Exploratory Practice – an essential aspect of research-mindedness but is it research?

I recently attended the first AGM of the BALEAP teacher Education in EAP Special Interest Group (TEdinEAP SIG) which showcased the considerable professional development activity the SIG has undertaken since its establishment just over a year ago. The meeting then broke into smaller groupings to discuss an article on Exploratory Practice (EP) by Judith Hanks (Hanks, 2017), who had given a talk to the SIG in December. I’ve been aware of EP since its early inception when Judith Hanks presented a session in the first Research training Event Series for BALEAP. I think EP is an excellent way to engage students’ curiosity about their language learning, increasing their motivation by involving them in choices about the content of the language curriculum (Bond, 2017). It has proven value as a means of engaging teachers in scholarship activity to explore the principles underlying their practice.  I am less convinced by the labelling of Exploratory Practice as research. You could argue that labelling doesn’t matter but I think difficulties arise if students enter their discipline studies assuming that ‘research’ they did in their language class will be similar to research in their discipline.

Retrieved online from https://mythologian.net/ouroboros-symbol-of-infinity/

Exploratory Practice has the potential to encourage deep reflection around language learning but how easily does it transfer to other kinds of research activity? Hanks (2017) refers to EP as research without ever defining that term so it is worth looking at the definition from the Higher Education Funding Council for the first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) to be carried out in UK universities:

Research for the purpose of the RAE is to be understood as original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding. It includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce and industry as well as to the public and voluntary sectors; and the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances and artefacts including design, where these lead to substantially improved insights. It excludes routine testing and analysis of materials as well as the development of teaching materials that do not embody original research (HEFC, 1998)

I don’t believe EP as it is presented in Hanks (2017) or Bond (2017) would meet this definition for the students involved in the activity. The emphasis is on ‘original investigation’ leading to ‘substantially improved insights’ in knowledge and understanding – not just for the individual student or teacher but for a discipline. Bond (2017) claims that EP ‘moves students towards an understanding of what a research-led pedagogy might look like’ but if students plan to study Health Sciences, Business Administration or STEM subjects, they need to differentiate exploration of puzzles in language learning & teaching from puzzles in the social and physical sciences and the methods for exploring them. Although EP encourages an orientation towards research-mindedness It is not clear to me how students might transfer their EP activity to research in their disciplines.

It seems to me that there are different levels of exploratory activity, which could be given different labels:

  • finding out what I don’t know = learning
  • finding out what people around me think = journalism
  • finding out about reasons for puzzles in my practice = scholarship
  • careful systematic documented data gathering whose innovative conclusions could be challenged publicly = research

I argued in a previous post that teachers need to read research and I believe EP to be an excellent means of encouraging this. For example, as one of the participants in the SIG discussion suggested, EP could be used on a Pre-sessional course to encourage teacher professional development. Teachers could be encouraged to share puzzles about their EAP teaching and then gather data about different teaching practices through peer observation. They could carry out a quick survey of teaching literature to find out if anyone had published about their puzzle. For me this step is crucial because, if it is missing, teachers can never escape their own context to discover different practices in other contexts. They end up in a self-reflective loop, eating their own tail. Teachers could then present their own findings in comparison with the literature to understand their puzzle more deeply.

Bond, B. (2017). Co-constructing the curriculum through Exploratory Practice. The Language Scholar Journal. University of Leeds.

Hanks, J (2017). Integrating research and pedagogy: an Exploratory Practice approach. System, 68. pp. 38-49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2017.06.012

Higher Education Funding Council (1998). Research Assessment Exercise 2001: Key Decisions and Issues for Further Consultation, Guidance Note ref. RAE 1/98, HEFC.

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author 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.

One thought on “Exploratory Practice – an essential aspect of research-mindedness but is it research?”

  1. I’m the person (mentioned above) thinking of introducing EP for teacher CPD on this summer’s pre-sessional courses 🙂 It seems such an accessible way for teachers to reflect through practical means (peer observations and discussions). However it does need input from reading around the puzzles too, finding some kind of theory to help explore them. Otherwise it seems a bit ‘cosy’.

    Liked by 1 person

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