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Applied Linguistics Lecture Notes 4

Lecture notes

Course: Applied Linguistics

Week: 7

Lecturer: Keith Richards

Topic: Theory revisited

These notes are extracts only and do not include the arguments developed in the lectures. Neither do they include handouts or workshop activities. They are an additional resource designed primarily for those who attended the relevant lectures.


[T]he methods movement — the search for the one best method, would seem to be well and truly dead.

Nunan 2001

World News No.51, May 2001 []

(Quoted in Bax 2003.)

Without wishing to undermine the contribution that research into the processes involved in reading, writing, etc. has made to the understanding of our teaching practice, this week’s topic will challenge traditional concepts of theory and practice in language teaching.

The first session will argue that challenges to traditional conceptions are well-founded and that alternative perspectives are needed. However, while advancing the case for different approaches to language teaching methodology, it will also point to potential dangers associated with these. It will address two interrelated lines of response:

Conceptual challenges:

  • The theory/practice distinction is ‘dysfunctional’
  • The concept of ‘Method’ in conceptually, and dangerously, flawed
  • The pursuit of ‘best practice’ is misguided
  • Failure to recognise the significance of the classroom as a social context

Different approaches:

  • Action research
  • Context approaches to language teaching
  • Postmethod pedagogy

A key paper will be identified for each of these and you are invited to explore the detailed arguments for yourself. My aim is to introduce them and to comment on them and to relate them to the broader picture of Method reconceptualised. I have deliberately chosen papers covering the last 20 years in order to underline the fact that this debate is by no means a new one.

The second session will expand on what I take to be the most persuasive argument against simple theory-practice formulations: the inescapable and irreducible strangeness of classrooms. The session will thus represent a data-based foundation at the micro-interactional level for claims made in this lecture about the classroom as a social context.


Clarke, M.A. 1994. The dysfunctions of the theory/practice discourse. TESOL Quarterly, 28(1): 9-26.

Although this paper was written ten years ago and things have moved on since then, its fundamental points still deserve careful consideration because the tensions and disjunctures that Clarke identifies are still a fact of professional life. You might like to begin by reflecting on whether Clarke’s question strikes a chord in your own experience:

Have you found yourselves in situations where the virtues of particular curricula, methods, and materials are presented as stable and generalizable traits inherent in the item under discussion rather than the result of particular instances of their implementation?

Clarke 1994: 10

Clarke identifies what he sees as a number of problems with theory/practice discourse:

  • Those involved in research and theory building are very rarely teachers.

Apart from the obvious dislocation that this entails, the ‘disabling nature of the discourse’ (p.10) arises from the fact that it subordinates the voices of teachers to those of others in the profession.

  • It creates ‘strata of expertise’ in which teachers are seen to be less expert than theorists.

Although teachers are encouraged to contribute to research and publication through, for example, ‘teacher as researcher’ collections, they have very little time for this, and those who do research are usually not practising teachers. He argues that appeal to the ‘expert’ is part of a broader picture in technologically advanced societies where information overload is a fact of life: ‘Teachers are seen as part of the problem, whereas university theorists are sought for solutions to the problem.’ (p.14)

  • Theory is usually imported from other disciplines.

Language teaching has long drawn on theories from other fields such as linguistics and psychology and the classroom has tended to be ignored. While this is certainly still true to some extent, it’s perhaps only fair to note that over the last ten years

  • Theory/practice discourse tends to be general rather than specific, and limited in depth and detail.

His basic point here is that the realities of teaching are infinitely more complex than the very straightforward representations of research assume them to be. Again, while this is certainly true, since this paper was written the classroom context has received more attention in SLA research (one of Clarke’s specific targets), the generalisation/particularisation debate has moved on, and there is evidence of more detailed research at the micro-interactional level and a greater sensitivity to local contexts (see, for example, the special issue of Applied Linguistics 23(3), 2002).

The theory/practice mentality creates an atmosphere in which cognitive phenomena are exaggerated at the expense of institutional, political and interpersonal constraints.

Clarke refers to Prabhu’s four aspects of language lessons: units in a curricular sequence, an instance of a teaching method, a patterned social activity and an encounter between human beings. Clarke claims that things may be more complex than this, but that minimally:

The key to understanding language classrooms is to recognize that all of these factors obtain all the time. An attempt to illuminate teacher or student behavior, to assess language learning, or to discern the effectiveness of materials or methods which does not simultaneously account for all four aspects of the lesson, will necessarily be flawed.

