Neoliberal EAP: are we all neoliberals now?

Over* the past 40 years or so universities have undergone profound changes that call into question the values and purposes of universities, the roles they hold in civic society and nature of the knowledge that is produced there. Successive governments, driven by neoliberal ideology**, have imposed a raft of unending reforms, directives and legislation to force universities (quite willingly?) to become embodiments of free market dystopia (just one irony is that the neoliberal university requires so much more regulation, auditing, management, legislation and control to ensure that its functioning is congruent with neoliberal principles).

The nefarious and pernicious effects of neoliberal ideology on universities are damming and vast. One pernicious effect (among many) of this is the positioning of students as consumers and teachers as sellers of educational products. The ‘student is expected to serve as the personification of market forces’ (Furedi, 2011:3). This fuels consumer fantasy (Haywood et al. 2011) as to the lifestyle, economic wealth and social status that a qualification will entitle the holder to expect and demand. Education is a means to aspirational vocational and economic ends – indeed success governments attempt to transform universities into catalysts of economic wealth (the ‘knowledge economy’). Through a process of commodification students are encouraged to perceive education in terms of their access and entitlement to wealth and social capital, they tend to avoid experimentation, risk-taking, intellectual challenges and manifest conservative attitudes towards learning in order to maximise their chances of academic success (Nixon et al., 2011). The ‘student experience’ is just one of the many neoliberal euphemisms that litter university websites, documents and brochures (internationalisation – being another). A pernicious side effect of the neoliberal attempt to transform universities is the surely connected concurrent rise of therapeutic education alongside an increasingly illiberal, censorious and conformist university.

Employability and student satisfaction are now key metrics in determining how desirable a university is. Lecturers (and universities) are judged, ranked and promoted depending on a range of metrics (research output, income generation, public engagement, knowledge transfer, scores from students, workload, administration, managerial responsibilities…). It seems everything can and must be measured and ranked. There are gongs for these things too.

I could go on (and on) but I won’t. There is a growing and significant body of research and publications that set out the many effects of neoliberalism on universities and they make the case much more articulately than I can. What does EAP (through its publications) have to say about the neoliberal university? What are the impacts of neoliberalism on practitioners of EAP?

In turning to discuss the first question one could turn to JEAP, the flagship publication in EAP, which claims in its editorial policy that ‘no worthy topic relevant to EAP is beyond the scope of the journal’. Apart from a special edition on Critical EAP in 2009, in which neoliberalism wasn’t properly or fully analysed in any case, JEAP has systematically failed to discuss the socio-economic structures that shape the praxis of teaching EAP. It is as if the structural conditions and ideologies that permeate our professional lives simply do not exist or are not worthy of investigation. Titles in the current edition of JEAP are fairly typical of its preoccupations e.g. ‘Learning academic formulaic sequences’, and ‘Nominal stance construction in L1 and L2 students’ writing’. Worthy and useful perhaps, but hardly indicative of a worldly stance to the teaching of EAP. In her final editorial piece Liz Hamp-Lyons sums it up well:

The socio-political and economic imperatives for the rise of EAP we described in 2002 are, if anything, more serious and indeed deeper issues than they were then; but they have barely appeared in the pages of JEAP in recent years. Sarah Benesch guest edited a Special Issue of JEAP in 2008 (8, 2) but there seems to have been little uptake, at least in this journal. The overt use of the international student ‘market’ by governments to shore up the finances of universities is an embarrassment to many of us, and is discussed in small fora and face to face among EAP teachers and programme managers, but is not found in the research literature.

The future of JEAP and EAP Volume 20, December 2015, Pages A1–A4

The problem is compounded in JEAP because it projects a disciplinary identity for EAP that includes neither the voices of practitioners nor their concerns. It is as if EAP exists in an ideological vacuum. Simply put, apart from the occasional presentation (a link to one I did) or paper there is little in JEAP or the literature more generally that tackles issues relating to neoliberalism, the university and the EAP practitioner.

Why this silence persists bemuses me and I find it difficult to account for. The rise of EAP (more than) coincides with the advent of neoliberal education and is perhaps a result of neoliberal policies. The existence of EAP (in terms of employing many teachers in universities) has been dependent on universities marketing and recruiting international students in greater and greater numbers. Attracting students paying large fees to benefit (financially) the university is unrelenting and EAP has emerged as a result of this. In an important sense EAP is a product of neoliberal policies and our existence (apart from perhaps as a somewhat esoteric discipline) depends on capturing international students.

