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Language Teaching Research 7,2 (2003); pp. 113141

Exploratory Practice: rethinking practitioner research in language teaching

Dick Allwright Lancaster University

This paper is an introduction to the rest of this Special Issue of Language Teaching Research devoted entirely to Exploratory Practice (EP), a form of practitioner research. It is also an introduction to EP itself, telling the story of the development of its practices and its principles over the last ten or so years. Readers already familiar with EP may wish to go directly to the other seven papers in this issue, for illustrations of EP in practice, for research about EP, and for a more thorough review of the relevant research literature (see especially the papers by Miller and by Perpignan). The case for EP presented below is based on a perceived need for practitioner research to be rethought: to be refocused on understanding, and ultimately on a concern for the quality of life in the language classroom, for both teachers and learners. The paper includes, in Section VII, a brief introduction to the other papers in this volume.

I Introduction

Practitioner research is ‘here to stay’ for language teaching research, if only because of its practitioner development potential, but we need to rethink it. We seem to have got some very important things very wrong.

First, we have been seduced by the prevailing ‘wisdom’ that participant research must essentially aim to improve the efficiency of classroom teaching, typically by isolating practical problems and solving them one by one.

Secondly, we have largely accepted that such ‘improvement’ will best be achieved by the practitioners involved (the teachers)

Address for correspondence: Department of Linguistics and Modern English Language, Lancaster University, Lancaster, LA1 4YT, UK; e-mail:

© Arnold 2003


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addressing their classroom problems as mainly technical ones, to be solved by the development of ‘better’ teaching techniques.

Thirdly, this implies that we accept that language teaching and learning can therefore be reduced to a relatively unproblematic, asocial, matter of cause and effect relationships.

Many people in our field would probably strenuously reject such ‘behaviourist’ notions, but many people in our field nevertheless do seem generally to act as if this is what they actually believe. Considerations of space preclude discussing further the above propositions. Here I can only present the rethinking that has produced Exploratory Practice (EP), starting with a new set of three proposals:

First, we should, above our concern for instructional efficiency, prioritize the quality of life in the language classroom.

Secondly, instead of trying to develop ever ‘improved’ teaching techniques, we should try to develop our understandings of the quality of language classroom life.

Thirdly, we should expect working helpfully for understanding to be a fundamentally social matter, not an asocial one. Simple causal relationships are most unlikely to apply, but all practitioners, learners as well as teachers, can expect to gain, to ‘develop’, from this mutual process of working for understanding.

Working for understanding life in the language classroom will provide a good foundation for helping teachers and learners make their time together both pleasant and productive. It will also, I believe, prove to be a friend of intelligent and lasting pedagogic change, since it will automatically provide a firm foundation for any ‘improvements’ that investigation suggests are worth trying. The papers that complete this special issue of Language Teaching Research illustrate the range of the EP-related work done in various parts of the world (but mostly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). This introductory paper presents the practical and intellectual story of the development of EP itself, as a continuously cyclical process of global and local thought and action. This paper does not attempt to situate EP in the relevant bodies of literature. For that the reader should go to the papers here by Miller and Perpignan.

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II Thinking globally, acting locally: a cyclical view

By presenting my three propositions as universalistic claims I deliberately started at the most ‘global’ level. But the Friends of the Earth movement says: ‘think globally, act locally’, because we live our daily lives ‘locally’. We should therefore consider the relationship between our global thinking and our local practice. We need global principles for general guidance, but then we must all work out their implications for our local everyday practice. This suggests the following crude loop diagram:

Think Think globally, globally, act act locally, locally, think think locally. locally.
Think Think globally, globally, act act locally, locally, think think locally. locally.

That is:

By thinking ‘globally’, away from particular contexts, we try to identify the fundamental principles behind what we want our language teaching research to achieve – principles like bringing people together instead of pushing them apart, that it is worth working for any time, anywhere, just because people are people.

Then we can ‘act locally’, in the light of those principles, meaning that we work out their precise implications in our immediate context (Miller’s doctoral work in Rio de Janeiro, in this issue, and 2001, is an excellent example here). Wherever we are on the globe, then, we need to find a practical way of respecting our global principles.

We then find that the thinking we do to find principled ways of acting in our local situation generates more thinking about our principles. Whether or not it challenges our original principles, it will necessarily feed the development of our ‘global’ thinking, and may help us approach new contexts more confident that we know what we want to achieve, and why.

So, local action intelligently conducted will contribute in turn to our thinking about our principles. But we humans can act and think at the same time. So we can expect a constant interplay between the three, not a simple linear sequence. In particular, it is not at all obvious that we typically start with ‘thinking globally’. We probably get our most deeply held principles, not from a major

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effort of context-free thinking (however hard we may try), but from the sum total of our experiences in particular contexts. We may want to approach new situations armed with our global principles, but it may be our actual ‘practices’, the things we consider most context-bound, that we carry around most easily from situation to situation, and not our ‘principles’. Our principles may be far more context-bound than we would like to think. Perhaps the best we can hope for, in respect of the ‘baggage’ we take with us from situation to situation, is that the cyclical inter- relationship between the global and the local, in our thought and our action, tells a productive story. The reader will have to decide if that is the case here.

