Volume V- 2000

An Attitude of Inquiry: TESOL as a Science
by Diane Larsen-Freeman

        Diane Larsen-Freeman, Professor of Applied Linguistics at the School for International Training, has published some of the most popular and widely cited works in our field including Discourse Analysis in Second Language Research The Grammar Book (with Marianne Celce-Murcia), Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching, and An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition Research (with Mike Long). She is also series editor of the highly acclaimed ESL Series Grammar Dimensions published by Heinle & Heinle.

        It is fitting that I have been asked to speak to the issue of teaching as a science on the last day of a convention that has adopted as its theme, "The Art of TESOL." It is fitting for the simple reason that for as long as I have been involved in the field, my most consistent message has been one of the need to strive for balance--to avoid extremes. And so, once again, I find myself working to restore the equilibrium by arguing the case for science. I must say before doing so, however, that the art/science distinction is in fact a false dichotomy. It is clearly not a case of " either/or but rather both/and. Nevertheless, as this debate format is useful for laying out the issues, let me put forward the case for the science of TESOL.

        When I spoke with others about my assigned role in this debate, their initial response was often one I can only describe as sympathetic. "Good luck!" they said, but I knew that they were thinking-"Better you than me." Needless to say, this reaction did not inspire confidence. It also left me wondering why people felt this way. But rather than speculating on the reason, I decided to be a good scientist and to investigate the matter empirically. I went back to those who had wished me good fortune, and I asked them to freely associate with the word "science." Although their answers were diverse, certain associations were more frequent than others: "objective," "analytical," "sterile," "predicting and controlling," "omniscient," "arrogant," "absolute," "dispassionate." It was not difficult to see why I had been wished "Good luck" in making the case for teaching as science.

The Voices of Scientists

        But are these associations really what science is all about? I think not. However, again it would not be practicing what I preach if I just asked you to take my word for it. So I will play the role of a scientist and let the evidence speak for itself. Listen to voices of scientists as they talk about what it is they do. One day last month (February 7, 1996), Charles Gibson, host of the television show "Good Morning America," was interviewing Michael Guillen, the show's Science Editor, about a chemist who had invented "beads" that interact with sea water to generate power, 100 times the power it takes to heat them. The following is my reconstruction of part of the interview:

Gibson: So you get a tremendous amount of output for a little input. How does it work?

Guillen: No one knows but different people have repeated the procedure numerous times and they always get the same result.

Gibson: (incredulous) You mean it is a mystery? But you are a scientist!

Guillen: Actually, it is common for scientists to observe something and for its cause to remain a mystery -- for them to know absolutely nothing about why it occurred. Science deals with mystery.

        Now listen to what another scientist writes about mystery.

        As a scientist in the Age of Reason, I delight in solving mysteries. To have a full- blown taste for mystery, however, one must take delight both in solving mysteries and in not solving them; in finding explanations for things and in living with things for which there currently is no explanation and which may be forever beyond` explanation. (Peck, 1995: 53-54).

        So rather than omniscience and absolutes and arrogance, science is about mysteries and seeking explanations and acceptance--accepting that not all mysteries will yield their secrets. But what about prediction and control? Listen now to John Holland, a computer scientist, discuss these matters with regards to meteorology. (What better scientific specialty than meteorology to talk humbly about prediction?)

        The weather never settles down. It never repeats itself exactly. It's essentially unpredictable more than a week or so in advance. And yet we can comprehend and explain almost everything that we see up there. We can identify important features such as weather fronts, jet streams, and high-pressure systems. We can understand their dynamics. We can understand how they interact to produce weather on a local and regional scale. In short, we have a real science of weather--without full prediction. And we can do it because prediction isn't the essence of science. The essence is comprehension and explanation. (Holland in Waldrop 1992: 255)

        John Holland himself is concerned with complex adaptive systems. Scientists who study such systems, under the rubric of chaos/complexity science, make no pretense at being able to predict anything. The systems they study are too complex to allow for any reliable forecasting. Chaos/complexity science has also shown that reductionist thinking, which has been the most powerful tool in the "hard" sciences for the past 400 years, is inadequate for dealing with the dynamics of complex, nonlinear systems (Larsen-Freeman, 1997). Thus, "the most important way of knowing today [in modern science] is the one that can respect complexity while examining it" (Gattegno 1987: 80).