That there is money to be made from EAP is quite evident. Study Group, which offers ‘partnerships’ with universities to provide EAP courses, is owned by Providence Equity (you can get a flavour of what they are like here). Other private providers (owned by shareholders, hedge funds et al.) also compete to seduce universities into profitable partnerships. EAP centres are also often expected to generate profits for the university. It is far from uncommon to hear papers talk about the EAP industry or to discuss EAP students in terms of customers. Not only is the academic field of EAP almost silent on neoliberalism but it seems practitioners perhaps have diverse views on the relationship between neoliberalism and EAP (or its significance to EAP). Why is there so little public discussion among practitioners about the economic structures that shape our work? Perhaps the (oppressive) dominance of neoliberal discourse more generally over a number of years has dulled the imagining of credible alternatives? It might be bad but what alternative is there? What can or should we do in any case? Perhaps we have profited from the rise in neoliberalism and have no wish to criticise? Perhaps discussions of this type seem abstract and far removed from the classroom? Whatever the reasons, and I’m sure there are a great many, it appears that the structural conditions which shape our lives are not discussed.

So, this post is an invitation to discuss this further. To continue to ignore discussing the structures that shape our lives will only limit our ability to understand them and to find ways to navigate them. Ignoring this also obscures the complexity of (and materiality of) teaching EAP in universities, it avoids questions of how best to prepare students for (neoliberal) university study and leaves unanalysed our (ideal) place, identity, autonomy and roles in universities.

Two more posts will follow shortly, one from me discussing some approaches we might take to navigate the neoliberal university and one from an ex-student and EAP practitioner.

* I’d like to think that previous posts on this blog (by others at least) have been thoughtful, carefully written, referenced and based on professional investments, interests and/or expertise. Not so this entry. I have no claims of any kind of authority to write about neoliberalism whatsoever. However, I feel compelled to write something about neoliberalism and EAP because I want to know what you think and because we (EAP Practitioners) rarely (at least in publications) debate the socio-ideological forces that shape our praxis, discourse, identity and purpose.

** “Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee, by force if need be, the proper functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. State interventions in markets (once created) must be kept to a bare minimum because, according to the theory, the state cannot possibly possess enough information to second-guess market signals (prices) and because powerful interest groups will inevitably distort and bias state interventions (particularly in democracies) for their own benefit”

(Harvey 2005:2).