Clarke 1994: 17

This is a point that has been made in different ways for a considerable time, though whether it is more heeded now than in the past is a moot point. It will be taken up in our discussion of classroom extracts on Thursday and revisited from a slightly different perspective in the sections below.

Clarke’s response to this situation is simple but radical: turn the current hierarchy on its head and put teachers at the top. However, he admits, ‘I do not see this happening any time soon’ (p.18). More realistically, perhaps, but just as demanding in terms of shifting perspectives, is a change in policy: ‘We need to work for an educational policy within which teachers’ perspectives of education would be validated.’ (ibid.) The rest of Clarke’s paper is taken up in proposing ways in which we might move towards this. However, perhaps the greatest obstacle to this is the distribution of power within the educational establishment and the way in which this is exercised. In order to explore this further, we need to examine work that has addressed the political context in which knowledge is created and distributed. For this I have chosen what in many ways might be regarded as a seminal paper from the high water mark of the communicative approach and a time when more or less everything in the garden seemed rosy. First, though, an observation from Clarke, simple, obvious, but none the less powerful for that:

The important point here is that simple prescriptions from researchers and theorists are not sufficient. Teachers need to evaluate such recommendations in the light of their own situations and to determine what exactly they will be able to use in their classrooms.

Clarke 1994: 21

Challenging the concept of Method

Pennycook, A. 1989. The concept of Method, interested knowledge, and the politics of language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 23(4): 589-618.

What is your reaction to the following claim?

[The] total corpus of ideas accessible to language teachers has not changed basically in 2,000 years.

Kelly, L.G. 1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. Rowley, MA: Newbury House. Page 363.

Pennycook’s argument develops around the following central thesis:

Second Language Education (SLE) is involved in a complex nexus of social, cultural, economic, and political relationships that involve students, teachers, and theorists in differential positions of power.

Pennycook 1989: 590

If we deny the political nature of schooling, Pennycook argues, we are taking up an ideological stance in favour of the status quo. We also need to recognise that linguistics is political and that the notion of ‘a language’ is itself a political concept. Pennycook offers a number of examples of this political dimension and the inequalities associated with it, moving on to challenges (from, for example, feminists, critical theorists and postmodernists) to positivist conceptions of disinterested knowledge. These challenges, he argues, throw into doubt the relationship between the production of academic knowledge and teaching practice.

Pennycoook’s main concern in the article is with the ‘one way flow of prescriptivist knowledge’:

The knowledge produced in the central academic institutions is legitimated through a series of political relationships that privilege it over other possible forms of knowledge.

Pennycook 1989: 596

The ‘orthodox’ position on Method, Pennycook argues, assumes the existence of a ‘best method’ to date, a’ proliferation of new and exciting methods from which to choose’ (p.598), and the promise of even better to come. Pennycook’s entertaining review of Method over the centuries deserves to be read in full and at the very least calls into question the conceptual foundations for the category of Method. His general position is summed up in the observation that a progressive, linear representation of the history of method fails to recognise that change is the product of ‘the social, cultural, political, and philosophical climate’:

The Method construct that has been the predominant paradigm used to conceptualize teaching not only fails to account adequately for these historical conditions, but also is conceptually inconsistent, conflating categories and types at all levels and failing to demonstrate intellectual rigor. It is also highly questionable whether so-called methods ever reflected what was actually going on in classrooms.

Pennycook 1989: 608

He also points to the commercial dimension which encourages the proliferation of new methods.

The claims made by Pennycook are persuasive ones and his accumulation of evidence is impressive, but it is important to remember that this is an attack on Method, an all-embracing, essentially hegemonic construct, rather than on the use of research in teaching. While Pennycook is at pains to point out that research is not disinterested and that its claims (especially those which are derived from research within the positivist paradigm) are often exaggerated, this does not represent a dismissal of research as such. An approach based on informed action would not, I believe, be inconsistent with his position. So, for example, just because a history of research into reading that moves from simple linear bottom-up models, through top-down approaches, to an interactive-compensatory middle way conforms to the progressivist representation that he condemns, this does not necessarily mean that teachers will not benefit from utilising aspects of these models that fit in with a contextually appropriate locally developed pedagogy.

The importance of Pennycook’s paper, it seems to me, lies in the extent to which it throws into doubt progressivist notions of Method, develops a persuasive case for regarding methods as representing ‘loose constellations of techniques that have little coherence’ (p.611), and exposes their potential for disempowering teachers. In these respects it links back to Clarke’s claim that teachers need to be placed at the top of the hierarchy. It is possible that Clarke and Pennycook would regard the struggle to achieve this in different terms, but they both recognise the importance of working towards this. Pennycook’s paper, and especially its comments on the technologisation of teaching and potential deskilling of teachers also relates directly to concerns about the concept of best method, to which we will now turn.

