Experiment versus explore

Metaphors for developing practice

When thinking about teaching practice and trying to describe what it is we actually do, it can be helpful to use metaphors and draw analogies from other fields. For example, it might be useful to think of teaching a class being like a football match as it involves a lot of different skills and qualities to be a successful experience. Football teams don’t win simply because of flair players, but they need people to do the running as well. In a language class fancy activities with flashy technology are great, but we still need drills.

As well as describing our actual practice, we can draw analogies to talk about how we develop it. In particular we can borrow a word that is usually associated with the world of science…

experiment [noun]

  1. [countable] a scientific test to find out what happens to someone or something in particular conditions.
  2. [countable] an occasion when you test a new idea, method, or activity to find out what the result will be.

a. [uncountable] the process of testing various ideas, methods, or activities to see what effect they have

experimental [adjective]

  1. using new ideas or methods that are not yet proved to be successful every time
  2. relating to, based on, or used in scientific experiments

(definitions from Macmillan Dictionary)

We can see the wider meaning of experiment encapsulates a lot more than just scientific practices, though, and this is even clearer when looking at the origins of the word. Coming from the Latin experiri:

Experiment etymology

Its origins lie in a word that means ‘try’, and this is what should be an underlying focus of experimental practice: trying something new.

However, this may lead to the assumption that to truly say you are doing experimental practice you need to engage with only developments in teaching that are very new; that this kind of professional development is mostly concerned with what is cutting edge.

Experimental doubts

This leading statement that experimental practice has to be cutting edge is what leads us to consider another metaphor in our journey of professional development and engaging with our own practice: to explore.

explore [verb]

  1. [intransitive/transitive] to travel to a place in order to learn about it or to search for something valuable such as oil
  2. [transitive] to examine or discuss a subject, idea etc thoroughly

exploratory [adjective]

done in order to learn more about something

(definitions from Macmillan Dictionary)

When looking at engaging with different approaches, methods, techniques and tools, all the things that make up our practice, from an exploratory perspective, it becomes clear that what we do depends primarily on ourself and what we have or haven’t done. What is good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. Something that works for the individual in developing their practice does not necessarily help other teachers to do so as well. Not immediately anyway.

Using a metaphor of exploring, and the different aspects of English language teaching as a territory to be traversed, we are able to place ourselves on a kind of map of practice. We can see the locales we know like the back of our hand, or those wide streets where we learnt how to go about what we do. We can see those darker areas and narrow lanes that we haven’t yet ventured down. And there are those who have attempted to map out the country that is ELT.

Exploratory practice is a journey. It’s one that I have only really just embarked upon myself. And it is one that I would recommend to any fellow teacher or ELT professional.

If you are interested in finding out more about other people’s experieces of carrying out experimental practice, or woulds like to read short articles on the subject (like this one), please follow or subscribe to the blog by clicking on the button or entering your email in the box in the top-right in the sidebar.

You can read interviews with people about experimental practice here.

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ESOL professional – teacher, trainer and materials writer; interested in learning, teaching, language, and learning and teaching language. Now freelancing having worked in private language schools, further education colleges, and the media.

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