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

EAP Teacher education and development: some thoughts

Over the past few months my thoughts and energy have been directed at co-researching and writing (with Gemma Campion*) a chapter on education and development for EAP practitioners to be published in the Routeledge Handbook of EAP (eds. Ken Hylands and Philip Shaw). This endeavour proved far more challenging and thought-provoking than I had imagined when first embarking on this project. In this post I want to briefly discuss just some of the challenges and questions that emerged during this process of researching and writing on teacher education and development.
There is a dearth of publications and research exploring EAP practitioner education and development by researchers, teacher educators and practitioners themselves and few (but growing in the UK) opportunities to study for specialist post-graduate qualifications in TEAP. The practitioner (especially in terms of education and development) is almost absent from the pages of JEAP (Journal of English for Academic Purposes). It would appear that practitioners are of only very minor interest to the discipline. Despite infrequent calls over the years for more attention to be paid to practitioners this has not translated into a substantive body of work. Why practitioners have solicited so little interest from the discipline remains a mystery and seems to confirm Belcher’s (2012:544) recent observation that the ‘community that ESP professionals know the least about is their own’.
This lack of interest by the discipline is not entirely reflected by the profession, at least in the guise of BALEAP, where there have been significant developments over the past 8 or 9 years to articulate, guide and standardise the competencies required to teach EAP. Initially, BALEAP developed a competency framework for teachers of English for Academic Purposes (CFTEAP) which has formed the foundations of a new and ambitious accreditation scheme. This accreditation scheme offers three levels of recognition; associate fellow, fellow, and senior fellow. Whilst this scheme appears to have been welcomed within the UK EAP community it is not without problems. The aim of this post (but possibly a future one) is not to dissect this scheme in detail but simply indicate some of the problems with it.
Much of the scheme relies of the orthodoxy of the reflection as the motor of development and education. Yet there are multiple meanings attached to reflection, reflection serves diverse educational and ideological ends and there are some serious concerns pertaining to the quality, significance and aims of reflective practices. Along with a lack of empirical evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of reflective practices this would suggest greater caution in relying so heavily on reflection in this scheme.
There is a general preoccupation (obsession?) in the available literature on the inadequacies of the novice practitioner and how ill-prepared they are for teaching EAP. The novice is cast as ‘deficient’ and requiring induction and assimilation into existing practices and values. This stifles, partly through promoting and privileging ‘experience’ and learning from experienced colleagues, innovation and transformation whilst promoting reproduction of existing praxis. How EAP is to develop in this framework is unclear.
There is an emphasis on understanding and applying institutional values (and even then only in three restrictive areas; equality of opportunity, sustainability, and internationalisation) rather than encouraging practitioners to question and shape these values. In addition, the focus of these three values in unnecessarily restrictive and practitioners should participate in wider debates on the (effects of) commodification of education in a neoliberal world. Practitioners should, in my view, be questioning the range of ideologies and values that profoundly shape (rather than simply form the backdrop to) EAP as well as articulating their/our own values and responses to them. A much more sociologically-informed and reflexive emphasis is needed in education and development frameworks and courses if practitioners are to make a bigger impact on their worlds.
These are just three examples of issues that troubled me during the process of writing this chapter. More generally, during this process of researching and writing, I became (painfully) aware of just how parochial my perspective was/is: it is a very UK-centric perspective. Courses and development frameworks for practitioners all emanated from the UK and the UK perspective appears to dominate discourse on education and development. This raises serious questions about the relevance and pertinence of these courses and frameworks for those teaching EAP in other contexts (about which relatively little is published). A global perspective or multiple perspectives on education and development is simply unavailable at the present time and the UK perspective(s) risks shaping and dominating professional development and education at a time when much more recognition needs to be given to EAP enacted elsewhere in possibly very different and challenging contexts.
One way of reading the growth of interest in EAP practitioner development and education in the UK is as a response to both the expansion of EAP in the recent past as well as a desire to protect and promote the teaching of EAP (and practitioners): to promote greater professionalism within EAP in the UK in a period of expansion; and to seek greater recognition (and security) for EAP within the wider educational community. This comes at a time when the professional status and identity of practitioners is particularly fragile within the UK (EAP units have no settled ‘home’ within universities, out-sourcing of teaching to for-profit organisations is not increasingly common, pay and conditions vary greatly etc.).
I will return to this topic in the next couple of weeks but this just gives a flavour of some of the questions and issues I have been thinking about during this process of writing.

* the views expressed here are my own.


Nursing EAP

This blog post is by Julia Molinari. Julia is a colleague at Nottingham. She has been heavily involved in designing our new presessional programme

The reference to ‘nursing’ here is metaphoric, a gerund to signify action, not a descriptive classifier. There has been a lot of EAP probing, prodding, deconstruction, analysis and reflection on this blog so far, and, as an EAP practitioner, I am starting to feel bruised. My EAP identity is suffering so I am going to try and nurse a little TLC back into the debate and see what happens…

Let me start with some rigorous academic (mal)practice. I will cherry-pick a sample of quotes that support my claim that EAP needs nursing so that my subsequent argument will be at best coherent, at worst unfounded:

– EAP can’t do its job because it is “beyond the capability of most teachers to teach [critical thinking]” (in Objections to critical thinking posted 31/08/2012)


– EAP should teach “critical discourse analysis” and therefore critical thinking about language (in Academic discourse and literacies and the teaching of academic writing posted 06/07/2012


– EGAP is potentially “vacuous of content” (in Curriculum as knowledge practice posted 17/08/2012)


– EAP is the object of “dichotomous views” and “misconceptions” because of the generic vs specific skills debate (in What’s disciplinary epistemology got to do with EAP? posted 20/07/2012)


– EAP leads to existential confusion because “I have no idea as to what I do and say in my EAP context” (in How to become a usefully ignorant teacher posted 02/08/12)

This identity crisis has been brewing for at least 15 years. It is already reflected historically between 1997 (when Jordan’s ‘English for Academic Purposes’ was published) and 2012 (when the ‘Journal of English for Academic Purposes’ dedicated an issue to Academic Literacies and Systemic Functional Linguistics). For example, while Jordan identifies EAP with ‘study skills’ and ‘academic language’, ‘critical thinking’ does not get a mention in either the Contents page or Index of his influential book. This contrasts starkly with our most recent post on this blog which documents how clued-up and concerned we are with developing criticality in our classrooms (31/08/12). Alexander, Argent and Spencer’s ‘EAP Essentials’, 11 years after Jordan, dedicates a whole chapter to Critical Thinking and lists the lamentations of university lectures who feel that students “should give their own opinions more” (2008: 252)

