This blog post forms part of my preparations for my mini talk at IATEFL Liverpool in just over two months’ time.
I recently asked a question in the IATEFL Facebook Group which got me thinking a bit more about what I actually understand experimental practice and exploring one’s own practice to be, and made me aware that other people might not actually think of it in exactly the same way. My question was about different teaching methodologies and approaches, asking teachers around the world to consider which of these they had experimented with throughout their careers. The response to the question which made me think was this:
I’m interested in the way you’ve phrased your question because I don’t see most of these as experimental practice. However, if you first tried TBLT back in the day or dogme the day after Thornbury first talked about it, it would indeed have been experimental. So, I’m wondering what conclusions you are likely to draw from the results.
So I thought I’d consider a number of statements that could be said about what experimental practice is, to better define what exactly I’m going to be talking about and what ideas I’ll be sharing at IATEFL.
1. Experimental practice has to be cutting edge.
This was probably the most direct inference I took from the above comment, that to be truly experimental, the technique, tool or methodology you were exploring had to be generally accepted as ‘new’. To me, this is not the best way to think about experimental practice – in fact, I think this point of view would actually rule out the possibility of anyone ever experimenting, since nothing much is very ‘new’ any more.
Instead, when thinking about what is new, the best stance to take is that experimental practice is relative. That is to say, if it is something that you have not investigated much in your teaching career so far, then if you decide to investigate this particular aspect of teaching it is experimental for you.
2. I don’t have enough experience to properly experiment in my teaching.
Again, to me this is a case of approaching the idea of experimental practice as the preserve of some kind of higher authority or solely for those teachers who have been teaching for some time. It might seem like you need to know everything (or, at least, a great deal) about teaching or language in order to be able to experiment.
I would turn this around and say that experimental practice is for anybody and everybody, regardless of their level of teaching experience. No matter who you are, I strongly feel that there is always scope for experimenting and subsequent personal and professional development. I would also add that it is helpful to think that almost any teaching is experimental anyway – you are never the same at any one moment you are teaching, and neither are your students, even if the materials stay the same; even if the class stays the same, everyone who is in the classroom is constantly changing (you, the teacher, included). So if experimenting in this way already forms part of your practice, it is only a small leap to take it further.
3. My teaching context is too restrictive to experiment.
I have been fortunate in my teaching career to have worked in places where I have had relative freedom to try things out in the classroom, and I do think that this is important to truly give experimental practice a go. However, I am aware through contacts I have online and other teachers I know personally that not every institution is as affording as this. Teachers in these work contexts may be worried about ‘rocking the boat’ by trying out new tools, techniques and approaches. My response to this dilemma would be that experimental practice can start small.
It would be unwise, in my opinion, to suddenly decide that you are going to experiment in using the Silent Way in your language lessons and then in your next lessons not say anything at all, or to completely adopt the principles of audio-lingualism and then teach a whole lesson of drills and pronunciation work. Experimental practice can, and probably should, start with the adoption of small elements of affordances or ideas that the different tools, techniques and methodologies and teaching approaches give us, or they can take the form of small modifications to our existing practice based on these.
4. Experimental practice should be well-prepared.
Leading on from point number 3 above, this one obviously goes without saying. You need to be ready for your experiment, if it is going to be of most use to you in your professional development. If you just suddenly decide to try out a dictogloss in class, and you haven’t prepared enough, and made sure that you have considered how such an experiment might (or might not) benefit your learners. You might need to adapt elements of whatever you are experimenting with to make it fit in with your teaching context and appropriate for what you are teaching and the people you are teaching.
5. Experimental practice should be reflected upon.
Again, this is standard. There isn’t much point in undertaking experimental practice if you aren’t going to follow this up with some kind of reflective task. There are a few ways to facilitate this post-experiment analysis: ask a colleague to observe you teaching the experimental lesson, if you have the facility to do so, you could record the lesson in some way (perhaps using a digital voice recorder to record your instructions and sections of classroom talk, or using a video recorder to record the session) – of course, if you decide to do this, make sure to get permission from your students. You will have a better record of what happened in your lesson, but it should also be noted that recording yourself and the students in this way may cause you and them to act unnaturally, and possibly influence how well the experiment goes.
Having a space where you can reflect on the session, and consider whether you met your teaching aims and whether you thought the experiment was successful or not. If you asked a colleague to observe you, being able to talk with them about it afterwards can be very beneficial.
Those are 5 things to consider off the top of head. What have I missed out in terms of what to consider when carrying out experimental practice? Please leave a comment below with your ideas!