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Review: Puzzle practice

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Exploratory Practice (EP) began to emerge in the early 1990s, partly in response to the then more established forms of practitioner research such as Action Research (AR) and Reflective Practice (RP). For many involved in language teaching, these terms are perhaps still a mystery.

Happily, in her introduction, Hanks explains how exploratory practice is ‘a form of practitioner research in which learners as well as teachers are encouraged to investigate their own learning/teaching practices, while concurrently practising the target language.’

She incorporates many vignettes in the remaining chapters to help unpack this statement. She responds first in detail herself to frequently asked questions, such as: ‘Isn’t Exploratory Practice just a form of Action Research?’ – which I must admit was my initial thought.

Part one provides the historical and conceptual background to researching practice, setting EP in context. It explains quantitative, qualitative and mixed research methods, along with the meaning and underlying assumptions of practitioner research.

Following this is an explanation of the evolution of EP, which has led to the development of seven well-established principles for this kind of research.

In brief, these include focusing on understanding before thinking about problem-solving, and bringing learners and teachers together to engage in mutual development.

The burden of research must be minimised for all concerned by carrying it out in classroom time using a ‘Potentially Exploitable Pedagogic Activity’ – or Pepa for short. This could be something like pair or group work, but must not be an activity drafted in for the sole purpose of data collection. Hanks helpfully devotes Chapter 13 to identifying what does and does not count as a Pepa.

Part two of the book consists of case studies that outline the opinions of ‘classroom insiders’ and how they have employed EP in order to investigate their contexts. Different ‘puzzles’ that teachers have investigated include: ‘Why are some students not interested in learning English?

A story of developing mutual understandings’; ‘Why are my learners not taking responsibility for their learning? A story of gaining deeper understandings’ and ‘Why do my students want lectures and I want discussion? A story of collegiality.’

‘Resources’, the final part of the book, consists of lengthy interviews with several key figures involved in EP, in which they explain how they became involved in this area and what influenced them. In line with the personal tone of the whole book, Hanks becomes the interviewee here in order to respond to her own questions.

I do have a few quibbles, however, the first being that Hanks can sometimes become rather over-technical. She seems to forget that the intended readership is unlikely to wish to know about such matters as, for example, Aristotle’s notion of ‘phronesis’ (p52).

My only other complaint is that I felt some ready-made tasks for less-experienced teacher educators would have been a valuable source of material to use in their training sessions. All told, though, I would strongly recommend this book to language teaching institutions anywhere seeking to engage their practitioners – both teachers and learners – in mutual development.

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Wayne Trotman is a teacher educator at Izmir Katip Çelebi University, Izmir, Turkey.