The idea that students need to develop a stance is also supported by Uzuner:

“it is the stylistic differences, not so much the linguistic barriers, that lead to rhetoricalweaknesses in multilingual scholars’ writings” (2010:250)

In referring to ‘stylistic’ rather than ‘linguistic’ features of discourse, Uzuner echoes what Thomson (2001) calls ‘interactional’ and ‘interactive’ features, respectively: the former are features of language that allow writers to enter into an intertextual dialogue with readers whereas the latter are mere organizational signposts. Typically, it is the discussion section of an academic paper that requires the writer to persuade the reader by selecting and synthesising various strands of an argument. In other words, this is where the writer explicitly enters into a dialogue with the reader. It is in the discussion section that the writer’s stance (identity) is most manifest because this is where a scholar needs to position themselves within their research community. However, as Uzuner shows, this is also the section that multilingual scholars have most difficulty writing. We could extend this by claiming that it is also the one that readers have most difficulty understanding.

Recently, Coffin and Donohue (2012) have made a strong case for how systemic functional linguistics and academic literacies have been influencing EAP practice (cf. Michael Halliday’s 1994 sociological framework and Brian Street’s and Mary Lea’s 1998 anthropological framework for understanding how language works). They paint a very different EAP landscape to that of Jordan in which discourse analysis and multiple literacies and identities are brought into the classroom and managed with students rather than for them and in which EAP teachers work alongside subject specialists (Donahue 2012). This is a significantly different shift in how we see EAP compared to 1997 (see also Hocking and Toh 2010).

So, we have gone from a study skills definition of EAP in 1997 to a dynamic social model in 2012. This dynamic social model, in my view, sits comfortably within a school of education and the social sciences more broadly because I think EAP does indeed have a transformative social purpose especially in the context of widening participation. The internationalisation of the HE community leads to cultural, linguistic and educational challenges and opportunities – not least how we assess and standardise achievements – that require an awareness of social implications and engagement on both the part of teachers and students. I don’t see how we can teach EAP and not address this.

When Julie King ponders over our roles as EAP practitioners in ‘Credentials, credibility and the EAP practitioner’ (this blog on June 7), she is drawing our attention to this historical erosion and reconstruction of our identities, from study skills and language transmitters to meddling, engaged critical social transformers who are contributing to the broader educational aims of a university. At Nottingham University, this ‘educational identity’ has been bestowed (or imposed?) on us and we are now part of the School of Education in which EAP students are classified as undergraduates. Are we therefore happy to be classified as ‘educators’ and see ‘education’ as being our academic purpose? Can we ‘nurse ourselves back to school’, so to speak, by understanding our EAP identities in terms of an educational commitment to facilitating linguistic competence where by education I mean giving students a sense of purpose to search for and understand meanings, to create new meanings and dialogically question assumptions and conclusions?

How to become a usefully ignorant EAP teacher?

Sometimes I think I’ve never been more confused about what I should be saying and doing in my EAP classroom.

I, like many others, was initially trained as an English language teacher in the CELTA/DELTA communicative era where ‘good’ teacher talk meant reducing its quantity.  I don’t think I ever really understood why this was necessarily a good thing – just that having more student talking time would apparently give them more opportunities to communicate and that this increased communication would somehow facilitate learning.  In the low-stakes ELT contexts I subsequently taught in, this approach seemed to work well enough and I enjoyed the task of creating student-centred activities where I would stand as the ‘guide on the side’ (McWilliam, 2007) facilitating and monitoring whatever my planning led to in the classroom.

My transition to EAP teaching however, led to some rather unexpected consequences for my ingrained adherence to reducing TTT.  Feedback from my Insessional students was that I didn’t ‘talk enough’ and other students requesting that instead of making them go through a laborious sequence of  Columbo-like clues to discover the answer for themselves, it would be far better if I just told them the answer in the first place and saved everyone’s time and energy.  On a Presessional course, where time is so limited, the stakes are so high, and there is so much pressure to get through all the materials, this request did not seem wholly unreasonable.  Moreover, having experienced and seen so many other teachers go through so many hoops to elicit an answer that they eventually answered themselves, I started to question what I was doing and why.

