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Exploring the History of Language Learning and Teaching in Paris

Many thanks to the Richard Aldrich bursary for enabling me to attend the conference on ‘The History of Language Learning and Teaching: Between the Eurocentric Model, Missionary Linguistics and Colonial Linguistics’, which took place on 8-9 June 2018, at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris.

The conference covers a range of papers focusing on various languages relating to European and Colonial contexts. It was an enriching and intercultural experience for me, not only enabling me to explore research interests and theories on a variety of topics but also relating the historical and cultural context of Paris to my existing intercultural experience especially through my experience studying and working abroad.

The paper I presented traces the early development of teaching and learning the Chinese language through missionaries and diplomatic officers during the 19th century in Britain. The uniqueness of this paper is that it focuses on Chinese language studies in the UK context by providing original data (archive materials) relating to those missionaries and diplomatic officers who had long residence in China, produced a varied range of texts for the learning of Chinese and laid the ground for the academic study of Chinese in Britain. The paper derives from my larger British Academy-funded study on the chequered history of British university engagement with Chinese Language Studies.

The conference offered useful theoretical contexts to consider language teaching and learning with historical and non Euro-central perspectives. The fact that the conference was held in Paris with a group of academics specialising in history and language studies added a historical dimension to my research as the examples of materials for learning Chinese appeared in the late 17th century in Europe. The other paper within the same session touches upon the socio-historical formation of Brazilian Portuguese, another example of exploring the variety within languages such as Portuguese and Chinese.

Paris conference.pngMy session was chaired by Joseph Errington of Yale University, who also delivered a keynote speech on ‘Indonesia(n) between the colonial, national, and global’. Indeed, when we talk about teaching and learning languages we must reflect on the changing global context. Interesting discussions were stimulated by questions raised by speakers and the chair, and other audiences particularly who were interested in teaching and learning Mandarin Chinese. There is an increasing interest in the history of language studies. The history of the teaching and learning languages can help policy-makers and course leaders look back and reflect upon what might be achieved in the future, as the geo-political background has changed over the past decades, new imperatives have emerged. Future publications will follow, reflecting these research projects and interesting discussions emerged from the conference.

Tinghe Jin

Tinghe Jin is Assistant Professor (Research) at the University of Durham


Why might BERA wish to thank Margaret Thatcher?

In 2017 ICHRE’s Director Gary McCulloch took over as President of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and delivered his first Presidential Address. Here he asks ‘What does BERA owe to Margaret Thatcher?’

Gary McCulloch

This sounds like a weird pub quiz question, and may have an even weirder answer. When BERA’s inaugural conference met in Birmingham in April 1974, Thatcher had already lost her post as secretary of state for education and science amid the shambles of the general election, in which Edward Heath’s Conservative government famously asked who runs Britain and then found out that it didn’t.  Yet Thatcher was ultimately responsible for the DES’s dusty answer when the leaders of the new organisation asked for a pump priming grant to hold its first conference and get itself organised.

The DES’s negative response caused much concern, with research leaders comparing the British attitude to educational research unfavourably with other advanced nations.  Most failed applications of this type lead to the end of a project rather than a starting point.

So, why did the DES say no to BERA, and why might we thank Mrs Thatcher for it?

The answer to the first question can be found in the National Archives at Kew.  Sir David Eccles, the Conservative minister of education who set up a ministerial research unit, was happy to support academic research based in the universities, even where this might be critical of official education policy.  Many of his officials were much less sanguine, and resisted applications to fund new societies and centres in the 1960s.

This attitude hardened with Mrs Thatcher in charge in the early 1970s.   The department shifted from a ‘patronage’ role to one that was ‘policy oriented’.  In future, the DES would only support an application if it was directly related to the Department’s own policies, or deemed to be of direct public concern.

Its new planning unit affirmed in a memorandum in October 1973 that ‘What the Department seems to need is the services of what might be called “hack” research workers.  Not “hack” in a derogatory sense, but people who get down to a job of fact gathering and careful assessment without having too many preconceived ideas of where the educational system ought to be going.’

Nevertheless, rather than stifling the nascent BERA at birth, the DES’s approach actually forced it to depend on the resources available to university-based educational researchers.  This would certainly not be an easy road, especially as there were some in the academy who looked down on educational research and in the schools who regarded it as irrelevant.

But at least it would not be dependent on the vagaries of state funding which might be vulnerable to changes in government policy.  Instead, it would be an independent charitable agency standing on its own feet, accountable above all to its own membership for its future direction.

So here, then, is the answer to the second question.  In this sense, BERA has a lot to thank Mrs Thatcher for, as she helped to establish an organisation that in 2017 flourishes as a broad church with over 2,000 members, which has carved out a space for researchers often in difficult times, and that stands for high quality educational research in all its many forms across the UK and for members around the world.

John Nisbet, BERA’s first president, at the conference that the DES declined to fund, pointed out that such research had a ‘critical role’, that is, providing ‘constructive criticism’. Another early president, Brian Simon, pointed out exactly forty years ago that the real issue was ‘whether scientists are to be allowed to operate as scientists, educationists as educationists, researchers as researchers; or whether all are to become service personnel, waiting cap in hand for orders in response to which appropriate methods will be sorted out to produce acceptable results or conclusions’.

It is this academic freedom and commitment to truths that may be inconvenient, in an age of fake news and widespread distrust of experts, that BERA continues to represent today.

This post was originally published on the BERA Blog, 4 September 2017.