‘Best practice’?

Edge, J and Richards, K. 1998. Why best practice is not good enough. TESOL Quarterly, 32/4: 569-576.

What are your views on the following claim?

One promising approach … is to create strong professional and social normative structures for good teaching practice that are external to individual teachers and their immediate working environment, and to provide a basis for evaluating how many teachers are approximating good practice at what level of competence.

Elmore, R. 1996. Getting to scale with good educational practice. Harvard Educational Review, 66: 1-26. Page 18.

The claim that there is no best method was first made by Prabhu (Prabhu, N.S. 1990. There is no best method — Why? TESOL Quarterly, 24: 161-76), but this paper, which was an invited contribution to a debate in TESOL Quarterly on the subject of best practice, touched on a number of contemporary themes and challenged the growing movement towards identifying best practice.

Edge and Richards’ basic position is that the idea of best practice is an illicit importation into education from other context such as medicine, where precise clinical procedures might be identifiable and where a discovery-dissemination-delivery model might be appropriate. They explicitly acknowledge a debt to Clarke and Prabhu, relating the best practice movement to the dysfunctional theory practice discourse that the former had identified:

Characterising individual accounts of practice as best undermines the status of particular understanding by holding out the prospect of general application. The struggle to translate (general) theory into (individual) practice subtly mutates in to an even more procrustean struggle to transfer (ideal) practice into different situations. The terminology of division has changed, but the gulf remains.

Edge and Richards 1998: 570

Like Clarke, they also point to the importance of the individual teacher, and they also highlight the disempowerment of teachers implicit in the claim that any practice is ‘best’: failure to achieve it cannot therefore derive from any weakness in the practice itself but must result from failings in the teacher (see the Elmore quotation above).

Their alternative vision is based on theorising practice, most closely captured in the concept of praxis, defined by Kemmis as ‘informed, committed action’. In practical terms, this involves some form of action research, an approach I return to below.

The classroom as a social context: Allwright

Allwright, R.L. 1984. The importance of interaction in classroom language learning. Applied Linguistics, 5(2): 156-171.

Twenty years ago Allwright was already highlighting the central importance of the teacher/learner relationship in the management of interaction and learning. The central argument of his paper is quite simply that lessons depend on the management of classroom interaction by all present:

…it is through this joint management of interaction in the classroom that language learning is itself jointly managed. The importance of interaction in classroom language learning is precisely that it entails this joint management of learning. We can no longer see teachers simply as teachers, and learners simply as learners, because both are, for good or ill, ‘managers of learning’

Allwright 1984:156

Allwright makes two key points:

  • classroom pedagogy depends on interaction — it is the process by which lessons are accomplished;
  • ‘classroom lessons are socially constructed events’ (1984:159).

His view of interaction is relevant to the position which van Lier was later to develop:

We are dealing with a notion of interaction that addresses the issue of the necessarily social nature of classroom behaviour, of classroom pedagogy in a very general sense, a sense that typically is far removed from considerations of teaching techniques themselves.

Allwright 1984:159-60

Allwright proposes a descriptive system for representing classroom interaction, but this doesn’t seem to me to be the most important aspect of his paper, which is at least in part a plea for an increased teacher awareness of how students help to manage their own learning and an argument for the relevance of this to teacher training. The claim here is not that teachers will be more effective as a result of doing specific things; it is rather that traditional ways of looking at classroom events have failed to capture the important things which happen in lessons, that the description has been inadequate. Once teachers begin to look at things in a new way, they will be able to see the possibilities which are open to them.

The classroom as a social context: van Lier

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy and Authenticity. London: Longman.

What do you make of the following claim (which van Lier uses as a point of departure)?

To become more ‘natural’, then, the classroom must try to be less like a classroom and more like some other place.

van Lier 1996: 123

The focus on the relationship between teachers and learners in the context of pedagogic purpose is one which van Lier explores in his second book on the subject of classroom interaction (1996). For reasons of space, I’ll focus on only one aspect of what is a very rich argument developed across a number of dimensions throughout the book.

Van Lier recognises that it would be ‘wishful thinking. to expect to transform into conversation the “institutionally mandated interaction’ (1996:175) which characterises the classroom. He points out that despite this many lessons probably have their moments of chat. However, conversation is traditionally equated with doing nothing, with relaxing — it’s a form of light relief — and the relationship involved is symmetrical, both of which go against the grain of the traditional educational context, which he characterises as follows:

(a) Relations in education are inherently unequal between administrators and teachers, and between teachers and students.

