The pros and cons of eclecticism. Blog post by Tim Goodier

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eclecticismtg-not-doing-anything‘The classroom teacher and the program coordinator have a wider variety of methodological options to choose from than ever before.’, so says the preface to Jack Richards and Theodore Rogers’ ‘Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching’ (C.U.P., 1986; vii), which has become a classic text of 30 years, and staple reading of language teacher trainees worldwide, at least in the world of ELT.  Ask any language teacher what the latest ‘method’ is in language teaching, and you might get one of a variety of answers – is it still the communicative approach? Task-based learning? The Lexical Approach? Materials-light, learner-centred ‘Dogme’? ‘Demand high’? Perhaps throwing in a bit of audio-lingual style drilling and repetition is coming back into fashion? Most likely teachers will favour exploiting key aspects of each of these approaches/movements/philosophies in their lessons and others too, and there is often plenty of overlap between them. This kind of eclecticism might be described as the judicious combination of lesson phases influenced by the principles of different complementary methodologies, and as such is no longer a recent ‘end of history’ in the march of the Methods; it has arguably been the status quo for decades.

In parallel the dialogue of innovation in language teaching in recent years has shifted ever more noticeably onto the use of educational technology and ‘blended learning’, an area I have been greatly concerned with myself – but this is inevitably dominated by considerations of how to effectively exploit and integrate digital media and networking tools, rather than dealing with a distinct ‘method’. I’m reminded that the real core of a successful IWB training programme at my institution was to focus teachers on staying true to their existing repertoire of learner-centred classroom technique, with the use of the technology itself developing incidentally to support this. It would be fair to say that blended learning and eclecticism walk closely hand in hand, as educators aim to provide an ever more tailored, mutually enhancing mix of autonomous and taught online/offline learning experiences. The only problem with eclecticism as a principle is that we can’t say for sure whether it is a force for good or not in its own right, as it doesn’t really mean anything, by virtue of potentially meaning so many things. Nevertheless, I’ll consider here some ways in which eclecticism (in the dictionary sense of drawing on a diverse range of sources and styles) might typically manifest in teaching and learning, and to what extent it can be viewed positively.

Eclecticism in autonomous learning

Learning a language is undeniably a messy process, and one that ultimately belongs to the language learner, so the importance of fostering this ownership in learners is clear. For someone studying a second language autonomously, situations of real communicative need in the target language can be rare, so ‘practising’ the language can often be comprised of mainly contrived activities and exercises. As we all know this can be highly demotivating after some time. One advantage of the now ubiquitous web is the wealth of opportunities it provides to access material and/or communicate in the target language on topics of personal interest that raise the authentic communicative need of doing so. But the autonomous learner needs to become a brave (and eclectic) hunter to fully benefit from this, prepared to trawl on a daily basis YouTube videos, app stores, forums etc. for those golden nuggets of interest they can focus on and digest (e.g. in a project setting). Such exploration can of course be enjoyed in parallel to more clearly graded self-study tasks designed to reinforce language resources, so this is not to say contrived language learning activities don’t have a place. In the early stages of learning a language most would agree they are essential – learners who are prepared to slog away with endless bilingual vocabulary lists should not necessarily be discouraged from doing so, rather they should be guided to see how this is only an awareness raising part of an eclectic process that should include plenty of communicative engagement too. Perhaps the most valuable support to promote real autonomy is to illuminate the positive effect all this activity might be having, and what to focus on next. So fostering enthusiastic eclecticism alone is arguably not enough – learners need a clear frame of objectives and description of achievement to reflect on where they are before moving on.

Eclecticism in teaching

It’s not hard to think of when eclecticism can take a turn for the worse in the classroom. It’s usually when lesson planning becomes a recipe book of disparate resources and well-loved tasks as ingredients to endlessly recycle – superficially ‘personalising’ each course by, for example, supplementing or just plain ignoring a course book / scheme with the quantitative addition of such ingredients (to the horror of the Dogme trainer!). It is not surprising with the recipe-book approach that topics become the chief organising principle – as we also see in the ‘units’ of almost every course book ever produced, which use a unifying topic as the Trojan horse to deliver a series of grammar points, pronunciation drills and comprehension activities etc. (with can-do statements thrown in at the end for good measure…). The problem here is that learners can often be left in the dark as to why they are doing something, other than that it relates to the topic of food, for example. But topics are important as a way of engaging learners, and a positively eclectic teacher will constantly be seeking to exploit areas that arise from the learners’ interests and stories themselves. Moreover, simulated / real-world domains and situations (as a type of topic) introduced by the teacher can provide a clear ground for training learners to do something in the language, if teachers can just avoid falling back on topics as learning aims in their own right.

A more sophisticated form of teacher eclecticism is, of course, that which the opening quote referred to i.e. the considered employment of, and experimentation with, approaches and methods. In this way a teacher can play with their ingredients intelligently to maximise learning opportunities – a classic example of this is the communicative classroom which is peppered with more audio-lingual style pronunciation drills and repetition. Was this ever in fact negated by the communicative approach anyway? In this case we might see ‘audio-lingual style’ as a mental shorthand for the teacher to shift their focus onto drilling or recycling a form/chunk, though this may be highly incidental and arising from meaningful learner contributions. And why is it inspectors traditionally like this simple thing so much? Clearly because from the learner’s point of view these phases provide a safe regular opportunity to get your chops around the motor aspects of the language, and build confidence before (or after) more meaning-driven communication and tasks.  Even a consciousness of the now widely (and entertainingly) lampooned ‘pseudo-science’ of learner-styles and multiple intelligences can prompt positive experimentation with shifts of focus in the classroom, if the teacher is primarily concerned with how much successful learning is going on.

Overall, much like autonomous learners of the language, teachers are (mostly) highly autonomous lifelong learners of the noble art of teaching. So it’s unsurprising teachers too need encouragement to experiment, with regular recognition of achievement and pointers for what to try next. This ultimately requires a robust frame of development and supportive community of practice, with clearly stated objectives to set, revisit and hone, otherwise exploratory intiatives can have a tendency to fizzle out in the day-to-day. So I believe eclecticism in language teaching and learning should indeed be embraced, but always with a pedagogic centre of gravity of some kind that provides a learner-centred roadmap of enquiry and well-described achievement!