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


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.