III Some of my personal baggage: the origins Practice

What follows is my personal professional story, as a university- based ‘academic’, of the first decade or so in the development of EP. It illustrates, I believe, the complex cyclical processes described above. First the ‘academic’ story, then the ‘professional’ one.

of Exploratory

1 Exploratory Practice’s academic origins

The academic origins of EP were first formulated (an attempt to think/act globally?) in the Epilogue to my 1991 book with Kathi Bailey. This Epilogue was my ‘apology’ for the foregoing sections of the book. I had unintentionally made classroom research so demanding that teachers would not be able to do it unless they had extra time and extra support (as on an MA course?), both for learning how to, and also for fitting it into their classroom lives. This Epilogue proposed the following statements of global principle, limited to the language classroom context.

a) First, and foremost, I proposed that research should aim at the development of situational understanding. This principle has retained all its importance over the years, overtaken by concern for the ‘quality of classroom life’ only relatively recently (see Section V below). This principle contrasted with the stated aim of Action Research, for example, to produce practical solutions to isolated problems (see Nunan, 1989: 13–14). What

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‘understanding’ might mean is developed in Section III.4 below.

b) I also proposed that in relating to language teachers, ‘academic’ researchers like myself could best act as research consultants, not, as was usual, research directors. So we would advise, if asked, on the conduct of investigations, but not control the research agenda. I was acutely conscious that we ‘academic’ researchers had frequently handled our relationships with language teachers and learners so badly that we no longer deserved their co-operation, but if we were helpful, then classroom teachers and learners might be helpful to us in return, in respect of our own research agendas. c) I simultaneously proposed that learners be fully involved as contributors to what was necessarily a social investigative enterprise, with their own research agendas, and with their own interest in understanding language classroom life. For examples, see especially Perpignan, 2001 and this issue, and Slimani-Rolls, this issue. d) Finally, I advocated working with ‘puzzles’, rather than ‘problems’. This was partly to avoid the negative connotations of ‘problem’, given that many teachers around the world feared that admitting to classroom ‘problems’ might endanger their contracts, and partly to involve areas of classroom life that were not obviously ‘problematic’ (the unexpectedly great success of an activity with just one particular group of learners, say), but which they might well want to try to understand better.

An embarrassment now, in 1991 I presented everything in terms of delivering greater efficiency. Later I realized that ‘greater efficiency’ was a goal I neither wanted nor needed to work for (see especially Sections III.3 and V below).

2 Exploratory Practice’s practical origins

The practical origins of EP came just as the academic ones were published. I was invited to the Cultura Inglesa in Rio de Janeiro (a major not-for-profit language teaching establishment with hundreds of teachers teaching thousands of students) to teach a practical course on classroom research, and to act as classroom research consultant to the Cultura for two months (see Allwright and Lenzuen, 1997; Lenzuen and Samson, 1998).

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Teaching a practical course on classroom research appeared perfect for me at that point, since I had specialized in that area for twenty years already (though as a university-based ‘academic’). During the course itself, however, I realized it was a thoroughly misguided enterprise. From visiting teacher groups around Rio, I soon realized that it was hopelessly impractical to expect such highly competent classroom teachers to become my sort of classroom researcher, given their lives as part-timers with perhaps two other paid jobs to manage. My sort of classroom research would make impossible demands on their time both between and during classes, and would bring a major new learning burden – mastering the research techniques involved. Another source of disquiet came from what the teachers were telling me at these group meetings. It was me who was getting very practical ideas for classroom investigations, from the very teachers I was supposed to be helping:

Some of the teachers were telling me (sometimes despite their reluctance to believe they were doing anything worth talking about) that they were already trying to understand what was happening in their classrooms, but by using normal classroom activities (group discussions, for example) as investigative tools, not the sophisticated classroom research tools I was currently teaching. And those who had devised questionnaires, for example, told miserable tales of how hard and unrewarding it was.

The teachers were also telling me that, sometimes, ‘understanding’ was itself sufficient. For example, one teacher had worried about her learners’ apparent inability to stay in English throughout group work, but instead of following the ‘academic’ example of colleagues (the questionnaire writers) she had simply asked her learners to discuss the issue in their groups. Having used a pedagogic activity to investigate the workings of that activity, she had a very interesting story. Impressed with her students’ seriousness, she felt she had learned a lot from attending to their group discussions, developing both intellectual and empathetic understanding of their problems. They too seemed more understanding of each other, both cognitively and affectively. Wonderfully, when they next got into groups to

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discuss something, they tried much harder than before to keep to English. So, a practical ‘problem’ that needed to be solved had become an issue of understanding that virtually resolved itself.

These teachers already knew how to bring their learners into the whole enterprise of developing classroom understandings. The learners would also now be generators of understanding, not just consumers of it (fourth-hand consumers of their teacher’s third- hand consumption of the ‘second-hand’ academic ‘knowledge’ in teacher-training textbooks?). So my own professional experience in Rio was telling me how some of the ideas in that Epilogue might actually work out in practice.

3 Focusing on ‘quality of life’ rather than on ‘quality of work’

These Rio Cultura teachers, however, brought me something else that has been crucial to the development of Exploratory Practice, and to my own notion of ‘development’ and the contribution it can

make to a person. I slowly realized that I had uncritically accepted the received wisdom of the time (see, for example, Richards and Nunan, 1990; Edge and Richards, 1993) that what teachers most wanted and most needed was to become more effective language teachers, more efficient ‘delivery systems’ of educational success, by discovering and adopting more efficient techniques. These Cultura teachers offered a radically different perspective. I saw excellent teachers under constant pressure to ‘enhance’ their teaching with the latest pedagogical ideas, so battered by the ceaseless demand for novelty that they were at severe risk of ‘burn- out’, of becoming ‘cosmically tired’ of the job they were doing so well. Of course there are teachers who could teach ‘better’, probably all of us could, but to me that was no longer necessarily the most important matter to attend to, and even where it might be, it was no longer obvious that ‘better’ teaching techniques would suffice.

I remembered a visit to Lancaster, many years ago, by Michael

Joseph (then of Loyola College, Madras, now of the University of the North, in South Africa). After listening to us for about a week he said we were so obsessed with getting things right for learners

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that we had forgotten the prior need to get things right for teachers. Education, he said, must first and foremost be good for teachers’ lives, if it is ever to be good for learners’ learning. This very challenging proposition proved enormously productive, because it helped us see that EP must, in the same way, be more about ‘life’ than it is about ‘work’. In short, it must make a contribution to the quality of life in the language classroom, before it can hope to make a contribution to the quality of teaching and learning (the ‘work’) there. But I risk making an unfortunate distinction between ‘work’ and ‘life’. Work is a part of life, or an attitude to it, not an alternative. Very recently I have encountered the same sort of thinking in a very different context – that of chief executives in the British National Health Service. These chief executives are apparently, like many teachers, so constantly bombarded with new ideas and demands that they also risk burn-out. They talk about a sense of loss – they feel they are no longer doing the job they believe they should be doing, but are constantly side-tracked onto other priorities – and many resign because they feel unable to provide

a satisfactory service. This is very familiar to me in my work with

teachers. More striking than any similarity of symptoms, however,

is the approach of the team the British Government brought in to

help. Frank Blackler (1995), of the Lancaster University School of Management, and Andy Kennedy, of the King’s Fund, chose to

focus on ‘quality of life’ rather than ‘quality of work’, and on understanding, the first principle of the 1991 Epilogue, as the mechanism whereby these Chief Executives might overcome their sense of loss.

