Monday, March 26, 2007

Judith Hanks on Exploratory Practice

Workshop “International Perspectives on Exploratory Practice” and Symposium Speech “Inclusivity and Collegiality in Exploratory Practice”, both by Judith Hanks (University of Leeds, UK) on March 15th, 2007, the first day of the Oxford-Kobe Seminar, were very helpful for illuminating the concept of Exploratory Practice. The following is my partial report of the two presentations (Some materials are reproduced as quotations from her handouts.). I appreciate Judith Hank’s kind permission to let this reproduction appear on this blog. Any mistakes in this article are of course entirely mine.

In her workshop speech, Hanks introduces the principles of Exploratory Practice as follows:

(1) Put ‘Quality of Life’ first
(2) Work towards understanding (not problem-solving or ‘improvement’; reject change for change’s sake)
(3) Work collegially (share with colleagues)
(4) Work inclusively (work to bring people together)
(5) Work for mutual development
(6) Put learning first, and make the research help the learning, and so avoid burn-out through overwork.
(7) Work towards a sustainable enterprise of learning, teaching and research.
Judith Hanks (2007)

It seems to me that Exploratory Practice can be interpreted as a third wave of research movement in TESL research. The first wave, scientific research, established itself in the 1980s probably, but its rigorous approach turned out to be sometimes frustratingly irrelevant for practitioners. Action research as a second wave in the 1990s was in one sense a reaction to the rigorous first wave in that it promoted actions than truth-finding. However, when action research becomes extremely action-oriented (or action-obsessed), it does not prioritize the quality of life of those involved. Contemporary educational institutions are indeed under heavy pressure for constant changes and reforms. Plans are always prepared for ‘problem solving’ and ‘improvement’ must be measurably demonstrated to a third party for ‘accountability.’ However, this trend sometimes leads to burn-out of the practitioners. In the long run, an unsustainable enterprise (‘change for change’s sake’) benefits no one. Furthermore, if the problem is a misconceived one due to lack of proper understanding, neither the result nor the process of the action will be of any help for anyone except, perhaps, for an administrator who only reviews the action on paper. Rather a teacher should be encouraged to better understand herself and her colleagues. Together with her colleagues, she should involve her students (and some researchers as well) for their mutual development in the language classroom. A joy of fellowship and mutual cooperation must be brought back to the practice of education. Quality of life, sustained by deeper understanding of the practice of education, must come first, for without it, no proper action or improvement is possible.

In the conclusion of her workshop speech, Hanks writes as follows:

In many ways, EP is not trying to do anything new or radically different in the classroom. Rather it is advocating the integration of classroom language learning research with teaching and learning. In this way, we hope to harness what we already do in order to find out what we (teachers and learners) want/need to know about our lives in the classroom. The aim is to deepen our own understandings of what it is to be involved in classroom language learning – to ‘live’ the experience.
Judith Hanks (2007)

The expression of “to harness what we already do in order to find out what we want/need to know” just reminded me of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigation. Wittgenstein gives a more radical view of description (taken here by me as verbalization of understanding) as opposed to explanation (as advancement of a new theory). Perhaps his contrast between description and explanation or between philosophy and science is sharper than necessary, but it is helpful (and even therapeutic) to neutralize our urge to theorize everything by scientific method.

It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific ones. It was not of any possible interest to us to find out empirically 'that, contrary to our preconceived ideas, it is possible to think such-and-such' ---- whatever that may mean. (The conception of thought as a gaseous medium.) And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known. Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations Section 109)

Indeed we may not have to advance a radically new scientific theory to know our classroom language learning properly. Teachers and learners may already know enough, if only tacitly. All we need may just be to communicate with each other to learn ourselves in the classroom better. Researchers may promote that communication by providing proper terms and expressions, or by translating spoken discourse of practitioners into written discourse for publication.

As Hanks cites Flybjerg (2001: 2), “phronesis goes beyond both analytical, scientific knowledge (episteme) or know-how (techne) and involves judgments and decisions in the manner of a virtuoso social and political actor.”
Bent Flyvbjerg (2001) Making Social Science Matter

I wonder if we may roughly correlate scientific research and episteme, action research and techne, and exploratory practice and phronesis. Episteme (in the sense of scientific knowledge), revealed by scientific research, may be very fundamental to the practice of education. Techne, demonstrated by action research, may be very useful for those who need some new action for improvement of teaching. Yet, episteme and techne may not reach the heart of the matter. Phronesis, which is often tacit and implicit in the understanding of practitioners, may be the real potential for truth and action. It may be the case that unless episteme (scientific knowledge) and techne are incorporated into phronesis (understanding) of practitioners, episteme and techne are not properly understood in the context of practice. As practitioners, teachers and learners have their own phronesis. Their phronesis lies in the core of their judgments and behaviors, waiting for our explication. Exploration of that phronesis through proper use of language in communication may be our priority.

Forthcoming is her coauthored book with Dick Allwright, The Developing Learner (Palgrave Macmillan).

Judith, we’re very much looking forward to this book!

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