Exploratory Practice and the EAP Practitioner

Continuing recent discussions here about the EAP Practitioner, Bee Bond outlines her views on teaching, research and the role of exploratory practice. As per usual, the purpose of the post is to provoke discussion and we’d welcome challenges, comments, digressions and any thoughts you might have.

Bee is a senior teaching fellow at Leeds University

I was thinking of starting a PhD; after all ‘We live in a world where only research matters’ (The Guardian; 24/4/2015).
However, research is not all that matters. The staff pages of my University’s website are as preoccupied with celebrating excellence in teaching in at least equal, if not greater, measure as successful research. Recent changes in HE have highlighted the importance of good teaching.

I am a teacher. I have 6 pieces of paper to prove that I have trained, qualified, reflected on and honed my teaching practices (to nowhere near perfection). Therefore, it is on ‘scholarly teaching’ and the ‘scholarship of teaching’ (Schulman; 2000), not research, that I should focus my energies. It is through this I can share and continue to develop my expertise.
Scholarship is often seen simply as a synonym for research or ‘research-lite’. Rather, I would argue, it is working to better understand what goes on in a classroom, then sharing this understanding with others. Scholarly teaching is taking and interpreting research and using this interpretation to enhance your practices. The scholarship of teaching is then telling others about the impact this and other pedagogical innovations have on your students’ experience and learning.
For many, the greatest barrier to scholarly activity remains lack of time. However, the more I have pondered this the more I believe that this is actually a non-issue. If scholarship is to be defined in close connection to teaching, then we do not need time away from teaching to be scholarly; rather we need to build scholarly thought and processes into our teaching. The student should remain central to our activity, and therefore be part of it.

One way of doing this is through Exploratory Practice (EP).

For a detailed exploration of Exploratory Practice see Allwright & Hanks (2009). In summary, it is based around 7 principles (p.149-153), the first of which is about maintaining ‘quality of life’ whilst the rest are generally based around collaboration and reflexive practices. EP also makes 5 propositions about learners (p.15). I think as EAP tutors there are lessons to be learned from these propositions and our general perceptions of the people we work with. Importantly for me, EP views the student as a ‘developing practitioner’, thus distinguishing itself from action research.

Exploratory Practice is about ‘puzzling’ to understand classroom life, not finding an answer to a problem. Questions are usually framed around a ‘Why?’

It is possible to work through Exploratory Practice in a number of ways. It can be, simply, a pedagogy along similar lines to task-based learning (see Hanks 2014 for a more detailed explanation). If a teacher engages individually in EP, it is most likely to result in an internal reflection on practice, but little more.

The third way of working through Exploratory Practice is for the teacher and her students to develop their puzzle together. It is here that I see the real potential.

In my example, the puzzle I developed with my (low level, Arabic L1, male, pre-UG) students was ‘why can’t they spell?’ On the surface, not very EAP. However, I felt that their problems with spelling were blocking any other learning from taking place and that we had reached an impasse when my usual ‘teaching tools’ had failed. Rather than feeling frustrated, I decided I needed to gain greater understanding, not an answer. In order to do this, I threw the question back to my students. By involving them, showing I valued their opinion and ideas, they became far more engaged in their learning in general. Together, we became mutually involved in co-creating a shared understanding of our collective puzzle. We did this, sometimes together in class, and sometimes separately. We were not constantly ‘doing spelling and Exploratory Practice’; it was a thread through our usual, more obviously EAP classes. None of this placed any greater burden on me than my normal teaching load. Anything ‘extra’ I did made my planning easier and was because I chose to, because I was interested and could see positive changes in my students, which in turn was making my time in class with them far more pleasant. Quality of life came first.

So, how does fit with my definition of scholarship? For EP to translate into scholarship of teaching there needs to be some form of transmission of the developed understanding. For me, unusually, this particular process became part of some PhD research (see also Hanks 2015). Rather less unusually, I produced a set of materials which are now used by a number of colleagues; I jointly ran a workshop with an interested colleague; I presented at a conference, and this month am involved in a day-long seminar organised by the School of Education.

This is just one example. The other reason why I am beginning to conclude that a PhD is not the right route for me (at least for now) is that I am too eclectic in my tastes. For a while, I was interested in spelling. Today, my students and I are wondering why it’s so hard to start writing, even when you know what you want to say! I don’t need to delve too deeply – we don’t have enough time;but I do want to focus on what the students in front of me need. This requires a teacher dedicated to teaching and learning, not a researcher dedicated to research.