I think most researchers and practitioners now agree that the issue is more about quality rather than quantity, and that, in any case, attempts to reduce TTT have largely failed (Walsh, 2002; Wilson, 2007).   Other attempts to make classroom interaction more representative of ‘authentic’ communication outside the classroom also seem to have been quashed by claims that the classroom is as valid a context of communication as any other institutional discourse setting, and so has its own norms of communication related to language use and pedagogical goals and purposes.

Part of me thinks ‘great’ and yet another part of me thinks that I no longer know what those norms are.  I’ve bought into sociocultural pedagogic theory and concepts of dialogic and collaborative learning, and I like the idea of using the EAP context as a sort of initiation into academic communities of practice and development of relevant competences.  I also understand the core principles of social learning are action, communication, reflection and negotiation (Illeris, 2002) and that my classroom needs to foster an atmosphere that allows for these things to happen.

But…going back to Walsh (2002), I have no idea as to what I do and say in my EAP context that would be deemed either ‘constructive’ or ‘obstructive’ to these particular goals.  Moreover, as I read about the changing nature of tertiary education and the need for a rethink around effective teaching towards a more experimental culture of learning to better prepare students for a constantly developing, digitally enhanced working context (Bauman, 2004), I have less confidence about what my teaching practice should be.  If knowledge is now somehow backgrounded in favour of the development of transferable skills, then what can I usefully do with my students?

McWilliam (2008) talks about a shift from the ‘guide from the side’ to the ‘meddler in the middle’, where we use our increasing relative ignorance to create space for creation, innovation, and pedagogical possibilities.  Education thus becomes less about transmission of knowledge from the ‘sage on the stage’ to teachers developing their own  disposition to be ‘usefully ignorant’ (McWilliam, 2008) in the classroom and to developing  the learning dispositions among students that would be appropriate in those future contexts.  This then leads to teaching contexts where knowledge transmission is replaced by a form of value creation shifting students from consumers of education to users and ultimately producers (Hearn, 2005).  As McWilliam states (2007:6):

‘If we consider pedagogical exchange as a form of value exchange and value creation, then what Hearn opens up are new possibilities for thinking about a pedagogy that has more promise from creative capacity building…Rather than teachers delivering an information product to be ‘consumed’ and fed back by the student, co-creating value would see the teacher and student mutually involved in assembling and dissembling cultural products…The teacher is in there experimenting and learning from the instructive complications of her errors alongside  her students.’

And so back to my confusion.  If we understand that pedagogical exchange is achieved through value co-construction and co-creation of meaning, then surely the context in which that occurs is equally co-constructed by the participants.  In which case, ultimately the ‘norms’ of behaviour within those contexts can only be decided by those participants and their particular goals, and not by some undefined party external to that interaction.  And where is the evidence that knowledge transmission is no longer such a good thing and that the knowledge that we have acquired over the years is now inappropriate and out of date?


Bauman, Z. (2004) Liquid Sociality. In N. Gane (Ed.) The Future of Social Theory. Continuum: London pp17-46.

Hearn, G. (2005) The Shift to Value Ecology Thinking and its Relevance to the Creative Industries. Paper presented at the QUT Brisbane Conference: Open Content Licensing: Cultivating the Creative Commons.

Illeris, K. (2002). The three dimensions of learning. Roskilde, Denmark: Roskilde University Press/Leicester, UK: NIACE.

McWilliam, E. (2008)  Unlearning how to teach. Innovations in Education and Teaching. Vol 45 (3) pp263-269..

Walsh, S. (2002) Construction or obstruction: teacher talk and learner involvement in the EFL classroom.  Language Teaching Research Vol 6 (1) pp3-23.

Wilson, K. (2007) Facilitating talk in EAP reading classes. ELT Journal Vol 64 (4) pp366-374.

Only Reflect …

Educational discourse on reflection – for a long time now – has intrigued and puzzled me. Reflection, it would seem, is an incontestable academic virtue. Reflection and reflective practice are so embedded and widely accepted in educational discourse that it seems heretical to question the faith placed in reflection. It seems very counter-intuitive to suggest that reflection is not necessarily a virtue or that there is a misplaced faith in reflection. However, I am going to raise some concerns I have which indicate why I fail to share much of the enthusiasm for reflection and reflective practice.