(b) The very existence of the institution of education, the school, demands that educational processes are constrained by its rules, purposes, and procedures.

(c) The success of institutionalized education is measured by goals and objectives, ways and means of achieving them, enshrined in curricula, syllabuses, and textbooks, and evaluation procedures designed to establish and maintain standardized norms. In such a climate, efficiency, linearity and singularity of modality and function are likely to be valued over plurality and multifunctionality.

van Lier 1996:167

He goes on:

The employment of conversation — that is, type of dialog which strives towards symmetry — as a form of pedagogic action, is thus a pedagogic act which cannot be expected to be easy or uncontroversial.


This is where van Lier opens up a dimension implicit in but missing from Allwright’s work over a decade earlier, and where he exposes the inadequacy of any argument based entirely on interactional considerations. The point — and it is a profoundly important one — is that our pedagogic decisions are never genuinely autonomous. They are determined by our own beliefs and circumstances, by the context in which we work, and by the myriad experiential cross hatchings which make up the classroom picture. Whether we adopt a particular approach because we adhere to a particular methodological orthodoxy or because we are motivated by our beliefs in the nature of educational engagement, the pursuit itself will have educational consequences. In a distant echo of Allwright, we find van Lier pointing to the transformative potential inherent in the relationship between teachers and learners:

The power of the status quo can only be broken by the power, minute in isolation but invincible in a purposeful project, of transformed interaction between educator and educated.

van Lier 1996:158

The essential point here is that although classrooms are part of an institutional setting, as teachers we have it within our power, in cooperation with our students, to work towards the transformation of this setting. Just as context has the power to influence the form of language used, so language itself has the power to transform context, and this reality lies at the heart of our professional being as teachers who are also researchers. Our discoveries may be straightforward but our choices are not:

Education is not a matter of choosing, then imposing one way of interacting, a single mode of discourse (whether conversational or recitational), but rather a continuous studying and monitoring of the entire array of ways of talking and interacting, and finding effective and enabling ways to speak to the right person at the right time for the right reasons

van Lier 1996:178

Action research

Edge, J. 2001. Attitude and access: Building a new teaching/learning community in TESOL. In J. Edge (ed.), Action Research, pp.1-11. Alexandria VA: TESOL.

To what extent do you share Edge’s beliefs?

I believe the thinking heart of TESOL as a field has moved away from the proposition that the future directions of our teaching are to be established by theorists from related disciplines. I believe that we have reached a point at which we accept our responsibility to raise our awareness first of what our current practice is, and then, on the basis of that awareness, to set our directions and seek the information we require.

Edge 2001: 6

The handout provides an introduction to action research in terms of definition and procedures, and includes an extract from this paper, but the paper is included here for its committed arguments in support of the educational value of action research. It represents a natural outcome of so many of the positions articulated above, and is interesting to me largely because of the way it seeks to position action research in terms of its historical moment. Particularly interesting is his highlighting of Nunan’s textbook, Language Teaching Methodology (1991) as ‘pivotal’ because it is based not on exemplary practice but on what is actually done in classrooms. For Edge, the movement towards towards teacher-led research singled out as so important by Clarke and Pennycook has already begun. How it fits into the two positions described below is an interesting one.

First, though, we need to note that for some the concept of action research remains problematic. One obvious challenge that it represents is to teachers’ available time, but the two main lines of criticism do not derive from this. I will represent their positions very crudely, and advise you to read their own arguments in order to appreciate their full force. The first, associated particularly with Hammersley, arises from the fact that teachers are not researchers and argues that the demand for an equal relationship between research and action produces an inherent instability in action research. (Hammersley, M. 2004. Action Research: a contradiction in terms. Oxford Review of Education, 30(2):165-81.) Earlier papers on this subject by Hammersley have also noted that trained researchers deserve the same respect as trained teachers and that to confuse the two may also create tensions in the approach. The second line of attack, more interesting in the light of Pennycook’s position, is that reflective practice in general (and action research is part of this broader movement) has been appropriated by those in power as a means of exploiting teachers (Smyth, J. 1992. Teachers’ work and the politics of reflection. American Educational Research Journal, 29(2): 267-300) and that it is often no more than an illusion, subtly keeping teachers in their subservient position ( It seems to me that there is an element of truth in both these claims but even taken together they do not seem to me to represent a convincing case for setting aside action research and all its potential benefits. This is certainly not what Zeichner, pioneer in action research, has in mind, and it’s important to bear in mind that the focus of their attacks is not action research but its exploitation. The need to challenge disempowering relationships seems to me to be a fundamental one, but as far as action research is concerned I also wonder whether Huberman’s idea of ‘tinkering’ might offer a more practical and less contentious representation of what many teachers pursue as a form of reflective practice.

