Sunday, September 11, 2011

An English as an Additional Language Philosophy of Principled Eclecticism

A teacher who does not take pedagogy seriously, who does not study, who teaches badly what she/he does not know well, who does not struggle to obtain the material conditions indispensable to education, that teacher is actively inhibiting conditions indispensable to education, that teacher is actively inhibiting the formation of intellectual discipline so essential to students. That teacher is also destroying herself/himself as a teacher.

Paulo Freire (1987), Letter to North American Teachers

Articulating a personal philosophy of education is not an easy task to undertake. Men and women have been grappling with the question of how to educate themselves and their children for thousands of years. It is the drive to fulfill human potential that pushes me to seek the best possible practice for my classroom. As such, I am not unwilling to look into all of the different traditions and pedagogies that have been espoused over the years to create my personal teaching philosophy. Furthermore, I strive to carry out a reflective teaching practice in which I constantly re-evaluate my teaching and work toward constantly better practice. Therefore, I ascribe to an eclectic approach which searches out methodologies appropriate for the context in which educators find themselves. Above all, this approach does not bury itself away in the pedagogy of the moment to the detriment of past successful practice and future innovation. It can be termed as a teaching philosophy of principled eclecticism, which has been described as a coherent and pluralistic approach to language teaching (Mellow, 2002; Larsen-Freeman, 2000). Within principled eclecticism, informed educators approach the task of developing a personal philosophy of education with a critical eye on the past and an inquiring eye to the future. This means looking to gather around the best tools to serve learners in their situated context in order to help them reach their fullest potential as human beings.

As a starting point, a traditional approach to education grounded in behaviourism and classical humanism can reveal a number of ideas which have value to the principled eclectic (see Bloom, 1956; Skinner, 1968). Examples of traditional approaches endure in the Canadian educational system. Especially at the tertiary level, there are times when a teacher fronted lecture can fulfill a valuable role in the transmission of knowledge and be part of a student centred teaching philosophy. While rejecting the elitist notions of classical humanism, I am attracted to the idea of transmitting cultural heritage from one generation to another. We do not live in a cultural vacuum, and an understanding of what our culture has created in the past can have a profound effect on where our culture will be going in the future. Neither a person nor the language they speak is ahistorical. Many of the core concepts upon which Canadian society is based come from the cultural outpourings of the past from as far back as the ancient Greeks and Hebrews. Cultural outpourings from the past that were valued in former ages do have a place in modern education. To be a participatory member of a modern democratic society, it is important to be both culturally and linguistically articulate. However, this should be done with a critical eye that weighs the values that are inherent in our cultural heritage and understands the roles that this heritage can assign to the various members of our society. The power of reason so valued by the classical humanists is not to be cast aside either. An educational system that produces students who are able to reason produces students who will be able to consider the world with a critical eye that can question the world rather than accept the status quo. Through this process of questioning our students can come to a greater awareness of the reality that surrounds them. The teaching situation will call for the teaching approach, and the teacher, as an informed practitioner, will match the pedagogical approach with the situation, looking at times to behaviourism and classical humanism to guide teaching practice.

However, this is not the only way to teach for a principled eclectic. Taking a more constructivist approach to education can also be incorporated into a teaching philosophy of principled eclecticism (see Dewey, 1944; Piaget, 1952; Vygotsky, 1978). The idea that education can be an instrument of social change is laudable. Tied to this idea is the assumption that schooling affects the level of economic growth and progress in a society. A second assumption is that education is capable of redressing social inequalities through the equalization of educational opportunity (Apple 1979). Thus, the acquisition of knowledge can be seen as an active social process in which the teacher plays the role of a facilitator or guide. In his or her role of facilitator, a teacher can use authentic materials in a classroom where the students are actively engaged in the process of learning and are provided with the intentional teaching and support needed to become productive and contributing members of the class. Here, the functional notational approach to language teaching is chosen over the grammar translation method. While at times the classical didactic teaching of a grammar rule can play a valuable role in the education of the student, other times it is important to highlight the pragmatic functions that the forms of a language can play. Because of the various salient aspects of constructivist methodologies, the informed educator will not ignore this approach when making decisions about his or her practice. In order to ensure active learning, this entails adding a layer to my teaching philosophy that embraces an inquiry based approach that fosters the research skills and initiative students need to reach their educational goals.