The first concern is: what do we mean by reflection? Is there a generally accepted meaning attached to the notion of reflection?

I would argue that reflection is beyond discursive control, where its meaning is extremely nebulous and it can be assimilated into many incommensurable (pedagogical, epistemological and ideological) frameworks. In short, despite the widespread use of ‘reflection’, the meanings attached to and invested in reflective practice are heterogeneous. This would appear to suggest conceptual confusion around the notion of reflection. Fendler captures this succinctly:

Today’s discourse of reflection incorporates an array of meanings: a demonstration of self-consciousness, a scientific approach to planning for the future, a tacit and intuitive understanding of practice, a discipline to become more professional, a way to tap into one’s authentic inner voice, a means to become a more reflective teacher, and a strategy to redress injustices in society. Reflective teaching has become a catchall term for competing programs of teacher education reforms.

Fendler (2003:20).

What diverse definitions and models of reflection share is a belief that reflection leads to transformation be it of the self, education or society. My second concern is that there appears little evidence that reflection leads to transformation. Akbari (2007), for example, states that there is a lack of evidence of a link between reflective practices and improved teacher or student performance. Why, then, do we place so much faith on the basis of so little evidence? Finlay, echoing Brookfield (1991), claims ‘there are few intellectual quests so enthusiastically lauded for such meagre, unsatisfactory returns’ (Finlay, 2008:10).

My third concern pertains to the focus of reflection. What is the object of reflection? The self? Pedagogy? Ideology? Students? Seemingly, we can ‘reflect’ on anything and anyone. Regardless of the object of reflection, the self (in its affective, social and intellectual dimensions) appears central. And this is where a whole series of further concerns emerge. Focusing on the self might entail ‘hermeneutic narcissism’ (Maton, 2003:53): unable to write about anything except ourselves and revealing nothing other than ourselves (with all of the attendant dangers of revealing more of ourselves than we would like to).

The temptation to focus on the self is ever more tempting if we are encouraged to accept that:

the author is the only person who can analyse these … [personal reflective] experiences and then turn them into a reserve for his or her own personal development.

Bailey et al., 1996:27.

Their [teachers’] thinking is relative to their entire social experience. And this ‘positionality’ of knowing depends, of course, on past as well as present and anticipated experience so that a teacher’s previous knowledge becomes one more position from which to know.

Freeman, 2002:9.

In short, the self, through reflection on experience, becomes the source of and limit on ‘knowledge’.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. Knowledge is diminished, reduced to whatever emerges from private reflection. Isn’t this a peculiar notion of knowledge? Can knowledge be discursively conjured from whatever thoughts, opinions and beliefs (how do we distinguish between them?) we happen to muster and assemble from (highly fallible memories of) ‘experience’? Can or should the value of knowledge be measured more in terms of who produces ‘knowledge’ and the processes by which it is produced than an examination of what is produced or constructed? Can we ‘own’ knowledge? Why should we carry, if indeed we can, the burden to continually produce knowledge through intense introspection on personal experience?

Is reflective practice no more than a transmissive pedagogy by the back door? By this I mean that where traditional pedagogies focus on the transmission of content knowledge, reflective practices focus on the transmission of codified ways of thinking. Rather than being taught what to think, do reflective practices insist on telling us how to think? Do we need to be told and shown how to reflect? Should we all, regardless of age, experience, culture, context, our own desire to reflect, be subjected to (assessed) reflective practices? Is it appropriate for everyone and at all times?

Undertaking reflective practice entails sensitivity to analysing and revealing affective aspects of learning. Learning isn’t arid or bloodless; it requires, for example, certain dispositions, attitudes, desires and motivations to be successful. Emotion is a key dimension of learning. Yet, does that mean we have to display these emotions, analyse them, and, perhaps somewhat therapeutically, overcome (and be seen to overcome) various emotional barriers to learning? Why should I reveal how I feel? How ethical is it to explore (and assess) the emotions of individuals?

In this post I have explored only some of the questions that reflection provokes. I have not touched on the difficulty of teaching reflection, the power relations that might impact on reflective processes and products, the potential poverty of experience to support reflection, how welcome honesty is in reflective writing, or the relationship between reflection and criticality. Nor have I commented on the (frequent?) Road to Damascus syndrome entailing the demonstration of enlightenment from educational ignorance to bliss due entirely to fortuitous and deep soul-searching.