Context approaches

Bax, S. 2003. The end of CLT: a context approach to language teaching. ELT Journal, 57(3): 278-87.

What is your response to the following report, quoted by Bax (p.279)?

In the manner of H.G. Wells’ Time Traveller, I stumbled on a school that had remained oblivious to the developments in language teaching, where teachers looked at me strangely when I questioned their obsession with Grammar-Translation and suggested that speaking was the most important skill involved in learning a language.

It is positions like this one (and he quotes many more) that Bax challenges. His own position is shared with many in the profession and encapsulates fundamental doubts about perspectives that are method-driven:

This implicit focus on methodology leads us to ignore one key aspect of language teaching — namely, the particular context in which it takes place. When we emphasize what the teacher must do, and start our list of solutions with methodological issues, we thereby give off the message that the solution to the problem of teaching is a methodological one — and that therefore, by extension, the solution is not to do with the context in which we happen to be working.

Bax 2003: 280

This position prompts reflection on many of the issues we have already considered (best practice, the concept of Method, etc.) but I find it interesting that he talks in terms of ‘the problem of teaching’. Perhaps this is just a case of the choice of term and that ‘challenge’ instead of ‘problem’ would make the claim more palatable, but nevertheless it seems to me to be another example of seeing teaching as inherently problematic. While accepting that nobody would expect any single representation to be interpreted as monolithic, it does seem to me that there is a fundamental difference between an orientation that sees teaching in terms of problems and one that regards it as representing opportunities. The implications of this distinction have perhaps not adequately been explored.

Bax’s first formulation of a context approach is that ‘there are many different ways to learn languages, that the context is a crucial determiner of the success or failure of learners.’ (p.281). His distinction between methodologically-driven (e.g. Direct Method, CLT) and language-driven (e.g. Grammar-Translation, Lexical Approach) approaches seems to me to be an interesting one, and his observation that they both tend to ignore context seems to be fair.

However, when he moves on to spelling out just what a context approach would involve, the proposals turn out to be very general, amounting to little more than ‘take account of context’. They are represented as a two stage approach in the appendix to his paper, but there is slightly more flesh on the bone in the paper itself:

  • identify key aspects of learning context before deciding what and how to teach a class
  • identify a suitable approach and language focus (probably eclectic)
  • ‘all this must take place within a framework of generating communication — CLT will not be forgotten’ (p.285)
  • be as attentive as possible to contextual factors as the lesson unfolds

Bax also argues that teacher training should ‘teach not only methodology but also a heightened awareness of contextual factors’.

Apart from the vagueness of Bax’s recommendations — not necessarily too much of a drawback given the categoric precision of previous ‘approaches’ — there seem to me to be two worrying features. The first is that, for all the criticisms of the appeal to method, there is in his third point an implicit acceptance of the linear progress to a ‘best method’ that Pennycook so convincingly challenges. Why else would he take for granted that it should be CLT that ‘will not be forgotten’. Despite the implicit subsuming of context under CLT that we see here, a second worrying feature emerges when he asks, ‘ we really need another Approach?’ and immediately responds with ‘The answer must be yes…’ (p.284), reinforcing this with use of capitals for Context Approach in the rest of the paper. If this is, as it seems to be, his conclusion, we are left with three serious problems:

1. The cluster of problems associated with the concept of Method to which such a formulation is susceptible, and the apparent inconsistency in his treatment of these as the paper moves from recognition of them to a convenient setting aside of their implications.

2. The relationship with CLT which is assumed but never spelt out. Despite his claim that a Context Approach should be primary, there is no evidence of how this might be negotiated in practice, especially if this approach is dependent on CLT. A defender of CLT might reasonably say, ‘Take this away and what does a Context Approach to language teaching actually amount to at the level of technique and activity?’

3. An Approach, for good or ill, needs to be articulated in very specific terms and to represent a comprehensive representation of how we should go about our teaching. Bax’s vague prescriptions do not even begin to lay the foundations for such a description, much less develop it to a point where it would represent a viable — and challengeable — position.

I think Bax’s paper is valuable for the light it sheds of teachers’ attitudes to the dominant Method and to the extent that it underlines the importance of local context, but for a conceptually coherent representation of a contextual approach we need to look elsewhere.

Postmethod pedagogy

Kumaradivelu, B. 2001. Toward a postmethod pedagogy. TESOL Quarterly, 35(4): 537-60.