4 Understanding what we mean by ‘understanding’

So, EP is fundamentally about trying to understand the quality of life in a given situation. ‘Quality of life’ is a tricky enough notion in itself, and we are still trying to work out our own understandings of it, but in the meantime we need to say something about what we mean by ‘understanding’. Our main problem seems to arise from the irony that we believe the profoundest understandings to be somehow beyond words. In this connection I recall a New York teacher with an extremely good

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reputation for her teaching, who, asked in public to account for her classroom success, could only say she knew she was successful because her contract was always renewed. That was all she could say. And yet we have only words to try to express whatever understandings we do have. Even worse, attempting to put our understandings in words might be doubly counterproductive. First, the words we find may serve to conceal, rather than successfully communicate, the true extent of our understandings. Worse, having found words, we may believe we have also found understanding, and so the effort to communicate might inhibit any further effort to understand. But within the context of EP, and especially for classroom language teaching, we need ways of using language, even a second language, to develop and express our developing understandings. This is clearly a very ambitious undertaking, not helped by the thought that teaching and learning is itself a complex social process that is typically, if not necessarily, mediated by language. What EP can offer, however, is suggestions for linguistically productive ways of developing classroom understandings, by finding classroom time for deliberate work for understanding, not instead of other classroom activities but by exploiting normal classroom activities for that purpose. But any resultant statement of understanding, like that of the teacher investigating group work (above), is necessarily only a partial (if not actually misleading) representation of the understanding itself, and of necessity a situated understanding, valid, if at all, only for its immediate situation. So, although EP work is unlikely by itself to produce generalized understandings, the production of ‘situated understandings’, whether or not they are, or can be, fully articulated, would be directly valuable to the immediate participants and would represent a considerable achievement in itself. And, anyway, what other people could learn from any statements of such situated understandings might not come primarily from the findings. Learning about the investigative procedures involved may be more useful to others than any particular findings. This may be the major value, for others, of ‘local’ thinking. Such major issues in participant research cannot be adequately resolved within the scope of this paper, however.

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IV From global thinking to local action: Exploratory Practice, in practice

My ‘global thinking’ for the 1991 Epilogue had needed the practical experience of working with teachers. My ‘local action’ in Rio, my classroom research course, was clearly out of touch with the thinking I had tried to articulate for that Epilogue, and I needed to convert that local thinking, about my previous global thinking, into practical local action. Fortunately, my branch visits, as described above, were supplying the ideas I needed. Soon I was trying to turn them into a practical alternative to the Action Research approach I was teaching. But it seemed very wrong in principle to seek to replace one ‘recipe’ for classroom research with another. Reducing the search for understanding life in the language classroom to a research ‘recipe’ was repugnant and unnatural, whereas what I was hearing at the branch meetings was attractive and natural. Worse, any list of procedures would surely be misinterpreted by people (especially teacher trainers?) with essentially ‘academic’ expectations of what ‘proper’ research should be like. So I resisted reducing Exploratory Teaching (as it was then) to a set of ‘practical procedures’. But people wanted to know more about ‘Exploratory Teaching’, and they wanted us to train them as ‘exploratory teachers’. Eventually we surrendered, and the practices we had experimented with (Samson, forthcoming) were eventually summarized in an ordered list that was superficially very similar at first sight to many other lists for practitioner research, but with some importantly distinctive features (especially the focus on ‘understanding’, and the integration of investigation into the pedagogy). Rather than re- present the list here, however, with all its inherent oversimplification, I am drawing from a very recent unpublished attempt (2002, in collaboration with Inés Miller) to set out some of the potential practical implications of working within the ‘exploratory’ framework. So, what does it mean to adopt an Exploratory Practice (as it is now called) perspective on trying to understand classroom life (or social life in any setting perhaps)? First, some words about the relationship between practices and principles. The practices described below will, I hope, serve to illustrate the principles that

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will be presented later, but they have actually served also, as the source of our statements of principle. By reflecting on our practices we have been able to better understand and find words for the ideas behind our actions. We have of course been thinking ‘globally’, to extract from particular ‘local’ experiences whatever might be of more global relevance and value, but the very close relationship to a great and growing quantity of local action, and of local thinking has always been crucial to our ‘global’ thinking. And all that thinking constantly feeds into yet more local action, and so on.

1 Making a preliminary distinction

When trying to represent highly complex matters in writing we seem inevitably to be drawn into making apparently firm distinctions between things that in our daily lives we see as intimately inter-related. The biggest artificial distinction here is between two sets of processes: (1) Taking action for understanding, and (2) Working with emerging understandings. The first focuses on the processes themselves, as practices, whereas the second set focuses more on their substantive content. The order of presentation below suggests chronological sequence, if only because it may seem obvious that you can only reflect on emerging understandings once they have started to emerge, and so only after you have taken some action for understanding. But at any point in our lives we all have some level of understanding of the life we are currently living, and some degree of puzzlement. That puzzlement arises, not from our having no understanding at all of something that is happening, but from feeling that our current understandings are not entirely satisfactory.

2 Taking action for understanding

So ‘taking action’ is not necessarily the starting point, but something had to come first, and this set does readily offer connections to the principles of EP (see Section V below). Taking action for understanding can involve, in our experience, any or all of the following component processes (and no doubt others we have yet to discover):

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1. bringing puzzling issues of classroom life to consciousness;

2. thinking ‘harder’ with other practitioners (peers and/or co- participants) inside and/or outside the classroom;

3. looking/listening – attending more intensively to what is going on, as it is going on; and

4. planning for understanding by adopting familiar pedagogic procedures to help develop participant understandings.

