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

    PhD Thesis, University of Queensland

    Research Objectives

    This study takes on as its objective to explore the possibility of conceptualising a teaching environment which would be based on premises that acknowledge the dynamic relationship between the data and the analysts and which therefore would make it possible to open up the field of inquiry to a diversity of perspectives, all competing for the status of truth or, more exactly, for their capacity to reveal more rather than less. 

    The discussion regarding the conditions which regulate speakers’ communicative competence and the examples of critiques raised by Candlin, Pennycook and Bourdieu together indicate that by expanding the means in terms of which communication is analysed, teachers, learners and researchers would gain a chance to approach critically (i.e. from a bigger, more inclusive perspective) their own understandings. This study seeks to propose that only in such an environment it would be possible for the respective parties to take the task of analysis seriously enough for individuals to entertain the possibility of changing (or expanding) their mindset when confronted with competing points of view. 

    Furthermore, the study argues that by opening up room to competing perspectives, the field of L2-teaching and research is able to free itself from the expectation to produce a “globally applicable method” which would be coherent and as such fixed in its assumptions regarding the object and the process of learning. Instead, in this study, of concern it is to put in place conditions where coherence or assumptions regarding the object of inquiry are not constraining the inquiry but are continuously being constructed and reconstructed.

    In this way, whatever the assumptions that individuals bring with them into the process of inquiry, they are always approached as limitations or prejudices to be build upon and to overcome rather than limitations that restrict the field of inquiry. This is a very different model from the attempts that were discussed in Chapter 1 and where teaching conditions and research objectives were limited by the specific model of language or learning that was adopted by researchers or teachers. As this study argues, in such research and teaching frameworks, conclusions of the inquiry are already precluded by the assumptions with which these inquiries begin and which they are not willing to abandon. In this way, any possibility of engaging in the process of inquiry perspectives that would endanger and challenge the status quo is excluded. 

    On the other hand, the environment that this study seeks to propose goes hand in hand with Pennycook’s premise that progress is not cumulative and that new knowledge is not constructed through attempts which conform to the old but, rather, by questioning the old. Moreover, in order to do so, this study suggests that it is imperative to engage concerns and perspectives that the old premises exclude. Questions therefore bring in new perspectives into play and are generated in the context where old knowledge or old understandings show to be unsatisfactory in the process of understanding and managing reality or practices. The task of reflection, or constructing a theoretical model, as described in here takes a forward-looking direction where knowledge is created in order to understand and manage practice(s), or reality, better. Its aim is not to contain practice or reality to the theoretically elaborated principles. Quite contrary, it is to expand the understanding of reality by engaging and exploring the potential insights that can be derived from diverse perspectives.  

    In this focus, the goal that this study attributes to theoretical inquiry is consistent with the principles elaborated by Bourdieu and discussed previously. As argued by Bourdieu, the functioning of practices is not realised in an application of conscious and verbally defined classificatory schemes: “One can say that gymnastics is geometry so long as this is not taken to mean that the gymnast is a geometer” (Bourdieu, 1995: 93).  In other words, while our perspectives, points of view, or theoretical models may find confirmation in practice (i.e. in reality or as we see things to be), it is an entirely different matter to assume that practice follows the principles outlined in a theoretical model. 

    By implication, the discussion regarding the function of theory raises serious questions regarding the future of applied linguistics itself. If, as indicated, practice cannot be said to be contained by however powerful our theoretical models may seem, it begs a question why linguistics itself should be in a privileged position of offering a model of the practices which should be applied rather than contested like any other model or point of view. One of the tasks which this study seeks to explore is exactly the extent to which this privileged place of linguistics in L2-teaching and research may have been detrimental rather than beneficial to those fields. 

    Ania Lian, January, 2003

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