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    In search of the bigger picture: toward systematisation of intellectual traditions in second language teaching

    PhD Thesis, University of Queensland

    A short description

    Ania Lian is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland, Australia. She is currently finishing her PhD-thesis in the area of second language teaching. Its title is 'In search of the bigger picture: toward systematisation of intellectual traditions in second language teaching'. The study has taken many years and has culminated in a work that tackles the problem of expertise in second language teaching and research (see Research objectives). The problem of expertise may be more troubling than it seems to be at first. John R. Saul writes on the matter:

    "Ten geographers who think that the world is flat will tend to reinforce each other’s errors. 
    If they have a private dialect in which to do this, it becomes impossible for outsiders to disagree with them. 
    Only a sailor can set them straight. The last person they want to meet is someone who, 
    freed from the constraints of expertise, has sailed around the world. 
    The purpose of language is communication. It has no other reason for existence. 
    A great civilization is one in which there is a rich texture and breadth and ease to that communication. 
    When language begins to prevent communication, that civilization has entered into serious degeneracy.” 
    (John R Saul, Voltaire's Bastards, 1991: 476)

    As her study shows, the question of “How to teach?” summarises a central problem of L2-teaching. This problem grows in its urgency in the light of the critique that the current teaching practices are seen as lacking in a methodology except in a rudimentary way. Teaching activities are often criticised as based on the principle ‘it seems like a good thing to do’, rather than on a coherent discourse which relates them to best or optimal outcomes. The bases of this critique are the subject of this study. As this study shows, the search for a method brings with it a yet another dilemma. If the answers to the questions “What to teach?”, “How?”, “Why?” cannot be traced back to a principle established from an impartial standpoint, how can language teachers ensure that the goals that they pursue are not only legitimised but are also legitimate? In other words, how can language teaching proceed legitimately without privileging in the process a specific point of view or a specific group?

    Against the context of this dilemma it is difficult to see which options second language teaching should follow. Should teachers abandon a search for a method? If they do, teachers will be left with not much more than they are said to have today: the principle ‘it seems like a good thing to do’. In order to resolve this impasse, this thesis seeks to accommodate for a principled basis for teaching, without, however, the drawbacks of models which seek in principles an escape from responsibility and critical reflection. With this goal in mind, the aim of this thesis is to propose a framework for thinking about second language teaching and research whose principles function as freeing up rather than limiting learners’, teachers’ and researchers’ exploratory opportunities. The leading concerns around which the proposed methodology is structured are its capacity to ensure that no single point of view functions as final and the model’s potential to create a platform for different points of view to meet and compete. 

    The aim is to create a model where knowledge develops in a process that follows by inclusion rather than exclusion of competing points of view. As this study demonstrates, it is the departure from the search for truths and answers to questions such as “What to teach?”, “How?”, “Why?” that is critical to the working of the proposed model. Thus rather that truths or absolute answers, at stake are strategies, or conditions, which would challenge learners' beliefs and, in this way, would help them to construct a richer, more critical understanding of the constraints (or the reference structures) that native speakers mobilise in their communicative interactions. As such, the study suggests a model where it is exactly through continuous critical reflection that knowledge is gained by teachers and learners in respect to their own goals.  The proposed model therefore fosters challenge and encourages learning from challenge. It is a model where points of view function as limitations to be overcome, where it shows necessary, rather than as the means that limit the scope of the inquiry.

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