        Finally, I submit evidence from an entomologist 1. Last month, on the U.S. National Public Radio show "Weekend Edition,"an entomologist from Montana State University in Bozeman (while discussing beetles) made the comment that there was more insect diversity-more species-in Glacier National Park than in the tropics. When Alex Chadwick, the NPR commentator, asked why this was so, the entomologist responded, "We don't know." Alex Chadwick replied with disbelief:

Chadwick: I don't expect scientists to say "We don't know."
Entomologist: I don't think there would be any scientists if everything was known. What drives science is curiosity-what more is there to learn? Every time I go out, I see something new.
Chadwick: Why don't I see the beetles?
Entomologist: You have to learn to see. Most people's view of beetles is limited to scraping them off the windshield-they are an annoyance. But they are there. They make up 25% of the animate life forms surrounding us. You have to learn to look.

        So rather than objectivity, sterility and dispassion, science is about curiosity and awareness and about learning to look. And, perhaps, as I do, you also hear in the voice of the entomologist, about wonder 2. For scientists are like children for whom life is a constant variation on the theme of trying new things, going where they couldn't go yesterday, "going where they've never gone before," as it says in Star Trek. Many of us lose this quality of ceaseless experimentation when we grow up. But it is precisely this quality that made many scientists great. This is Louis Pasteur with his microscope, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin with their oral poliomyelitis vaccines, and Nobel Prize laureate Barbara McClintock with her discovery that sudden evolutionary changes can come from "jumping genes," genes which wander from one position on a chromosome to another. Indeed, a common experience reported by many scientists is that what drew them to science was the wonder of gazing up at a starry night sky at an early age.

        So, this protracted discussion was supposed to convince you that the stereotypical view of science depicted earlier by word associations no longer represents reality, if it ever did. Now at the risk of stating the obvious, let me make explicit my conviction that many of these characteristics of science are also true of teaching.

An Attitude of Inquiry

        Teaching, like science, is at its best when it is passionate. But like good scientists (and unlike artists) teachers need not--should not be captivated by their own performance. There is a good reason that much of the literature in science uses the passive voice-and it is not so much to give the appearance of objectivity as the grammar books like to tell us. It is because in science the focus is on the results. Similarly, in teaching we are less concerned, or should be, with the teacher's performance and more with the learning outcomes.

        As with science, teaching benefits from an attitude of inquiry. Much is mysterious about the teaching/learning process, and those who approach it as a mystery to be solved (recognizing that some things about teaching and learning may be forever beyond explanation) will see their teaching as a continuing adventure. Moreover, the intellectual engagement that accompanies disciplined inquiry will be a source of continual professional renewal and refreshment (Prahbu 1990).

        Like scientists, teachers approach practice with theories on how teaching and learning are supposed to work. Their theories-in-action (Schon 1983) may or may not be explicit, but they are what drives and shapes in a fundamental way what teachers do in the classroom. Teachers who know this about their teaching, who use every lesson as "an inquiry, some further discovery, a quiet form of research" (Britton 1987: 15), and who follow the lesson with a period of reflection, out of which new understandings arise and are assimilated-- such teachers are scientists in the best sense of the role.

Social Dimension

        "But," you might be asking, "is it proper science if a teacher examines her practice in terms of her students' learning and all that comes of the investigation is the potentially enhanced learning of her own students within the confines of the four walls of her own classroom?" While theory construction, modification through disciplined inquiry, and enhanced learning outcomes are significant accomplishments, I think the answer is that these alone do not make teaching science. There remains one additional dimension to being a scientist that must be satisfied. And although it may not be obvious at first, it is the social dimension.

        For despite what may be perceived to be a rather solitary profession, scientists have a social mission. They seek to make the world a better place for us all. Whether or not they have accomplished this is of course debatable, but the will to try to improve life motivates many scientists. And the actuality of doing this comes through scientists' membership in an international community of peers, a community which transcends cultural boundaries. [While exploring in science may be a lonely business initially, as the biologist Thomas puts it, "sooner or later, before the enterprise reaches completion, as we explore, we call to each other, communicate, publish, send letters to the editor, present papers, and cry out [our] finding" (Thomas 1974: 15 in Cochran-Smith and Lytle 1993).

        Similarly, the quiet research the teacher conducts in her classroom--like all forms of research (educational or otherwise)--is a fundamentally social and constructive activity. Not only can each separate piece of teacher research inform subsequent activities in the individual teacher's classroom, but also each piece potentially informs and is informed by all teacher research past and present. Although teacher research is not always motivated by a need to generalize beyond the immediate case, it may in fact be relevant for a wide variety of contexts. (Cochran-Smith and Lytle 1993: 24).

