ESPers as Active Learners

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

As an ESP practitioner, how often do you find yourself in the role of a student? In this TESOL Blog post, I will focus on the ESPer’s role as a learner based on some of my own experiences.

For 30 years, I have had the opportunity to work as an English teacher for professionals in various occupations. Some of my current students in Japan have careers involving scientific and/or social research. These students speak in English at international conferences (e.g., UAE, Australia, France, etc.) about their research. In order to prepare themselves for such conferences, they like to bring to our one-on-one, hour-long sessions articles in English related to their research.

What do such students want from me? More than anything else, they want a discussion partner who knows something about their research. They also want me to keep going an hour-long conversation about their research.

How do I make sure that such conversations are interesting and useful? I have found that it helps to be an active learner. In the role of an active learner, I become extremely curious about my students’ fields of research. Accordingly, I ask numerous questions and let my students answer those questions.

From a reflective practitioner stance, I have thought about what we actually accomplish in our seemingly “free discussion” sessions. In this connection, I have asked myself two questions: 1) Do we accomplish anything of value? and 2) Do the students actually improve?

In reflecting on such “free discussion” sessions, I considered the kinds of questions that I tend to ask. First, I try to learn about what my students are doing as researchers; i.e., their specific activities and the science involved. As a result, my questions may include:

  1. Can you draw me a picture so I can visualize that better? (Note: I actually ask my students to draw pictures on a piece of paper to help me understand the science.)
  2. How much does it cost to do that type of research? (Note: Since I am unfamiliar with their fields, I am interested in all aspects of their research, including the financial aspects)
  3. Let me confirm if I understand this. So in your lab, you are…, right? (Note: I repeat what a student has explained to me to make sure that I understand it correctly.)

The research papers that my students bring to our one-on-one sessions can help me to learn the correct terminology for asking questions and for summarizing what a student has explained to me.

In my reflective process, I also recognized that I tend to ask questions related to the impact of my students’ research on society. For example, my questions may focus on the following:

  1. The problems that the students are trying to solve
  2. The methods that they are using to solve the problems
  3. The results that they expect to achieve in the short term and long term through their research efforts

In connection with the above, I engage my students in a type of academic debate. The students are required to reflect on and defend what they are doing as researchers.

In view of the above, by being an active learner, I am doing two things:

  • preparing the students to discuss the contents of their research in detail
  • preparing the students to defend their research against attack in view of the related social and ethical issues

In both cases, I am learning about my students’ work, and they are being prepared to field questions at international conferences in English. I would consider such lessons to be win-win situations.

What kind of win-win situations do you create as an ESP practitioner? Let us all know!

All the best,

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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