Allwright, D. & Hanks, J. 2009 The Developing Language Learner: an Introduction to Exploratory Practice Palgrave Macmillan
Hanks, J. (2014). ‘Education is not just teaching’: Learner thoughts on Exploratory Practice. ELT Journal Vol 69 Issue2. DOI: 10.1093/elt/ccu063
Hanks, J. (2015). Language teachers making sense of Exploratory Practice. Language Teaching Research. DOI: 10.1177/1362168814567805
Schulman, L. 2001 From Minsk to Pinsk: Why a scholarship of teaching and learning? Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Vol 1 Issue 1 p.48-53


21 Comments on “Exploratory Practice and the EAP Practitioner”

  1. Steve Kirk says:

    I really like the focus here on ‘quality of life’ – and I think that if we care about teaching and about our learners, it is not simply that EP enables a form of research that can help ‘maintain’ this; it seems to me that it can help *enhance* the quality of life. It makes me feel I could probably be doing more to promote this way of thinking among colleagues, some of whom perhaps harbour a more ‘unachievable’ sense of what ‘scholarship’ might involve.

    If we are to raise the profile of EAP, however (as I strongly feel we need to), then the dissemination also really matters – and the fact that you’re doing some of this with the School of Education, Bee, is fabulous. I feel this is crucial for EAP: more of us need to be thinking not just of disseminating, but of *where* we do this. EAP practitioners often represent some of the most gifted and innovative teachers in an institution. This needs shouting about outside our own departments…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll take that as a nudge to try and get myself to the university teaching and learning conferences, which so far I haven’t attended since they sounded moderately interesting – but maybe the first step is to go, find out, and then take part and maybe get involved? Working at a private provider with a teaching-only-no-research-no-management contract (and therefore no natural legitimate point of contact with the university, whether that’s my students’ ultimate target context or some other contact), I always felt that there’s nothing i personally can do about the recent calls to “get out into the wider university”, but this might be an opportunity for such a bridge

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bee Bond says:

      Thanks Steve. Yes, I am hoping to build more EP into our year long presessional next year. My ultimate aim would be to have students and teachers co-presenting at our Student Education conference or co-authoring articles for publication in either our university news letter or somewhere like ISEJ. If teachers start to see scholarship as inextricably linked to their teaching I don’t think it would seem so daunting, and yes, we need to start telling not just each other, but non-EAP others how great we all are!!


      • Steve Kirk says:

        Yes, I think the idea you mention of ‘students as practitioners’ is also one that provides rich food for thought – and students and teachers as co-presenters even more so. Are the possibilities here affected by the nature of the EAP curriculum, I wonder, or by students’ present or future disciplines? What might affect teacher and/or student *investment* in projects like this?


  2. Susie Cowley-Haselden says:

    I see your point Bee and I agree we need EAP practitioners to take the discipline forward, not researchers who have been absent from the classroom for years (if they were ever in an EAP classroom). However, I also think we need to do away with teacher/ researcher as binaries. It seems that we demonise researchers and I’m not sure that is helpful. If we’re dissatisfied, WE need to change the status quo. Of course we need help to do this – would it be too difficult to give a teacher a term off once in a while to do research? We NEED to move forward, preferably through teaching and research combined.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Bee Bond says:

      Hi Susie. I absolutely agree that teachers need time away from teaching, but this time should be for rest, reflection and reconnection with life outside the classroom, for planning future courses, writing materials and communicating with others outside our own immediate communities. We need to be careful not to use scholarship and research interchangeably. The first I think we are professionally obliged to engage with, the second is a full-time job in itself, not something that can be done in a term away from the classroom. We should definitely collaborate with researchers, but it is our job to engage with the research and interpret it for the classroom. This is where the binary positions should be lost. I am definitely not demonising researchers, rather suggesting that both research and scholarly teaching are of equal importance, and that as teachers we should not feel that the only way we can be valued in our institution is to do one thing on top of the other, by changing our identities. Yes, we can work to change the status quo, but why can’t we do this as expert teachers? Why should we feel obliged to become something ‘ other’ to be valued? I may one day begin a PhD, but I would like it to be because I have found something I am deeply interested in, not because i feel it is the only way to gain status within my institution. On a teaching contract, it is clear that the bulk of my day job should involve teaching, whilst those on a research contract focus on that. Whilst There should definitely be more of us who make the transition to research in order for EAP to be seen as an serious academic subject, I don’t think it is possible to both teach and research successfully at the same time for any sustained period and just as not all researchers make good teachers, nor do all teachers make good researchers. However, all good teachers should also be scholars, using research to enhance practice, and lack of time for this should never be an excuse.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yasmin says:

