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


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.