Sequence is implied by the ordering of the four, but only because they represent progressively more and more ‘work’ of some kind,

for the participants. For example, simply ‘bringing puzzling issues to consciousness’ might be the work of a few moments alone at home, but it may mean something much more complex (see Hanks,

1998 and 1999; Lyra et al., and Kuschnir and Machado, this issue).

Talking to others requires, on the other hand, finding time to talk (although finding lesson time to get learners to talk about what puzzles them might be relatively easy), and then looking and listening also require some preparation (see Gunn, this issue), and finally taking active steps to adapt familiar pedagogic procedures is of course likely to be more time-consuming still (see Gunn, Perpignan, and Slimani-Rolls, this issue). So starting with the most demanding of processes is not recommended, but instead starting wherever people feel most comfortable. Personally I get so much out of group discussion, for example, that it seems hardly worth bothering to try to think alone sometimes, so I might start with (2) rather than (1). Alternatively I might go for (3), especially if I am

uncertain about which aspect of my classroom life is most likely to reward further investigation. For the power of discussion, after just one classroom observation, see Naidu et al.’s 1992 report of how what initially looked like a problem of huge class size turned into a challenge of heterogeneity.

3 Working with emerging understandings

Working with emerging understandings also involves at least four component processes. As already noted these put more focus on the content of the process, rather than on the nature of each process. They take for granted the first two principles, already discussed, that it makes sense to focus on ‘life’ issues, and to seek primarily to understand, rather than to change. And they all, from

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our experience of working with them, have made us more confident of the value of our principles. These processes are as follows:

1. expressing






2. unpicking and refining common notions of ‘change’;

3. discussing potential personal or collective moves; and

4. sharing personal understanding processes as a way of ‘supporting’ others and of inviting others to join the EP community of practice.

Again the processes are inevitably listed in a particular order, but not necessarily in chronological order. The first mentioned – reflexively expressing and appraising personal/collective insights could come directly after the last-mentioned ‘Taking Action’ process – using familiar classroom pedagogic procedures as investigative tools, since we can hope there will now be data to reflect on and appraise. But, equally plausibly perhaps, we could imagine the whole business of getting involved with EP starting in this way, by people getting together to pool their current thinking on classroom language learning and teaching. This first process covers just one person acting alone, but of course the work could involve many people, bringing them all together for mutual development. The second process type here unpicking and refining common notions of ‘change’ – could also offer a productive starting point for everything. EP questions the common notion of ‘change’, that advocates prioritizing a constant search for ever more effective teaching techniques, not because we have no wish to help language learners and their teachers, but because ‘improvement’ seems all too frequently reduced to a scramble for ‘better’ teaching techniques, to the exclusion of any attempt to take the logically prior step of trying to understand the circumstances under which the new techniques will be expected to bring about improvements. We also see, as noted earlier, that sometimes the work for understanding can itself deal adequately with the original ‘problem’. But some see us as quite simply against change, at odds with a societal and professional perception that change is not only

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inevitable but also universally desirable. Within the framework of EP we therefore need to think hard about our relationship to ‘change’, so this matter will return in Section V, in relation to our second principle. The third type of process here discussing potential personal or collective moves – may need to wait until understandings have been reached, but it could equally well be seen as a starting point – teachers talking together to find out ‘where they are’ in their personal/professional development perhaps, and where they want to ‘go’ next, all against a background of general interest in finding out if EP has anything to offer (see Bartu, this issue). Alternatively, Action Research might look like the best possible next move, perhaps after EP has revealed a need for change (see Özdeniz, 1996, for the use of EP in the context of a demand for classroom innovation). (For a developed argument differentiating EP from Action Research see Allwright, 2001.) The last type of process here sharing personal understanding processes as a way of supporting others and of encouraging others to join the EP ‘community of practice’ could also be either a way of getting started or of developing something already established. Making presentations at in-house meetings would be one example, up to and including international conferences. We would advocate offering posters and workshops rather than papers, as papers seem to work better for ‘showing off’ than for recruiting colleagues. Or, as in Rio, ‘sharing personal understanding processes’, could involve a programme of working with teachers over several years in extended workshop series (Miller and Bannell, 1998). And such programmes might aim in the ‘transformational’ direction of Critical Pedagogy, of course, as envisaged in Bannell, 1997.

4 Back to the dynamic relationship between practice and principles

The above processes are of course subject to change with experience. And this means change by anyone who cares to try them. There can be no ‘copyright’ on such things. ‘Change’ could simply mean ‘technical’ development, of course, but it might also prompt a rethink of underlying principles, since using the processes is probably the most effective mechanism for the

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development of the principles (Section V below). There is always the danger, of course, that someone may mistake the practice for the principles and decide that they are ‘doing’ EP just because they are making use of one or more of the component processes, without regard for the principles. We cannot eliminate that possibility, but we can try to be clear about our principles, which we must now present.

V Exploratory Practice as a set of principles

1 Exploratory Practice in one sentence

Local action and local thinking having produced a set of practical investigative procedures potentially adaptable to any context, we had simultaneously developed our thinking about our underlying principles. After producing lots of minimally different lists of ‘design criteria’ for participant classroom research (Allwright, 1993 offers an early example), for a talk I gave in Brazil in 1997 I found myself formulating ‘defining characteristics’ for EP. This was an attempt to develop the ideas in the 1991 Epilogue, and incorporate the ideas that had came from the experience (the local action, and local thinking) of trying to find a satisfactory way of working with teachers in Brazil. The following ‘principled description’ of EP, in one convoluted sentence, emerged:

Exploratory Practice involves

1. practitioners (e.g.: preferably teachers and learners together) working to understand:


what they want to understand, following their own agendas;


not necessarily in order to bring about change;


not primarily by changing;



but by using normal pedagogic practices as investigative tools, so that working for understanding is part of the teaching and learning, not extra to it;




way that




to ‘burn-out’, but that is

indefinitely sustainable;

2. in order to contribute to:

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teaching and learning themselves;


professional development, both individual and collective.

