This article review looks at Hanks (2015) and the notion of exploratory practice. The principles behind exploratory practice, as an answer to the too demanding action research model, include the following (Allwright, 2005):
- Put ¨quality of life” first.
- Work primarily to understand language classroom life.
- Involve everybody.
- Work to bring people together.
- Work also for mutual development.
- Make the work a continuous enterprise.
Two suggestions are also given…
- Minimize the extra effort of all sorts for all concerned.
- Integrate the “work for understanding” into the existing working life of the classroom (p. 360).
Hanks (2015) sets out to answer the following research questions:
- What are the challenges faced by practitioners (teachers and learners) when they try to conduct exploratory practice (EP) in an English for academic purposes (EAP) context?
- What is the relationship between principles and practices in EP? (p. 119).
The study took place in a year-long EAP course at a language center to prepare incoming English language learners (IELTS 6.0) to enter a university in the UK. Two out of six students were chosen to participate in this study, which also included two teachers. Only the results from the two students are included in this article (results from the teachers pending).
The results of the study show how participants (two English language learners) “welcomed the responsibilities of setting the agenda (via their puzzles)” (p. 127). The two students were asked to write out what puzzled them which was used as an alternative to solving problems. The two “puzzles” were 1) Why can’t I study in certain situations? and 2) Why do people learn bad words [swear words] more easily? In this research, students collected data to research what puzzled them. Hanks (2015) concludes that EP encourages practitioners (i.e., students) to set their own research agendas because it is integrated into the normal pedagogical practice.
The whole premise for implementing EP is because action research (the alternative) is too demanding and complicating for the English language educator (Allwright, 2005; Hanks, 2015). Instead of focusing on a problem-solution, the hallmark of any action research approach, the goal for EP is to gain further understanding. I would argue that it’s impossible to pursue a problem of any kind and not gain some higher degree of understanding. And another misconception of action research is that problems are to be solved. Setting problems and the pursuit of a problem are sufficient to gain understandings, for both teacher and student. An understanding is meant to include six facets: to explain, to interpret, to apply, to have empathy, to have perspective, and to have self-knowledge (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).
Also, by calling it exploratory practice, one might get the impression that all research is exploratory in nature. However, research can also be explanatory, confirmatory, discursive, intuitive, etc.
Regarding EP as a framework, contrast Hanks’s (2015) “seven principles” to Allwright’s (2005) principles and suggestions above:
The ‘what’ issues
- Focus on quality of life as the fundamental issue.
- Work to understand it before thinking about solving problems.
The ‘who’ issues
- Involve everybody as practitioners developing their own understandings.
- Work to bring people together in a common enterprise.
- Work cooperatively for mutual development.
The ‘how’ issues
- Make it a continuous enterprise.
- Minimize the burden by integrating the work for understanding into normal pedagogical practice (pp. 117-118).
The main issue here is the what of it. Quality of life is like no child left behind or teach the whole child, they are buzzwords that few would disagree with, yet few would actually agree on what each term meant and few would actually agree on how to best achieve such ideals. Also, understanding the language classroom life and understanding first, before solving a problem both seem unnecessary. Understandings gained through a process of solving (student or teacher-driven) problems does seem necessary however. The rest of Hanks’s (2015) list regarding who and how issues I could equally argue against as well.
Regarding the method, there are no direct (explicit) answers to the research questions, and since only the students are included in the findings, I wonder if presenting the teacher results first wouldn’t provide the necessary perspective needed to better understand the findings from the students. I’m more concerned about what challenges the teacher faces when conducting EP in an EAP context. I’m more interested in any relationships between EP principles and the teaching practice. The article neglects any mention of EP in the classroom itself. Again, perhaps this will be discussed later (future publication?), but not knowing this makes it more difficult to make sound judgments on any possible implications being presented by the (student) participants.
Finally, two images are included in the article showing poster boards that participants made in this EP experiment (great idea!); however, one image is completely illegible while the second only half of the image is decipherable. Missed opportunity.
Look through this article for possibilities for further study. Instead of doing an intervention, take some of these ideas and apply it with your own group(s). Problem setting and seeking are worthy causes as long as you systematically go about collecting and analyzing relevant data. Also consider the role of assessment when doing this type of student or teacher-driven research. How might teacher, student, and self-assessment evaluate the process and/or product that resulted from setting and pursuing a problem? As a mental exercise, take the six “puzzles” presented in this article and re-articulate them into problems. As an example, let’s say that I puzzle over why I can’t learn Spanish while watching TV. The problem I have might be 1) I am unable to allocate my time properly; 2) I have not looked at how I learn best; 3) I am unaware of learning opportunities that would help with my learning of Spanish; etc. See if you can do something similar with what’s being shared in the article, then image how you, as the English language educator, could coach a student to research these problems for themselves.
If you agree with EP (for the sake of problem solving), still consider what I’ve mentioned above, but consider carefully how you plan to state a strong case in your literature review: initial argument, counterargument, and rebuttal. Is there room for problem setting and solving within this phenomenon called “EP”? Could another term be used instead? Should problem-based learning be ignored because the rigor of collecting and analyzing data is too much for the English language educator?
Allwright, D. (2005). Developing principles for practitioner research: The case of exploratory practice. The Modern Language Journal 89(3), 353-366. Retrieved May 1, 2015 from http://www.gwinnett.k12.ga.us/HopkinsES/Alfonso_Web/ESOL%20Modification%20Research/exploratory_research_practice_in_classrooms.pdf
Hanks, J. (2015). “Education is not just teaching”: Learner thoughts on exploratory practice. ELT Journal 69(2), 117-128.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.