Most importantly I have yet to make any reference to reflection in EAP contexts. I believe that, as EAP practitioners, we need to be very careful and critical if we undertake reflective practice ourselves and even more so if we require this of colleagues. Of equal significance, is a requirement to support and prepare those EAP students who will have to, through possibly no choice of their own, undertake a regime of reflection as part of their EAP programme and/or as part of their future academic studies. In effect, we have to critically engage students with the issues raised here (and their own concerns) so that they are attentive to the risks as well as the affordances of educational models of reflection.

Credentials, credibility and the EAP practitioner

I was asked to do the plenary talk at the BALEAP PIM meeting which is taking place on Saturday 9th June at the University of Durham:

What follows is an attempt to bring together some of the things I’ll be talking about and have been thinking about for some time.

I decided to talk about credentials, credibility and the EAP practitioner because I think these areas are worthwhile exploring, particularly in relation to our collective and individual identity as EAP practitioners and our sense of self. Identity is related to a person’s individuality but this can only be discovered and expressed as the result of our interactions with others, our social relations, and our participation in and membership of different communities and groups in different contexts.  We therefore shape and are shaped by the different contexts we operate in and the way that we relate to others in those contexts.

For EAP practitioners, in order to develop and enhance our sense of self and self esteem we need to explore our relationships with others in our own community of practice (Wenger, 2006) and the communities that we are most closely associated with, namely the English language teaching community and the academic community.

In attempts to define who we are and what we do through publications such as the BALEAP Competency Framework for Teachers of EAP, ( we have  had to draw out the differences and distinctions between our work and the work of our ELT colleagues. Has this also led to some distance being placed between ourselves and the rest of the ELT community?  And is this apparent distancing an issue particularly when we are so reliant on the wider ELT community not only to staff our summer Presessionals but to form, to a large extent, the next generation of EAP professionals?

In the ELT world, a perception does exist that what we do is dry, dull and boring, that our teaching practice is anti-communicative and that we spend too much time focusing on the micro details of academic discourse.  At one level, it is clear that there are those ELT practitioners who are keen to dispel the myth and to show how EAP can be ‘cool’ (Barry, 2012) and can fit in with general communicative practices (Guse, 2011).  At the other extreme, there are also those who wish to promote the myth and reinforce the apparent aridity of EAP (see Alex Case’s ‘TEFL-tastic’ website as an example).  Are both stances in fact equally unhelpful to the EAP community, and to what extent have we consciously or unconsciously helped create this myth and, if so, through what actions?

In terms of our relationship with the academic community, our sense of self and expression of our identity is equally complex.  We are an ‘essential’ part of university life in the sense that what we do is a necessary activity, but we are not ‘essential’ in the sense that we ‘contain the essence of’ or ‘are necessary to the existence of’ a university (as my Chambers English dictionary defines it).  Perhaps this is why EAP units have no logical home and can be anything from independent centres, to a part of an academic School or belonging to professional services, and why practitioners can be called lecturers, instructors, tutors or teaching assistants.  Does it make a difference as to how our academic colleagues and our students view us and our credibility if, on the one hand, we can be lecturers in an academic school and, on the other hand, we are tutors in a service unit?  Does it matter that almost no EAP unit, in the UK at least, has the word ‘academic’ in its name?  To what extent, if at all, has all of this eased the commodification of EAP and the subsequent outsourcing of EAP to private providers?  And so does the paucity of EAP-specific qualifications and EAP trained staff undermine our claims that what we do is rather different from general English language teaching?

Hyland and Hamp-Lyons (2002:3) wrote that EAP, despite its many assets, had inherited some of ESP’s limitations – a tendency to work for rather than with subject specialists, a reluctance to critically engage with the values of institutional goals and practices, and ignoring students’ cultures.  Ten years on, how far has this situation changed?  Are we seen and do we present ourselves as humble servants of the disciplines, or are our interactions truly on an equal footing as academic colleagues?  If we are in a more servile position, does this then exclude us or allow us to opt out of critically engaging with the values and practices of the institution?  How many of us truly participate in university life in all its various facets?  How many of us do or can engage in scholarly activity beyond preparing our lessons? And how does this activity (or possible lack of it) affect our credibility in contexts where research often seems to be valued over teaching?

I explore all of these questions in more detail in my plenary at the conference tomorrow, but it would be really interesting to hear your own thoughts, explorations, experiences and comments on this, as what’s written here can only scratch the surface.