2 Exploratory Practice as a set of general principles

From this we derived new statements of principle for EP, confident that they were solidly grounded in extensive local practice and thought. At first, if only to fit on an overhead, our principles came in very cryptic slogan form (‘Be relevant’). But that made them look like ‘commandments’, rather than encouragements to thinking. So what follows adds a more discursive element.

Principle 1: put ‘quality of life’ first. In our previous statements of principle we have typically put ‘understanding’ first, but all our illustrations of language classroom puzzles seem, retrospectively at least, to have been about the quality of life in a particular classroom, for a particular person or group of people. So, in practice, we have always been centrally concerned with understanding ‘life’, but have not often made that explicit. It now takes its rightful place as our first principle. We acknowledge, of course, that a concern for ‘measurable achievement’ is currently central for many people, and that generat- ing more ‘measurable achievement’ typically means finding quick practical solutions to practical problems, taken in isolation as ‘merely’ practical/technical matters. Even apparently straight- forward practical problems may be better treated in context, how- ever, as matters going beyond purely immediate concerns. In short, as matters involving ‘quality of life’.

Principle 2: work primarily to understand language classroom life. The proper aim of practitioner research, as we see it, is best put as ‘working to understand life’, not trying to directly solve problems, but to step back from them and see them in the larger context of the life (and lives) they affect. This ‘stepping back’ can suggest that EP is a force for conservatism, militating against change. We see it, however, as a fundamental change in itself, towards taking seriously the idea that only a serious effort to understand life in a particular setting will enable you to decide if practical change is necessary, desirable, and/or possible. For example, in education a ‘problem’ of

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poor performance could be regarded as a ‘technical’ issue, simply requiring more efficient teaching. But we suggest first converting the ‘practical problem’ into a ‘puzzle’ – something that demands to be understood. This will naturally lead us to investigate the nature of ‘life’ in the classrooms getting poor results, in case the problem is more than a straightforward ‘technical’ one. Pursuing the example, we might then (in a move that might help to remove some of the nebulousness from the notion of ‘life’) consider investigating ‘classroom life’ in three progressively inclusive ways, starting with ‘quality of learning’ as the narrowest, then ‘quality of education’, and then the most comprehensive and elusive of all: ‘quality of life’, which may take our search for understanding well beyond the classroom. So EP can, by helping practitioners resist immediate and thoughtless change, act as a force for fundamentally long-lasting and profound change.

Principle 3: involve everybody. Since life in the language classroom is necessarily social, then the conduct of any practitioner researcher carried out there will also be a social matter. So, for example, learners will be involved not as objects of research but as fellow participants, and therefore as co-researchers.

Principle 4: work to bring people together. Apart from our general wish for social harmony, we also stress that there are so many forces acting to divide people in education (teachers from researchers, teachers from learners, and so on) that we need to do whatever we can, whenever we can, to bring people together, in an atmosphere of collegiality.

Principle 5: work also for mutual development. And that collegiality will perhaps be best served if all involved are manifestly working for each other’s development as well as their own.

Principle 6: integrate the work for understanding into classroom practice. So, practitioner research must not become parasitic upon the life it is trying to understand. The alternative is for it to be properly integrated into that practice. The practice itself needs to

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be conducted in such a way that the work for understanding is a normal part of that practice.

Practical corollary to Principle 6: let the need to integrate guide the conduct of the work for understanding. This practical corollary reminds us to look for our investigative tools in our existing practices, rather than look for them elsewhere (in academic books on classroom research like mine of 1988 and 1991 with Kathi Bailey, for example). In the language classroom, as mentioned earlier, this can mean simply giving learners an opportunity to discuss whatever is puzzling you and/or them in the time you would normally set aside for discussion anyway. In such a way the lesson need not be interrupted, the learning can continue, but the social understanding can also come too, through the standard pedagogic activities of the classroom.

Principle 7: make the work a continuous enterprise . Making space for work for understanding in the language classroom may appear to be practically possible only on odd occasions. Taken seriously, however, it will be seen as a continuous, indefinitely sustainable, enterprise, if only to reflect the fact that any language classroom is a dynamic social situation, such that any understanding reached on any one occasion may rapidly become irrelevant.

Practical corollary to Principle 7: avoid time-limited funding. Although it may seem perverse to argue against funding (and funding may not be an option, anyway, for many), we believe that accepting external funding and its associated problems makes it difficult to avoid compromising the other principles of EP. It can be especially difficult to make the whole enterprise a continuing one, as advocated in Principle 6, since it is in the nature of external funding to be time-limited, and managing without funding is even more difficult if you are accustomed to having it.

3 What’s new?

The above statements reflect some of the 1991 themes, but where ‘understanding’ was primary we now have quality of life, leaving

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understanding as the means, not an end in itself. The idea of a new role for academics like myself, so important in 1991, now seems hardly worthy of explicit mention, best left implicit in the idea that working for understanding is essentially a social enterprise of mutual development. Getting learners directly involved is also absorbed in the same way into principles 3, 4 and 5. And working with ‘puzzles’ now seems best left implicit also, implied by the focus on understanding rather than problem-solving. Most importantly, though, the 1991 Epilogue was written from the viewpoint of an individual academic classroom researcher, not from that of practitioners themselves. In contrast, the new principles, our new ‘global thinking’, come from more than a decade of action and thought by practitioners in a great variety of groupings and role relationships. It is time to reflect on this variety, and what we have learned from it.

VI Exploratory Practice as collegial activity

Principles 3, 4 and 5 call for everyone to be involved collegially in

a mutually beneficial enterprise of working together towards

understanding something of common interest. Who stands to gain

most, most immediately, from any improved understanding will surely be the teacher and the learners (rather than ‘academic researchers’, say). Therefore they are the people, and the role relationship, at the heart of EP, and our natural starting point here. Next can come the teacher’s relationships with teacher colleagues, then within the hierarchy of the employing institution, with training and development people, with outsider researchers like myself (in relation to school teachers, for example), and with other colleagues in other institutions, perhaps via a teacher association

of some sort.

