a conference theme to be so exactly right for what I would most like to focus on myself at JALT99. "Linking Research and the Classroom" sums up the main focus of my current thinking, but, more important, it also offers me the opportunity to make explicit the highly productive connections I now see between the apparently diverse strands of my research thinking over the last three decades. The three strands of my work that I wish to connect here are these: classroom research, teacher development and teacher associationism, and learner autonomy. I hope to show that they can be brought together helpfully under my general title of "Understanding Classroom Language Learning and Teaching." I also hope to show, through my JALT99 presentations, how Exploratory Practice--a proposal for the sustainable integration of research with teaching, and (importantly) with learning--can help us further develop our understandings of classroom language learning and teaching.

Classroom Research

Classroom research came into my life early in the 1970s, when it offered a welcome antidote to the large-scale methodological comparison research of the 1960s, which had failed to demonstrate convincingly the superiority of any method over others. This general failure was largely attributed to the experimenters' apparent lack of concern for what actually happened in the classroom when a new method was introduced, as well as a lack of concern for precisely how teachers interpreted whatever training they had been given (see Allwright, 1988, especially chapter 1). This necessarily left any outcomes strictly uninterpretable. So classroom research, already developing fast as a tool for teacher training, came in to fill in the picture, and naturally focussed on teacher behavior. But I soon realized that I would not be able to understand teacher behavior if I did not also study learner behavior. So I moved to focus on the behavior of learners, but still mostly on the details of the relationship between learner and teacher behavior (see Allwright, 1980). By 1984, however, I had moved on to two more general issues: firstly, the apparently remarkably indirect nature of the relationship between what classroom language teachers teach and what classroom language learners learn, and secondly, what role classroom interaction might play in helping us understand such things (see Allwright, 1984a, 1984b). Those issues were subsequently studied by Assia Slimani for her 1987 Lancaster doctoral thesis. She established just how difficult it was to find a reliable link between the teaching of particular language items and the learning of them. At the same time another of my doctoral students, Safya Cherchalli (1988), was investigating Algerian secondary school learners� reactions to their textbook. In the course of her work she collected an extremely rich gold mine of data about what it was like to be a classroom language learner at that time, in that school in Algeria in the mid-1980s. Particularly interesting to me was her demonstration of how classroom life might look radically different to you as a learner, depending on whether you are doing well or badly, not in absolute terms, but in relation to the other people in the same classroom. For example, high achieving students in a group tended to leave lessons aware of what they had understood and what they had not, and so were able to direct their homework effort accordingly. The relatively low achieving students in the same group, however, would apparently leave the classroom each day believing they had understood everything, then find that they could not do their homework. For them each lesson gave them the illusion of understanding, and each bit of homework disillusioned them rather quickly.

That finding is enough food for thought in itself, but I must leave it to one side here, and merely note that after Cherchalli's work I was less interested in chasing what did or did not get learned, whatever a teacher taught, and more interested in the whole idea of life in the language classroom, and what it was like to be there in this social workplace for all the participants, teachers, and learners.

Teacher Development and Teacher Associationism

At the time Slimani and Cherchalli were doing their doctoral research, however, I was also heavily involved in TESOL (as Research Committee Chair, then Executive Board Member, then President). This brought teacher development to my active consciousness, especially when Yoby Guindo, President of MATE, the newly established national language teacher association in Mali, asked me to help him work out what contribution it could make, and how, to the development of English language teachers nationally in Mali. I had already been impressed by the potential of small local groups of teachers as a vehicle for professional development, through my contact with the English Language Teaching Community in Bangalore, South India (see Allwright, 1991). They had already made an explicit connection between teacher associationism and teacher development, with classroom research as the main vehicle (see Naidu et al., 1992).

But, when I tried introducing classroom research as a vehicle for teacher development, both in print (Allwright, 1991) and in practice, I was forced very quickly to conclude that my standard model of academic research, which was being advocated as a key component of Action Research (see Nunan, 1992), was just not appropriate to the institutional and classroom realities of the people I was working with at that time-teachers of English in the Cultura Inglesa, Rio de Janeiro (see Allwright & Lenzuen, 1997).

