Volume V- 2000

TESOL: Art and Craft
by Henry Widdowson

        Dr. Henry Widdowson previously held chairs at the University of London and the University of Essex, and is now Professor at the University of Vienna. He began his career with the British Council, working in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, before talking up an academic career in Edinburgh where he obtained his doctorate in 1973. He has published many books and articles, the most recent of which are Aspects of Language Teaching, Practical Stylistics and Linguistics, the first in a new series of which he is editor, Oxford Introductions to Language Study. All are published by Oxford University Press.

        Science is seductive because it seems to tell us the way things really are, in spite of what they seem to be. It gets rid of what is incidental and reveals the essential, sees through the symptoms and gets at the real cause of things, the general laws underlying the variety of actual appearances. It is an impressive performance. And you can indeed see it as a performance: like that of a stage magician performing tricks that show the admiring audience how wrong they are to trust the evidence of their own eyes. You saw the gentleman's watch smashed to pieces with my hammer, but you were wrong. Hey presto! Here it is intact. Round of applause. The hundred dollar bill was burned to ash, but abracadabra! Wrong again. Appearances are deceptive.

        But there is more to science than conjuring tricks, you will say. It does not deliberately set out to create illusions but to dispel them: it does not conceal causes, but reveals them. It explains reality. The earth really does go round the sun. The illusion is to suppose otherwise. That may be so but whose reality are we talking about. Science necessarily undermines our trust in experience. The world of the senses and common sense turns out to be insecure, a kind of fiction of appearances. But it is real for us. Science may prove that the earth goes round the sun, but not in my experience. The sun rises and sets: sunup, sundown. Why should I be so persistent in the error of my ways? Now that I know what really happens, why do I not alter my attitudes accordingly so that they are consistent with the way things really are'?

Elusive Variables

        The answer is because what science reveals is not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so that everything else is illusion, and needs to be corrected. It reveals a version of reality. It is an impressive version. For one thing, it is objective, supported by empirical proof, and predictable. If you do this, whoever you are, this will happen in consequence. And if you do it again, the same thing will happen again. Always. But only under certain conditions, and here's the rub. You have to control the circumstances, ignore a whole host of factors, eliminate them from consideration. The scientific version of reality is an abstraction. So in our own field, research in Second Language Acquisition can claim to be scientific. As such, its findings are conditional on controls, on eliminating unwanted variables, so that they are a version of learning, valid only under these conditions. But this abstracted analysis does not match up with actual experience, where variables cannot be so conveniently eliminated. This is not to say that this scientific version may not reveal things which have potential relevance, but the relevance has to be established by reference to the reality of actual experience. It is never self-evident. So researchers in SLA can never reveal the truth about language learning, and never tell teachers how to teach. The problem is that some of them seem to claim that they can, and some TESOL practitioners are deluded into believing them.

        The point is then that science is an abstract enquiry that sees through things as we know them to investigate the hidden and undercurrent laws and rules and regularities that we are not aware of. But things as we know them are what we have to live with. We cannot live with abstractions. So somehow we have to relate them back to the reality we know and make them concrete again. How do we do this? TESOL cannot be a science because it a domain of practical activity not of abstract enquiry. But it can be informed by science. Practice has to make reference to theory. But then theory has to have relevance to practice. This, in our field, is what applied linguistics means. How then is science applied?

A Model for the Application of Science to TESOL

        We know how it is applied in other practical domains. It is done by a process called technology. Once science has discovered the essential forces and causes that underlie familiar phenomena, technology can manipulate them to produce new phenomena and so change the world in which we actually live. Science explains. Technology exploits. So science explains reality in terms of relativity, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics and electromagnetism. And technology exploits the explanation by turning the findings into products: the television, the computer, the compact disc, the nuclear bomb. And so we arrive at civilization as we know it. Here, then, we have a model for the application of science. So what similar applications can we find in our field? What is the equivalent in TESOL of the TV or the Teflon fry-pan? If physical laws can be manipulated to produce the microwave oven for speeding up the cooking process, why can the laws of learning that SLA reveal not be used to produce devices for speeding up the language learning process? Why does the science of linguistic enquiry not have a technology of TESOL to go with it?

        There have been attempts to make TESOL into a technology. There was a time when teachers were told that it was scientifically established that language was reducible to formal structures and that learning it was a matter of habit formation induced by repetition, and the result was a technology of pattern practice and structural drill. More recently, they have been told that scientific enquiry has revealed that elements of language are naturally learned in a certain order, and there have been serious proposals that there should be a corresponding technology of syllabus design which applies that order. But the problem is that technology is necessarily manipulation: it makes findings into products and gets its results by intervention, by molding things into shape, imposing a pattern on them. What technology does is to cast reality in a new image: its products are reproductions of scientific findings in a different form.

        Now you have to be pretty sure that the findings are valid before you start applying them. In TESOL, we cannot always be. Much research is conceptually flawed in its own terms and its findings questionable. And you also have to be pretty sure that the product is what you want. TESOL is concerned with human beings. In certain respects they are all alike: bodies come in all shapes and sizes, but they all consist of the same internal organs, so medical technology can be effectively and predictably applied. Human brains are basically the same whatever head they are in. Human minds are not, and this in many ways is inconvenient. So you can try to make them the same by making them conform to findings, and in effect operating on them as if pedagogy were a kind of brain surgery or genetic engineering. This is a chilling prospect. But luckily there is an alternative.

The Process We Call Art

        One way of making science relevant is by technology. Another is to consider the general principles that arise from theoretical enquiry and treat them as parameters which can be variously set to suit different sets of circumstances. In this case it is not the findings that are relevant but the ideas which they are supposed to prove. You do not assume relevance and validity in advance: you establish them by referring them to your own circumstances. The validity of these ideas is their relevance. If they are not relevant, they are not valid. The everyday world of immediate experience is not discounted in this case but given equal weight. This enables you to design reality is a variety of forms. You are informed by ideas but you do not conform to them. This process is not technology, it is " craft and the successful individual application of this process is what we call art.

        So TESOL practitioners, I suggest, are, as individuals in the particular circumstances of their own classrooms, acting as artists in the exercise of their craft. They are not scientists seeking to eliminate variety in the interests of establishing generalities. They are not technologists seeking to exploit the findings of science by manipulation. As artists, they react to variety and give shape and meaning to it, and they do so by reference to the principles of their craft. But notice that to talk of TESOL as art does not mean that it is simply a matter of untrammelled individual creativity, that teachers are born not made and that's that. Artists are made by knowing about their craft, and so are teachers. Leonardo da Vinci did not become an artist at birth and neither did David Nunan. Of course some artists are better than others. But even those with instinctive gifts need to have them informed by a conscious awareness of the principles, the theoretical principles, of their craft.

        To modify lines of Alexander Pope:

True ease in teaching comes from art not chance.
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.

        We cannot all dance as artistically as Fred Astaire, but even he had to learn how. We can all learn the craft of dancing and teaching, and become artists in our own right. We might even try doing the two at the same time. Now that really would be an art.

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