Pedagogic research: Issues in Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

Author: John Canning


This article outlines issues about the status and nature of pedagogic research in the present intellectual and evaluative environment of Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies.

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Table of contents


Pedagogic research in Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, as in most other disciplines has suffered from low esteem within the disciplines and methodological conflicts with the 'generic' education research undertaken by researchers in Education departments (Yorke 2000). The financial impact of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), both in institutional and disciplinary terms, has intensified the marginalisation of pedagogic research in comparison with non-pedagogic research in LLAS disciplines (see Coleman 2004, Towell 2005).

Disciplinary cultures and methodologies

Disciplinary cultures impact upon what are seen as the core concerns for the discipline. Disciplines are cultural formations or tribes (Parker 2002). Some individuals and groups have more power than others in influencing what research is seen as central to the discipline and what methodologies are employed. As quality assurance mechanisms such as the RAE are based on a system of peer review, there is a certain degree of self-perpetuation in terms of what constitutes good quality research in disciplines, what research is considered to be critical or 'cutting edge' and what research is marginal or insignificant.

Although disciplines vary in terms of the subject matter they investigate and the methodologies they employ, it may be generally supposed that teaching and learning is (or at least ought to be) a key concern for all disciplines. However, pedagogic research has been marginalised within most disciplines, and that which is done is often methodologically or epistemologically in conflict with research as understood by Education departments.

Education, as a disciplinary formation is largely concerned with compulsory as opposed to higher education. Most researchers in Education employ social science research methods to investigate teaching and learning issues in a generic sense. Whilst there are many researchers who specialise in researching education in specific subjects (e.g. research into second language acquisition), the publication of resources on employability, entrepreneurship, assessment by the HE Academy (and the former LTSN generic centre) and its predecessors has been underpinned by an assumption that disciplines have sufficient common ground in teaching and learning to produce generic resources for HE teachers which can be readily adapted for use with students of all disciplines.

Embedded or generic approaches?

Despite calls that pedagogic research ought to be embedded in disciplines (Healey 2000), the funding of teaching and learning over the past ten years has given rise to an increasing professionalisation of higher education pedagogic research. Like its compulsory education counterpart, this body of research is largely 'generic'. Higher education journals such as Teaching in Higher Education and Quality in Higher Education are aimed at a multidisciplinary and international audience. Rather than discipline-based questions being addressed through discipline-based methodologies, the discipline plays the role of case study investigated through a 'generic' education approach. Professionalisation has the obvious disadvantage that pedagogic research may become increasingly distant from the practitioner in the classroom. However, it may be argued that pedagogic research ought to be done by specialised practitioners (who then teach new lecturers on teacher training courses), rather than lots of 'classroom' teachers having a go at it.

This generic approach to pedagogic research has been further entrenched through the funding mechanisms for pedagogic research and teaching development. Funding streams such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS) and the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL) do not 'ring fence' funding for each higher education discipline. It was the failure of eligible humanities subjects (Celtic Studies, Theology and Religious Studies, Philosophy and Classics) to secure any funding through the latter funding stream that has increased concern amongst some practitioners that some disciplines will get 'left behind' (see MacDonald Ross 2005). A suggested reason for this is that humanities practitioners are not familiar with the social science approaches to research that form the methodological (albeit tacit) consensus about the way(s) in which pedagogic research is done. As Mills and Huber (2005) note, so-called 'generic' approaches used in teaching and learning staff development are actually rooted in specific disciplines- for example the concepts of 'deep' and 'surface' learning were developed within the discipline of psychology. Therefore some disciplines hold more of the 'cultural capital' of the 'generic' approach than others. The emphasis placed on evidence-based approaches by Mike Prosser, Research and Evaluation Director of the HE Academy (see Prosser 2005) further implies that social sciences are presumed to provide the approach by which pedagogic research ought to be done.

Humanities or social science?

Some practitioners have begun to argue that humanities disciplines can develop a different approaches to pedagogic research that is based upon appropriate disciplinarily conventions. However, irrespective of the academic merits of such arguments in a discipline specific context, convincing the gatekeepers of present pedagogic research funding that alternative approaches are valid is an issue that needs to be addressed. Moreover, it needs to be remembered that not all LLAS practitioners would see themselves as working in the humanities (e.g. applied linguists, socio-cultural practitioners in area studies, second-language acquisition researchers, language education specialists are more likely to identify themselves as social scientists). Additionally, there does seem to be acceptance of social science research amongst those who apply for funding from the Subject Centre's pedagogic research fund. Almost all applicants intend to use questionnaires, in-depth interviews etc., irrespective of whether or not they are experienced in using these methods.

The idea that there is dichotomy between social science approaches on one hand and humanities approaches may be fundamentally flawed. Standpoints and philosophies such as feminism, Marxism, post-structuralism resonate with practitioners in both social sciences and the humanities, albeit in very different ways. It could be argued that there has been a failure to engage critically with pedagogic research and that the prevailing paradigm is not a social science one but is an inherently conservative one which does not challenge the existing 'safe system' (see Guilherme and Phipps, 2004). In other words much pedagogic research not only seeks to be generic, but it is also uncritical of the institutional and policy environment within which the research is situated. Additionally it seeks to be 'value-free' on issues such as employability and entrepreneurship and little space is given for teachers to articulate their individual standpoints.


The standing of pedagogic research in Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies is both an internal and external concern. This raises a number of questions to which we invite our community to respond.

  1. Is pedagogic research in LLAS a concern for discipline-based practitioners or do education specialists undertake pedagogic research best?
  2. How can discipline-embedded approaches to pedagogic research be developed in LLAS? What might such approaches look like?
  3. Is the low status given to pedagogic research in LLAS a consequence of low academic quality or is a symptom of its marginalisation of pedagogy as a disciplinary concern?
  4. What role can frameworks/ standpoints such as Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism play in enhancing the quality and esteem of pedagogic research?


Coleman, J. (2004) Research Assessment in Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, Good Practice Guide

Guilherme, M. & Phipps, A. (2004), Introduction: Why Languages and Intercultural Communication Are Never Just Neutral: in A. Phipps & M. Guilherme (Eds.) Critical Pedagogy: Political Approaches to Language and Intercultural Communication (Clevedon, Multilingual Matters).

Healey, M. (2000) Developing the Scholarship of Teaching in Higher Education: a discipline-based approach, Higher Education Research and Development, 19, pp.169-189.

MacDonald Ross, G. (2004) External Pressures on Teaching: Three Years on, Discourse: Learning and Teaching in Philosophical and Religious Studies, 4, pp.38-56.

Mills, D. & Huber, M. T. (2005) Anthropology and the Educational 'Trading Zone'. Disciplinarity, pedagogy and professionalism, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 4, pp. 9-32.

Parker, J. (2002) A New Disciplinarity: communities of knowledge, learning and practice, Teaching in Higher Education 7, pp. 373–86.

Prosser, M. (2005) Show Me the Evidence, Academy Exchange 1, pp. 8-9.

Towell, R. (2005) Pedagogic Research and the RAE, in: J. Canning (Ed.) LLAS Digest: Articles, Projects and Resources from the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (Southampton, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies).

Yorke, M, (2000) A Cloistered Virtue? Pedagogic Research and Policy in UK Higher Education, Higher Education Quarterly, 54, pp. 106-126.