        Hi Bee. I’m really happy that you’ve put EP into the spotlight for discussion. I see myself as an EP practitioner in an EAP classroom. I have been involved in suggesting and helping my pre sessional students in carrying out research into understanding why they find it difficult to write academic essays. The research question came from the students. I helped them to apply the principles of EP and also carried out a joint presentation at an EP workshop (2012) organised by the School of Education and the IATEFL Research SIG. The students’ feedback on their experience was very positive and they’d asked for more opportunities like this. I found that it was possible to combine research and teaching without putting extra pressure on myself or my students. I could use my normal classroom activities. For me – it’s an important way of doing classroom research because it is underpinned by an ethical philosophy. I agree that there needs to be more ways for EAP teachers to share this type of classroom research. It is different from action research as you’ve pointed out.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks Bee for this refreshing post, which makes ‘scholarly activity’ sound much more accessible to everyday teachers. Working with a contract that requires me to teach up to 800 hours a year, the familiar call for ‘we need to do research’ sounds so far away for me – unless I decided to do a PhD, which would be supported by my employer with time and money but which is a big commitment and should not be the only possible form of scholarly activity.
    at our place, there is an “exploratory practice group”, where teachers take turns in introducing a topic (grammar, listening, flipped classroom…), then everyone has a couple of weeks to play around with that in their teaching, and then they meet again to share their experiences. Due to timetabling, i haven’t been able to take part yet, but overall interest across the staff room in this group is moderate. Of course it would be nice to do EP in this guided way, but your post made me think / realize that maybe it’s not essential. And what i like most about the approach you suggest is that it is student centred – i see myself as a teacher who likes starting with the students’ needs, and if there’s an approach to scholarly activity that can do just that, then i find that very motivating.


    • Bee Bond says:

      Thanks Bella. I hope you do give it a go. It will be interesting to hear whether your own motivation is enough to make it happen. When I first started EP it was working very closely with interested colleagues, and in collaboration with Judith Hanks as a researcher who acted very much as a mentor. I do wonder whether I would have done so much without her support, encouragement & belief. Let me know how it goes!


  4. Tyson Seburn says:

    Great post and definitely makes things sounds more accessible for teachers. Like I’ve read by other comments, EP to me is research in itself, as you identify something to learn (a puzzle) and explore ways to do so with results (research), then reflect on what’s happened (discussion). Maybe it’s less systematic than action research sometimes is, but I would suggest that like you have done, branching out this scholarly practice to share with others in some formality is an important step for EAP practitioners to take.


  5. Hi Bee! I really like this post ( and your talk on it at BALEAP Conference), as it puts a really positive spin on teaching and wanting to develop and improve as a practitioner through teaching, rather than research. Yes, of course research is great and I admire everyone who does it, but I do have a feeling that it’s something I have to aspire to, otherwise I’m going to be seen for evermore as ‘just a teacher’. EAP is mostly set in HE type institutions where research is the driving force in all departments round us. Yet, EAP is different, it seems to me, as most practitioners come to it through their love of teaching, rather than the other way round and an initial desire to research. So any ideas to give the teaching element more weight and importance are welcome to me.


  6. Such a timely post, thank you, Bee.

    The divide between theory (understood as reasearch) and praxis (understood as teaching) – and which is best/more important – has deep roots (cf Plato vs Aristotle). It is interesting to see it playing out in 2015, in EAP!

    I think all of us agree that both are needed (which is why the tradition of action/practitioner research has also become established in educational research/practice, cf Hymes, Hammersley, alongside exploratory practice). The real question, therefore, seems to be more about ‘how much’, ‘when’, ‘who should pay for each’, etc., rather that whether teachers should research or not.

    I happen to engage in both, and the only way I can do that is to be part-time. That involves choices. I earn less because I don’t get a full-time salary. I pay for a lot out of my own pocket (but Nottingham uni does contribute to my fees). I am on a teaching and learning contract, so what I research isn’t considered ‘directly related to my job’, so I don’t have access to funds that would support my research if I were on a reseach contract (e.g. conference attendance, travel money, sabatticals, etc.). The boundaries between me as ‘teacher’ and me as ‘researcher’ are really blurry from a contractual perspective.

    However, being accountable only to myself half of the week does allow me to focus on my dual identities in very concentrated and committed ways: when I teach ‘I teach’; when I research ‘I research’. Both, naturally, inform each other. So, for example, I am planning to write with some of my students and submit to the ISJE (on using social media for academic purposes); this, in turn, allows me reflect on my research (which is on writing). But who will pay for the time I spend on this (discussing, drafting, brainstorming, tweeting, etc.) when it is out of ‘teaching hours’?