Learner Autonomy

At that time, I also had a third distinct strand to my applied linguistic thinking--learner autonomy. Like most people in the field at that time I saw learner autonomy both as a vehicle for improving language learning achievement in the short-term, and, following the Council of Europe in its work under the heading of Language Learning for European Citizenship (see Trim, 1988, p. 3; Huttunen, 1993, pp. 1-3), as a vehicle for the long-term development of generations of learners able to cope with the decision-making demands of living in modern democratic states. So it was natural for me to propose, on a visit to the Cultura Inglesa, that learner autonomy should be one of the topics addressed in our weekly discussions. I was immediately challenged to deal with teacher autonomy as well, however, and that made a connection which has proved very productive for me. I could now see learner autonomy, with its impossible internal paradox of having to decide what right you have to interfere with anyone else's autonomy by trying to train them to be autonomous, as another form of professional development. This did not resolve the paradox, but it did mean I could now apply my thinking about teacher development and classroom research to my thinking about development for learners, and look for ways of connecting them fruitfully.

Making the Connection via Exploratory Practice

I was already disillusioned with academic classroom research as a vehicle for teacher development, and the problems it raised-placing intolerable burdens on already busy people-promised to be even more problematic for learners. But I still had faith in systematic investigation as a key vehicle for development. So it became abundantly clear to me that I needed to rethink my own notion of classroom research and to develop new ideas on classroom investigation, ideas that would make practical sense for both teachers and learners. The basic ideas came readily enough, because in my work I was fortunate to be meeting groups of teachers regularly, in the visits I made to the Cultura`s branches in Rio. They showed me how extremely busy teachers could nevertheless conduct valuable investigatory work in their own classrooms, as an integral part of their pedagogy. We first called it Exploratory Teaching, then Exploratory Practice, when we realized the importance the ideas held for learners as well as teachers . At JALT99 I will set out its rationale in detail; my workshop will offer participants a more direct, practical understanding of Exploratory Practice in the language classroom.

For now, suffice it to say that Exploratory Practice is founded on two basic principles: (a) The main aim is understanding, rather than problem solving, principally, but not exclusively, because intelligent problem-solving surely depends upon an adequate prior understanding of the problem to be solved; and (b) Any work for understanding must not get in the way, but must instead be a productive part of the pedagogy, for learners as well as for teachers.




Allwright, R. L. (1980). Turns, topics and tasks: Patterns of participation in language learning and teaching. In D. E. Larsen-Freeman (Ed.), Discourse analysis in second language research. (pp. 165-187). Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Allwright, R. L. (1984a). Why don't learners learn what teachers teach?- The interaction hypothesis. In D. M. Singleton & D. G. Little (Eds.), Language learning in formal and informal contexts. (pp. 3-18). Dublin: IRAAL.

Allwright, R. L. (1984b). The importance of interaction in the language classroom. Applied Linguistics, 5, (2), 156-171. Allwright, D. (1988). Observation in the language classroom. London: Longman.

Allwright, D. (1991). Exploratory teaching, professional development, and the role of a teachers association. Newsletter of the Cuban National Institute of Tourism (INTUR), III (2), 9-21. (Also available as CRILE Working Paper Number 7, from Linguistics, Lancaster University.)

Allwright, R. L., & Bailey K. M. (1991). Focus on the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Allwright, D., & Lenzuen, R. (1997). Exploratory practice: Work at the Cultura Inglesa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Language Teaching Research, 1, (1), 73-79.

Cherchalli, S. (1988). Learners' reactions to their textbook (with special reference to the relation between differential perceptions and differential achievement): A case study of Algerian secondary school learners. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Linguistics, Lancaster University.

Huttunen, I. (Ed.). (1993). Report on workshop 2B. Learning to learn languages: Investigating learner strategies and autonomy. Strasbourg: Council of Europe, Council for Cultural Co-operation.

Naidu, B., Neeraja, K., Ramani, E., Shivakumar, J., & Viswanatha, A. (1992). Researching heterogeneity: An account of teacher-initiated research into large classes. English Language Teaching Journal, 46, (3), 252-263.

Nunan, D. (1992). Research methods in language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Slimani, A. (1987). The teaching/learning relationship: Learning opportunities and learning outcomes. An Algerian case study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Linguistics, Lancaster University.

Trim, J. (1988). Preface. In H. Holec (Ed.), Autonomy and self-directed learning: Present fields of application. (p. 3). Strasbourg: Council of Europe, Council for Cultural Cooperation. June 1999 5