1 Collegiality between teachers and learners

‘Collegiality’ is probably not often used in connection with teacher/learner relationships, but it surely makes excellent sense to work for collegiality in the pedagogical relationship, for a sense of

a common enterprise. Unfortunately, proposals for practitioner

research (Action Research for example) seem to isolate the ‘professional’ as the source of topics to investigate and as the only

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people willing to work for understanding. In relation to the pedagogic relationship, however, it is relatively easy to argue for learners first of all to be the source of the puzzles that are investigated, and then for them to participate fully in their investigation, as long as respect for ‘integration’ (principle 6 above) means that the pedagogy is enhanced rather than impoverished by the investigative work undertaken. Something similar to this can already be found in ‘autonomous language learning’ work (see Holec, 1988), but typically the topics adopted for investigation by the learners are direct language (or target-culture) ones, not involving understanding the social processes of classroom language learning, the probable focus of work within the framework of EP. In principle, however, any teacher interested in working within the EP framework could get started by finding a way of asking their learners about what, if anything, puzzles them about what happens in their lessons (see also Slimani-Rolls, this issue).

2 Collegiality among teachers in the same institution

Teaching can be a lonely enterprise (‘the most private job done in public’, someone said, or ‘the most public job done in private’). Involving the learners in a collegial enterprise might offer one way of combating this loneliness, but teachers are probably more likely to turn to each other, not their learners, for company. Working within the framework of EP is going to provide many occasions when talking to someone else is a good idea. EP could even provide a focus for collegiality, an excuse for stopping and asking a colleague for their thoughts on some matter. So there is a strong argument for workplace collegiality among teachers, both as a way of fostering EP, and as a possible by-product of it. Sadly, however, many teachers have difficulty developing good collegial relationships with fellow teachers. Rivalry among teachers seems to be the norm, in any one workplace, and at least a seniority-based hierarchy typically prevails, such that teachers feel uneasy talking to their immediate colleagues about their own classrooms. Inviting thinking about ‘puzzles’ (as for EP) rather than outright ‘problems’ (as for Action Research) may help, but expecting it to suffice would be highly optimistic. The English Language Teaching community in Bangalore (South India – Naidu

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et al. 1992) faced this problem after they decided to meet in workplace groupings. Very soon they changed their way of working and met ‘on neutral territory’, just to avoid the destructive effects of workplace hierarchies and rivalries.

3 Collegiality and the hierarchy within an employing institution

Employing institutions are therefore in a difficult position (see Samson, 1995, and in progress) as regards the fostering of collegial relationships throughout a hierarchy. Indeed, the very notion of hierarchy is antagonistic to the notion of collegiality, if only because ‘collegiality’ suggests ‘equality’ in some important sense. Also, any pressure on teachers, at one end of the hierarchy, to adopt the ‘latest’ pedagogical changes will come from the institutions, as employers and therefore ‘managers’, at the ‘top’ end of the hierarchy (whether this is relatively local, as in a private language school, or highly remote, as in a state educational system). Clearly it would be a very considerable achievement to both push for change and simultaneously persuade everybody you were all collegially ‘on the same side’ (part of the problem for National Health Service chief executives, presumably). So, it is going to be far from easy, and we already know of a ‘manager’ in a language teaching institution who felt unable to openly advocate EP among classroom teaching, because any proposal from management would be deeply suspect.

4 Collegiality between teachers and training and development people

Teacher educators, outside a teacher’s workplace, ought to be relatively well placed to offer a collegially sympathetic and supportive environment for teachers wishing to develop their own understandings within the framework of EP. Unfortunately, however, teacher educators who advocate teacher research seem instead more likely to promote a highly intensive academic model of research, as I did myself in Rio in 1991. They also seem likely to promote the view that greater pedagogic efficiency is the priority.

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5 Collegiality between teachers and academic researchers

Researchers in our field who are exclusively ‘academic’, pursuing their own agenda of building grand theory from empirical research in classrooms, with only a very long-term notion, at best, of ever being ‘useful’ to teachers, may be rare, but they do still exist. In my own academic work, for example, I am expected to publish under my name only, in the field’s most academic journals. Therefore, if I am to ‘play the game’, I need my own academic research agenda, and cannot simply work as consultant to practitioners pursuing their agendas. Teachers have reason to be suspicious, then, of anything I do, however helpful, that gives me access to their classrooms. And yet I still want whatever classroom research expertise I have to be available to teachers, on their terms, in response to the demands of their research agendas. But my position as an ‘academic’ makes that more difficult, partly because years of abuse have put teachers on their guard, and partly because, ironically, all the abuse has not succeeded in eliminating the traditional ‘deference to assumed authority’ from the relationship.

6 Collegiality in a teacher association

One way of getting away from the direct influence of academic researchers, and simultaneously out from under a workplace hierarchy, if only temporarily, is to look for collegial professional development opportunities in a teacher association. The largest English language teaching associations do provide a forum for academic researchers to talk to teachers, and vice versa, of course, but researchers seem to prefer talking to each other, and are typically heavily outnumbered by teachers, so their influence can at least be filtered. Large teacher associations are already organized as hierarchies, also, but these are organizational hierarchies dedicated to providing whatever service the member- ship wants. They are inherently more likely to be more benign, therefore, and perceived as such by teachers, than ‘managers’ in an employing institution (Allwright, 1991). And, the smaller the association, the less the need for any sort of hierarchy at all (see Rao and Prakash, 1991). But collegiality still needs work. As Bartu suggests (1997, 2000)

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elsewhere in this issue it cannot be taken for granted, just because there is no obvious hierarchy to worry about, or only a patently benign one.

7 So what?

So, collegiality is multiply problematic, but crucial to the enterprise. So much we have learned, but what has actually been done, within the framework of EP, over the last decade?

