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
http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/apr/24/if-youre-only-a-teacher-dont-expect-to-be-treated-fairly-by-a-business-school?CMP=share_btn_tw
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

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