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


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?