VII Exploratory Practice, in practice

1 The story so far, and what is to come

The above discussion has traced the development of EP in terms of its principles and practices, as the products of a dynamic cyclical relationship between ‘global’ thinking, ‘local’ action, and ‘local’ thinking, and as the source of the three positive proposals I made at the start of this paper: to prioritize ‘quality of life’, to work for understandings, and for mutual development. What follows here is just a brief general indication of the range of work that has been or is being undertaken within the Exploratory Practice framework.

2 Open-ended voluntary work with teacher groups

For several years now a small group of Rio-based academic researchers have been working on a regular (fortnightly) basis with groups of ‘municipio’ teachers (see Miller and Bannell, 1998). This is an open-ended commitment on all sides, with teacher educators who are also local academic researchers giving their free time, endless goodwill, and their very considerable expertise (since these are the people most centrally involved in the development of EP). This example is very welcome counter-evidence to any note of pessimism in Sections VI.4 and VI.5 above concerning the probability of teacher educators and academic researchers relating appropriately to classroom teachers. This work is run by these ‘academics’ in their own time, but it is not a way for them to get their academic research done. Rather, they are volunteer teacher developers, using EP both as the focus of meetings, and the way to get the meetings’ business done, so

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that the participants can better understand what is happening to them, and what they are doing to each other. The teachers’ work is allowed and encouraged by their employing institution, rather than imposed.

In this issue this ‘municipio’ work is represented in Lyra et al.’s

paper about what ‘puzzles’ teachers there, and what ‘keeps them


A cautionary note about volunteer peer development work is

represented in this issue by Bartu’s study of group decision-making in Istanbul.

3 Exploratory Practice in a consultancy relationship

Since teacher education and academic research often go together for university employees in language teacher education, we also have the possibility of an academic researcher working as consultant to a colleague (and therefore in some sort of ‘teacher educator’ relationship to that colleague) and then turning the ‘consultancy’ encounters into practitioner research, on the Exploratory Practice ‘model’, with that colleague (see Miller, 2001, and this issue).

4 Exploratory Practice as an approach to ‘academic’ research

From the start, EP has been thought of as a form of practitioner research that would provide an alternative to academic research models, but, increasingly, people with ‘academic’ research projects to complete are finding the principles of EP helpful in guiding their investigations. Beyond Miller’s doctoral work we also have examples of Master’s and doctoral level dissertation work in this issue from Gunn, Kuschnir and Machado, and Perpignan (see also Gunn, 2001, and Perpignan, 2001). Other major work done in such academic contexts includes Constantinidou, 1998; Wolters, 2000; Lamie, 2001 and Szesztay, 2001. EP is also currently proving to be an appropriate framework for a Master’s level course and dissertation work at Lancaster and in Lancaster’s MA level work in Hong Kong (see especially, work in Lancaster by Hanks, 1998; Chan, 2002, Chen, 2002; Cheng, 2002; and in Hong Kong in 2002 by Chan, Chuk, Ho, Le, and Lee). Finally, in this section, it is important to draw attention to the recently completed doctoral work of Wu (2002) who situates the

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principled framework of EP in a very wide philosophical context, and shows how such thinking can illuminate a major development project in his Chinese university context.

5 Exploratory Practice as practitioner research

EP was developed primarily as a form of practitioner research for the language classroom. Such work is most directly represented here by Kuschnir and Machado, reporting two separate EP investigations in one paper; and by Slimani-Rolls’ report on group work in a business school. But it is important to note that the doctoral research reported by Miller, Gunn, and Perpignan, also all takes the form of practitioner research, with teachers investigating their own practices.

6 Research about Exploratory Practice

Every investigation inevitably makes a contribution to our thinking about EP, but three papers in this collection have as their prime focus the working of Exploratory Practice itself. First there is the study by Lyra et al. about what puzzles teachers in Rio, as mentioned above. Then we have Kuschnir and Machado linking puzzlement to Vygotskyan ideas about the social nature of learning. And finally we have Bartu’s discourse analytic study of decision-making in her EP teachers group in Turkey, with its implications for other such groups in future.

VIII Concluding thoughts

1 Exploratory Practice: a ‘work in progress’

EP is still and must always remain in the process of development,

as we learn from the different circumstances in which the frame-

work is invoked. We may hope that the principles will change less often than the

practices, but we already know that principles develop just like practices do, and they all change in relation to each other. In the meantime, it may be worth insisting that the principles in Section

V define EP, if anything does, not Section IV’s sets of processes.

Those sets merely illustrate some of the forms that work within

the framework of EP can take (see also Wu, 2002).

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2 A stimulus to further thought, not a substitute for it

This paper, and this whole issue, are therefore not intended to save readers from further thought about how participant research can contribute to language teacher, and learner, development. On the contrary, we hope to stimulate readers to even more thought, in the hope that together we will be able to do more than if we remain isolated.

3 Back to ‘think globally, act locally’

I started with this slogan from Friends of the Earth and must now return to it. I hope I have shown in this paper how the relationship between the two key ideas of thinking and acting is, in practice, going to be a cyclical one of mutual stimulation, through the mechanism of ‘local thinking’. Local thinking may start out with the idea of putting some ‘global’ principles into practice, but if the process is worked through thoughtfully then local thinking is also going to feed back into global thinking, and thus into the revision of the underlying principles of the whole enterprise.


invitation to join in the enterprise.

The ‘rethinking of practitioner research’ announced in my title was introduced at the start of this paper in the form of three proposals, which amounted to a plea for us to prioritize the ‘quality of life’ in the language classroom, by working to understand that life, and by doing so as a fully social enterprise of mutual development. I hope the foregoing pages, and the other papers that follow, will suffice to convince the reader of the potential value of EP as a professionally, intellectually and ethically coherent way of conducting practitioner research in language teaching. There is now an Exploratory Practice Centre established to keep the thinking going and to facilitate networking around the globe. We have a periodical Newsletter, an annual event and web site ( which carries the Newsletter and much more.