    I see ‘education’ as being the common denominator in everything we do in EAP. As such, I cannot see how we can teach without research(ing) and research without teaching. Both have to be accommodated, somehow. And both have to arise from intrinsic motivation, to a great extent …?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Alex says:

    hello all,
    I read Bee’s post and the comments with great interest and what strikes me at the moment is that there is some convergence around the need to invest in investigating and exploring teaching and learning, engaging in exploratory practice (or something similiar) and making public what we do.
    Where there is perhaps less convergence is around the notion of ‘research’ and what role research has or should have in practitioners’ lives. Familiar themes are there, the relationship between teachers and researchers, time, resources, recognition and identity. What strikes me, and this is a fairly banal observation (as per usual!) is that i) local contexts are very important in determining opportunities (which makes the need for extended communities of practice even more important to link, motivate, connect practitioners);ii) the cumulative effect of a large number of practitioners in a wide range of contexts initiating, persisting and engaging in a variety of scholarly activities and research is the only way that the current situation stands a change of evolving, and iii) I can’t see how we, as practitioners, can consider some kind of engagement with scholarly activity as optional. The problem with the last observation is that the working conditions and status of practitioners do not always (often?) afford opportunities to engage fully with research and scholarly practice. Yet not doing so, almost regardless of situation, hampers not only the development of the profession and discipline, but also the individual’s career and professional autonomy. And – perhaps most importantly – it has an effect on the students and learning. That is why I am very enthusuaistic about EP – its less about ‘outputs’ or productivity and much more about a stance or way of perceiving teaching and learning (and importantly relationships between practitioners and students) that appears to be promising in enabling both teachers and students to develop. Perhaps we have to fight hard to have some elbow room to create the conditions we need to make a greater, more informed impact on teaching and learning? and perhaps this is something best achieved collectiviely?

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Hi Bee. Thanks for the engaging post, and as others have commented, it presents a view of practice which is encouraging and positive. I found this my response as a teacher and a (-n early-career) researcher.

    Similar to Tyson Seburn, I read a number of points you made as stages in a research cycle. However, that is not to say that EP as you practice it is simply a version of research. I am sorry to have missed your presentations as I feel I could have learned a lot from seeing how you reflected (collaboratively) on your practices and how you represented the knowledge gained from these to others. For you, are there similar questions of reliability, validity, credibility, transferability, consequential validity (or other related concepts which explore quality of knowledge) with which it is fair to evaluate EP?

    Susie’s point for me is key, that we shouldn’t stigmatise any one or other professional role. One size does not fit all is a phrase that has popped into my mind a number of times today while reading around discussions on teacher research online.

    At a point in my teaching life, I came to view learning to conduct research in applied linguistics as a responsibility as a professional. I couldn’t escape a sense that in order to move forward my understanding of language teaching and learning, I had to engage directly with related areas of knowledge construction. Not just engage with though, but also do it for myself. I still maintain that view. That in order to understand how language teachers and learners (and those with whom they live and work in their learning lives) come to the understandings they do about people, practices, theories, policies, systems, organisations and so on, I need to be able to know what it is to construct that knowledge. As a critical consumer, I need to be a producer as well. I want to look inside the machine to see if the coding has been done right before I run with the output, if you like.

    Central to this is my stance that this understanding is not transferable to others in any simple manner. I would challenge those who would speak for other teachers and learners rather than provide the opportunities to speak for themselves. It is a deeply personal journey. I only hope that as a researcher I will not be disadvantaged because I am a teacher; because as a teacher, I have reasoned for myself that I have a responsibility to conduct research.

    I hope we can encourage many and varied pathways to knowledge construction in our related fields to the benefit of learners and our understandings.

    Thanks for this chance to join the conversations.


  9. Alex says:

    http://t.co/d5gpSGyXhG Judith Hanks of Leeds University gives a talk on Exploratory Practice and EAP. It is well worth a look if you wish to see how EP translates into EAP practice.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Els says:

    Hi Bee
    I am sorry I had to miss your talk at the BALEAP conference, so I am glad for this post. It sounds to me that you should do a PhD, but perhaps at the School of Education and about EP, so that you can indulge your passion for different topics that you can explore.
    By the way, do you have information about the spelling issue the understanding you all came to?


  11. […] were further discussions about the distinction between “research” and “scholarly activity”. Bee Bond’s blog post struck a chord with me, and discussions with a colleague who is actually involved in doctoral […]


  12. […] Bond’s recent post on “Teaching EAP” outlines a vision similar to mine, and today I also found another […]


  13. Karl Perera says:

    A very interesting discussion and having been introduced to EP briefly on the MA TEAP at Nottingham and having just attended IATEFL Research SIG conference at Gediz Univeristy in Izmir where I have lived for 21 years, I am inspired by this form of classroom based research. I love how the students are involved and the fact that these are puzzles rather than problems (which I find rather negative). I am interested to learn more about how we can employ EP without disturbing our day to day duties of completing necessary course content and without the need for extra workload.

    I will soon be carrying out a case study in EAP classes and am wondering if I could use EP as part of this and involve students in the research I will do.


  14. Yasmin says:

    Reblogged this on Exploratory Practice blog and commented:
    An insightful blog post by Bee Bond about Exploratory Practice research and EAP.


  15. […] Bee Bond’s thoughts on the Exploratory Practice and the EAP practitioner […]


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