What are the practical (political, commercial, educational, etc.) implications of the following claim?

All pedagogy, like all politics, is local.

Kumaravadivelu 2001: 539

The concept of particularity is for Kumaradivelu central:

First and foremost, any postmethod pedagogy has to be a pedagogy of particularity. That is to say, language pedagogy, to be relevant, must be sensitive to a particular group of teachers teaching a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular sociocultural milieu. A pedagogy of particularity, then, is antithetical to the notion that there can be one set of pedagogic aims and objectives realizable through one set of pedagogic principles and procedures.

Kumaravadivelu 2001: 537

This paper, published two years before Bax’s provides such a representation. It begins by pointing to the weaknesses deriving from the importation of approaches developed ‘abroad’ and develops a position around the centrality of teachers and their exploration of their own professional environment:

It starts with practicing teachers, either individually or collectively, observing their teaching acts, evaluating their outcomes, identifying problems, finding solutions, and trying them out to see once again what works and what does not. Such a continual cycle of observation, reflection, and action is prerequisite fro the development of context-sensitive pedagogic knowledge.

Kumaradivelu 2001: 539

This strikes me to be as conventional a description of action research as you’re likely to find, and the author goes on to make explicit his support for this. This argument develops via a brief challenge to the theory/practice dichotomy, prioritising teachers’ theory over theorists’ theory (or personal over professional theory), but the distinction is a crude one and his discussion can do no more than touch on some of the very interesting work done in the area of teacher beliefs, thinking. Since this lies at the heart of his case (‘In short, a pedagogy of practicality aims for a teacher-generated theory of practice.’ ibid. p.541) I think it needs much more careful articulation. Here’s a flavour of the sort of work that was taking place at least fifteen years before Kumaradivelu’s paper:

Practical theories of teaching are the conceptual structures and visions that provide teachers with reasons for acting as they do, and for choosing the teaching activities and curriculum materials they choose in order to be effective. They are principles or propositions that undergird and guide teachers’ appreciations, decisions, and actions.

Sanders, D. and McCutcheon, G. 1986. The development of practical theories of teaching. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 2,1:50-67; pp.54-5.

[It is] a person’s private, integrated but ever-changing system of knowledge, experience and values which is relevant to teaching practice at any particular time ... it is indeed a practical theory, primarily functioning as a basis or background against which action must be seen, and not as a theoretical and logical ‘construct’ aimed at the scientific purposes of explanation, understanding or prediction.

Handal, G. and Louvas, P. 1987. Promoting Effective Teaching: Supervision in Action. London: Open University Press, p.9.

The disheartening question this prompts is what has changed since then to make more likely the changes that Kumaradivelu seeks, or what can now be proposed to make it more likely that the importance of this will be recognised by those in power. Here he highlights Freire’s work on the pedagogy of possibility and points to examples described by Canagarajah, Chick and Abdulla where teachers and students in Sri Lanka, South Africa and Palestine have appropriated the learning process and materials for reinterpretation in terms of their own struggles. While recognising that these are ‘extreme examples of classroom life imitating the socio-political turmoil outside of the class’ (p.543), he nevertheless contends that there are other examples of relevant local variables influencing what happens in the classroom. From this he draws the following conclusion:

What follows from the above discussion is that language teachers can ill afford to ignore the sociocultural reality that influences identity formation in the classroom, nor can they afford to separate the linguistic needs of the learners from their social needs.

Kumaradivelu 2001: 544

More work for teachers to do, then?

In recommending how a postmodern pedagogy might be pursued, Kumaradivelu recognises that a monolithic approach would be fruitless but suggests that a ‘road map’ might be feasible. Central to this is the idea of autonomy.

‘The postmethod learner is an autonomous learner.’ (p.545) His conception of this is broader than the conventional one, embracing:

  • academic autonomy (e.g. learning strategies);
  • social autonomy (e.g. collaboration);
  • liberatory autonomy (e.g. learners as ‘miniethnographers’).

The same applies to teachers, whose autonomy will be ‘shaped by a professional and personal knowledge base that has evolved through formal and informal channels of educational experience.’ (p.548) He also emphasises the need for teachers to develop their awareness of the social and political contexts in which they work. In practical terms, his advice boils down to a modest form of action research united with socio-political sensitivity.

Kumaradivelu’s recommendations for teacher education follow naturally from this and develop from the central relationship between teacher and educator:

Teacher education must therefore be conceived of not as the experience and interpretation of a predetermined, prescribed pedagogic practice but rather as an ongoing, dialogically constructed entity involving two or more critically reflective interlocutors.

