A sense of research-mindedness

Introducing research philosophy for low proficiency EAP students

The BALEAP Competency Framework asks EAP professionals to ‘recognize the importance of applying to their practice the standards expected of students and other academic staff’. One of the fundamental standards concerns the role of research in building new knowledge and underpinning teaching at university. ELT teachers moving to EAP contexts often have only a rudimentary understanding of academic research and scholarship. They tend to conceptualise research as finding out what they don’t know rather than exploring what a discipline doesn’t know and wants to discover. The former is the kind of research done by journalists or by undergraduate students, who often ‘rediscover’ some of the key research outcomes in their discipline by repeating the seminal studies. This kind of research – also done through a literature review – is important at the outset of a research project to uncover gaps in disciplinary knowledge, which can justify research aims. However, the research that is most valued at university attempts to achieve greater understanding of the world in order to make better predictions about the future.

Carlo Rovelli, a professor of theoretical physics and latest poster boy for the public understanding of science, explained the nature of research in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Disks: ‘The foundation of science is an acute awareness of the extent of our ignorance.’ And in relation to his own discipline, ‘I think that physics is about escaping the prison of the received thoughts and searching novel ways of thinking the world, about trying to clear a bit the misty lake of insubstantial dreams, which reflect reality like the lake reflects the mountains.’

The nature of reality: image available online at The MInd Unleashed

Carlo Rovelli is seeking to understand the nature of reality, as viewed by physicists, what can be known about it and how to go about discovering that knowledge. These are philosophical questions that all disciplines struggle with. ‘Escaping the prison of received thoughts’ requires students to develop a sense of ‘research-mindedness’ (Land, 2015), an orientation to exploration and problem-solving and a tolerance for ambiguity. These graduate attributes will enable students to function in a global world characterised by uncertainty, complexity, risk and speed (Land, 2015). EAP teachers also need to develop ‘research-mindedness’ in order to maintain their credibility in their institution and resist being relegated to a remedial function, working only on language and skills.

After writing a coursebook for low level EAP, Access EAP: foundations, I became interested in exploring whether students with a low language proficiency could be introduced to the concept of ‘research mindedness’ through simple language and examples they could understand. (See handout in EAP Materials: What is reality) I spent some time interviewing colleagues and friends, who are research-active in science and social science disciplines, to uncover fundamental research questions and see if these could be expressed in a simplified form.

Research is driven by a curiosity about the world and children are natural scientists because they ask questions about reality:

  • Why is the sky blue?
  • How do birds fly?
  • Why do we have a leap year?

In attempting to answer these questions, scientists have developed theories about the nature of reality. This knowledge of the world is used to make predictions about the future and to develop tools that make our lives easier. Argent & Alexander (2013, p.250) explain the process of theory building with an example from science. The nature of reality is usually taken for granted in a discipline until ‘normal research’ (Kuhn, 1996) is overturned by new insights, which challenge the accepted view. Examples of well-known figures who have overturned the view of reality for their discipline are Newton, Einstein, Freud, Mead and Van Gogh. This forces the discipline to think again about the nature of reality and develop new directions for research. I present images of these researchers and their disciplines to raise students’ awareness of these challenges to taken for granted views.

According to a colleague in chemistry, the fundamental questions for science are:

  • What exists?
  • How does it come to exist?
  • What does it do?

For the social sciences, related questions are:

  • What do people think about what exists?
  • Why do people behave the way they do?

Interestingly, my social science colleagues were much less happy to have their research questions recast in this way, suggesting that research in those disciplines relies on a more nuanced view of reality.

In my example, I ask students to think about the question: What is a university? I present illustrations of three types of reality: things we can touch, events we can watch but not touch, abstract ideas we can only think about. I also use the metaphor of a river with relatively stable banks (the buildings) and a flow of water (students and staff). Finally, I ask what students are like, passive logs being pushed down the river or active whitewater rafters in charge of their learning. These images problematise the nature of a university to show that there are different perspectives. All the language is simple, the images are accessible and the concepts are grounded in experience for low proficiency learners.

The philosophical concept presented here is ontology: the nature of reality, but it is not necessary to use that term at low proficiency levels. Instead students gain some understanding of the concept by thinking about key figures in a range of disciplines who challenged ‘normal science’, and through simplified fundamental research questions. The ideas are illustrated through images, which relate to their personal experience of a university and their role within it. The final illustration in the handout also provides me with a joking way to challenge students who seem not to be engaging in class: Are you logs or whitewater rafters? In my experience, students get this and respond well to the challenge.

Argent, S. & Alexander, O. (2013) Access EAP: frameworks. Reading: Garnet Education.

Kuhn, T.S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Land R. (2015) Facilitating the Academy through Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. In: Westergaard E., Wiewiura J.S. (eds) On the Facilitation of the Academy. SensePublishers, Rotterdam. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6209-974-6_2

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm a teacher and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

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