        Thus, like scientists, teachers need to share their findings with a community of others, and in doing so, to subject them to the scrutiny of peers. Perhaps, as Freeman (1996) observes, teachers need to find new genre for this sharing. Perhaps, also, we need new criteria for what it takes to pass muster with a peer group. Rather than the positivist criteria of validity and generalizability, we might consider notions such as trustworthiness (Mishler 1990) and particularizability (Clarke 1995).

The Horizontal Growth of Knowledge

        How case studies function in knowledge generation is the subject of a much longer treatise than I have time for here. Suffice it to say that the debate as to whether or not teacher research is science and thus advances the knowledge in the field hinges on what is meant by knowledge. As Eisner (1991) points out, a view that presumes knowledge is "inert material" that can be collected, stored, stockpiled (p. 210), may make little room for teachers' systematic investigations where the unit of analysis is the single case study. On the other hand, if one sees knowledge growth as more horizontal than vertical, teacher research yields multiple conceptual frameworks that others can use to better illuminate the understanding they have of their own situation (in Cochran-Smith and Lytle 1993: 59).

As Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993) have put it recently:

        We think that with teacher research, knowledge will accumulate as communities of school-based and university-based teachers and researchers read and critique one another's work, document and perhaps disseminate their responses, and create a network of citations and allusions, and hence begin to build a different kind of "interpretive universe" (p .59).

        The signs are encouraging for such a universe to be born. Already, those in high office are beginning to put resources into teacher research. In government, we learn that the US Department of Education has established a Division of Teacher Research; in the academy, we note the example of a book written by teachers about their teaching and their students' learning, Teachers' Voices being published by the National Center for English Language Teaching and Research at Macquarie University in Australia; and, finally, in professional associations, we find officers in our own professional association, TESOL, spending time this week discussing the role of research in a teachers' professional association. Whatever the outcome of these initiatives, they will demand of us (and I include not only teachers, but also teacher educators, administrators, and publishers) that we commit ourselves to standards of professionalism, standards which depend upon a continual process of self- reflection and education.


        Ultimately, though, these actions are insufficient. If teaching is a science and we are to be scientists, we each need to cultivate an attitude of inquiry about our practice. We need to approach teaching and learning with wonder and openness. We need to find the courage to question and the discipline to remain with the question. We need to develop the habit of reflectivity. And we need to be passionate enough about what we do to risk sharing with others our understandings and our explanations. Only then is teaching a profession which generates its own theory or knowledge base (Larsen-Freeman 1990). Only then can teaching become something that is "profoundly other than a solitary profession whose practice is driven by unexamined routine" (Frederick Erickson in Cochran-Smith and Lytle 1993: ix). Only then is teaching a science.


Britton, J. 1987. A Quiet Form of Research. In D. Goswami & P. Stillman (Eds.), Reclaiming the Classroom: Teacher Research as an Agency for Change. Upper Montclair, New Jersey: Boynton/Cook.

Clarke, Mark. 1995. Ideology, Method, Style: The Importance of Particularizability. Paper presented at the International TESOL Convention, Long Beach, CA.

Cochran-Smith, Marilyn and Susan L. Lytle. 1993. Inside/Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge . New York: Teachers College Press.

Eisner, Elliot. 1991. The Enlightened Eye . New York: Macmillan.

Freeman, Donald. 1996. Redefining the Relationship between Research and What Teachers Know. In K.M. Bailey and D. Nunan (Eds.), Voices from the Language Classroom . Cambridge University Press.

Gattegno, Caleb. 1987. The Science of Education. Part 1: Theoretical Considerations . New York: Educational Solutions, Inc.

Mishler, Elliot. 1990. Validation in Inquiry-guided Research. Harvard Educational Review

Larsen-Freeman, Diane. 1990. On the Need for a Theory of Language Teaching. In James' E. Alatis (Ed.), The Interdependence of Theory, Practice and Research: Georgetown University Round Table on Languages and Linguistics. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, Diane. 1977. Chaos/Complexity Science and Second Language Acquisition. Applied Linguistics , Number 2:141-165.

Prahbu, N.S. 1990. There is No Best Method--Why? TESOL Quarterly " Number 2: 161-176.

Schon, Donald A. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. 1992. Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. New York: Simon & Schuster.


1 My recollection of an interview (February 3, 1996) I listened to on the radio as I was driving my car.

2 The discussion based on wonder was inspired by a column by Anthony Acheson, which appeared in The Brattleboro Reformer, Saturday, July 29, 1995, page 17, entitled "The Wonder of Childhood."

back to content page