Kumaradivelu 2001: 552

Within this relationship, pedagogic exploration can take place and will also be realised in the classroom as teachers become ‘pedagogic explorers’.

To his credit, Kumaradivelu’s section on ‘problematizing postmethod pedagogy’ highlights the challenges which this approach faces and develops a realistic picture of what needs to be done if it is ever to be realised. A couple of his points hint at but don’t actually confront head on what is for me the most challenging aspect of this whole process: the role of the teacher as agent. Where the environment is supportive (and it rarely is) or in a state of flux or resistance to the dominant orthodoxies (as it sometimes is), the teacher has an opportunity to work in the way that Kumaradivelu outlines. However, where this is not the case only three options are available:

  • Let postmodern pedagogy remain an ideal to be discussed at conferences and over coffee while carrying on as best you can within the local constraints imposed by curriculum, materials, line managers, student expectation, etc.
  • Challenge the dominant orthodoxy which, however interpreted, means following a political path, conventional or revolutionary.
  • Subvert the dominant orthodoxy by meeting all superficial requirements while developing an alternative pedagogy at the deeper level.

Teachers, I think, have followed all three, but the lesson of history seems to be a disappointing one: that the removal of one orthodoxy serves only to make space for another. I offer this not as a counsel of despair but as a reminder of the very real and ongoing challenge that a ‘postmodern pedagogy’ would represent.

Knowing how

Kumaradivelu refers to Woods’ book on teacher cognition (Woods, D. 1996. Teacher Cognition in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.) and although at the moment this represents the most substantial treatment of teacher knowledge and belief in our own particular field, its focus on cognition means that it is very narrow in its coverage (though at the time of writing Simon Borg is completing a manuscript in the general area that promises to be more extensive). This seems to me to be a particularly important area because whatever else pedagogy might be it is at its core a matter of ‘knowing how’, and teachers’ ways of knowing how must therefore be of abiding concern.

In this section, I should like to draw briefly on the work of three writers who together offer a way of responding to the challenge of practical knowledge at different levels. The first writer offers a basis for the judgment of practical actions and emphasises the personal element, the second explores the power of context, and the third draws these together into a formulation of levels of description. Taken together, these perspectives represent a powerful explanatory system which can be used to guide our understanding of how practical knowledge bears on the work of teachers.

Tacit Knowledge

The first and by far the best known of the three writers is Polanyi (Polanyi, M. 1958. Personal Knowledge. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.), whose discussion of ‘tacit knowledge’ has been widely drawn on. He argues that in skilful performance there are ‘rules of the art’ which the practitioner does not explicitly know and that these ‘hidden rules’ can only be assimilated unconsciously, through ‘imitation’ of an expert. This has implications not only for the education of novices but also for the evaluation of continuing practice:

In effect, to the extent to which our intelligence falls short of the ideal of precise formalization, we act and see by the light of unspecifiable knowledge and must acknowledge that we accept the verdict of our personal appraisal, be it at first hand by relying on our own judgment, or at second hand by submitting to the authority of a personal example as the carrier of a tradition.

Polanyi 1958:53

There is no stronger argument for continuing reflection on practice, not only as an element in personal growth but as a contribution to the craft community. Interestingly, Polanyi also claims that the large amount of time students of chemistry, biology and medicine are expected to dedicate to practical courses shows the extent to which these sciences depend on the transmission of skills and ‘offers an impressive demonstration of the extent to which the art of knowing has remained unspecifiable at the very heart of science’ (ibid. p.55).

Situated Knowledge

Leinhardt’s interest lies in the influence of context rather than person. (Leinhardt, G. 1988. Situated knowledge and expertise in teaching. In J. Calderhead (ed.), Teachers’ Professional Learning, pp.146-68. Lewes: Falmer.) She explores what she calls ‘situated knowledge’:

Situated knowledge is contextually developed knowledge that is assessed and used in a way that tends to make use of characteristic features of the environment as solution tools; it is contrasted with principled, context free knowledge.

Situated knowledge can be seen as a form of expertise in which declarative knowledge is highly proceduralized and automatic and in which a highly efficient set of heuristics exist for the solution of very specific problems in teaching.

Leinhardt 1988:146

This seems to be a different sort of ‘knowing how’ from the one that Polanyi has in mind, and it is not something which is necessarily derived from observing the practice of others. It emerges, rather, from our own practice in the context of a particular situation and represents a response to the complexity of teaching. The skills which are associated with it may be relatively basic ones but they are extremely powerful and allow us time which we might otherwise not have in order to exercise higher level judgments. Leinhardt suggests that the expertise associated with situated knowledge can be characterized as a bank of detailed information (about students, materials, curriculum etc.) and a large repertoire of behaviours.