4 Back









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IX References

Allwright, D. 1988: Observation in the language classroom. London:

Longman. –––– 1991: Exploratory teaching, professional development, and the role of a teachers association. Approach (Newsletter of the Cuban National Institute of Tourism – INTUR) III (2): 9–21. Also available from the Linguistics Department, Lancaster University, as CRILE Working Paper 7. –––– 1993: Integrating ‘research’ and ‘pedagogy’: appropriate criteria and practical possibilities. In Edge, J. and Richards, K., editors, Teachers develop teachers research. Oxford: Heinemann, 125–35. Also available from the Linguistics Department, Lancaster University, as CRILE Working Paper 13. –––– 2001: Three major processes of teacher development and the appropriate design criteria for developing and using them. In Johnston, B. and Irujo, S., editors, Research and practice in language teacher education: voices from the field. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Language Teacher Education, Minneapolis, May, 1999. Minneapolis, Carla Working Paper 19:


Allwright, D. and Bailey, K.M. 1991: Focus on the language classroom. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Allwright, D. and Lenzuen, R. 1997: Exploratory Practice: work at the Cultura Inglesa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Language Teaching Research, 1(1): 73–9. Bannell, R.I. 1997: It’s all right in theory, but what about praxis? knowledge, action and Exploratory Practice. In Field, J., Graham, A., Griffiths, E. and Head, K., editors, Teachers develop teachers research 2, Kingston: IATEFL, 18–37. Bartu, H. 1997: Sense of achievement in Exploratory Practice. Networking (British Council’s Teachers’ Centres in Turkey) 3: 13–14. –––– 2000: Teachers’ sense of achievement in exploratory teaching. In Mair, J., editor, Excellence in teaching: promoting, implementing and sustaining effective practice, Proceedings of 5th International Bilkent University Conference (School of English, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey), 93–102. Blackler, F. 1995: Knowledge, knowledge work, and organisations: an overview and interpretation. Organisational Studies 16(6): 1021–46. Chan, K.-L. 2002: Individual differences in learner beliefs within a young female prison context in Hong Kong: a case study. MA TESOL dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. Chen, D. 2002: Understanding professional development in the MALT programme via Exploratory Practice – a personal case study. MA

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TESOL dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. Cheng, X. 2002: Understanding the past and illuminating the future. MA dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. Chuk, Y.-P. 2002: Promoting learner autonomy the Exploratory Practice way. MA TESOL dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. Constantinidou, K.P. 1998: Using collaborative Exploratory Practice to investigate EFL students’ lack of motivation to write. MA dissertation, School of Education, University of Bath, UK. Edge, J. and Richards, K., editors, 1993: Teachers develop teachers research. London, Heinemann. Gunn, C. 2001: Communicative competence in an enhanced learning context. Doctoral dissertation, University of Bath, UK.

Hanks, J. 1998: ‘The thing that puzzled me was

teacher perspectives on ‘problems’ and ‘puzzles’ for Exploratory Practice. MA dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. –––– 1999: Enthusiasm, puzzlement, and Exploratory Practice. The International House Journal of Education and Development (London, International House) 7, April/May: 14–16. Ho, M.K. 2002: A study on anxiety in the second language classroom via Exploratory Practice. Unpublished MA TESOL dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. Holec, H., editor, 1988: Autonomy and self-directed learning: present fields of application. Strasbourg, Council of Europe. Lamie, J. 2001: Influences on the process of change: the impact of in- service training on the attitudes and practices of Japanese teachers of English. Doctoral dissertation, University of Birmingham, UK. Le, C. 2002: What are the effects of text type on anxiety and comprehension? MA TESOL dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. Lee, P.K. 2002: Is peer correction able to increase students’ motivation and confidence in learning written English? MA TESOL Dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. Lenzuen, R. and Samson, M. 1998: The development of Exploratory Practice at SBCI. ELT Views and News 5(1): 72–4. Miller, I.K. 2001: Researching teacher consultancy via Exploratory Practice: a reflexive and socio-interactional approach. Doctoral dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. Miller, I.K. and Bannell, R.I. 1998: Teacher education, understanding and Exploratory Practice. Newsletter of the IATEFL Teacher Trainers SIG Newsletter 22: 207. Naidu, B., Neeraja, K., Ramani, E., Shivakumar, J. and Viswanatha, A. 1992: Re-searching heterogeneity: an account of teacher-initiated research into large classes. English Language Teaching Journal, 46(3): 252–63.

.’ Implications of

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Nunan, D. 1989: Understanding language classrooms. Hemel Hempstead:

Prentice Hall International (UK). Özdeniz, D. 1996: Introducing innovations into your teaching: innovation and exploratory teaching. In Willis, J. and Willis, D., editors, Challenge and change in language teaching, Oxford: Heinemann,


Perpignan, H. 2001: Teacher-written feedback to language learners:

promoting a dialogue for understanding. Doctoral dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. Rao, J.R. and Prakash, C.L.N. 1991: The English language community, Bangalore: five years on. Historical Postscript to Ramani, E. and Joseph, M., editors, ELT in India: The Dynamics of Change, Lancaster: Centre for Research in Language Education (CRILE), in collaboration with the English Language Teaching Community, Bangalore, 83–90. Richards, J. and Nunan, D., editors, 1990: Second language teacher education. New York: Cambridge University Press. Samson, M. 1995:The evolution and development of Exploratory Practice in the Cultura Inglesa-Rio de Janeiro: a case study. MA dissertation, Lancaster University, UK. –––– In progress: The role of the institution in personal professional development. Doctoral research project, Department of Linguistics, Lancaster University, UK. –––– Forthcoming: Researching Exploratory Practice at the Sociedade Brasileira de Cultura Inglesa Rio. Paper presented at the 6th National Convention of BRAZ-TESOL, Recife, Brazil, 1998. Forthcoming in the Convention Proceedings. Szesztay, M. 2001: Professional development through research: a case study. Doctoral dissertation, University of Exeter, UK. Wolters, A. 2000: What do you mean ‘They don’t know past tense?’ Exploring ESL learners’ grammatical accuracy in context. MA dissertation, the Graduate School, University of Minnesota, USA. Wu, Z. 2002:Teachers’ ‘knowledge’ and curriculum change: a critical study of teachers’ exploratory discourse in a Chinese university. Doctoral dissertation, Lancaster University, UK.

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