A further vital part of my principled eclecticism is the idea that education is an emancipatory, empowering, enabling, and democratizing endeavour (see Friere, 1970; Krashen, 1987; Giroux, 2006). Education is about the growth and self-realization of the individual. The teacher should aim to be a transformative intellectual who is a partner in learning. In the words of Freire “the teacher is no longer the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach” (Freire, 1970, p. 67). At times, this too can be a valuable role for the teacher. The teacher can learn from the students, just as the students can learn from the teacher. Using this philosophy, the classroom becomes a community of learners that includes the teacher. The students are full partners in their learning, and the curricular goals are co-created and shared. Housed in this philosophical approach are the whole language and language experience methods which are important tools in the methodological bag of any teacher. Once again, the method matches the situation, and the teacher must choose what method is best for any given situation.

My teaching philosophy is made up of a dynamic mix from many traditions. However, this has not been thrown together without thought. It is a principled approach that puts the needs of the learners in the forefront. No curriculum is neutral and each philosophy of education reflects a particular view of the social order. Furthermore, each philosophical approach reflects the social order and generates social meanings, restraints and cultural values that have an impact on my students. I want my students to become critical thinkers and to generate their own meanings surrounding reality. I want my lessons to be situationally and communicatively realistic while keeping in mind that what is reality in my classroom may not in fact be reality. It is necessary to keep this in mind because the reality that I present, or omit to present, contributes to the shaping of the social roles of my students in society (Auerbach and Burgess 1987). I want my students to be critical thinkers, and I also want to give them the tools to enable them to be critical thinkers in the most effective manner. Giroux (Auerbach and Burgess 1987) holds that “increasingly a premium must be placed not so much on what to think, but on how to think critically. Preparation for living in a rapidly changing world requires that people learn how to learn.” By teaching our students how to read, write and express themselves in English, we are not only giving them the tools to function in society, but also to gain access to the empowerment of self learning. If this is the case, we cannot do our students the disservice of not using all of the means available to us in order to help them reach their maximum potential. As such, I am willing to borrow from the other traditions.

Accompanying the above is a belief in accountability in education. Because of this, I wish to implement the best possible practice in my classroom, which may require me to choose the best methodology from each of the traditions according to the needs of my students, and the context of the learning. I must look at the different philosophies, traditions, approaches and pedagogies that have been espoused over the years with a critical eye. My personal approach is that of the principled eclectic who searches out the methodologies appropriate to the context in which I find myself at any given time. Above all, the activities in the classroom have to be purposeful, and the teacher needs to have a plan that will bring the students to greater levels of understanding. In order to do this, a transformative teacher considers the situation, and instigates the most appropriate practice. Additionally, I strive to maintain a reflective teaching practice in which I also look critically at my own teaching so that I can continue to evolve as an educator. As a result, I cannot do my students the disservice of not using all of the means available to me in order to help them reach their maximum potential. I must present to the students a variety of methodologies tailored to their specific learning requirements in particular situations.


Apple, Michael W. (1979). Ideology and Curriculum. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Auerbach, Elsa and Denise Burgess. The hidden curriculum of survival ESL. In Freire for the Classroom (ed. Ira Shor). Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Bloom, B.S. (ed.). (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Susan Fauer Company, Inc.

Dewey, J. (1944). Democracy and Education. New York: Free Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Herder and Herder.

Freire, P. (1987). Letter to North American teachers. In Freire for the classroom (ed. Ira Shor). Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Giroux, H. (2006). The Giroux Reader. C. Robbins, ed. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Krashen, S. (1987). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Prentice-Hall International.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mellow, J.D. (2002). Toward Principled Eclecticism in Language Teaching: The Two-Dimensional Model and the Centring Principle. TESL-EJ 5(4). Retrieved December 28, 2010 from

Piaget, J. (1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children. New York: International University Press.

Skinner, B.F. (1968). The Technology of Teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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