Note that Leinhardt is not suggesting here that teaching can or should be reduced to the exercise of situated knowledge, but she does claim that it plays an important part in our occupational life. The value of recognizing this seems to me to be that we can at least take account of its influence on the development of expertise. If we acknowledge that there are some things which are situationally bound in the way that Leinhardt suggests, this reduces the likelihood that we will press too hard for development in areas where only time and familiarity will provide the necessary dynamic. Just as importantly, we can help new teachers to understand the massive intellectual and physical demands which a lack of situated knowledge imposes on them. And finally, we might bear in mind Leinhardt’s suggestion that the resistance to change on the part of teachers should perhaps not be perceived as ‘a form of stubborn ignorance or authoritarian rigidity but as a response to the consistency of the total situation and a desire to continue to employ expert-like solutions’ (ibid. p.146).

Practical Knowledge

The analysis of practical knowledge offered by Elbaz (Elbaz, F. 1983. Teacher Thinking: A Study of Practical Knowledge. Beckenham: Croom Helm.) is interesting because of what she has to say about the organization of knowledge at different levels. Her analysis is based on an in-depth study of the thinking of a single teacher, which enabled her to probe more deeply than might otherwise have been possible and her model seems intuitively convincing. The dimensions of practical knowledge which she proposes are the situational, the personal, the social, the experiential and the theoretical. She does not propose that any of these is more powerful than the others, and in this respect her description is very different from that of Leinhardt. However, since Elbaz chooses to emphasize the teacher’s own conceptions of knowledge, there is no clash between the two approaches. She suggests that teachers understand their knowledge in terms of an organization which is essentially hierarchical, operating at three levels:

Rules of practice These are very specific statements about what to do and how to do it in common situations. As described by Elbaz, these rules seem to be explicit, but presumably they would also embrace the tacit rules characteristic of ‘situated knowledge’.

Practical principles These operate at a higher level of generality and are less explicit than rules of practice. They are principles of conduct in which the teacher’s own purposes are evident and they provide a basis for reflecting on, and profiting from, experience. Elbaz suggests that such principles are sometimes derived from theory, sometimes from experience and sometimes from a combination of both.

Image This ‘is at once the least explicit and most inclusive of the three ... the image seems to refer to all of Sarah’s teaching seen from a particular perspective’ and where a rule of practice is a guideline for action, an image ‘is something one responds to rather than acting from’ (1983:134).

As a model of knowledge this raises a number of questions: the levels may not be as discrete as they seem and the interaction between them hard to interpret. In addition, they may not embrace all aspects of practical knowledge, unless ‘rules of practice’ are extended considerably beyond what Elbaz seems to have in mind. Nevertheless, the model provides a useful way of conceptualizing teacher knowledge, with ‘image’ occupying an important place in the picture.

Elbaz’s work makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of knowledge as it is represented by the teacher, and this is something which we must bear in mind when considering teacher education. If we believe, for example, that Leinhardt is right and that we must ensure that novice teachers understand the power of situated knowledge, we must present our case for this in a way that fits in with the teacher’s own conception of knowledge. Sarah, the subject of Elbaz’s research, offers an excellent example of the importance of this. She ‘holds a view of theoretical knowledge as general, comprehensive and objective; she sees her own knowledge as subordinate to theory’ (1983:21). This is understandable in the light of the way ‘theory’ has for so long been held up as an ideal to which practice should aspire, and Sarah’s belief is probably typical of a great many teachers. How, then, do we explore practical knowledge with Sarah? This will represent a form of understanding which may be new and challenging, and it will need to be ‘discovered’ rather than ‘presented’.

The questions Elbaz’s model raises are really questions about the adequacy of any attempt to present a comprehensive picture of ‘knowing how’. Because of its very nature it resists such representation, yet knowing how is fundamental to what teachers do and we must recognize its power. If we cannot penetrate the mystery of it, we can at least try to harness some of its energies through understanding.


As will by now be apparent, while I believe that there are excellent reasons, practical and conceptual, for challenging the traditional theory/practice relationship and the dominance of Method which derives from it, and though there seems to be general agreement about the general contours of what might replace this, in practical terms we seem to be as far away as ever from changing the status quo. While this is no excuse for not continuing to seek productive change, it suggests that we may have to settle for a gradualist, incremental approach, remaining wary of attempts to undermine this by representing traditional formulations in new guises. With this in mind, you might like to explore the arguments for and against evidence-based teaching.